fbpx Reflecting on our commitments | Ecsite

Reflecting on our commitments

  • July 2021
  • Education & learning
  • Report
Image of Amito Haarhuis and the three Conference guests (clockwise, from top left: Amito Haarhuis, Camille Pisani, Colin Johnson and Lewis Hou)

Introduction by Amito Haarhuis

Earlier this year the new Ecsite Strategy was launched. Within the new commitments of our network of science engagement professionals the global challenges, like the climate and biodiversity crisis, 21st century skills and inclusion and equity play a big role. I was asked by the Annual Conference Programme Committee (ACPC) to convene a session during the 2021 Ecsite Online Conference with three high-level professionals who are dedicated and passionate about these challenges to speak as ambassadors for each commitment during two conference sessions. I asked them what sessions they found inspirational with regard to our commitments? Whether there were evident trends emerging from the sessions? And what questions and discussions the participants were NOT having?

Because two sessions of half an hour are very short, and there is so much more to discuss, we were also invited to write this article for Spokes to share more of our thoughts about the way our commitments were reflected in the conference.

Let me first introduce myself. My name is Amito Haarhuis, Director of Rijksmuseum Boerhaave in Leiden, the Netherlands. Rijksmuseum Boerhaave is a National Museum of the History of Science and Medicine. With a collection spanning five centuries of research and innovation, we tell the stories of the major discoveries in the history of science in the Netherlands, the scientists behind them, and the impact of their discoveries on our lives today. In 2019, we won the European Museum of the Year Award. In the years to come we will seek an even more intensive coherence between the museum’s illustrious collection and history with current events and social discussions on today’s pressing issues. To illustrate this: at the moment we have a temporary exhibition Contagious! about epidemics through the ages, from the plague in the Middle Ages right up to the Covid-19 pandemic now. I was elected to the Ecsite Board in 2019. Before that, I was a member of the ACPC for six years.

I am very happy with the new strategy for Ecsite, especially with regards to the leading role we want to play in engaging society with the grand challenges that we are facing, like global warming and declining biodiversity. I strongly believe that this makes science centers and museums relevant in the 21st century. As a community we can make a difference in society.

The high-level professionals that will help us reflect on our commitments are Camille Pisani, Colin Johnson and Lewis Hou. They will each discuss one of three commitments they have been following throughout the conference. Camille Pisani has been following sessions related to climate & biodiversity, Honorary Fellow Colin Johnson will give us views on sessions related to 21st century skills and learning. Lewis Hou was following equity, diversity & inclusion sessions.

Let me introduce them:

Camille Pisani: After many years of collaboration with Universcience and the Muséum National d'Histoire Naturelle in Paris, Camille joined the RBINS, the natural history museum in Brussels, as General Director for 14 years. She has been a Board member of Ecsite, and was also the Chair of the ACPC for seven years. Now retired, she is still active as a member of the Scientific Council for several museums in France as well as for the National Fund for Scientific Research (FNRS) in Belgium.

Colin Johnson: Colin has served on the Boards of both Ecsite and ASTC. He was elected an Honorary Fellow of Ecsite in 2003, while he was the CEO of Techniquest, the UK's first purpose-built science discovery centre. He is now an honorary research fellow at Cardiff University and an international consultant on public engagement.

Lewis Hou: Lewis is the founder and director of the social enterprise Science Ceilidh whose mission is to support a more socially-just society where everyone's creativity, curiosity and wellbeing are fundamentally valued in Scotland and beyond. He is currently an associate trainer with the National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement, and organising member of the Anti-Racist Educator and the EQUITY@ECSITE Community of Practice.

Camille, Colin and Lewis will respectively give their reflections on the sessions during the Conference, checking in on our commitments.

Camille Pisani: Climate and biodiversity crisis, what’s behind this?

