As I draw to the end of my research and development project I've been exploring in more detail the demographic of the audience at the Science Museum to help inform an audience engagement strategy.
Two things struck me in particular.
Firstly from an evaluation study, one of the reasons the temporary exhibition case that focussed on issues about HIV was popular, was because it told the human story and there was a narrative that came from real life experiences. It put humanity into the science.
Visitors expressed a desire to have a more emotional response to some of the scientific topics and hearing real life experiences helped to do this.
Secondly, visitors were asked to identify the top three topics they had learned about during their visit to the Who Am I gallery. Number 1 was genetics and number 3 DNA.
Maybe that’s partly what you would expect, however, what was particularly interesting was that men were far more interested in DNA than women. The detail around DNA and Chromosomes was seen as more "scientific" and complex than some of the other topics. People, particularly families and women, could relate more to the idea of inheritance rather than the "faceless" notion of genetics.
This helped make sense of some of the questions I've had around why there has not been the wider public debate that I was expecting. I had put it down to fear of being judged on an issue that is by its nature, emotive and complex.
However maybe there is a further explanation. That people feel removed from the subject as its too scientific. Therefore my desire to put the human and the experiential right back into the heart of this issue seems to be exactly what's required.
I hope as well that once women realise the subject of genetics and DNA is inextricably linked to our reproductive choices and decision making processes they will see this as relevant to them. In fact we need to ensure that information about genetic choices are not only presented to us by predominantly male “experts” from the medical profession, but claim back the issue as an emotional and human one.
I also had my concerns that in the relatively playful setting of the Who Am I gallery, the difficult and somewhat upsetting issue of genetic screening might be out of place. But reflecting on the evaluations I think audiences are actually wanting more emotion and don't want their science sugar coated. One particular visitor experience resonated with me.
She was a student and had opened up to her teacher about her concerns relating to her sister who had recently had an abortion. An exhibit had allowed her to speak about this and express her thoughts.
Maybe this is part of the value of a space that allows for reflection on these things in a setting that isn't judgemental or intimidating.
Also I believe part of the reason for art, is to disturb and probe. One of the other findings in the survey was that visitors liked the art in the gallery. But they were quite disturbed by the Anthony Gormley bronze baby abandoned on the floor. Therefore it seems art is doing just what science museum visitors want. Putting more emotion and humanity into the subject.