Saturday, March 12, 2011

Hot Stuff

It's been a while since I last posted on the subject of the Peabody fossil halls project, which is not to say that we've been doing nothing - architects have been engaged, designers are being interviewed, and generally the planning process grinds ahead. There's still the question of the money of course.... but let's not dwell on that. Neither will I dwell on the seemingly endless process of figuring out where we will store all the specimens involved, or the amount of space that they will take up (currently estimated at over 4 times the floor area of my house). I am heartily sick of spreadsheets.

On the plus side, however, we do get to do a lot fun stuff as well. Some of this involves figuring out the underlying narrative, which as you may recall is one of changing environments through time. For most people, "environmental change" conjures up images of drowning polar bears and a bald Mount Kilimanjaro, or - if you have an alternative political mindset - no-good socialist tree huggers and their mendacious scientific fellow travellers. Trying to get across the point that global climate is a fluid system that has always been changing is a challenge, not least because one side sees this as a reason why they shouldn't lose any sleep over driving to the mall in their Hummer.

This is why we've been talking to a man called Tony Leiserowitz. Tony is the Director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication. Tony and his co-workers developed the concept of the Six Americas for undertsanding public perceptions of climate change, a fascinating study that should be required reading for anyone working in informal science education, especially in a natural history museum. Among the most interesting facts that I gleaned from the study is that climate change skeptics actually have a better understanding of the Greenhouse Effect than people that are passionate activists for change, who tend to get all confused about ozone holes and aerosols.

Plainly the redesign of our fossil halls with an environmental theme represents a teachable moment for public understanding of climate change. But what do we actually tell them. One school of thought within our group is all for pushing anthropogenic climate change hard - cue pictures of drowning polar bears, dried up lake beds, and the bald Mount Kilimanjaro, together with a strong message about sustainability, recycling, reduction of carbon emissions, Toyata Priuses, etc. Another line of thought runs that we are talking about Earth history and we should actively avoid trying to tackle the future, leaving our visitors to draw their own conclusions from what they've seen.

My sense is that we'll probably chart some sort of middle course. There is no way that one could emerge from our planned fossil galleries without a sense that the Earth has changed over time - in a very real sense the world of the Silurian, for example, was a different planet to the one we live on today, with a different atmosphere, different day lengths, and devoid of almost all terrestrial life. It's a sobering thought that, while Homo sapiens has been around for 200,000 years, the achievements that make us what we are - agriculture, domestication, civilization, technology - have all occurred in the last 10,000 years, a period of great climatic stability. When the climate does change, the impact on civilization can be dramatic - consider the Maya of Central America, the Pueblo cultures of the American Southwest, or the effects of the Little Ice Age in Europe. On a geological scale these changes are no more than blips, but their effects on us have been profound. This is something that we will need to explore and it naturally leads to the question of what will happen to our world given the global warming trend.

So one way forward might be to have visitors add the last chapter of our story themselves, by exploring their world (as represented by New Haven) under a series of different climate scenarios. Trying to show what the world will look like 100 years from now is a tricky exercise. The Museum of London tried to do this in a recent exhibition and attracted considerable flak from an unlikely coaltion of critics including both climate change skeptics and refugee rights advocates (quite an achievement to unite those guys under the same banner). This was understandable, because they were dumb. Showing the Household Cavalry mounted on camels and paddyfields in Parliament square might look cool, but these visions are not based on scientific projections or rooted in reality and because of this they are unconvincing for the bulk of the population.

Making sensible projections is important, not least because the work by Leiserowitz and his colleagues show that museums are still one of the most trusted sources of information on climate change. If we don't want our audience to decamp to Fox News, we need to be careful not to abuse that trust.

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