Ecsite committing itself against climate and biodiversity crisis is very good news. Climate change and biodiversity loss have been for long a global challenge for science, but it is only recently that they have become a major concern for the mass media and politics. After decades of screaming into the void, the accumulation of data and most probably, dramatic events such as gigantic forest fires in Australia and California, the collapse of the domestic bee, and last but not least the Covid pandemic, have been a powerful wake-up call that strongly helped to realise that major changes were already in progress. Empowering citizens to face this change is a priority. I’m really glad that the participative process of shaping the new strategy of Ecsite has led to adopt this commitment. We should however be careful not to use it as a buzzword.

What’s behind ‘climate and biodiversity crisis’? The IPCC speaks of climate change, the IPBES (the ‘IPCC for biodiversity’, as it is sometimes called) speaks of biodiversity loss, and both speak of a common emergency for our societies and ways of life, as stressed in their first common report issued on 10 June.

Moreover, the emergent zoonosis of Covid-19 has brought the concept of One Health to light; (re)formulated around 10 years ago by the scientific community. One Health start from the premises that human health, animal health and more globally a good environmental state - in which both climate and biodiversity play a prominent role – are closely linked. It is a powerful approach for science, and for policies. It provides also a powerful way to raise awareness and engage citizens into action for the environment, as health stands continuously on the top of their concerns for most citizens. I would therefore suggest Ecsite to adopt this meaningful umbrella, to stress the emergency for action, and to reconsider the wording of this commitment accordingly.

Finally, I strongly believe that facing challenges goes hand-in-hand with respecting values; fighting climate change and biodiversity loss is no exception.

Regarding biodiversity, let’s remember that it is not just another word for ‘nature’. It is neither a thing nor a quantity. ‘Biodiversity’, or ‘biological diversity’, is a quality, the quality of the living world to be diverse, at all scales, from ecosystems, to species, to individuals. This diversity gives our environment its ability for adaptation to change, that allows it to be resilient. Biodiversity is our life insurance for the future on the long run. To maintain it, protect it and respect is critical. Coexistence instead of eradication. Diplomacy instead of war. Valuing diversity, respecting diversity, within and beyond the human species, is a key value for the 21st century.

Ecsite engages itself, but is it mirrored in the network?

The programme of the Conference gives an ambiguous answer.

Let’s start with a few points of disappointment.

Of the seven sessions labelled as relevant for the commitment for Climate and biodiversity crisis, none were also tagged as “strategy and vision”. However, such a commitment certainly needs both strategy and vision.

Moreover, most of the organisations involved in sessions dealing with environmental issues, whether or not they were labelled with the commitment, are natural history museums. Indeed, natural history museums have been dealing with the topic for decades. Environmental knowledge and nature conservation are their core business. They are of course connected to first-hand information, as many of them are also institutions where environmental research is carried out. But it doesn’t prevent organisations of another kind to be involved as well. Science centres have also an important role to play. Mitigating the impact of climate change needs not only changes in individual and collective behaviour, it needs also technical innovations, a better production, design and processes using less energy and materials, emitting less CO2… It needs the strong engagement with science to develop new ideas and new solutions. Science-based imagination and science-based creativity are key. And this is a job for us all.

There is however, a lot of good news.

First of all, besides the seven labelled sessions there are another half-dozen presenting projects, realisations or researches dealing with environmental issues. That’s really not bad.

Moreover, the impressive keynote lecture from Melati Wijsen was particularly inspiring for us as a community. What did she say? That her success was due to the two things she was particularly good at: telling (meaningful) stories, and connecting with people and partners. THIS is exactly what we claim we are good at. If THIS is enough to move 500 000 students and to eradicate the use of plastic bags from Bali, just imagine what change we could achieve as a network if we focus on improving our environment!

Another positive is that there is a nice balance between sessions showing realisations and sharing their experience, and sessions reporting on research and sharing their results and concerns.

Regarding realisations, I noticed a high diversity of media, of which many are digital (although pre-Covid) such as Pollinator Park, a VR game developed by the European Commission together with the natural history museums in Leiden, Brussels and Barcelona; or the online escape room “Back for the Future” developed by BiOrbic Dublin. But there are also many exhibitions, such as the exhibition “Bees: a story of survival”, created by the National Museum in Liverpool together with an artist; several new galleries at Parque Explora in Medellin Columbia and at the natural history museums in Copenhagen, Washington and London; plus travelling exhibitions on climate change.

