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

Results

The frequency distributions of the demographic factors in all sub-samples were fairly similar. Mean age varied between 31.57 (Czech Republic) and 43.08 (The Netherlands); gender distribution varied between 42.3% (Italy) and 63.2% (Czech Republic) of female visitors. More remarkable differences were found in the education level and the frequency of visit. Tertiary-level education varied between 27.9% (Portugal) and 86.7% (UK), with four institutions where more than half of the respondents had tertiary-level education (UK, Finland, The Netherlands and Poland). The percentage of respondents who visited for the first time varied between 2.7% (Finland) and 78% (Poland). All socio-demographic values are presented in Table 3.

 

Table 3 Socio-demographic values for all sub-samples

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Note: See Table 1 for the full names of the institutions in each sub-sample.

Answering RQ1:

To what extent are visitors aware of the role of museums in public policy, and how do they see it evolving in the future?

The answers to the question about visitor awareness of a role for science centres and museums in public policy show a moderate awareness of how these institutions fulfil such a role now; however, visitors would like to see a stronger role for science centres and museums in policy in the future. In all countries visitors are moderately positive about the science centre as a representative of public opinion; on a scale from 0 to 6, values range from 3.21 (The Netherlands) to 3.73 (Czech Republic). The differences across countries are minimal, with a slightly higher awareness about this role in Czech Republic and Poland. These are the most recent institutions in the sample, having opened to the public in 2008 and 2010 respectively. The answers to the question of whether science centres should fulfil this role in the future, however, show a marked interest in Portugal, Poland and Czech Republic; in these three countries the mean values are above 4, and these are also the countries with the largest difference between the current and future values. Finland, The Netherlands and Italy are the three countries where the mean values are lower, and these countries show the smallest difference between the current and future values. Figure 1 reports the mean values. The results sketch a visible difference between countries with a 'fragile' infrastructure for science communication and participation and countries where this infrastructure is more developed. In countries where citizens have generally fewer opportunities to participate in science and technology, there are higher expectations that science centres and museums can fulfil a role in this direction.

Figure 1

A bar chart showing mean value results for the question The Museum represents the public opinion in local and national discussions about science now and in the future

Mean values for the question 'The Museum represents the public opinion in local and national discussions about science' now and in the future. See Table 1 for the full names of the institutions in each sub-sample.

The answers to the question of whether the science centre should be an advisor to the government on matters of science communication show a similar picture. The highest values can be found in Portugal, where the science centre is actually an agency of the national government, and in Italy and the UK; the lowest values are in The Netherlands and Finland. In Poland the gap between how visitors think about this role for the science centre now (2.68) and in the future (3.92) is the largest (see Figure 2). 

Figure 2

A bar chart showing mean value results the question Should the Museum be an advisor to the government on matters of science policy? now and in the future

Mean values for the question 'Should the Museum be an advisor to the government on matters of science policy?' now and in the future. See Table 1 for the full names of the institutions in each sub-sample.

In sum, visitors are aware of the role of science centres in policy and they are in general positive about this role in the future; however, there are two notable differences across the institutions surveyed. The first one is that in countries with a high level of public participation and consolidated science communication culture, like Finland and The Netherlands, the majority of visitors are rather neutral about the idea of the science centre playing a role in policy, now and in the future. This is less evident in UK and Italy, where it holds true only for the museum as representative of public opinion. In fact, in both countries visitors are quite positive about the role of the museum as an advisor to the government on matters of science policy. This can be related, however, to the fact that the Science Museum in London and the Museo Leonardo da Vinci in Milan are long-standing large national science museums, with collections and specialist expertise on a broad range of technical and historical domains. The academic knowledge and heritage function of both museums might positively influence the expectations of the visitors in terms of the role of the museum as advisor to the government.

The second difference is that the expected role in policy of science centres and museums in the future is generally stronger in countries (Poland, Czech Republic, Portugal) where the formal possibilities to participate in science and technology are more limited. This suggests that in these countries, where there are generally very few routes for citizens to get their voices heard on matters of science and technology, visitors want a stronger involvement of museums in policy, possibly because museums are seen as accessible and innovative institutions. Instead, in the countries where there are established and visible routes for discussing science policy, the difference between the current and expected role of museums in policy is much less pronounced.

Answering RQ2:

How are engagement with science and awareness of a policy role for science centres related to public participation in the museum?

The second research question aimed to analyse whether the two forms of public participation – forum (i.e. the interest of the public to share feedback and opinions in the museum) and co-development (i.e. the visitor’s interest to co-develop programmes and activities with the museum) are related to the emerging policy role of science centres and museums and to visitors’ existing engagement with science.

Before conducting the analysis on the relevant variables, we wanted to examine whether socio-demographic factors (gender, age and education) are also related to the two forms of participation, forum and co-development. In the case of forum, there are no significant correlations in any of the sub-samples, with the only exception being the Czech one where there is a significant correlation between forum and age (r(112)=.287, p=.002). For co-development, the correlation with education is significant in the UK and Finland (rUK(108)=.286, p=.003, rFI(111)=.235, p=.013), and with age in the UK and Portugal (rUK(103)=-.336, p=.001, rPT(115)=-.210, p=.024). Gender was found to make a difference in three countries – Czech Republic, Italy and The Netherlands – where males have a slightly higher interest in co-development than females.

