Thursday, July 26, 2007

Climate Change at the Deutsches Museum

The Deutsches Museum currently addresses the environment and climate change through a permanent exhibition, a linked school program, and extensive website. One of the first things in the exhibition is a huge graph of population vs. date, which sets the stage for how quickly things are changing.

The exhibition occupies roughly 1,000 sq m and covers a combination of science, impact, and mitigation – the approach advocated by the International Panel on Climate Change and reflected in the structure of its working groups. The exhibition covers a lot of ground, including measurement of environmental variables, population growth, the greenhouse effect, recycling, changes in weather patterns, eco-friendly buildings, CO2, alternative energy, energy-saving appliances, and much more. The exhibition comprises a series of text and graphic panels, with a computer challenge and a few push-button demonstrations. The science shown is relatively well established, and the panels are in both German and English.

As described by the staff members involved in the development of the exhibition, the exhibition is encyclopedic. By covering a wide variety of topics in great depth, I observed that many visitors seem overwhelmed by the sheer amount of information displayed. It took me nearly an hour to read and absorb about ¼ of the exhibition. I saw many family visitors browsing for a few minutes and moving on to another gallery.

School groups in Germany study the environment in detail starting in the 7th grade. Schools can sign up for a guided program lasting 90 to 120 minutes, which typically includes 45 minutes of presentation (educator talking, children sitting on the floor in the gallery) followed by 45 minutes or so with groups of 4-5 students using the exhibition text to answer questions listed on a worksheet. At the end, students report out to the group so that in principle, everyone gets to hear answers to all questions.

Students at this age are naturally somewhat reticent to report out to their peers, so that the instructor often completes the answers so all students can hear them fully. A role-play post-visit activity is available for teachers wanting to follow up their visit with more depth. This program is fairly new, and about 900 students have done the program since the beginning of 2007.

By the time students have been thru the scientific basis and the impacts sections of the presentation, there is often not enough time or enthusiasm left for the final step, i.e. what actions can a person take to reduce their impact on global warming. Staff find that it’s a difficult topic for many students to get engaged in.
This exhibition provides a wealth of information for visitors who want to take the time to read it. The exhibition also points out the many challenges that museums face in bringing the issue of glabal warming to the public.
  • To provide the scientific foundation for global warming, it takes a lot of words.
  • Many people are reluctant to engage, where the message is not particularly positive.
  • It is not a simple task to generate hands-on exhibits that help visitors to engage in the topic.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Global Warming at Museums in Munich

Surveys indicate that museums are at the top of the heap when it comes to public trust. In comparison with almost all other institutions and professions, such as medicine, law, the media, scientists, politicians, etc., museums stand out in the public mind as places where you can count on getting solid, accurate information.

This places a burden on us, however, to preserve and foster this trust. So when it comes to global warming, museums have a dilemma. At the Deutsches Museum, the largest museum in Germany and ueber-well respected internationally by virtue of its strong exhibitions and scholarly research over the past century, it was a difficult choice as to how to present the issue of global warming.

Some options considered were: Avoid the topic as still somewhat uncertain? Provide just the science to date? Advocate action in everyday life to build awareness and reduce the impacts?

After considerable internal debate, the Deutsches Museum decided to side with the IPCC’s findings – the UNESCO-sponsored International Panel on Climate Change - which is made up of many scientists, policy makers, and others. For nearly two decades, the IPCC has worked to provide the current information on global warming. Three working groups focus on: 1) the scientific basis for global warming, 2) the impacts to society of global warming, and 3) mitigation measures. In a series of increasingly strong reports, the IPCC has taken an unequivocal position that global warming is happening, that humans are the cause, and that we must act now to avoid catastrophic in our own lifetime. Here is a dramatic graph of world population over time near the entrance to the gallery.

In its Environment gallery, the Deutsches Museum has approximately 1,000 sq m of predominantly panel displays with a detailed treatment of the causes of global warming and what everyone can do about it. Students in grades 7-10 can take part in special 90-120 minute programs on global warming in this galley, as shown in the picture.

