Tough Topics

IMG_7494Museum work is not always black and white. Evolution. Gas drilling. Reproduction. How do you teach tough topics to a younger audience?

Visitors explore the Life Then and Now Hall

Visitors explore the Life Then and Now Hall

On a recent visit to the Perot Museum of Nature and Science, I was surprised to see the interpretation choices that were being made. A product of a unique merger between three organizations – the Dallas Museum of Natural History, The Science Place, and the Dallas Children’s Museum – the Perot recently opening in December of 2012. The institution’s mission is grounded in the idea that the dreams of school children, education, and science matter.

The museum touches on many big topics, such as the universe, dinosaurs, energy, the earth, human biology, engineering, and innovation. The interactives were engaging but not over-stimulating and the space guided visitors in a way that enabled them to create their own museum experience. While in the Tom Hunt Energy Hall I was surprised to encounter a large drill that allowed visitors to “experience up-close what it takes to get natural gas out of the ground.”

The animated video was part of an "Unconventional Resources" section of the Energy Hall

The animated video was part of an “Unconventional Resources” section of the Energy Hall

The Shale Voyager accompanied an animated video short which promoted hydro-fracking and glossed over the controversies surrounding the practice. The video even included a catchy tune sung by an animated Barnett, the man that the Barnett Shale was named after. Water safety and other concerns that have been in the media were only briefly mentioned and were definitely not sung about! This video short was my first spotting of animation anywhere in the museum.

Instead of using humans or other animals to talk about evolution, an animated figure was used

Instead of using humans or other animals to talk about evolution, an animated figure was used to discuss adaptation

A floor down, in the Discovering Life Hall, animated dragons were used to teach visitors about alleles during reproduction and dominant versus recessive genes. An animated interactive was used to illustrate “adaptation” – the term used in place of the term evolution in the majority of the exhibit. Do you see a trend? Tough topic = animation! Talking about human reproduction is tricky, so we’ll use dragons (a fictitious animal). Evolution is difficult so we’ll use a blob-like character who produces goo and pees on itself. Natural gas drilling is controversial so we’ll not only use an animated movie but also throw in a catchy song that plays throughout the gallery.

Animation was infrequently utilized throughout the museum as a whole, and I’m wondering what you think: what’s the best way to approach tough topics in museums? Does infrequent and strategically placed animation within institutions help our younger audience members understand or does it water down the content? Is there a way for curators and designers to be objective when talking about controversial topics?


About catebay

Informal educator working in the world of art. Interests in public programming and community advocacy. Loves learning about people, collecting blue mason jars, and consuming Swedish fish.
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2 Responses to Tough Topics

  1. museumsaskew says:

    From reading your description, two thoughts popped into my mind:

    1) Kids pay attention to animation. The fact that the two instances of animation appear to cover controversial interpretations of ideas (evolution vs. adaptation and the promotion of fracking) makes the scientist in me nervous. If that is what catches young visitors’ attention, then they’re focusing on potentially skewed and even inaccurate content.

    2) Adults don’t pay as much attention to animation (I don’t know about you, but I tend not to take it too seriously). So, if these interpretations of controversial topics are being presented in cartoon form, are adults noticing? Are they paying attention to the perspectives being presented to their children?

    I think animation can be a great tool for difficult topics, because of all the tools it provides that aren’t plausible in “the real world.” However, all I’m feeling right now is that animation’s been used to pull a fast one and promote perspectives (or, dare I say it, an “agenda”) that are not complete examples of science and scientific thinking.

    Did you get that feeling at all, or are some of my past experiences fighting against inaccurate interpretations coloring my thinking?

  2. catebay says:

    I definitely got the feeling that the animation was being used in a way that could be construed as manipulation. My question is, how do you approach the interpretation of tough topics when the money behind an exhibit might be influencing swaying your ability to tell the whole story?

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