Digesting ‘Food for Curious Minds’

Compared to Interpret Europe, which, with around 100 delegates was quite intimate in scale, the 1100-delegate ECSITE conference was a bit of a shock to the system – magnified by the fact I’d barely had time to decompress from one conference before leaping into the next.


I used to be a regular at ECSITE, but this was my first time since the 2007 conference in Lisbon. It was also the first time that I had been a presenter.

The conference website has storify summaries, presentation slides and other info, which I’ve bookmarked to come back to at a future date (after the conference I took a well-earned holiday in Venice, hence the delay in writing this wrap-up post). But for now, here are a few of my first quick impressions, more about the delegate experience than the conference content per se:

  • Lots of delegates means LOTS of parallel sessions (up to 10). This can lead to both choice paralysis and session envy. It also got me pondering the psychology behind having lots of (too much?) choice – does it mean you’re less satisfied with the session you *do* choose, because you’re haunted by the prospect of the session you *didn’t* choose being AMAZING? I’m not sure how the organisers can get around such a conundrum in such a large conference, but I think it’s definitely a factor in how delegates perceive their experience.
  • With so many sessions happening at once, it could be very easy to get confused about what was happening where. Keeping true to the theme of the conference, the organisers named each room after a well-known Italian food. This signage was reinforced on the stairs, in the lift, and on floor graphics throughout the MUSE conference venue.
Directional signage on the stairs, saying what room's on what floor.
Directional signage on the stairs, saying what room’s on what floor.
  • Organisers made clear what measures they had taken to make the conference as sustainable as possible (using biodegradable cups and cutlery for the breaks was the most obvious). They also invited creative participation through the “Sustainability is our favourite ingredient – what’s yours?” chalkboard wall lining an underpass linking the two main conference venues.
Chalk board that delegates progressively added to and decorated over the course of the conference.
Chalk board that delegates progressively added to and decorated over the course of the conference.
  • Because by this stage of the trip my energy levels were flagging a bit, I kept a low profile during the evening events, attending only one and even then leaving quite early as I was presenting in the 9am slot the following morning.
  • The session in question (link to slides here) was quite well-received, and we had several people staying back afterwards to talk more about our work.
  • I also presented a poster on my PhD research during the Project Showcase session. However, this felt a little tacked on to the side of the Trade Show which was happening during every break. Delegates who were not playing close attention to the programme may not have even realised it was happening. I didn’t see that many people browsing the posters, anyway. But a friend came by and captured this snap:
Poster presentation at ECSITE 2015 (photo by @elinoroberts)
  • Most of the sessions I attended were ones relating to Natural History Museums (since I’m now working in one), Visitor Research, or Mobile Technology. There have been some interesting developments in advancing a research agenda for Natural History Museums in Europe, and collaborations between museums and university researchers more generally. With respect to Mobile Technology, I got the sense that there is still quite a gap between what tech companies are selling and what is practically possible on the exhibition floor, at least at the sort of price point museums are usually working at. But more on that later, once I’ve digested my notes and my thoughts.

Back to the office tomorrow!

What do museum visitors think ‘science’ is?

The word “science” has its roots in the Latin for ‘knowledge’, and historically it has been used to describe any systematic body of knowledge. In common parlance, however, it tends to pertain to a particular approach to studying physical / natural phenomena, based on testable hypotheses, systematic gathering of evidence and conducing experiments.

So what do visitors to Natural History museums think “science” is? How do these beliefs influence how relevant they see science to their everyday lives? Do they see the connection between science and the work that Natural History museums do?

Museum visitors agree: this is definitely a scientist.

These were the guiding questions for a qualitative study conducted by Jennifer DeWitt and Emma Pegram at the Natural History Museum in London, as reported in the most recent issue of Visitor Studies. They interviewed 20 family groups in different parts of the museum, asking them questions about what they found interesting in the museum, whether they thought the museum was a ‘sciencey’ place or not, and whether they participated in science activities in their daily lives.