Another science museum in Munich, the Museum of Mankind and Nature, just opened a new special exhibition last Friday (July 23) called “Climate Protection: Everyone Can!” This exhibition was created by the Bavarian State Consumer Protection agency and funded by the Bavarian Ministry for Environment, Health, and Consumer Protection. In comparison with the permanent exhibition at the Deutsches Museum, this new exhibition bypasses most of the science behind global warming and goes straight to the bottom line, strongly advocating a series of actions that consumers should take now, such as eating locally grown foods, driving less, and buying energy efficient appliances. The exhibition is also panel-based, with doors on the panels providing additional text. There is also a TV exhibit with a long video clip and a computer quiz station, plus free literature and a visitor comment book.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Science Museums and Science Centers

On Saturday, our department at the museum had their “Betriebs- ausflug” or organizational field trip. This is an annual affair, often to some nearby place of interest, with a tour, lunch, hike, and plenty of time to get to know co-workers. Our trip was to Oberammergau (see pictures), an amazingly picturesque Bavarian town known world-wide for wood carving and their production of the passion play, which takes place for an entire year once each decade (next production in 2010).

I had many interesting conversations with staff members and researchers working on a wide variety of historical topics ranging from educational philosophy to the impacts of agricultural technology to how the Nazis sponsored developments in loud speaker technology to promote their propaganda efforts.

The first activity of the day was a visit to the Oberammergau Heimat Museum. Heimat museums are common, and depict history and everyday live associated with an area. The one here had a remarkable collection of carved figures like this wandering woodcarver and Christmas crèches (one had been developed by many carvers over a period of 100+ years and included over 200 individual figures), wood carvings, rooms depicting the lives of different classes of people, etc. Later, the group hiked to a monestary in Ettal, the next town. The church there was exquisitely decorated, you can see.

In conversations about museums, you quickly get the sense of an interesting distinction here in Germany between science museums and science centers. As a civil engineer who switched careers into the museum field, I hadn’t been very aware in the U.S. of tension between these two flavors of institutions, which is however quite evident here.

In the U.S., organizations such as the Institute of Museum and Library Services and our American Association of Museums may have a check-off box on their applications along the lines of: Are you a “collecting” or “non-collecting” museum? To the casual observer, that’s about it. Our “collecting” museums often create interactive exhibitions just as do science centers, and in the U.S., you will hear the terms “science museum” and science center” uttered in the same sentence, pretty much interchangeably. The Association of Science-Technology Centers includes both museums and centers and doesn’t seem to make much of a distinction between the two, as far as I can tell.

Here, however, many people have mentioned that issues of funding, audience, and educational goals come into play. Museums preserve important historical objects and have a long history of state support. On the other hand, science centers do not (typically) collect objects of historical significance but compete for funding with museums. The audiences can differ, with museums attracting older audiences who are more likely to read labels and appreciate the historical significance of their objects, while science centers attract younger, family groups which, in general, may be more interested in hands-on, family experiences of a more immediate (and less historical and scholarly) nature.

The exhibition goals of a museum are often closely connected with the academic interests of the curators – what they select for display and how – while in a science center the goals may have more to do with what will attract and engage children and families. Both naturally share a dependence on special funding for their exhibition projects, but an exhibition in a "museum" might have more text and wall panels with information, as opposed to a science center, which might focus more on hands-on interactives in their approach to a topic.

Of course, there in reality a mix, and museums do include some hands-on interactive exhibits, and science centers may include some historical or non-interactive collected objects. But people do make the distinction.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Deutsches Museum 2: Foucault Pendulum

I often have lunch with other museum guest researchers here at the Deutsches Museum. We usually wander across the river to the well-stocked cafeteria of the European Patent Office. The air conditioning is a bonus, and you can sit by a street-side window and watch Munich happening outside.

Recently, I had lunch with Ivo, an historian of mathematics, who told me that when he was 12, he visited the Deutsches Museum and couldn’t believe how slowly the Foucault Pendulum moved. So he did what any normal American boy might do (but which Germans would never dream of doing) - he climbed under the rope barrier to experiment with the swing of the pendulum. Problem was, he ended up breaking thingie with the little flip markers that record the movement of the Earth, which you can see in the third picture below.

Evidently he got into more than a little trouble and was hauled off to meet with the director himself. Now, more than 50 years later and retired, he still comes to the museum regularly to do historical research on mathematicians. My curiously whetted, I went right into the museum after lunch to check out the Foucault Pendulum exhibit for myself.