Regarding research, several sessions offered in-depth views on the specific difficulties to really engage our visitors into action, as summarised by the title of a session on Thursday: Beyond awareness, let’s target behavioural change and civic action!

Remarkably, questions raised in one session could be answered in another session, as if they were connected through a continuous network of underground conversations throughout the days.

How to engage with environmental issues if it is known that information doesn’t change perception? asked Julia Restrepo, Parque Explora, on day 1. Shared memories are the basis for value, answered Siobhan Starrs, SI Washington, on day 2. Therefore we provide opportunities to spend time in nature, we make the invisible visible, added Laura Davidson, NHM London, on day 2. We don’t know yet how to crack the belief that we are independent from nature, but we try to build empathy by integrating the visitors into the representation of nature, reported Alex Fairhead, NHM Copenhagen, also on day 2.

How do you make people experience the loss of nature in an increasingly digital environment? asked Tanja Franatovic, DG Research, EC, on day 1. We developed strong programmes for the discovery of the urban nature, the nature around the corner, answered Yuri Matteman (Naturalis) and Dacha Atienza (Museu de Ciencies Naturals) the same day (but not in the same session), and we succeeded in convincing people that urban nature is more than parks and pigeons, added Laura Davidson, NHM London), on day 2.

Beyond raising awareness, how to engage into behavioural change? Be necessary and not only nice, said John Falk in his speech on day 2, provide your visitors with a meaningful experience that increases their well-being and builds durable memories. Let’s start from their needs: even visitors that are not so concerned with climate or environment are very concerned with health and well-being, show the connections, advises Molly Fannon (Museum of the UN) on day 3. Collaborate with human sciences such as positive psychology, said Noemie Sei (Dialogue Social Entreprise) on day 2, or behavioural science added Nikolaj Møller (Museum of the UN).

These imaginary dialogues show that our organisations are not positioning themselves anymore only as vectors for knowledge and awareness, but increasingly as actors for change. At least, change in citizens’ behaviour…. What about our own organisations’ “behaviour”, namely, the way we operate them? In other words: do we practice what we preach? Remarkably enough, this aspect is not included, or not explicit, in the strategy. Nevertheless, we build, we make, we move people and things, we communicate... We use energy, materials, spaces. We: our staff, our teams, our visitors and users. It is worth sharing our practices and experiences in operating our organisations in a more sustainable way.

Two sessions were devoted to environmentally-conscious makerspaces and to sustainable exhibitions development process. The latter was presented together by experimenta and Bruns, who wanted to develop an exhibition as “low impact” as possible by integrating from the beginning an analysis from cradle to grave for any single component of the exhibits and the way to assemble them. Oh yes, it is a “tedious process”, as Christian Sichau mentioned, but he went really in depth into and shared his experience of all the steps, details, difficulties, trials and errors, failures and successes throughout the process of developing exhibits. It was clear, honest, modest, very rich and well-documented. It really paved the way.

Such an experience is also inspirational for other activities. In particular, the Conference itself. As it is primarily a moment for meeting together, the Conference has been strongly hit by the pandemics. 2020 was almost cancelled. 2021 succeeded in taking place entirely online, giving the opportunity for a larger and more diverse audience to join - very often I heard speakers starting their talk with “it is my first Ecsite Conference”, or “I’m new to Ecsite”. But many of us missed the warmth of a real encounter. Now the Conference looks ahead to a new format, possibly a hybrid one, that takes the best from in-situ and online versions. What will it be, what does it mean, from the point of view of sustainability? This will be addressed by the members of the Programme Committee, among which the next host will certainly play an important role. And guess who will host the next conference in 2022: experimenta. That is definitely good news!

