‘Use museums to connect science to people’

Cristina Acosta
Top marine biologist: 'Connect the science with what people are thinking about most of the time'

The Smithsonian Institution's Dr Nancy Knowlton. Photo courtesy of the US Embassy Manila

MANILA, Philippines – In the age of Google, what role do museums play in the modern day world?

“Fool people into appreciating science,” joked Dr. Nancy Knowlton, one of the world’s preeminent marine biologists, during a talk at the National Museum in Manila Wednesday, June 19. “Connect the science with what people are thinking about most of the time.”

Knowlton, the Sant Chair in Marine Science at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) in Washington DC, spoke on how museums should present science, encourage conservation, and promote scientific research to the public.

In her talk, Knowlton discussed the Sant Ocean Hall, the NMNH’s largest exhibit. She explained how the Sant Ocean Hall approached the Smithsonian’s mission to “increase and diffuse knowledge” through research and collections, exhibits, and the “digital ocean,” that is, the Internet.

Knowlton stressed that museums should be able to identify and engage their audiences with exhibits, both onsite and online.

She cited two examples of effective exhibits in the Sant Ocean Hall.

The first example was the “Science on a Sphere” exhibit. This is a room-sized display of a globe, which appears to rotate because of four high-resolution projectors that move around it. The globe can display information on different places around the Earth.

The second example was the “Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reef”. This project used crocheting techniques and geometry principles to create lifelike models of coral reefs.

The crowd at Knowlton's talk at the National Museum, June 19, 2013. Photo courtesy of the US Embassy Manila

Knowlton also discussed Q?RIUS, the Smithsonian’s Education Center to open in the fall, and Ocean Portal, the Smithsonian’s website for all things oceanic. In using online resources like the Ocean Portal, she said, museums should aim to reach, inform, and engage visitors.

After the talk, Knowlton joined a roundtable discussion with Dr. Nina Yuson of Museo Pambata, Maribel Garcia of the Mind Museum, Dr. Elizabeth Gustil of Ayala Museum, Dr. Carmen Lagman of De La Salle University, and Dr. Arvin Diesmos of the National Museum.

Diesmos opened the floor by raising the problem of bringing people to museums instead of malls.

“Don’t use jargon,” said Knowlton. “Connect with people on their own terms.”

Lagman emphasized that museums should “move [people] from being wowed to making a difference.”

On the Mind Museum’s strategy, Garcia shared, “We were very, very conscious of people, [to] connecting to what people love.” According to Garcia, a museum should be telling stories. “That connects [the visitors] to a story much larger than themselves,” she said.

The roundtable discussion concluded on a sobering note.

When Knowlton, a top marine biologist focusing on marine biodiversity and conservation, was asked for her opinion on Philippine biodiversity and for her advice to budding biologists, she said, “Many of [the reefs in the Philippines] are in really desperate state.”

She cited that the Philippines was one of the hotspots for coral reef biodiversity. However, at the rate things are going, we will lose most of our coral reefs in the next decade or two.

“The people and the reefs of the Philippines are running out of time,” Knowlton said.

Knowlton was in the Philippines as part of the US State Department’s US Speaker Program, and as part of commemorating Coral Triangle Day last June 9.

Aside from her position at the Smithsonian, she has also held advisory positions with the National Geographic Society, the World Bank, the Cosmos Prize, and the Census of Marine Life. – Rappler.com

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