[Big Ideas 003] Role of Museums in Education & Science vs. Religion

Context: This article is part of the Big Ideas series, where I synthesize takeaways from interviews by Discovery Magazine with the world’s best experts in multiple disciplines. This series is inspired by Peter Kaufman’s take on the multidisciplinary approach to thinking. Peter spent 6 months reading 140+ of these interviews, and came out knowing “every single big idea from every single domain of science”. I wrote more about Peter’s insightful ideas in this article.

Credit: Special thanks to ValueInvestingWorld for compiling the interviews in a single PDF here.

Former Head of Chicago’s Field Museum John McCarter

John McCarter is the CEO & president of the Chicago Field Museum. He “oversees the work of 200 scientists” on diverse research topics from protecting endangered tropical environments, to molecular evolution. He is also “one of the leading critics of the intelligent design movement (that argues life is created by an intelligent cause, or God)” and “an outspoken proponent of teaching modern evolutionary theory to all students.” Read the original interview in the May 2006 issue of Discover magazine here.

Why it’s hard to sustain kids’ interest in science

McCarter thinks there are two challenges to science education:

First, “kids get turned off to science at some point—fifth grade, sixth grade, seventh grade —when science is perceived as too hard and too complicated.” He proposes counteracting the problem “by telling stories”:

We try to make the museum experience telling enough that it becomes a conversation with families over the dinner table two nights later.

John McCarter

Second, it’s hard to attract or sustain attention amidst the “competition for time” in the digital age:

Two comedians with light talk on CBS and NBC had 80 percent of the market in that time slot…yet only 2 percent of the population is listening to NPR (National Public Radio). I think institutions like this don’t have a crack at people’s attention and time, so you have to be really good at delivering messages or explaining controversies in a way that sticks in people’s minds.

John McCarter

Museums in the science vs. religion debate

Shortly before the interview with McCarter took place, the Chicago Field Museum launched an exhibit – Evolving Planet – in March 2006. It showcased the 4-billion-year evolutionary journey of life on Earth.

McCarter shares the Evolving Planet exhibit was motivated by a dissatisfaction with current exhibits on evolution “constructed in such a way that visitors rushed through to get to the dinosaurs”.

Yet, he was also challenged on whether this exhibit was intended to promote the evolutionary perspective (that he is a strong advocate of):

Interviewer
What is the harm in telling the other story (of religious narrative)?
* * *
John McCarter
I don’t think there is any harm, as long as it is not posed as a scientific alternative to the story of evolution.

McCarter believes religion itself has undergone a shift:

The mainstream theological community is already way beyond the literal interpretation of the biblical accounts of Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden and seven days of creation. Instead, they are saying that those are wonderful stories, created 2,000 years ago by people who were trying to explain their world, not that they are scientific fact.

John McCarter

For McCarter, the key issues in theology worth focusing our attention on are “applied morality of behavior and guidance”.

McCarter shares that the population that visit museums are skewed to have a higher % of those who subscribe to the evolution theory (instead of religious explanations on intelligent creation). He cites ~50% of the US public accepts the evolution theory, but this number has grown to 75% amidst museum-goers.

“And for those people who don’t accept it (evolution theory), the exhibit may enable the families to have a discussion about what their 15-year-old saw and how that fits into the overall faith of the family. We are not against religion. We are very supportive of religions and religious institutions. Much of this museum is a celebration of the impact of religion on cultures. But we do that in anthropology. We don’t do that in paleontology.”

Museum as a powerful storytelling platform

I particularly like this Q&A snippet in the interview:

Interviewer
It seems museums have switched from being repositories of artifacts and information and history to being advocates for a specific viewpoint?
* * *
John McCarter
I don’t think I’d call it advocacy…I call it storytelling…You would see an object, but there was no contextual story around that object. What we are doing now is using the artifacts to tell a story.

Museums don’t just lay out facts – they use facts to present a story, a narrative. Museums could be another powerful form of storytelling or propaganda.

Stay tuned for more articles in the “Big Idea” series! And please share interesting “big ideas” by reaching me at fullybookedclub.blog@gmail.com or on LinkedIn.

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