We then analysed the correlation values between the two forms of participation (forum and co-development) with both engagement (the variable measuring visitors engagement with science) and policy role (the variable measuring visitors’ perception of the policy role of the museum).

In all sub-samples there are significant correlations between forum and policy role and in most sub-samples between forum and engagement. In all cases the correlations between forum and policy role are stronger than between forum and engagement. The interest in co-development is instead significantly correlated with engagement in all sub-samples, but generally not with policy role (significant correlations exist only in Italy, Poland and Portugal). Table 4 shows the significant correlations values for all sub-samples.

It seems, therefore, that the two forms of participation – forum and co-development – are both related to policy role and engagement. However, while forum is more strongly related to policy role, co-development is more strongly related to engagement.

 

Table 4 Significant correlations between forum, engagement, policy role and co-development

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Note: Figures in bold are significant at the 0.01 level; all others are significant at the 0.05 level.

Regression analysis was used to identify the extent to which engagement and policy role affect forum and co-development. It is important to state that we cannot establish direct causality effects between variables. In fact, there are likely to be cross-effects and feedback loops between them. However, regression analysis gives a measure of how engagement and policy role, when considered together, affect the two different forms of participation in the museum.

The analysis shows two clear results. For forum, in all sub-samples the beta values for policy role are significant, and they are higher than the beta values for engagement. This means that, when all other factors are constant, incrementing the value of policy role produces a greater change in forum than incrementing the value of engagement does. For co-development, the reverse is true: in all sub-samples engagement is significant, and is higher than policy role (which is significant only in Poland, Portugal and Italy). In the case of co-development, therefore, engagement has a stronger effect than policy role. The two variables engagement and policy role explain between 18% (Czech Republic) and 39% (Italy) of the variance of forum, and between 9% (Czech Republic) and 42% (Poland) of co-development. Table 5 reports the results of the regression analysis for all sub-samples.

 

Table 5 Regression analysis results for forum and co-development

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Note: Only significant beta values at the 0.05 level are reported.

These results go some way towards answering the second research question: ‘How are engagement with science and awareness of a policy role related to public participation in the museum?’ They suggest that what visitors expect in terms of the policy role of the science centre plays a stronger role in determining their interest in sharing opinions and feedback than does their existing engagement with science. In some sub-samples, namely in Poland and Portugal, the engagement with science is not even a significant factor. This can be interpreted as a sign that the perceived 'brokering' function of science centres and museums in mediating science policy is a factor in stimulating dialogue and discussion. In fact, it is even more important than the visitors’ existing engagement with science.

An interest in co-development instead appears to represent a wish to pursue and express a personal engagement with science, and it is not usually affected by what visitors think about the role of museums in policy. Only in three cases (Italy, Poland and Portugal) are there significant betas for policy role, suggesting that in these countries the co-development of exhibitions and programmes is also affected, although in a lesser way, by what visitors expect in terms of the policy impact of the science centre.

Answering RQ3:

Do visitors think that the public should participate in the governance of the museum?

The last question of this study concerns a form of participation which is currently only hypothetical: a 'public board', which is an instrument in the governance of the museum composed only of members of the public. Visitors were asked two questions related to this topic: whether the museum should have such a public board (in the same way as it usually has a scientific board, for instance), and if the advice of this board should be binding for the museum.

The results show that visitors are in general supportive of the idea of a public board. On a scale from 0 to 6, where 3 is the middle point, the mean values for the sub-samples range from 3.18 (The Netherlands) to 4.00 (Portugal). There are, however, two distinct distributions of frequencies. One is roughly a normal distribution, where the majority of the visitors are substantially neutral or moderately in favour to the idea of a public board (with two smaller ends representing visitors who are either quite negative or decidedly positive about a public board). This distribution can be found in Czech Republic, The Netherlands, Finland, and Portugal. The other distribution shows a more polarised situation, with a small group against the idea, and a larger group decidedly in favour. This occurs in the case of Italy, Poland, and the UK (see Figure 3 for the distributions). The difference between the two distributions suggests that in Italy, Poland and the UK visitors are more interested in some form of public participation in the governance of the museum than in the other four countries, although more research would have to be done to investigate further.

Figure 3

Frequency distributions of the answers to the question “Should the museum have a public board?”

Note: click'full-size' button to see figure detail

Visitors are in general decidedly less positive about the binding status of the advice of such a board. The mean values range from 2.00 (Finland) to 3.12 (Italy). In this case the distribution of frequencies is quite uniform across the seven institutions: it is a normal distribution centred on the middle value 3. However, in Portugal, Czech Republic, Italy and Poland the distribution is rather symmetrical, with an equal number of people who are in favour or against the idea, whereas in The Netherlands, Finland and the UK the number of people who are against the idea is considerably higher than those who are in favour. Mean values and standard deviations for all sub-samples are reported in Table 6.

 

Table 6 Mean values and standard deviations for the interest in a public board and its binding status

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It seems therefore that visitors are in general positive about a public board in science museums; in some institutions there is even a marked preference for this kind of instrument. At the same time, few visitors think that the advice of the public board should be binding for the institutions. In three institutions (The Netherlands, Finland, UK) the public is clearly against this idea; in the other four institutions the results are more differentiated, with the majority of the visitors neutral about the idea, and 'pockets' of visitors on both sides of the scale.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/150306/004