My daughter has just shown me an apposite blog post written by Michael de Podesta, a friend and colleague of hers who has just been received an MBE (for Services to Science) from the Queen. He runs "a course [...] called Protons for Breakfast which aims to help the general public make sense of some of the science that they encounter." His description of the BBC show Horizon on the theme of Black Holes as "dumbed-down science at its worst" puts into words what I felt today during my visit to the national Museum of Science and Technology in Ottawa.
Not all of the museum is bad; if it were rehoused in a building that looked less than a warehouse, didn't have such dismally black ceilings and if its contents were differently presented and modernised (most of the information and illustrations have not been updated since the 1980s), it could be a rewarding place for everyone to visit. Alexander enjoyed himself there, appreciating the model railway made from Lego, pretending to drive the vehicles and pressing the various buttons to make things happen, but then, he is only two. Surely a nation's tribute to Science and Technology ought not to assume that all its visitors are toddlers. Various groups of school children were there and most of them were simply running wild. In the Telecommunications (Connexions) section of the museum, above ground level, was a maze of interconnecting tunnels with coloured, flashing lights running along their sides. This installation was supposed to teach the youngsters about packet switching, but they weren't learning anything; they were playing tag. "Don't run!" said the poor woman (volunteer teacher's assistant? inexperienced teacher?) meant to be in charge up there. "I'm it!" shouted a little girl, not even noticing the adult was there. Alexander of course joined in and we lost track of him for a few moments. It was claustrophobic, dark and very noisy, not an atmosphere conducive to anyone's education. Emma, Peter and I became depressed when we started to think about it.
Who is to blame? Is it the fault of the museum's directors, the school system, the individual teachers, our ambient culture or lack of it, the children themselves, their parents, or all of the above? I suspect the museum is sadly understaffed. There was nobody in uniform to be seen while this pandemonium was going on (perhaps they were in hiding; I wouldn't blame them). The few adults present didn't seem to have a clue how to calm the children down or teach them anything. Had I been planning a field trip to this museum with a potentially rowdy class I would at least have visited it ahead of time and planned accordingly.
On the positive side, one teacher, elsewhere in the building with a different school group, was impressively and confidently in control. He didn't try to intimidate his charges, but when we watched him lining them up in the cafeteria after their lunch, they were doing exactly as they were told. The young woman who gave the dramatic 2 o'clock demo-lecture on Cryogenics also deserves praise; she did it entertainingly and efficiently in two languages, managing to aim her teaching at adults and young children simultaneously.
Maybe it depends (now as always) on extraordinary individuals like Dr de Podesta to give people young and old what they deserve to get in the way of education, but designing a nation's museums as playgrounds does not help.