PCST Network

Public Communication of Science and Technology


Controversy Inside Out
Museum Visitors' Experiences in a Provocative Exhibit

Daniel Atkinson  

Historically, science museums have developed exhibitions that highlight a particular view of science as objective, unproblematic, without context, separated into disciplines, and supported by a top-down model of knowledge creation (Bradburne, 1998; Delicado, 2009; Janousek, 2000; Pedretti, 2002). However, in recent years a provocative direction has been observed in the development of controversial exhibitions - sometimes referred to as critical exhibitions (Pedretti, 2002). Such displays often approach complex issues in the interface between science, technology, society and environment (STSE) and tend to be emotionally and politically charged due to their subject matter (Pedretti, 2002) or format (Jagger et al., 2012). Borrowing from Hodson's (2013) framework, we understand how the controversy in such exhibitions can be internal to science, when the information required to create an opinion is incomplete, inconclusive, contradictory or extremely difficult to interpret; or external to science, rooted, for example, in potentially conflicting sociocultural, ethical, moral, and/or aesthetic concerns, values and beliefs. In this paper, we present initial findings from an ongoing research project that uses a naturalistic approach to study controversial science exhibitions across Canada. Using a multiple case study methodology (Merriam, 1988; Yin, 1984), we focus here on an individual case related to Animal: Inside Out (Canadian Museum of Nature, Ottawa), an exhibit created by the makers of Body Worlds. This installation creates a provocative environment wherein plastinated cadavers of animals are displayed alongside information related to their anatomy, physiology and ecological circumstances. Initial findings, gathered through interviews, observations, and exit comment cards, suggest that the exhibit generated some internal controversies (most notably conservation issues), but mostly controversies external to the scientific community prompted by the visitors' ethical, moral and emotional responses (e.g. technology- and innovation-oriented issues surrounding the creation of the object displayed, ethics of cadaver acquisition, and educational implications).

A copy of the full paper has not yet been submitted.