Visitors were split as to whether they thought the museum staff they interacted with were ‘sciencey’ or not. Staff were considered ‘sciencey’ when they demonstrated subject-specific knowledge, but facilitating enquiry in others was not necessarily a ‘sciencey’ thing for staff to do (visitors drew a distinction between ‘science’ and ‘education’ in this sense). Families more commonly described the activities they took part in at the museum as ‘sciencey’ – hallmarks of ‘sciencey’ activities were the use of technical equipment such as microscopes, detailed observation and specialist terminology. However, there was also evidence that activities that were accessible or friendly were considered not ‘sciencey’ for that reason.

Are these people scientists? Natural history museum visitors are not sure.

When it came to the Museum itself, visitors were equivocal as to whether it was a ‘science place’, having different views regarding whether particular types of content, exhibits or activities constituted ‘science’. Again a perceived conflict between ‘science’ and ‘education’ came up. And interestingly, some visitors did not consider natural history to constitute science*.

Perceptions of whether the museum was a science place or not were informed by each family’s prior conceptions of science. While 19 of the 20 families had at least one member who claimed to be interested in science, only a minority of families considered themselves ‘sciencey’. Further probing often revealed that families often did participate in science related activities (e.g. rock collecting) but such activities did not fall within the relatively narrow conception of ‘science’ that most participants had. “Science” conjured up the notion of “facts” or expert knowledge that was not particularly accessible. It was more readily associated with the physical sciences and technology than with nature.

Admittedly this study is based on a small sample, but it points to some interesting preconceptions about what science is, as well as a potential disconnect between how Natural History museums see themselves, and how they are viewed by their audiences.

*The authors concede that in their particular case, being adjacent to the Science Museum may reinforce the perception of the Natural History Museum being something other than science.

Audiences: a vicious cycle?

Are our audiences our audiences because that’s who we think our audiences are?

Let me explain. Say our audience appears to be from a particular demographic. So we tend to target that demographic in the way we position ourselves. In so doing, we create the impression that what we have to offer is primarily of interest to that particular demographic. Thus (surprise, surprise!) that is the demographic that primarily visits. But by setting ourselves up as being for a particular demographic in the first place, who are we excluding? Are we narrowing our appeal instead of broadening it?

Is there a circular logic to the way we see or audiences?

My thinking was first triggered by this article, which contends that by predominantly targeting families with kids aged 8-12, science museums are limiting their appeal to adults (this has a lot of implications for science and society, but I won’t cover that here – read the article!). Parents will say that they don’t go to the science centre anymore because their children have ‘outgrown’ it. Is it possible to ‘outgrow’ science? Can you imagine anyone saying that about an art museum?

Since then I’ve had similar conversations about other types of cultural heritage sites. If we make too many assumptions about who our audiences are, are we sending the message that we don’t have anything to offer anyone else?

It’s a tricky balance: saying you’re for “everyone” is too much like saying you’re for no-one in particular. But conversely, it would be prudent to challenge the assumptions we have about who our audiences are, and think more about who they could be.


Theatre Review: Sepia

I recently went to see Sepia – the play at the RiAus Science Exchange. Ostensibly, it’s a play about Whyalla’s cuttlefish. But Sepia uses this as a springboard to offer us a window into the tensions and compromises facing many of the communities that are dependent on resources wealth.

It is a play in three parts, told in reverse chronology. As a prelude to the first scene, we are surrounded by the gurgling sound effects of an undersea environment, accompanied by projected images of frolicking cuttlefish. Through the darkness we see a lone figure sitting in a wetsuit, looking wistfully into the distance. . . 

Read the rest of this review on the RiAus blog.


What makes a scientist?

<<Warning! Philosophical musing ahead!>>

The other week, I participated in one of the monthly #onsci science communication chats on Twitter. (If you have no idea what I’m talking about at this point, try this article as a general intro to hashtags or this one for how they are used in science communication).

At the beginning of the #onsci chat, it is customary for people to introduce themselves: who they are, where they work, how they fit into the overall science communication picture. I described myself as an “ex-scientist”, which a couple of people pulled me up over: “How can you be an ‘ex-scientist’?” “You’re doing a PhD, doesn’t that count?” These questions made me ponder what a scientist is, and why I don’t quite feel comfortable claiming the title anymore.

