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published: April, 2002
Systematically Speaking: How Do Natural History Museum Web Sites Represent Science?
Session: My Web, My Way
The first natural history museum websites offered little more than visitor information. Then they began to include more of the nature and scope of both collections and exhibitions. Now, they incorporate sophisticated graphic design and feature active involvement by the virtual visitor, but they can also bring the museums' scientific research work to a larger and more diverse audience. Far from being principally for children, and full of dinosaurs and dioramas, major natural history museums are characterised by a high degree of fundamental scientific research.
In the eighteenth century, museums were central to the active creation of scientific knowledge, but we now tend to associate science exclusively with laboratories. The popular image of science - test-tube and Bunsen burner - is, for several important aspects of science, inappropriate. One such area is systematics - discovering, describing, naming, classifying organisms and identifying their evolutionary relationships - a major concern of most natural history museums. Yet few websites explain its significance, or even make it explicit. This paper explores the representation of taxonomy, systematics and other aspects of science on selected natural history museum websites, using two different but related approaches.
One uses a series of categories relating to the nature of science (derived from an evaluation of exhibitions) and applies these to each website. In essence, this approach seeks to identify and, where possible, quantify evidence of representation of:
1. Science as a human endeavour - science as a social and cultural activity, a human enterprise
2. Scientists at work - showing what scientists actually do in the process of research.
3. The status of scientific ideas - scientific ideas as theories or models, rather than as incontrovertible fact or the revelation of truth.
4. Doubt and debate - introducing scope for further questioning and reinterpretation of evidence.
5. Opportunities for visitors to formulate their own opinions - reflecting the social construction of science.
The second concentrates on science processes and practices, the methodology and operation of science:
1. Selection of research programmes - realisation that science is neither certain nor neutral means that justification for research is increasingly evident, often expressed as 'biodiversity' or as benefits to humanity
2. Collection and analysis of data - traditional and/or contemporary methods, field and laboratory techniques
3. Evaluation of evidence and its interpretation - a perception of science as unanswered questions rather than unquestioned answers
4. Development of models, hypotheses and theories - presenting the dynamism and fluidity of science as well as an authoritative view of current understanding
5. Publication, debate and peer review - argument and discussion as key elements of the scientific process
The paper shows that some natural history museum websites are now beginning to share their passion for science, especially less fashionable areas such as systematics and that such developments coincide with changes in views about the public understanding of science and about the roles of museums.