Looking back to the Conference as a whole, I felt an increasing number of members positioning themselves as actors of change instead as providers of knowledge or awareness. In order to consolidate this trend, I would recommend the following:

  • rephrase the commitment so as to stress the emergency, and to link with the commitment related to health and well-being
  • promote diversity as a major 21st century value, that goes beyond the human species
  • urge members of the Ecsite family of all kinds, with their various talents, to commit themselves and to partner with sister organisations so as to look for solutions: climate, biodiversity and health are not only natural history museums’ business
  • practice what we preach and put it into practice in our operation processes, at the level of the members and the level of Ecsite as a network

Colin Johnson: 21st-century Skills – and what we mean by them

Although we have arrived at the 21st year of the 21st century, I’m not sure that a generally accepted definition of twenty-first century skills exists. I’m thinking of skills that are more relevant to the present century than to any previous one. For anyone who wants to look at this question in detail, a good starting point is a whole series of recent publications [1] [2] from the OECD.

We need to think carefully about the definition we choose, because among the commitments in the Ecsite strategy is the development of twenty-first century skills; the phrase is used several times in the document.

The simplest account of twenty-first century skills divides them into four categories – the four Cs of Collaboration, Communication, Critical Thinking and Creativity - but there is nothing very twenty-first century about that list. They are four of the fundamentals behind any civilised society, and we can observe the way they have been applied over many previous centuries - and in many parts of the world.

For me, there should be a fifth “C” – Change – because we all know that one skill that becomes more important with every passing year is an ability to cope with change: to anticipate it, to address it, and indeed to celebrate its opportunities. That’s a reminder that it’s not only skills we need, but also twenty-first century ways of thinking, twenty-first century values, and an ability to analyse and meet twenty-first century challenges - and the uncertainties associated with rapid change. As Alexandre Quintanilha reminded us on Thursday morning, “building knowledge helps us to handle these uncertainties”.

It’s very clear how important it is to develop and build on these skills – both for ourselves as science centre staff and for our visitors. It could be said that they are central to the vision and goals of the whole science centre movement. Someone on Wednesday afternoon reminded us of one of the oldest truths in the business – that visitors to a science museum create their own curriculum during their visit. In making the most of that visit (whether in person or online) they need to apply all four of the twenty-first century skill areas. What we have in 2021 is an ever-expanding range of technologies, and creative ideas for applying these skills. That’s where the conference programme was strong – not in developing the skills themselves, but in exploring the mechanisms through which twenty-first century skills can grow and expand.

On Wednesday, I enjoyed a session on storytelling - not obviously connected with twenty-first century skills - but part of it referred to an international project called Quest: Quality and Effectiveness in Science and Technology Communication. This has a rich collection of resources about the use of social media in science engagement, a clear application of new technology to old challenges.

I also noted from Ewine van Dishoeck’s Keynote that Astronomy is now driven by “twenty-first century hi-tech technology and global co-operation” for not only the science, but for also the logistics so essential to this sophisticated field of enquiry.

And in the session on using smartphones as mobile labs we were reminded that the use of twenty-first century technology (smartphones) helps people to manage information overload, and to become critical thinkers, ad hoc curators and future collaborators. So that ticks quite a few of our 5 Cs!

Finally, for Wednesday, I was reminded how importantly ‘tinkering’ celebrates creativity and collaboration – an example of the considerable overlap between twenty-first century skills and equity and inclusion.

Twenty-first century values?

Our online conversation led us to think not only about twenty-first century skills, but also about twenty-first century values – an essential framework for any set of skills:

  • In a rapidly changing environment we have to learn to become more adaptable than anyone who lived in a former century – today’s word for that is probably resilience
  • We are now a globally connected world, with a much greater responsibility than ever before to care for one another – so we need values like empathy and a respect for others, and those lead us to the important value of social justice
  • Because we now know so much more about one another’s lives and how we are all similar, but of course all different, we need open-mindedness and tolerance
  • Science centres are trusted institutions. In order to develop and cherish that trust we need to find ways of working with our audiences to build these values into our exhibitions and programmes. Taken together they reinforce the sense of well-being that John Falk was telling us is such an important public value for our institutions.