In my undergraduate years there was no question – I was definitely a scientist. My first degree was in Biochemistry, including an Honours year that was spent almost entirely in the lab. So if a scientist is someone with a tertiary qualification in science, then I definitely am one. And I’m sure my first degree has shaped my thinking and view of the world in ways I can’t articulate and am possibly not even fully aware of. My appreciation of this has increased over the past year as I have been reading about research philosophy as part of my PhD. It has made me think about what I believe knowledge is, and how we come to know it (i.e., epistemology). Science takes a particular view on this point, and it is so intrinsic to the way science is done that it is pretty much taken for granted.

After my first degree, I completed a Graduate Diploma in Science Communication. So still pretty sciencey. But this set me on a career trajectory that took me away from the lab and into (broadly speaking) the museums sector. Museums span many disciplines but they often fall into arts portfolios, and so these days it’s just as likely that I’ll find myself at a table of arts professionals as rubbing shoulders with scientists. Sometimes I feel stuck in the middle: not “sciencey” enough to be a proper scientist, but not “arty” enough to feel fully at ease saying I’m an arts professional myself.

I was wondering whether my reticence to claim the ‘scientist’ title was something of my own making. However, an unrelated conversation last week reinforced my suspicion that many people (including scientists) have a fairly narrow conception of what a scientist is: essentially it is a researcher on an academic career track in the natural sciences. Anyone who strays from that path, no matter how useful or valuable their contribution to the field, is somehow ‘lost’ to the science cause and is therefore not a ‘real’ scientist.

This has real implications for science and science communication. If science builds such a rigid fence around itself, then ‘scientists’ will never be able to fully participate in broader social and cultural conversations – for this would increasingly take them away from the lab bench, and then by definition they are not proper scientists any more. It will also have implications for the people that study science at tertiary level – science degrees will only be attractive to people who envisage a career in the lab. Thus our future business and political leaders will be less likely to have science qualifications, as their ambitions will have taken them to different disciplines. In practice, this means that many of them will not have studied any science beyond year 10 or 11. This creates a distinct imbalance in the knowledge base of our key decision-makers.

So I think the current definition of ‘scientist’ is too narrow. Although I’m struggling to think about how broad to cast the net without it becoming so broad as to be meaningless. This struggle is not a new one – C.P. Snow described the artificial divide between arts and humanities over 50 years ago. And the definition of ‘science’ varies between cultures and languages too as I understand it, for instance the German word Wissenschaft seems to encompass a broader view than ‘science’ as its nearest English equivalent.

So the bottom line is that in many people’s eyes, I probably don’t count as a ‘real’ scientist. However, even if I’m not studying within a science faculty, my PhD uses science (particularly Psychology and Statistics). So maybe I can be less shy about making the claim. Perhaps if enough of us less-conventional types start calling ourselves ‘scientists’ too, then we can help bring science (however it is defined) more fully into the national conversation.


Which hat fits?

People who know me will be aware that I wear a lot of hats (and this has nothing to do with my bio picture!).


Taking just my Australian memberships, I’m a member of Interpretation Australia, Museums Australia and Australian Science Communicators. In the past I have also been an active member of the British Interactive Group and Visitor Studies Group; and a regular presence at European Science Centres conferences.

While I like this variety and the diversity of people this allows me to meet – I sometimes feel that none of my many hats is a true fit. I always feel a bit of an outsider. To illustrate my point I’ll need to bring in some stereotypes (or are they archetypes?); in any case bear with me:

