, Volume 1, Issue 4, pp 791-820
Date: 16 Jan 2007

Communication about science in a traditional museum: visitors’ and staff’s perceptions

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This study investigated visitors’ and staff’s perceptions about the communication of science in a traditional natural history museum. The research examined the science-related outcomes for adult visitors and explored visitors’ and staff’s ideas of science and how it is portrayed at the museum. Data were collected by questionnaire and interview from 84 staff and 102 visitors. Both groups held positive views about science, its importance and the need for everyone to understand it. Comparison of visitors’ pretest and posttest scores on the questionnaire revealed some significant changes, several suggesting a change to views about science that were less “scientific.” Most visitors thought that their ideas about science had not changed as a result of their visit, but they were positive about the museum as a place for learning science. Staff held more “scientific” views about the nature of science than did visitors; they recognized the potential of the museum to educate people about science, but felt it needed to be presented as more relevant and accessible, particularly in terms of science as a cultural practice. Neither staff nor visitors perceived that the museum stimulated visitors to think critically about science. While acknowledging that interpreting complex scientific knowledge into exhibits readily understood by lay visitors and displaying controversy are difficult, these challenges must be addressed if visitors are to be encouraged to think about science and the social, cultural and political contexts which shape it.

Léonie J. Rennie is professor of science and technology education and Dean, Graduate Studies at Curtin University of Technology in Australia. Her research interests include adults' and children's learning in science and technology and the communication of science in a range of out-of-school contexts. Currently, she is working on research projects relating to integrated curriculum in science, mathematics and technology, and a statewide program to enhance scientific literacy in the community.
Gina F. Williams currently is a stay-at–home mother of two and pursuing a master’s degree in science communication from the Australian National University. At the time of the research, she was working as a Research Associate with Léonie J. Rennie at Curtin University of Technology in Australia. Gina was involved in a number of projects with a focus on the communication of science, in particular research into the learning experiences of adults in free- choice learning environments. With a background in science, Gina became interested in the issues involved in communicating science whilst working as an explainer at a science center. Her research interests include the wider community’s engagement with science in their everyday lives, and the development of community-based science projects.