How did the Conference serve Ecsite’s commitment to twenty-first century skills?

Looking back at the Conference as a whole, I would have to say that the sessions labelled twenty-first century skills have been primarily (though not always) about the use of new media to deliver outcomes that are not very different from the ones that visitors to a science centre could previously have achieved on-site, or through a conventional outreach programme.

The challenge is to work out ways in which the new media can lead us to new kinds of outcomes -or indeed to use old media to deliver twenty-first century outcomes.

Here is one example. I was inspired on Thursday by an organisation that is truly focussed on twenty-first century skills and values: the work of LATRA in Lesvos, Greece. I’ll quote from their website, because it’s important and thought-provoking: “LATRA works to see that citizens from geographically remote, socio-economically disadvantaged and minority backgrounds are equitably included in science, technology, research and innovation. With refugees and migrants we co-create projects that empower people to become directors of their resilient future.”

We heard from the Director of the LATRA Innovation Lab, Aris Papadopoulos, about the small handmade booklets (called zines), that give young people the freedom to explore, critique and reflect together on a particular topic – and there we have all the four Cs of twenty-first century skills: communication, collaboration, creativity and critical thinking.

In Friday’s remarkable keynote speech we heard from Melati Wijsen, a woman not even born at the start of the twenty-first century, who is the embodiment of the whole range of twenty-first century skills. In order to achieve badly-needed change (my suggested fifth ‘C’) she stressed the key importance of partnerships and collaborative working. We must ask ourselves what can we do in our field of work to empower young people to become the change-makers we so urgently need.

Finally, I would draw attention to a session which concentrated on one particular twenty-first century skill – critical thinking. “Developing visitors’ critical thinking through Exhibitions” featured projects from Belgium, France, Switzerland and Ireland which take very different approaches to encouraging critical thinking among their visitors. This led to an important question from Antonio Gomes da Costa: do you make the concept of "critical thinking" explicit to the visitors, or do you leave it as an "implicit" notion as a "side effect" of communicating scientific approaches? The answer from each project was “no” – so it’s an important issue to consider: do we have to achieve twenty-first century objectives by stealth?

Broadening our scope

Broadening our scope always requires investment of significant resources, and - especially now -many science centres have to concentrate on their traditional customers to pay their way. As the late Roy Shafer would always remind us: “No margin, no mission!”

Here are some thoughts, however …

  • Deliberately go out to seek new project partners who share your values, but who work in a completely different setting from your own – preferably in other countries
  • Never be afraid to work with or to employ people who have different and higher level skills from yours
  • Don’t be in a hurry to discard tried and tested exhibits, programmes and ways of working – because if they are good they will be new to every new generation
  • Invest in the best training and staff development you can afford, and foster professional networking among all levels of staff
  • Draw on every aspect of your colleagues’ knowledge and interests to broaden their ways of thinking. You may have musicians, artists, sports persons, magicians, poets, etc among your staff. Ask them how their special interests and skills can broaden the scope of your activities.
  • Show them the video of Melati Wijsen’s keynote speech and get them inspired to think about how you too can broaden your scope – without “preaching to the already converted”

If you think this is unrealistic, think in terms of taking one step at a time. Then check out the session on the Copernican revolution in science education – where twenty-first century skills of creativity, collaboration, problem-solving and critical thinking are being developed through Young Explorers Clubs in Poland, Georgia and Ukraine – joint winners of the Mariano Gago Award last year. The model is simple, but the attitude of mind is truly broadening our scope.

In conclusion

In the context of the Ecsite strategy, there is work to be done on spelling out what twenty-first century skills mean in terms of deliverables for colleagues and for our visitors
Case studies are all very well, and sometimes inspirational, but perhaps a future Conference could look at more general strategies for gearing the sector to broadening its scope in relation to twenty-first century skills and values.

