Berlin was the second to last stop on the 5-week itinerary, selected because it is where the European Citizen Science Association (ECSA) is based. ECSA is currently hosted by the Museum of Natural History – a venerable institution established in 1810. The world of citizen science is moving incredibly rapidly – an inaugural conference has just taken place in Denmark with its newly-formed citizen science association, while the stack of papers and reports in my optimistically labelled citizen science ‘to read’ list grows. Topics include project development and delivery, evaluation methodology, approaches to design, technological innovations, expansion and applications into social/health fields, ethical considerations and more…).
Evaluation in a museum context
While based at the Berlin Natural History Museum, I met with Volker Schönert who researches visitor demographics, interactions and experiences of the museum and specialist exhibitions. Methods include targeting a cross-section of visitors as they leave the museum. Visitors are given a tablet on which to complete a digital survey. Questions are mainly multi-choice and Likert-type scales (i.e. from not true to very true) with open ended questions centring on what they liked/disliked and would enjoy seeing more or less of.
A different approach was used for the special Artefacts exhibition (a temporary display). Focus groups were developed comprising diverse visitors (families, individuals of different, ages, cultures and education levels). Exhibition visitors are presented with richly textured and colourful photographs situated on the exterior of a standalone pod. At first glance each backlit image appears to be an abstract work of art. On closer inspection, each reveals a scene of major environmental degradation: a close-up of a Barbie-pink watery mass is actually hog farm faecal matter, the colour resulting from hormones and antibiotics added to their daily feed. Interpretation is provided inside each pod. The novel content and contemporary design signal the desire to find alternative ways of presenting material as well as the nature and content of material presented. The artefacts exhibition raises visitor awareness of global issues and each viewers’ place within the production – consumption – waste generation chain. Ultimately, the exhibition asks viewers to consider their own ecological footprint which personal practices can be adopted as mitigation measures.
While visitor expectations of what they will experience in museums are changing, increasing specialization across professions has narrowed visitors’ frame of reference. In contrast, the research of Humboldt (1769 – 1859) and Darwin (1809 – 1882) ranged across many fields including botany, zoology, taxonomy and geology.
Future studies aim to investigate the views and experiences of non-museum visitors. This will help shape communications, exhibition content and design to encourage even more diverse audiences to visit the museum.
What difference does the research make?
The theme of quantifying and qualifying research impact was also raised during discussions in the UK (see blog post here). It is timely that the NZ Ministry for Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) has just released a Position Paper that presents a ‘results chain’ framework for measuring research impact to move beyond output reporting. Despite being oriented toward science institutions, there are obvious applications to citizen science. Here, not only to measure science impacts but wider e.g., educational objectives (such as increasing participants’ scientific and ecological literacy).
In the Position Paper, engagement is writ large across each stage of the research journey – from inputs and activities through to outputs, outcomes and finally, impact. Impact is described by MBIE as ‘A change to the economy, society or environment, beyond contribution to knowledge and skills in research organisations’.
A challenge lies with the term ‘engagement’ often used as a catch-all term ranging from simply informing to fully integrated participation and resulting empowerment (see IAP2 table). Meaningful engagement requires specific skills, time and cost. Engagement requires embedding within the project in order to build a foundation for research impacts to occur beyond stated project outcomes. Although the Paper’s focus lies on evaluating impact, evaluation firstly of engagement efficacy is needed to build a foundation for subsequent evaluation of impact.
The Natural History museum
It was a privilege to stay amid such a vast historical collection. On show are artefacts collected by scientific luminaries including Alexander von Humboldt. The minerals display showcases over 1000 intriguingly shaped and coloured items. This year marks the 250y celebration of Humboldt’s contributions to knowledge building – he was a Berlin native. He believed that science should be open and freely shared despite the messy politics that plagued Europe throughout his lifetime (see the excellent Invention of Nature, Wulf. A., 2015)
Of interest is the display of biodiversity – a extravaganza of taxidermy and model-making in a series of tall vitrines. The tableau of textures and shapes is mesmerising – another Wunderkammer of ‘naturalia’ grouped by taxa. There are around 3000 species in the display – a fraction of the museum’s collection. Although research is carried out behind the scenes at the museum by c. 200 scientists, putting science on display as well as engaging schools and the wider public in science is an increasing focus (as with the Artefacts exhibition).
Later in October, the Museum will promote citizen science to the public with a series of displays showing projects underway (both environmental and social) and ways the public can become involved.