Story-telling in science museums

There's an interesting post over at 'Museum 2.0' about story-telling in the Creation Museum. There's been lots said about this bible-telling museum, which has just opened in America, and I suspect that it's wound up much of the museum community (Mike called it 'the world's most dangerous museum'). It's clearly a monument of religious propaganda, but I personally don't see it's self-labelling as 'a museum' to be particularly problematic. Calling yourself 'a museum' should be reserved just to certain academic institutions, and I don't think there's any reason per se why museums should present polemical arguments (indeed, perhaps they should do it more).

To get back to the point of this post, however, Nina Simon at Museum 2.0 argues that the Creation Museum is seductive because it tells a compelling story, appealing to our hearts and not to our mind. She suggests that museums everywhere should be telling stories, but starting from the facts, not faith.

I wholeheartedly agree. However an additional thought I'd like to put forward is that science museums often seem to struggle because they try to tell the story of science itself - of the theories, the mathematics, the facts. All of which is important, but terribly abstract.

I think we as humans are preconditions to be interested in stories about fellow human beings - our sense of empathy and 'theory of mind' is hard-wired in, for evolutionary purposes. This is perhaps why creation stories can seem more believable than scientific explanations - the appeal to a human-like God as a creator gives the world an intentionality. Reading intentionality into things is a common mistake of the mind, a mis-firing caused by what is sometimes called our naïve psychology.

This makes telling stories about science - things that are the way they are just because they are - quite difficult.

One of the best ways I've seen of overcoming this problem is telling stories about the people who discovered and formed scientific ideas, and their process of discovery, rather than just their theories in the abstract. One of the best examples I can remember is watching a Royal Institution Christmas Lecture, some years ago, in which the story was told of a scientist who gradually was able to make predictions about the size, density, and various layers of the Earth. Rather than being simply a straight-out telling of the facts about the Earth's crust, mantle, outer core, inner core, and so on, it told the story of how these facts were deduced, through observation, experimentation, and ingenious problem-solving. The result was a far greater understanding of the information, and a wonderful story about a person at the heart of it.