Leading Museums, Museum Leaders

Wicked Problems

Kevin Crowley at the conference A Learning Research Agenda for Natural History Institutions. Source: SPOKES. Photo: Esther Hamstra.

Esther Hamstra, Unfathomable, Unsolvable, Unstoppable?, SPOKES#16

It is January 2016. Against a backdrop of the largest humanitarian crisis of my time, I attend a conference about natural history learning research in the Natural History Museum in London.

Here, I am witnessing the launch of the Learning Research Agenda collaboratively developed by the Museum, King’s College London, the University of Bristol and other UK and overseas contributors.

The agenda is not about STEM learning, it is not about 21st century skills, it is about how visitors can learn from the collections and expertise of natural history museums to cope with global challenges, or so-called Wicked Problems. Although stating that Syrian refugees are climate refugees might be too simplistic, climate change has contributed to the events that led to the Syrian civil war and refugee crisis. This crisis is an example of how one global problem, climate change, can lead to other catastrophic events.

Over the past 8 years I have developed on average 3.5 exhibitions a year for design company NorthernLight. Most of them were science centre exhibitions. Almost all the projects I worked on incorporated content on biodiversity loss, depletion of resources, climate change or sustainability. The wicked problems aren’t the exclusive domain of natural history museums. It affects us all; it is important to science centres, science museums, zoos and to exhibition design companies. Because I would like to learn how to make better exhibitions and how to address global challenges better, and because I think the view of designers is under-exposed and an under-used capital, I attended the launch of the agenda.

I listened to the presentations, talked with practitioners and researchers and interviewed one of the driving forces of the project, Justin Dillon. The making of the agenda was an interdisciplinary enterprise and the final product calls for continuous collaboration between practitioners and learning researchers. It has significance for other natural history museums as well as for other places of learning, such as science centres. This is my report.

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