  • I’m not a real Science Communicator because science communicators are people who spend their entire working days evangelising about the importance and benefits of science to our lives.
  • I’m not a real Museum Professional because I don’t have a specific subject or collection about which I’m particularly knowledgeable; furthermore I’ve never actually worked in an operating museum.
  • I’m not a real Interpreter because interpreters are outdoorsy types who love spending all their time in national parks and getting people excited about the value of nature.
My roots (and qualifications) are in Science Communication, but the closest fit these days is probably Visitor Studies, which spans my interests across all these fields. However, the small and distributed nature of Australia’s population makes it difficult for a dedicated Australian Visitor Studies community to be vibrant and self-sustaining (for instance, the Evaluation and Visitor Research Special Interest Group of Museums Australia is small and has limited resources). I’ve recently joined the Visitor Studies Association in the US and I hope to be able to afford to travel to their conference in next year. But it’s no substitute for the face-to-face collegial and social networks you can foster much closer to your own backyard.
That said, I think I can turn my ‘outsider’ status into an advantage. Perhaps I can build bridges and offer broader insights that can inform each of the respective fields?
As I noted before, at the joint Museums Australia / Interpretation Australia conference held earlier this month I noticed some instances where the different histories and assumptions of the respective fields came together on a bit of a collision course. I’ve been thinking about why that is, and have come up with a few ideas. I’d be interested in hearing what you think:
Collections value is axiomatic; environmental value isn’t (yet)
For museums, the starting point is collections: unlike visitor centres, or other exhibition sites, museums have collections which they are duty-bound to study and preserve for the benefit of future generations. Because this is so wrapped up in a museum’s identity, no-one expects museums to have to justify it. There is no apparent need to explain to the public why looking after a bunch of Picassos or ancient artefacts is important. It’s just generally accepted that it’s something that advanced civilisations should do.
Unfortunately, the same cannot always be said for our natural heritage. Those same civilisations that have treasured their Picassos and potsherds have often given their environmental assets short shrift. National Parks have a shorter history than museums, and their intrinsic value is questioned more frequently (this might also be because National Parks are more likely to be in direct conflict with economic interests such as mining and logging).
Whatever the reason, it means that Museums and Interpreters (of natural heritage) probably assume a different starting point when it comes to communicating with their audiences – for museums, the collection is axiomatic; for natural heritage the battle for full recognition is still being won (or is perceived to be so).
Interpretation is all ‘Front of House’

By definition, Interpretation is about communicating with the public (especially visitors). Thus interpretation will attract people who are visitor-focused and genuinely interested in how visitors think, act and react. Museums, on the other hand, have many staff whose roles do not bring them into direct contact with the visiting public. They may not even be particularly interested in that aspect of the museum’s operations. At a museums conference, there will always be a mix of ‘back of house’ and ‘front of house’ interests. This is less so in the interpretation world, and I wonder if this difference was why some of my interpretation colleagues expressed frustration at some museum professionals not ‘getting it’ when it came to interpretive concepts such as themes and narrative.


Parallel Literary Canons
You will see I’ve made the generalisation that Museums tend to be more about Collections and Interpretation is more about National Parks. The lines are blurred for sure, but this distinction is rooted in history.
Freeman Tilden, the ‘father of interpretation’, was from the National Park Service – not a museum. Thus the origins of interpretation being an outdoorsy, Parks-led discipline can be traced to Tilden and his interests. Similarly, Sam Ham, who is among the most cited contemporary writers on interpretation, has a background in forestry management. It would be impossible to do a course in Interpretation without encountering the work of Tilden and Ham. However their names rarely (if ever?) appear in the museum studies literature.
By contrast, comparable literature in museum education / visitor studies is more explicitly grounded in the theories of pedagogy and psychology. Most of the authors in this field are from this more academic background, and have sought to apply a more theoretical approach to understanding the museum space. The roots of museum visitor studies is traced to psychologists (Robinson and Melton) who tracked visitor movements through art galleries in the 1920s and 1930s. The landmark literature, mostly from the 1990s, was by museologists (Eilean Hooper Greenhill), educators (George Hein and John Falk & Lynn Dierking) and psychologists (Stephen Bitgood). While this work is not incompatible with the Interpretation literature, there are different starting points and assumptions, and I’m not sure how well-known their work would be to most Park-based interpreters (with the exception of Falk & Dierking, whose work is probably the closest to bridging the nature-culture divide in the literature). A special hat tip to my PhD supervisors here too, Jan Packer and Roy Ballantyne, whose work spans museums and natural heritage settings – no surprises why I was attracted to their work!
The different scholarly traditions may be the origins of another divide I perceived in the conference – between the academically-minded and the more practically-driven. Again, I think I’m a bit of both – I like academic theories and research, but I want to keep sight of how these findings can inform real-life practice.

