A museum at its best is not just another source of information, no matter how interesting or dazzling that information is. Museums can tell us life-enhancing stories about who we are, why we are here, where we came from, and what is expected of us. Stories that suggest to us what sort of information is worthwhile and what sort is trash. Stories about our mistakes and about our relationship to nature and to each other.
Neil Postman, 1992
My first ASTC conference was in Toronto in 1992, hosted by the Ontario Science Centre (OSC).
It had already been a year of life-changing professional travel for me, with a trip to Tokyo, Japan to work with explainers on a traveling exhibit at Kanagawa Science Park and to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil for an education staff exchange program between the Exploratorium and Espaço Ciência Viva. The conference, however, was my first time convening with and learning from colleagues and mentors in a field that I had never dreamed was so rich and varied.
As is often the case with recall, I have impressionistic memories of the actual experience- the mist rising off the top of the conference hotel’s outdoor swimming pool as its glass cover lifted, an engaging papermaking demonstration by an earnest explainer at the OSC, the good fortune of being able to sit next to and talk with science museum field “stars” Richard Gregory and Mark St. John at dinner, and being personally welcomed in the elevator by then OSC Director General and CEO Emlyn Koster on my first day.
However, thanks to recordings of some of the conference sessions, what’s most remarkable to reflect on now was author and academic Neil Postman’s keynote. Having recently written Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, Dr. Postman tweaked his title and extended the book’s premise to deliver a talk called Informing Ourselves to Death. His point being that in addition to media and politics, information itself was becoming a form of mindless entertainment due to the overwhelming amount of it, and our ability to make sense of it (in 1992!). Before the Internet! Postman went on to encourage science centers and museums to consider ways to provide “narratives” for our visitors in order to “give point and meaning” to the information they are surrounded by, comparing science museums’ roles to those of the great cathedrals of the Middle Ages because as he put it “no culture can flourish without narratives of transcendent origin and power.” No small provocation for this group of professionals!
Among the other memorable moments at the conference were the recently-launched YouthALIVE! initiative’s workshop, the first in a series of what ultimately became life-changing professional learning experiences for me at subsequent conferences, and the sessions led by professor Eleanor Duckworth, who shared her ideas on what a constructivist approach had to offer the design of science center and museum experiences- a pedagogy I went on to study in depth a few years later. The conference theme was “Creating the Visitor Experience,” one that I came to learn that the ASTC community revisits over the years through new lenses as audiences’ expectations evolve and as colleagues across the STEM engagement ecosystem experiment and innovate.
Overall, my first ASTC conference planted seeds and opened possibilities that grew and blossomed in ways I couldn’t have predicted. And since the very first annual conference in Charlotte, North Carolina in 1982 attendees like me have been inspired and challenged by themes, sessions, and keynotes that have seeded conversations in the exhibit hall and conference center corridors, catalyzed new projects and collaborations, and provided fresh perspectives on our important work. Whether this week’s 2023 ASTC Conference (return to Charlotte!) is your first, or tenth, you will no doubt have experiences that have immediate as well long-term impact on your work, thinking, and professional relationships.
In this, ASTC’s 50th anniversary year, I’ve had the opportunity to dig into the archives and reflect on where we’ve come from, on whose shoulders we stand, and what we’ve been learning along the way. That exploration led to the idea of inviting the community to participate in co-creating a timeline of the science center and museum field’s history at this year’s conference. We hope you will join us just outside the plenary hall at the conference center to add the milestones, resources, and memories that have shaped you and your institution’s journey, and that have evolved and positioned our field to more equitably “engage the future.”
We look forward to meeting old and new friends in just a few days in Charlotte, and along with our 50th Anniversary Sponsor, StoryHabitat, also invite you to share your video memories and reflections for our #ASTC50 collection.
This blog post is part 2 of a two-part reflection series by Jamie Bell. You can read part 1, “ASTC50: Reflecting on Our Journey,” here.