Volunteering in a museum can be a great platform to expand communication skills and apply scientific knowledge, says Andy Tay
Earlier last year, I attended the Week of International Scientific Talent in Paris, and found that museums can be excellent platforms for scientists eager to apply scientific knowledge outside of their labs. Curious to learn more about this avenue of science communication, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that there is growing interest in applying scientific concepts to museum settings.
One example that has captured wide attention is the use of fragrance in the Peabody Essex Museum (mentioned by Nature here) to provide visitors with a multi-sensory (including sight, hearing, touch and smell) museum experience. Nature also recently ran a feature on scientists-turned-curators. One step led to the other and soon, I found myself applying for and receiving the Visiting Research Fellowship by the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences (MAAS Sydney), in Australia.
Link between science and museum
At MAAS, my research focused on the exhibit ‘teamLab Future Park’, which used various stimuli such as lights, sound and touch to stimulate the senses of visitors. Capitalizing on this, I investigated how concepts in sensory neuroscience can be applied to improve visitors’ experience. In my research, I explored the idea of homeostasis (whether excessive sensory stimuli diminish the value of a museum experience) and adaptation (whether visitors get bored of interacting with exhibits in the same way). Beyond my research findings, I developed some useful communication tips that might be helpful to other scientists in their own outreach.
Consider others’ attention span
I’ve been involved in science communication for some time now, but this was the first opportunity to work face-to-face with people. With writing and other communication work, I’ve had the time to prepare everything meticulously. Not this time, especially because Future Park — by design — has a whole lot of distractions. I was forced into trying to engage children who were busy playing in the exhibits, and trying to engage adults who were concerned about the whereabouts and safety of their children. This trained me to speak quickly and clearly — and learn where I needed to improve. Considering others’ attention span is crucial.
Integrate different tools to help you communicate
During my fellowship, I explored the concept of adaptation — whether museum visitors would be bored interacting with museum exhibits in the same way. The most popular exhibits were all identical in terms of how visitors used them — in each, we asked people to color a drawing, scan it, and take a look at a 3D representation of their work. Cool for the first time you see it, but perhaps less novel the time after.
The majority (70%) of the respondents felt that Future Park was highly engaging but about 20% of the respondents suggested that their experience would be better had there been more variety in the activities.
This finding was a surprise to me — most of the visitors were there for the first time and already felt that there could be more varied activities. This finding confirmed my belief that there is value in diversifying the ways I communicate science in writing, drawing, infographics and videos. It also reminded me that it helps to integrate different tools into my presentations to engage my audience. In the past, I’ve shown my audience bits and pieces from my research lab during presentations, for example.
In a few weeks’ time, I will be volunteering in a community college with an infographic on my current research project. The museum experience has inspired me to develop ideas to incorporate hands-on interactions to help students learn about my research.
If you’re interested in museum work, there are a variety of internship and fellowship opportunities. The Smithsonian Institute offers a range of fellowships for scholars with different expertise including genomics, medicine and chemistry. The National University of Singapore Museum offers internship positions for students interested in programming, marketing and design. Universcience Paris (Cité des sciences), the largest European science museum, also offers ad-hoc positions.
As many museums operate on a tight budget, they might not be able to offer any stipends for internships. If you are truly curious about this industry, I would advise you to find a museum near your city to gain working experience first. Even if the museum might not explicitly advertise any opening, it doesn’t hurt to email a museum representative and the specific curator for volunteering opportunities. This exposure will come in handy when you apply for fellowships to work in larger, better equipped museums in the future.
His research focuses on nanotechnology and stem cell differentiation. In his free time, Andy enjoys using the gym and reading.
Andy is grateful for financial support from Endeavour Research Fellowship during his stay in Sydney and MAAS for hosting his research project and providing the images in this article.