TEDxAdelaide – 2011 edition

Having been to Perth and back since (with much food for thought from that trip), it seems like ages ago that I went to TEDxAdelaide (my preview post is here). But it was less than a fortnight ago (12th November to be precise).

The TEDxAdelaide team have done a speedy job of posting the talks online – see a list here.

If you want to get an overview of the day, try starting with the end – the wrapup poem by Tracy Korsten. While I’m not 100% sure how well it will translate to people who weren’t there, it was a witty and succinct summary of the day – and might give you a hint of which of the other talks might interest you.

My pick of the bunch is Why Things Hurt by Lorimer Moseley. Never has pain been so entertaining! And it was a brilliant example of science communication (I now see the neurobiology of pain in a completely different light). Loads of the other talks had science or technology themes, while scriptwriter Emily Steel got us thinking along the lines of – what is science anyway? What is the story behind the science?

Another one of my favourites was the talk by TACSI’s Brenton Caffin about the disconnect between the kafka-esque bureaucracy of many public services, and the often dedicated individuals who work in them.

I’m sure there are many other pithy observations I could make, but a lot of those would have been based on jottings I made on the day – in that notebook I lost in Perth. Oh well, you’ll just have to watch them for yourself!


Recommended: Exhibit Files

Exhibit Files is a website designed for exhibition designers and developers to share their experiences, mostly though posting case studies of exhibition projects they’ve worked on, or reviews of exhibitions they’ve seen.

It’s been running for about 4 or 5 years now, and while originally there was a strong science centre focus (it was developed under the auspices of the Association of Science-Technology Centers or ASTC), there are now case studies and reviews of a range of different exhibit types. For instance, I recently added a version of my Saatchi Gallery review on the site.

There are nearly 400 case studies and exhibition reviews on Exhibit Files to date. Anyone can register and add their own case studies and reviews to the collection. The case studies are particularly helpful as it’s a rare forum for exhibition developers to share the lessons they’ve learned from past projects (with the hope that others won’t make the same mistakes!). The reviews are also a great armchair ride of exhibitions from around the world, that we’re unlikely to all get a chance to see.

To the exhibition developers among you, I encourage you to sign up and share your expertise and experiences.

Museums and your Worldview

Does who you are affect what you can talk about?

Exhibitions don’t exist in a vacuum: people experience them in the context of the institution in which they are located. And often that institution has a long-standing reputation (call it a ‘brand’ if you like) which will influence what people expect to see there. (You wouldn’t expect an exhibition in Questacon to be the same kind of thing as an exhibition at the Australian War Memorial, for example).

To explore this idea further, let’s consider museums of science. Does an audience’s expectation-arising-from-reputation mean that science museums are obliged to present only a scientific, empirical view of the world in their exhibitions?

I’d like to explore a case study: the ‘The Science and Art of Medicine’. exhibition in London’s Science Museum. I’ll say up front that I haven’t seen this exhibition, but it is described on its website thus:

The Science and Art of Medicine gallery, one of the world’s greatest collections on the subject, reveals the history of medicine across the world and across cultures . . . A newly redisplayed section deals with other living medical traditions, including African, Chinese, Indian and Islamic practices.

17th Century Acupuncture teaching doll, one of the items on display in the exhibition (From Science Museum website; image no 10284604)

Its coverage of alternative medicine, in particular homeopathy, has apparently caused a bit of a ruckus. As one blogger said:

Depressingly, the [Science Museum] seems to have pandered to the whims of quacks by allowing them to create their own exhibit, and it looks like there was no quality control . . . [this] matters because the [museum] is supposed to promote science and understanding, not fuel an ever increasingly tiresome debate between those that painstakingly research and collect data and those that appear to pick any old idea then try to convince people it works.

The blog post closes with the statement:

Institutions like the Science Museum unfortunately do not have the luxury of sitting on the fence with issues such as these, especially when they hold a huge responsibility of informing the public.