Lewis Hou: Equity @ ECSITE – Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion

The shift to online has had many benefits and for me, being able to join my first Ecsite Conference, it has allowed me to engage flexibly, being able to interact on my own terms and time, and I have been heartened by the sharing of pronouns and visual descriptors as standard along with the continuation of the New Voices scheme to support speakers providing different perspectives. Of course, digital exclusion is something to be seriously acknowledged moving forward, but with over 15 specific sessions in the Conference specifically linking into the wider Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) commitment for Ecsite, this was arguably the most inclusive Conference to date.

Sessions varied from inclusive and accessible exhibition design to inclusive tinkering, co-creating with often marginalised communities ranging from the neuro-diverse, refugees and asylum seekers, disabled groups and older people, there was a lot to explore (thankfully there’s the opportunity for ticket-holders to catch-up and re-watch!).

However, as someone observed on Twitter, there was only one person who identified as a man attending one of the gender equality sessions live which highlights to me in a microcosm how there is still work to be done exploring whose role it is to do this work (and who it often falls on) and how we ensure we are intersectional throughout, rather than keeping EDI in individual silos. One of the first themes for me of the whole Conference centres on a key question:

“Whose story is this?”

“…And if it’s not my story, why don’t I have the humility to engage with the person whose story it is?” asks Dr. Elizabeth Rasekoala from African Gong. The session on decolonising “Beyond the Objects” reminds us that science centres and museums have benefitted historically from extracting objects and stories from marginalised groups. We must be wary that our new models of engagement - in EDI and otherwise - and how we position ourselves do not replicate these neo-colonial dynamics in taking these voices in the work we do with marginalised communities. We must have the humility to listen and spotlight the expertise of lived experience. Of course, this extends to all audiences, with one session discussing how a social media post around the “science of making the perfect coffee” sparked online backlash until it recognised and engaged with the expertise of baristas.

So the question becomes: how does Ecsite invite participants and community groups themselves to tell their own stories – not what we interpret as the successes and challenges, but how they define their experiences? We talk of co-production, valuing people’s expertise but they are often missing from these conversations.

There were brilliant exceptions, with sessions with community partners joining #Ecsite2021 on working with autism spectrum communities with Centre for Life for example, but the classic adage in the Disabled community rings as a challenge perhaps – “Nothing About Us, Without Us”. Language may be one barrier in this, being acutely aware of the dominance of English and the voices missed or muted by this - something which organisations such as Native Scientists and Cartas com Ciência actively recognise as one way to literally decolonise, connect and embed different narratives into their work in Portuguese for example. The need for financial support is another - an issue raised by work in the British Museum who share how challenging it can be to make sure community groups and the young people they are co-creating with are paid on an equal footing for their expertise to the facilitators. However, as many who are now working in a way unimaginable pre-Covid and lockdown will know, where there’s a will there’s a way, and change is possible. Perhaps this is a provocation for our broader work how to build on the inclusiveness gained and further seek, value and invite different (literal) voices from communities into sessions to speak directly, and certainly not to go backwards when we are able to meet back in person.

Earning Trustworthiness

Building on this, another broad theme was the importance of building trust throughout our work and no more importantly when we consider EDI. In informal science learning, we have many tools at our disposal that were highlighted in sessions in innovative ways - from playful tinkering and making, storytelling to the thoughtful and creative process of making a simple but powerful zine together. Over time, these offered accessible, participatory opportunities to get to know our communities, connect beyond the usual suspects and go beyond audiences into partnerships longer-term. This transition was discussed through some of the work and interviews by ASDC along with the pioneers of EQUITY@ECSITE programme too who are making strides in embedding EDI and these relationships into their organisations more structurally.

Very often we ask communities to trust in us as individuals but when it comes to our institutions, and “science” or research as whole, we often miss challenging ourselves as to whether we have earned that trust (especially given the historical contexts mentioned above) and are suitably trustworthy. One session reflected on this from a very different sector – that of trust from consumers in the food industry with the international TrustTracker study. This identified how “trustworthiness” was split into three main components. Firstly, whether the members of public thought the industry knew what they were doing – their competence. Second was how open the members of the public thought they were, and finally, whether the public thought that the different actors (farmers, industry, supermarkets) ultimately cared about the welfare of the public themselves. It’s interesting as often science centres and other informal science organisations are good at focussing on the first two – conveying the mechanics of science, sharing the stories of discovery and hopefully the diverse types of skills involved, and making these more accessible and hands-on. How good are we at sharing that we ultimately care about the members of the public itself in how we present ourselves? In our social media? In the values we uphold?