Ivo was definitely right, because I could also hardly believe how long its period (swing) was. So I timed 5 swings with my watch (which took almost a minute and a half). I did the math and came up with 60.01 m for the length of the pendulum. Sir Isaac would have been proud; when I checked the exhibit label, it reported the pendulum as 60 m long…

On a difference topic... there is much history nearby. The famous Hofbrauhaus is not far away, and across the street is the Munich Hard Rock Cafe. While every Hard Rock is decorated with dozens of objects of Rock and Roll history, I'm not sure how many can sport this guitar, which is made of a chunk of steel-reinforced concrete from the Berlin Wall.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Deutsches Museum - 1

The Deutsches Museum is huge. Really big. They say you would need to walk 16 km to see the whole thing, and even if you tried to see it all and spent even a few seconds at each labeled exhibit, it would take you more than 8 hours.

We’re talking about huge stuff and lots of it. Today, for example, I counted 32 different airplane engines, 31 props, and I lost track after 40 different aircraft on several floors. There’s a full-sized V-2 rocket (complete with a picture of a town unlucky enough to have been hit by one during WWII), 4 helicopters, gliders, models… you get the picture.

I was particularly impressed by the steam engines of James Watt and others. These things, which were initially used to pump water from mines, are simply amazing to see in the flesh. Other favorite exhibits inside include a water gallery, children’s interactive gallery, and a chemistry area with dozens of push-button chemical reaction exhibits that demonstrate analysis, synthesis, biochemistry, and more.

There is also a gallery devoted to climate change and the environment, which I’ll describe later.

Outside in the entrance courtyard are several rides, including a small simulator and a ferris-wheel like machine (see photo) that gives one a great view from several stories up. There are other outdoor exhibits such as a human sundial (yours truly as gnomen) and the Sun station of a 4.6-km planet model (gold sphere).

Thursday, July 19, 2007

92 Nights at the Museum

The past several days have been pretty well consumed with getting set up. I suspect that by now, you’ve probably heard of the movie “Night at the Museum.” I am now living in a wonderful little one-room apartment reserved for guests of the Deutsches Museum here in Munich. I look out over the Isar River, which is all of about 30 m from my window and flows northeast thru Munich. My commute takes about 30 seconds, through a pair of heavy glass doors down a hallway with a work room for guest researchers where I have a desk and the Internet. My window here is on the same side of the long, narrow museum building.

Every morning, I have the pleasure of watching groups of happy school children from the second-floor windows in either my apartment or my office as they noisily (and always joyfully) walk with anticipation toward the museum entrance. The smaller children usually are holding hands in pairs. I can’t help but look at this daily sight as a poignant reminder of why we do what we do in the museum field.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Arrival in Munich

My flight from Ithaca, New York to Munich was pretty routine. Except for the late departure from Philly – US Air said that the tailwinds were so strong that if we took off on time, we would arrive too early. Definitely first time I’ve heard that one.

The Munich airport was strangely quiet. Not a soul waiting at any of the 8 or so passport control windows – I wasn’t sure if I was in the right place, but the guy did stamp my passport and grunt at me to move on. No one was on the escalators to the baggage claim area. My luggage was already waiting on the belt when I got there, and nothing was lost. I was waiting for the other shoe to drop when our good friend Norbert arrived with a little trailer to carry the suitcases and 3 computer boxes containing 3 months worth of stuff. Above is where the first lunch took place.
It was cold outside – only 12 degrees – and rainy. And smoky. It ’s often hard to find a public place with clean air here.

Upon arrival at home, the first order of business was to sit me down with a good glass of Weissbier (wheat beer). I don’t know why we can’t brew a good wheat beer in the U.S., but the best I’ve ever had in the U.S. can’t hold a candle to even a run-of-the-brewery Bavarian Weissbier.

After a traditional Bavarian lunch of various cold cuts, cheeses, home-made jams, and half a dozen types of very hearty, whole wheat breads and rolls that seemed so healthy they almost made up for the cheese and meat I eagerly consumed after a night without food on the plane.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Survey on Sustainability at Science Centers (mostly U.S.)