This statement is telling – the writer seems to be just as vexed by the location of the exhibition (in a science museum) as he is about the exhibition’s content. Implicit in his statement is the assumption that the science museum is vested with a sense of authority, and from this comes a responsibility to ensure only scientifically verifiable facts are presented. Indeed, this writer and others suggested the museum should go further and expose unscientific and unsutstantiated claims wherever it can.

There was sufficient a wave of discontent for the museum and the exhibition’s curator to release an official response to the criticism, explaining their rationale for its inclusion of ‘alternative’ medicines in the display:

we take an anthropological and sociological perspective . . .we do not evaluate different medical systems, but demonstrate the diversity of medical practices and theoretical frameworks currently thriving across the world. Our message in this display is that these traditions are not ‘alternative’ systems in most parts of the world. Instead they currently offer the majority of the global population their predominant, sometimes only, choice of medical care. We do not make any claims for the validity of the traditions we present . . . We consider that these ‘alternative’ medical practices are of considerable cultural significance. We also recognise that some may consider the inclusion of these practices in the Science Museum controversial.

This statement in turn triggered its own flurry of comments, such as:

I strongly believe that something so fundamentally unscientific, really has no place in a science museum, no matter how anthropologically and sociologically interesting.

Again, the problem seems to be that the exhibition is presented in the context of ‘science’, more than the fact that the story is being told at all.

I first came across this controversy on Twitter, when someone (a scientist) posted a link to the Science Museum’s response, calling it ‘appalling’. When I retweeted the link, one of my colleagues (a historian) wondered what the fuss was all about, thinking that the inclusion of this content in a science museum was a refreshing dash of ‘anti-imperialism’.

In these different responses, I think I see a bit of a philosophical clash regarding what a museum (particularly a museum of science) is for.

One the one hand there are those who wish to promote a scientific viewpoint of the world, with all the benefits and knowledge science has brought to our lives. They might see the inclusion of alternative medicince as a kind of  slippery slope towards giving airtime to misleading claims and scare stories, leaving society the worse for it. (For instance the consequences of the so called MMR ‘scare’, where the conjuring of a false risk led to a decline in vaccination rates, thus exposing children to the real and deadly risk of diseases like measles).

On the other hand, the ‘march of progress’ narrative which is often implicit in science and technology exhibitions makes some people (in particular some museum professionals) feel a bit uncomfortable. Other experiences and perspectives can appear to be marginalised in a ‘technology trumps all’  kind of triumphalism. Science and postmodernism do indeed make odd bedfellows!

(But this is all getting a bit philosophical . . . and if I sound like I’m sitting on the fence it’s because I think I have a better view of the whole landscape from there . . .)

So let’s bring it back to visitors. What do they expect from a science museum?

There is research to suggest that visitors do see Science Museums as venerable, authoritative institutions. And this does affect the way they perceive exhibits they see there: they expect to be told clear facts and a scientific view of ‘truth’. In this context, a science museum would need to tread carefully: display does not necessarily mean endorsement, but visitors may take what they see at face value unless authorship is made extremely clear.

What this means for this particular exhibition at the Science Museum I can’t say, although I do know that the museum generally conducts thorough audience research during their exhibition planning process. It would be interesting to see what their research says about this one.

UPDATE: Sometimes you get so caught up in planet Interwebs you forget what’s sitting on your bookshelf! Following writing this blog post and others, I’ve once again picked up my copy of “The Politics of Display: Museums, Science Culture” edited by Sharon MacDonald. It looks at the political consequences of scientific displays and argues that they cannot claim to be apolitical. Have a look if you want to explore this topic further.


On Saturday, I was lucky enough to be in the live audience of the inaugural TEDxAdelaide event, which was organised by Bridge 8 and held at the RiAus.

For the uninitiated, TED stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design; and goes by the strapline “Ideas Worth Spreading”. TED conferences have been happening for over 20 years now, with hundred of talks being recorded and posted online.