“The time for inspiration is over”

So was the beckoning call of Indonesian youth activist Melati Wijsen regarding climate action and the need to feel the “butterflies” which push us forward whilst the world is quite literally burning. As Melati herself acknowledges, this work is intricately tied to EDI - Climate and Social justice are intertwined, past, present and future. The same industrial revolutions hundreds of years ago that spearheaded many of the scientific advancements we celebrate and share in our work were literally fuelled from the materials wrought by labour of enslaved and marginalised peoples, which in turn produced a significant portion of the carbon dioxide which remains damaging our atmosphere to this day. This process aided the colonialism and the extraction of resources and unequal wealth distribution world-wide which Europe and the wider “global North” still benefits from today, whilst others who were extracted from are more often than not disproportionally affected by the increasing global temperatures. As my fellow colleagues Colin and Camille have observed, the Ecsite commitments to climate action and 21st-century skills are tightly bound to EDI whether we like it or not – and it’s the legacy from the earlier centuries which must be reconciled too in all.

Indeed, I like to compare EDI work to climate action also as there are similar tensions to balance in this work long-term. It is clearly everyone’s role to challenge and combat where we can – recycle, reduce individual consumption – but at the same time, we should not neglect to remember that these are structural issues that require accountability on a systemic scale. Likewise, the work of EDI is everyone’s role, but we must never forget that it is the systems that will need to challenged and remade. We would never assume that individual projects will “solve” climate change any more than individual projects, even excellently co-produced with communities will be able to solve systemic oppression. Acknowledging this with humility is key – that is not to say we cannot do this work but as trusted intermediaries, everything must be examined: Who we take funding from, our hiring practices, who we value and pay and who we ally to and who we call out. Doing the right thing will not be easy, especially as the sector reconciles with lockdown even further but we have an opportunity to be on the right side of history.

So quite literally, the time for inspiration is over. This work is a marathon, not a sprint, and we will make mistakes. We need to have spaces where we can be truly honest about when things don’t go well – share the failures too as this is the only way we can learn properly, “make new mistakes” as Naomi Klein advocates (and I borrowed as my final piece of advice) and go beyond just the sheen of advocacy and be properly accountable to the communities we seek to serve. Like journals, conferences often suffer from a “publication bias” where we only hear what works and whilst progress should be celebrated, moving forward how can we use the space to be frankly honest?

This is one of our key elements such as our bimonthly EQUITY@ECSITE Community of Practice meetings where we provide spaces to share these “glorious failures” and speak as practitioners, all learners, so we can make these “new mistakes” together. You would be welcome to join these (you don’t even need to be a member of Ecsite), but how can we embed these within the conferences and wider work too to ensure we relight the fire and we are never too far away from the urgency of these inequalities.

“Not just nice but essential” EDI and our sector

How do we ensure science centres, and other places of informal (or free) learning are seen as “Not just nice, but essential” asked John Falk during his keynote. This Conference to me raises the same question regarding embedding EDI into our work – not just a “nice to have”, optional, tick-box, single project or one person’s role in an organisation but everyone’s job and entrenched in all our work.

And indeed, to me EDI is part of the answer to the original question posed. Until we fully tackle our own privileges, histories and structural inequalities, at best, science centres and informal science learning will only be seen as an inessential “nice-to-have” - only serving the already converted, privileged few. At worst, we replicate social inequalities and maintain a status quo extracting from communities. As spaces for learning, dialogue, awe and wonder, well-being, we are well positioned to spotlight the stories about the world and universe around us - let’s continue to dig deeper and go wider.


  • EDI
  • climate and biodiversity crisis
  • 21st century skills