Break barriers not fossils

Break barriers not fossils

I didn’t plan to drop a 65-million-year-old dinosaur fossil as part of my tour that night, but as far as memorable museum moments go, it’s hard to beat.  

And yes, if you are wondering, the Centrosaurus (pictured) vertebra did shatter into a million tiny pieces of dirt as it hit the floor. I had just finished boasting to my tour group that they were among the first people ever to see the fossil as it had been dug out of a slab only a few days earlier. Turns out they were also the last!

I worked as a museum explainer at the Australian Museum for three years and despite intensive memorisation of science facts – it was always the funny, unplanned, genuine moments that supported the best interactions with visitors. The museum was visited by people from all around the world but this observation held true for visitors of all ages and backgrounds. Unexpected events and humour seemed to act as a universal ice breaker. Museum explainers need to break the ice quickly before they stand any chance of passing on information or getting ‘buy in’ for an activity or exhibit.

Kamolpattana et al (2014) explore the impact of explainers in a Thai science museum with a particular focus on cultural context in their research paper Thai visitors’ expectations and experiences of explainer interaction within a museum context. Thai people are more aware of hierarchy in their social interactions and can also be more reserved or shy then those from Western cultures. The researchers observe a number of ways that museum explainers adapt to these potential barriers to engage with visitors and support their science learning experience. They also note some common pitfalls an explainer can fall into, despite the best intentions.

The paper mentions a tendency for Thai explainers to engage in didactic explanations and one-way transmission of facts. It sounds a lot like the style of many explainers I have observed working in museums in the UK and Australia. Like most museum explainers, I started my career as a young, enthusiastic science nerd, assuming my job was to make sure visitors learned as much as possible. My colleagues and I all had our pet topics we knew everything about. We indulged our obsessions at the expense of many polite people’s time and patience; giving talks, performing shows and demanding people ‘touch this meteorite’ like our lives depended on it. A more recent colleague refers to those days as the ‘drag and brag era’. I shudder at the memory of all the dragging and bragging I was guilty of committing.

Museums should be a rest from didactic education styles and instead a chance to learn through personal interaction and active learning. Thai explainers adopt a ‘pseudo sibling’ way of relating as a fascinating way of removing formality and building instant rapport. It is a clever and sensitive way to level the playing field and overcome the Thai concept of Krang Jai, the notion of saving face and showing respect for hierarchy. Higher power distance affects all communication between Thai people, setting an expectation that people in a lower social position (because of their age, education level, social class etc) will defer to the opinions and knowledge of those in a higher social position.

Given that Thai museum explainers tend to be young people in the early stage of their career, they will often use language to define their relationship with visitors as like a brother or sister, to redefine normal hierarchical roles. Pii for big brother/sister and Nong for little brother/sister acts as a respectful icebreaker and permission for the explainer to instruct, guide and teach someone they would be expected to defer to in normal social interactions.

I thought about the verbal and body language used in Australian and British museums to welcome and engage with people. It hadn’t really occurred to me before that visitors from other countries might have different ‘rules of engagement’, determined by their home culture. The lead author of this paper, Supara Kamolpattana, wrote a PhD on Science museum explainer training: Exploring factors that influence visitor-explainer interactions. The research focused on the way that appreciation of cultural difference should be integral to explainer training.

My ‘fossil drop’ in 2006 was a critical lesson in humility and approachability. The lesson was extended when I fronted up to the museum palaeontologist’s office the next morning to confess my crime. I was red faced and ready to be punished. To my shock he laughed and shooed me out of his office laughing, “do you know how many fossils I have broken in this job?”

In every cultural context we need to prioritise techniques for welcoming, relaxing and relating to others, before we attempt to educate or explain. Thai explainers prove you don’t have to start breaking specimens to break down barriers with visitors.

Have you experienced cultural difference in a positive or negative way, as a museum visitor or staff member? What techniques have you found to be effective in breaking down barriers and establishing rapport quickly?

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