To form a base of comparison for observations about European Museums, I decided on a simple survey. I was fortunate in that Bonnie VanDorn, executive director of the Association of Science-Technology Centers, granted me some time at the April planning retreat in Chicago to describe my planned study and poll the 24 individuals present about what they were doing at their own home museums related to sustainability. This rather small and non-representative sample of 24 represents about 5% of the ASTC membership and is made up primarily of large museums having the resources to send their director to ASTC’s annual planning retreat.

Interestingly, a common verbal response from other directors polled was simply that they wished their own museum would give them a sabbatical leave as mine had. Coming from the academic world, sabbaticals are fairly normal; however, in the museum world, they are unfortunately rare and I know of only a handful of other museums whose directors have been granted a sabbatical.

My survey was informal and intentionally included mostly U.S. science centers (with a few others from around the world). The results indicated that most museums already had one or more exhibits and programs that treat the environment:

· 40% had static exhibits on the environment
· 88% had interactive exhibits
· 100% had educational programs

Regarding the types of environmental information presented to their audiences:

· 76% provide information on the environment
· 80% promote awareness of environmental issues
· 40% take an advocacy role

In addition, 58% indicated that they employ one or more green practices in operating their museum.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Finding Museums to Visit

When I proposed to the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation in Bonn earlier this year to undertake a study of how European science museums portray environmental issues to their audiences, I had envisioned a relatively straightforward approach that included selecting a dozen of the most well-known museums and arranging a fact-finding visit to each, starting from a base at the Deutsches Museum in Munich and taking 3 big loops over 3 months.

Selecting the museums for my proposal was fairly simple – I went to the online ASTC museum membership roster and picked a dozen museums I thought I could reasonable get to in 3 months.

But as is usually the case, it wasn’t that simple. Many science museums in Europe are not ASTC members, and many European museums doing good work on environmental topics are not “science centers.”

Several individuals have been extremely helpful in making sense of the European museum landscape. Walter Staveloz at ASTC in Washington, Ulrich Kernbach at the Deutsches Museum in Munich, Erik Jacquemyn of Technopolis in Belgium, plus many others, have collectively helped me learn more about European science-technology museums. Thanks to each of you!

I'm am eager to learn more about which European museums are doing the best work in public education on the topic of sustainability and climate change. Your comments are welcome – please send me email:

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Renewable Electrical Energy from Wind

Brian, our business manager at the museum, keeps a monthly eagle-eye on our energy use. For some time, he had been looking into a possible move to sustainable electrical energy through a program called “Catch the Wind” at New York State Electric and Gas, our local utility.

First, we started with a trial deal, paying a small premium on our electric bill to purchase 5% of our power from wind sources. It was great to be able to say we were buying at least a little renewable energy, but then we began to think, “Why not go 100%?” The extra cost would be about 20% of our annual $25,000 electric bill.

We hoped that, because of the museum’s visibility in our community, this move to 100% renewable power might encourage others do the same thing. We signed up and were amazed with the response.

We learned that we were the first facility in our region to go to 100% wind. A lead editorial in The Ithaca Journal, our local paper, used the opportunity to push for environmental awareness and encouraged others to go follow our lead.

Hester, our public relations manager, designed a wonderful “Powered by Wind” sticker, which we have put above all our wall sockets and light switches to remind visitors and staff of our investment and to encourage them to do the same thing at home. (Yes, I did it - for US $7.50 extra per month I now get 100% wind power at home).

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Our Sustainability Activities Thru June 2007

It’s taken me far too long to learn that the more say our individual museum staff have in developing their own work plans, the more creative an organization we become.

And while it sounded like the right thing to become more “sustainability” focused, we soon learned that the topic is so broad that we’ll never be able address all the issues we think are important. Taking the easy way out, I decided to go with the knowledge and interests of our staff and volunteers and assume that the right issues would emerge.

The process does work. We’ve had lots of creative suggestions on what to do. Alexis, an educator who runs our summer camp program, was concerned about the amount of paper plates, cups, and plastic silverware we were tossing out after each staff lunch or other event with food. The solution was right across the street at a restaurant supply store for under $300. We bought plastic dishes and cups, and stainless silverware. Each time we use this stuff now, we get the satisfaction of knowing that we are saving our landfill from a few more disposables.