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

Science centres as stakeholders in public policy

Until the early 1990s, science centres and museums positioned themselves as trusted providers of information and knowledge for the benefit of the public. Museums fully embraced the so-called 'deficit model' of science communication: a model where the public was considered to have a deficit of knowledge, and the organisations responsible for science communication were supposed to fill it (Wynne, 1992; Gregory and Miller, 1998). The 'deficit model' is very similar to what Zahava Doering described in 1999 as the 'baby bird' model of museums audiences, commonly found in museums of all kinds, '...which regards the visitor as a relatively undeveloped appetite needing our wise and learned feeding' (Doering, 1999).

During the 1990s, this one-way form of communication began to be criticised for being inadequate, especially with regard to contemporary, controversial and 'unfinished' science (Wynne, 1992; Miller, 2001; Durant, 2004). The information and knowledge about contemporary science to be transferred to the public was by definition incomplete, volatile and uncertain; it became increasingly difficult to 'exhibit' such information and present it to the public in the traditional way. Influential policy documents stated that science had to regain public trust and be accountable, as did the institutions communicating it (House of Lords, 2000). The one-way, top-down model of communication through exhibitions was replaced by the 'engagement' model: exhibitions and programmes aimed at engaging the public in a debate about the implications of science and research; the focus shifted from the content to the context of science, that is, its social implications. The change in museology was visible: exhibitions started to explore the most contemporary aspects of science and, rather than providing incontrovertible facts, they were built around questions, with the museum helping visitors find their own answers. A wide variety of programmes for all audiences became a fundamental component of each exhibition.

However, the engagement model also revealed some shortcomings. This model appeared not to recognise fully the competences that the public hold, and that are fundamental for the development of science and technology in contemporary society (Collins and Evans, 2002). Having an arena of dialogue and debate is important, but it became increasingly clear that the follow up to those debates is as important as the opportunity to have them. Science communication happens not only between scientists and the public, but involves a complex network of stakeholders, all of which need to be involved in the conversation. Together these stakeholders set the direction of science and shape its agenda. The contribution of the public is therefore necessary for the development of science, and for what is today called Responsible Research and Innovation, or RRI (Owen et al., 2012). Science centres and museums could thus be conceived as active players in the development of policies regarding the relationship between science and society and this was reflected in their inclusion in the funding streams of the European Commission. Through numerous collaborative projects, European museums have demonstrated their capacity to act not only as forums for discussion, but also as brokers able to convey the public’s ideas, opinions, desires and fears to a vast network of stakeholders. Museums have therefore become 'full players' in the governance of science.

During the late 1990s and early 2000s, the involvement of science museums in policy was rather episodic and it was mostly prompted by European funded projects under the Framework Programmes 5 and 6 aimed at investigating the possible roles of museums in this field. However, in very recent years there has been a discernible tendency to make such involvement structural. For instance, the PLACES project ran for four years and left a legacy consisting of a network of seventy partnerships between local administrations and science centres which continue to develop science communication policies at local and regional level. The VOICES project, a collaboration between 27 science centres and museums from all European countries, represented the first formal exercise promoted by the European Commission to involve citizens structurally in setting the priorities of the Horizon 2020 research agenda of the Commission. In the European project RRI TOOLS several science centres are the strategic hubs of this major initiative which has the ambitious goal of developing the main tools to implement RRI in the current European framework programme for research and innovation.

As a result, museums are not only a location where public participation takes place, but they can be involved as institutions in the organisation, management and decisions relating to the policies discussed by the citizens. Visitors participate in discussions at the museum, and museums participate in discussions with policy makers. The mutual influences of these roles are increasingly more complex and intertwined. They impact how museums are perceived by their visitors and in broader public opinion. The dialogue that takes place in science centres has a significant impact outside the walls of the particular institution; it ends up influencing a wide range of stakeholders on matters of science and society. Thus science centres and museums belong to the increasingly expanding and important network of places of informal engagement with science which bridge informal, policy-free settings with politically motivated activities (Stilgoe et al., 2014).

Museums often work together on policy-related projects, but implementation is affected by the context in which each museum operates. There are substantial differences across European countries in terms of science communication culture, public participation infrastructure, and presence and activity of science centres and museums. In order to compare the state of science communication culture across Europe, Mejlgaard et al. propose an analysis based on six parameters: the degree of institutionalisation (e.g. regular science sections in newspapers; dedicated TV programmes, etc.); political attention to the field; scale and diversity of actors involved; academic tradition; public interest in science and technology; training and organisation of science journalism. Countries that report intense activities on three or more of these parameters have a 'consolidated' science communication culture; these are primarily western European countries. Countries where there is a tendency towards improvement on at least one of the six parameters have a 'developing' culture: these are primarily smaller countries and some eastern European countries. The third group of countries is characterised by low performance on all the parameters, and it includes eastern European countries, mostly from the south-east part of eastern Europe (Mejlgaard et al., 2012).

Rask et al. conducted a similar analysis on the national infrastructures for public engagement in science and technology. Their study considered the degree of formalisation of the following procedures in each country: involving civil society in formal science and technology bodies; stakeholder consultations; direct democracy; public debates on techno-scientific themes; technology assessment and foresight; deliberative democracy; transnational and European projects; E-engagement. The results show that western European countries have implemented more formalised systems for public participation than eastern European countries, and to a large extent the same divide can be seen between northern European countries and southern European countries (Rask et al., 2012). Finally, membership data from Ecsite show that in eastern Europe there are far fewer science centres and museums than in western Europe.

In selecting the institutions for this study, we considered these differences and formed a balanced and diverse sample of national science centres and museums from countries belonging to all of the above groups: consolidated, developing, and fragile science communication, and high and low levels of public participation. In terms of the role of the institutions in policy, all the institutions within this study have recently participated in at least one European project related to science policy. The participation of science centres in European projects is thus one indicator of their emerging role in science policy. However, many of these projects are not sustained over longer periods and are visible only to small audiences, usually because they are designed to involve a limited public (such as the project VOICES, for example, which is based on focus groups) or because they rely substantially on programmes rather than exhibitions (specific programmes are ephemeral and normally engage fewer visitors than physical exhibitions). Moreover, regardless of the participation of the museum in policy related projects, there can be a big difference between what visitors expect and what museums perceive as their role in science policy (Cameron, 2012). Therefore the first question of this study addresses the awareness among museum visitors generally that there might be a role for science centres in policy:

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 second question investigates whether the awareness of the role of museums in policy affects public participation in the museum. More specifically, it investigates the extent to which this awareness compares with visitors’ existing interest and engagement with science in affecting their level of participation in the science centre. The question distinguishes two forms of participation: sharing opinions and comments with other visitors and with the museum, i.e. the 'forum' function of the museum, and visitors’ interest in co-developing programmes and exhibitions within the museum.

RQ2: How are engagement with science and awareness of a policy role for science centres related to public participation in the museum?

The last question covered by this study concerns the interest of the public in a more structural form of participation in the museum, namely in its governance. While the discourse around this issue is very broad, in this study we want to focus on a democratic, normative argument in support of public participation in the governance of museums. In a democracy, citizens should be able to participate in the decisions that affect their lives. So if science centres can influence public policy (Bell, 2009; Laurent, 2012) and therefore the lives of citizens, it can be argued that citizens should also be able to participate in the decision making process leading to these policies. The third question of this study looks therefore at the interest of visitors in participating in the decision-making process of the museum:

RQ3: Do visitors think that the public should participate in the governance of the museum?

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/150306/002