Science capital, museums and me

I’m not sure now when I first encountered science capital, but I know it was after the Wellcome Trust had published their Review of Informal Science Learning. In the recommendations it suggested that links between research and practice were strengthened and that working with academics was the only realistic way for practitioners to start to map their impacts on visitors.  Science capital emerged and caused a buzz around the sector…

Here was a concept, backed by robust longitudinal evidence that reaffirmed what we practitioners knew in our guts about science engagement. The more science-related influences and experiences you can gather, in various spheres of your life, the more being ‘at home’ with science becomes part of your identity, and in the current STEM skill-starved job market, the better life chances and choices you are likely to experience.

So that’s how it started for me – a concept that neatly captured the wider learning ecosystem in which museums exist and described the interactions between these different contexts in shaping an individual and their attitudes towards science. What we practitioners felt made a difference did indeed matter.

It made me think about my own ‘capital’. I’ve worked in informal science learning for over a decade. I don’t see myself as a scientist, or even explicitly a science communicator. I’m not even that motivated by the STEM pipeline and STEM skills-gap. So how have I found myself working for a science museum?!

Well, I am passionate about people having a sense of agency over their lives and the world around them. Given recent events, more so than ever I believe that a global society of switched on, engaged and curious citizens will make the world a happier and more sustainable place. Science is a fantastic way of finding out about each other and the world around you. So are the wide and varied Arts – films, music, books, plays and paintings. Aren’t we humans lucky to have such rich and varied culture to draw upon? Like many of my learning colleagues I would like more people to feel able to choose to access these cultural products.

So here I am in Manchester, the world’s first industrial city, in a new post at the Museum of Science and Industry. I’m tasked with unlocking the potential of science capital to build new relationships with audiences, to transform our permanent galleries and broaden the opportunities for a large and diverse audience to be inspired by our mission that: ‘ideas can change the world’.

And I’m going to take some inspiration from that mission myself. The ideas behind science capital are really about social justice and our duty as a public service institution to use our resources wisely and fairly as we change and grow.

It asks us to reflect on what we currently offer and whose needs and motivations we might not be meeting. Science capital can help us understand why we might not be on people’s radar as somewhere to spend their time or feel welcome. It forces us to be more outward looking and to focus on what different audiences might bring with them during a visit. It asks us to view science as a part of wider culture and discover new and intriguing routes to connect with audiences.

Most importantly for me, it encourages us to have positive conversations with new audiences, starting from a position of abundance rather than scarcity – working together to discover how their lives connect to our collection and generate new collaborative narratives. By embedding science capital in our practice I hope that more diverse visitors choose to access and make meaning from our collections and take those experiences with them on a lifelong learning journey.

As we work to embed the ideas that underpin science capital, we ourselves are experimenting.  Going on that journey in partnership with new audiences should be transformative. I hope that in the future science capital encourages us to work in a way where ‘impacts’ are measured more often in both directions; that more people can feel the impact of their visit upon us and that science itself is seen as an open-source cultural resource that we can all participate in.

Ruth Murray, Learning and Participation Manager (Museum of Science and Industry, Manchester)

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