The Field Museum in Chicago. (Ancheta Wis/Wikimedia Commons)

Midway through the school year, parents and teachers are starting to plan (and fundraise) for winter and spring field trips. Among the most popular destinations is the science museum.

The Association of Science-Technology Centers estimates that 12.1 million children in the United States visited science museums as part of a school group in 2013, accounting for approximately 22 percent of K–12 schoolchildren. Most everyone is happy to go, despite the nearly hundred year political fight over what science to teach in schools. ASTC reports that Americans trust science museums more than any other source to provide honest and accurate information.

Museums are both providers of scientific information and a public service. For a museum to attract visitors, they must enjoy their visit and leave happy. Sometimes when exhibits contradict patrons’ strong beliefs, confrontations arise that leave some people unhappy.

Last June, an article in the Dallas Morning News by Anna Kuchment (who writes the Scientific American blog Budding Scientist) about climate change exhibits in museums around the country revealed how hard it can be to maintain scientific integrity when the biases of donors are known. The temptation for organizational self-censorship in the face of millions of dollars is strong.

But donors are not the only reason for self-censorship. The temptation also arises from the very people who place so much faith in museums: the visitors.


About 12 years ago at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, I was in charge of high school volunteers for the biggest special exhibit of the year, SuperCroc. This enormous, remarkably complete crocodilian fossil was a recent find, and was on display with another new dinosaur from the same habitat. The volunteers’ job was to engage visitors with exciting facts about the creatures and answer questions. Those I directed were part of Project Exploration, a club devoted to inspiring low-income students from underrepresented backgrounds to pursue higher education and science.

The SuperCroc, Sarcosuchus imperator, lived roughly 110 million years ago. (Patrick Janicek/Flickr)

They proved to be fun and friendly teachers, eagerly offering a 110 million-year-old SuperCroc tooth to kids to hold, describing a crocodile-like animal the size of three city buses attacking dinosaurs on the banks of enormous rivers. As an idealistic college freshman, I assumed everyone would be charmed by their enthusiasm and expertise.

Then one day I heard yelling coming from across the exhibit. Weaving between clumps of people towards the noise, I sincerely hoped no student (or fossil) had been damaged. Coming around the two story tall skeleton of Suchomimus, I saw a middle-aged man with a preschooler in a stroller, who was yelling at a 14-year-old volunteer in my group. The student, who didn’t even come up to the man’s shoulder, was one of the most poised and mature of the volunteers and I didn’t believe he could have said something rude. The man saw me coming, shoved the umbrella stroller so hard his child nearly tumbled out, and stomped away. The student was so embarrassed he wouldn’t tell me what had happened until the end of the shift. The man had become angry when he had offered the child the “110-million-year-old tooth.”

No sooner had he walking away fuming than I heard a high, shrill voice speaking angrily around the corner. This time I caught what the woman was saying—nearly shouting—at a cowering sophomore volunteer. She was angry that the student had described the SuperCroc fossils as millions of years old and mentioned evolution to her daughter.

I had never met anyone who sincerely disbelieved in evolution or the scientifically determined age of the Earth. I had no idea what to say, but it was my job to diffuse the situation. After I said simply that we were presenting the best scientific evidence available, the woman huffed and stormed off with her daughter.

I called a huddle and told all my volunteers that if anyone else got angry with them to send them to me, their supervisor. I was terrified of the effect the belligerent patrons would have on their self-confidence as potential scientists.

After our shift was over, I spoke with a few full-time museum employees about the incidents. It turned out there was a tour bus from a community that believes the Earth is only 6,000 years old. The staff told me this occasionally leads to heated interactions in exhibits that contradict the community’s beliefs.

During the three months I worked there, I was astonished to meet, on a weekly basis, patrons who disbelieved the science at our exhibit. The fact that the vast majority of them were perfectly pleasant did not assuage the anxiety raised by the confrontational few.

Arguments are Futile

I recently swapped museum stories with Dr. Matthew Francis, a physicist who was director of his college’s planetarium for a few years. He told me that students in his area were sometimes taught a “creationist checklist” to use at school and museums: “These are questions they were taught to ask in various Sunday school or religious curricula, including ‘Isn't all this just a theory?’ and ‘Doesn't the Big Bang contradict the second law of thermodynamics?’”

Questions based on such enormous misconceptions are immensely frustrating. It is tempting to launch into a technical explanation of the word “theory” in scientific usage, and so on. Responses like this, however, tend to come across as attacks. Research on “motivated reasoning” suggests recounting facts often makes listeners adhere more strongly to their preconceived ideas.

With my student volunteers at the museum, we were able to turn the confrontations into teaching moments by coming up with carefully scripted responses. Usually these involved a brief statement of the scientific reasoning combined with directions to another section of the museum: “Well, this fossil was found in a layer full of organisms dated to 110 million years ago, you can read more about it over there.”

These responses were fairly effective because they were impersonal and aimed to end the conversation if it was getting uncomfortable. When respectful responses don’t work, people are unhappy. Unhappy visitors seem like a failure, especially for volunteers. It is easy to want to avoid any possibility of conflict so that everyone has fun—in other words, it’s tempting to self-censor—but there are better ways to deal with the biases of museum visitors.

Practice is Power

In November, YouTube provided an example of the attitudes and opinions that can flame into confrontation when a fundamentalist Christian filmed herself walking through the Field Museum’s Evolving Planet exhibit and “auditing” it for bias:

The woman who made the video kept her remarks between herself and the camera, but during my time at the museum I saw student volunteers confronted with at least as much vitriol. She makes it clear that no argument is going to win her over. Museum employees need training so they can respond effectively to such highly charged encounters.

According to the ASTC there are no industry-wide guidelines on training for confrontations, although the topic comes up at conferences. Given the dual role of museums to both inform and serve the public, it is important to consider how not to alienate the visitor. If museums are to keep their reputation for scientific integrity, volunteer and employee training is essential to develop the skills that prevent self-censorship. Staff must be master diplomats for science, insisting on the investigative process while respecting those who won’t be convinced.