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  1. Nice post, Beth – as you know, I managed to miss the whole of that meeting because I was busy engaging with some of the planet's diverse microbial community. I'm looking forward to seeing how things develop. From the meeting…

    I don’t think engaging with diverse audiences precludes telling them things they don’t like. On the other hand, what it does mean is that you should shape the message according to your audience. Sad to say, a significant number of my colleagues believe that anyone who does not accept evolution is an idiot, as is anyone with any form of religious belief. This isn’t an acceptable position for a museum to adopt, even behind the scenes. Some of them may be idiots. But they also pay your salaries.

    What sets museums apart from many other institutions is evidence – we deal with object-based scientific evidence, in the form of our collections, and in adopting a position on a particular subject – be it evolution, climate change, or whatever – we go where that evidence takes us. And I think we can say that, and explain why, without necessarily rubbishing everyone who believes something different.

  2. How serious a problem is this in science museums? You provide an example of one museum director who unfortunately decided to duck the issue of evolution, but there are others who do not avoid it (e.g., at the height of the creation/evolution debate in Kansas, the director of the KU Natural History Museum went out of his way to bring in an exhibit on evolution).

    All museums have to deal with the political reality that comes from promoting unpopular ideas, but I doubt whether the majority of those who doubt evolution or global warming ever visit science museums anyway.

    I do see several other related problems that are possibly more severe. One of these was best articulated by Steven Conn is his recent book, "Do Museums Still Need Objects?" In chapter four, he asks, "where are the science museums for adults?" pointing out that the vast majority (possibly all?) science museums in the US are overwhelming child-oriented to the point that there is not much to attract adults to them, other than as escorts for children.

    Another issue is in how we frame the discussion of science vs. anti-scientific ideas. You yourself fell into the trap of using the phrase "believe in evolution." Evolution is not something one believes in, it is a scientific theory that is the best explanation for observable facts and the best predictor for gaining knowledge. Creationism is something one has to believe in (or not believe in) because it is based on an assumption that certain religious ideas are true. When the word "believe" is used for both evolution (science) and creation (religion) we are giving the two ideas equal merit, although one is fact-based and the other belief based. This may seem like a trivial rhetorical issue, but it isn't. The majority of the American public does not understand what science is (and is not) and has difficulty separating scientific ideas and facts from myths and presumptions. Which is why some museum directors may be afraid to take on controversial subjects even when their role should be providing factual information to the public.

  3. Posted on behalf of Dr. Anita F. Cholewa, Curator of the UM Herbarium (MIN) and Acting Curator of Lichens
    J.F. Bell Museum of Natural History

    Existing Trend: Decreasing numbers of students are exposed to organismal biology leading to decreased appreciation for specimen collecting and specimen preservation.

    Potential Troubling Trend: Lightning fast improvements in technology are a two-edged sword: while necessary for more efficient access to specimen information, can also can lead to nature deficit, since the potential is there for a compelete removal from the specimen. Using a Star Trek analogy – identification and information will be accessed using a tricordor (or "smarty phone") and botanists need not apply.

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