Go back to article: Museums as brokers of participation: how visitors view the emerging role of European science centres and museums in policy

Discussion

The purpose of this study was to examine whether public participation of visitors in seven European science centres and museums is related to the perceived emerging role that these institutions play in public policy. The analysis was conducted on three levels: measuring the visitors’ awareness about the current and potential role of science centres and museums in public policy; assessing whether this role is related to visitors’ interest in participating in the museum; and measuring visitors’ interest in a higher form of participation, namely in the governance of the institution.

Overall the results show that:

a) science centres and museums are effectively seen by their visitors as accessible brokers of public participation, especially in countries where the formal infrastructure of public participation in science is weaker

b) there is a clear relationship between certain types of visitor participation and the perceived role of science centres and museums as brokers in public policy.

That visitors are positive about the brokering role of science centres in policy is particularly evident in countries such as Czech Republic, and Poland where the science communication structure is not yet consolidated (Mejlgaard et al., 2012) or where, as in Portugal, public participation is generally low (Rask et al., 2012). One can speculate that in these countries science centres are seen as institutions that can play a role in facilitating public participation in science policy, particularly because other forms of public influence are missing. Instead, in countries where public participation is more solid and established (The Netherlands, Finland), visitors are more neutral about the idea of a formal role for science centres and museums in policy, most likely because in these countries there are already other opportunities for public participation.

The results concerning the binding role of a public board point in the same direction. In countries with a more fragile infrastructure for formal public participation (Czech Republic, Poland, Portugal and, to some extent, Italy), visitors are more positive about the idea that the advice of a public board in the museum could have a binding status. That is, in these countries visitors are more open to the idea that museums and science centres are platforms where the public can fully participate in the decision making process and where their opinion 'counts'. A possible explanation is that since in these countries there are not many formal opportunities for the public to participate in science and science policy, visitors see museums as institutions where participation is possible and accessible.

This study also suggests that across all institutions there is a discernible difference between factors affecting visitor participation in the form of sharing opinions and giving feedback (i.e. the 'forum' function of the museum) and visitor participation involving the co-development of programmes and exhibitions. The forum type of participation could therefore be described as having a ‘societal’ dimension: it is affected more by the idea that the museum will play a role in society, contributing to public policy, than by the visitors’ personal interest and engagement in science. Symmetrically, co-development can be described as a 'personal' form of participation, affected more by the visitors’ own level of engagement with science than by how they expect the museum to contribute to policy. It is important to state that we cannot interpret these results as actual 'motivations' for public participation – they only reflect how well the two variables policy role and engagement can be used to predict visitors’ interest in participating in the museum.

Visitors, thus, are not only aware of the societal role of science museums (i.e. their potential to affect wider policy), but this role of museums is a stronger predictor for an interest in discussing and debating in the museum than visitors’ own existing engagement with science. The implication for museums is that public participation in science centres and museums effectively responds to the 'substantive' rationale, meaning that it can be implemented for the purpose of discussing matters of contemporary science with the goal of informing policy. In all institutions visitors were positive about this role for museums, especially in countries where other possibilities for public participation are limited. This represents on the one hand an opportunity for museums, but on the other hand it also requires the development of professional skills and knowledge to manage this form of participation.

It is important to note that this study has a number of limitations. The first is that the data used for this analysis necessarily simplified the complex issues relating to participation, policy and science museums. There were no open questions, for instance (in order to ensure the best comparability of results across countries), and the overall number of items was kept to a minimum. When interpreting the results, one should always keep in mind that there are several other factors influencing the variables of this study which are not present in this study, including, for example, differences in the institutional culture across the organisations, and national attitudes toward cultural and heritage institutions. A more complex research project and analysis, and possibly the use of qualitative methods, would determine in more detail the variety of factors affecting public participation in science museums.

The second limitation concerns the difference between the sample in the Science Museum and the other institutions. In the UK, the respondents filled in the questionnaire online, after being recruited through the social media of the Museum. In all other locations visitors compiled the questionnaire during their visit. The difference in administering the survey was due to the fact that the original idea of using social media as a channel to recruit respondents had to be abandoned since few science centres had the same reach on social media as the Science Museum, and therefore it would have been impossible to recruit respondents online in the same way as in the UK. Despite this difference, the socio-demographic indicators of the UK sample were not substantially different from the other sub-samples. It can be safely assumed that the visitors in the UK sub-sample are committed and 'connected' with the Museum – these are visitors who like to keep informed and updated about the activities of the Science Museum. Furthermore, this sub-sample has a relatively high number of repeat visitors (86.4%).

Despite the limitations, this study supports a finding that is significant for museum activity, one that could find application in the design of exhibitions and programmes. It seems that giving more visibility to the role of the museum in influencing science policy may encourage visitors to discuss and debate science issues within the museum. Further research designed around the specific situation of each institution is of course required to fully support this proposition. But the evidence so far shows that when it comes to visitors’ interest in discussion and debates, how visitors think the museum can influence public policy might play a more important role than the visitors’ own engagement with science. Further investigation of substantive forms of participation – those which are concerned with achieving improvement in the relationship between science and society – seem warranted, and it seems that transparency and emphasis on the role of the museum in influencing policy may also positively impact on visitors' experience and attitudes to discussion within the museum.

 

Acknowledgements

The authors would like to thank the following people for their kind collaboration and support: Kat Nilsson, Grace Kimble, Annika Joy, Alex Burch, Kate Steiner, Heather Mayfield and the Twitter team at the Science Museum; Maria Xanthoudaki and Sara Calcagnini at the Museo Leonardo da Vinci; Mikko Myllykoski, Heli Seppälä, Päivi Garner and Kati Tyystjärvi at Heureka; Filipe Carmo and Ana Noronha at Pavilion of Knowledge; Ilona Iłowiecka-Tańska, Artur Kalinowski and Jan Elbanowski at Copernicus Science Centre; Anna Matoušková at Techmania; Amito Haarhuis and Marjolein Schipper at NEMO Science Centre.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/150306/005