The ‘x’ bit refers to the fact that this was an independently organised TED event – local convenors take the basic TED format, branding and guidelines to run their own show. These TEDx events have spread like wildfire across the world – on Saturday alone Adelaide was one of some eight cities staging TEDx events.

So what sorts of things are talked about at a TEDx event? The Adelaide event had the theme “Ideas on the Edge” and there was an emphasis on Adelaide-based speakers, showcasing local talent and creativity. We had the technological (Christian Sandor’s augmented reality combining real and virtual worlds); emotional (Wend Lear teaching Palestinean teenagers how to create powerful photoessays – not a dry eye in the house!); “fancy-that!” facts (Frank Grutzner presenting complicated dance of 10 – count them! – platypus sex chromosomes); societal (Jodie Benveniste on how we could be better parents if we stopped trying to be perfect ones); as well as perspectives from surprising places (for instance Nick Palousis started out by confessing he was a ‘non-greenie’, only to go on to present an elegant manifesto for how Industry could take a leaf or two from Nature’s book).

There were also Burundian musicians, a documentary on the making of an Urban Art festival, and the whole day was punctuated by a fast-paced twitter stream from the audience (nearly 2000 #TEDxADL tweets over the course of the day).

I won’t go into details of speakers or presentations as this is all on the TEDxAdelaide website, plus podcasts of all the talks are being uploaded as I write. There is also a flickr stream, forum and much more online which will doubtless grow over the coming days – so check it out for yourself. . .

At drinks after the event, participants were keen to continue the conversation and it was great to meet so many interesting and passionate people. Many people agreed that Adelaide is the right size of city to bring together different skills, expertises and perspectives in creative ways: much smaller and the diversity wouldn’t be there in the first place; much bigger and the “two-degrees-of-separation rule” that can bridge cultural and disciplinary divides would no longer work.

In other words, Adelaide dreamers, creators and thinkers are less constrained by categorical boundaries because they have to be – the only way to get a critical mass together is to look over a few fences and see what other people are doing.

This brings me to one of the main underlying themes that jumped out at me during the day – sometimes things just defy categorisation and we need to be comfortable with that. This is not to say that categorisation is a bad thing – we can’t be experts at everything and categorisation has allowed specialisation and thus the great expansion of the sum of human knowledge. But at this stage of human history, there are probably numerous instances where categorisation is more of a hindrance than a help. There were so many examples of this over the course of the day – people challenging assumptions and testing boundaries and thus breaking into new ground. I can think of no better summary for this than to quote one of the most re-tweeted tweets from the day:

I think when people started to regard art & engineering as separate disciplines is pretty well when the world jumped the shark. (MoMcKinnon, we thank you for that pearl of wisdom!)

Another unifying theme was that of working with human nature, not against it. Humans are creatures of habit and inertia, and the decisions we make are just as much “paths of least resistance” as they are active choices. So it’s not just the nature of the choice that’s important, but the context in which that choice is made and presented. Environmental scientist Tim Jarvis introduced the concept of Choice architecture. By making certain decisions ‘opt-out’ rather than ‘opt-in’ (for instance selecting green energy sources or allowing organ donation), take-up rates can be dramatically increased. In a similar vein, marketing scientist (no I didn’t know they existed either) Byron Sharp blew apart some marketing myths about brand loyalty, describing our loyalties as “polygamous” and as much about what’s available as what we feel a personal affinity to.

There’s so much I could say, but I’d like to round this post up by relating the lessons from TEDxAdelaide to my main interests: culture and the visitor experience. Firstly, the idea of categories and boundaries is something we will increasingly have to grapple with – the definition of culture: who defines it, creates it, and ‘owns’ it is rapidly changing. What will this mean for traditional cultural ‘authority figures’ such as museums? Secondly, if you’re trying to connect with people, you really can’t get away with not understanding how they tick. If changing the design of tick-boxes on a form can dramatically affect the choices people make, what seemingly minor changes could heritage sites make to dramatically change the level of audience engagement?

One final note – someone asked me at the end of my day what my favourite session was. I said I think it’s too soon to know – my head was so full of ideas – and it probably still is. It will be those ideas and concepts that stick which are the most important, and only time will tell which they are.