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Art Inquisition: Is Climate Change a Bummer?

Amid the hubbub of their grand opening, the Perot Museum of Nature and Science lost part of one of their displays.

On climate change.

And their grand opening was in 2012.

The still-missing panel, titled “Changing Climate,” states that “Volcanic eruptions and burning fossil fuels increase the amount of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere. This warms the Earth and can cause sea levels to rise and climates to change.” A caption adds, “Humans have altered Earth’s climate by burning coal and other fossil fuels that release carbon dioxide.”

Deborah Olstein of Amaze Design was interviewed last month about her contribution to the design of five new halls for the Perot Museum. As a part of the interview, she sent an example that was found absent from the current exhibit. Amaze then sent Steve Hinkley, vice president of programs at the Perot Museum, notification of the omission. (Read Anna Kuchment’s article in The Dallas Morning News for the full story.)

A temporary panel has been ordered to take its place, but why was the original omitted in the first place? Hinkley has learned that it was improperly designed to fit the space, but I still wonder how nobody noticed a hole in the exhibit until now.

But why do I care in an artistic context? Because exhibit design is awesome! And hard.

How do you explain a science to literally anyone who happens to walk by, in a way that is engaging, memorable and educational? What’s going to be of interest to a family of tourists wandering past with a cranky toddler squirming out of her stroller, a bored pre-teen engrossed in his phone, a hyper eight year old who inadvertently injures himself on nearly any exposed surface, and exhausted parents trying to herd everyone along without leaving Grandma behind?

What sort of design do you start with? How much text, how many pictures? What can be put on physical display and what needs to be represented in another way? What do you leave in and what do you offer elsewhere? How does the supplementary information get disseminated? How does the design of your structure fit in with the rest of the museum? How will people move through the space without overcrowding or getting “stuck”? Will you offer interactive elements? How durable do they need to be? How much can you simplify the information and still have it be truthful and valuable? AND WHO’S GONNA BUILD AN AWESOME THING LIKE THIS?

So you make this fantastic, eduational project, and someone decides to just… leave part out. Because of reasons.


Though major donors to the Perot Museum include ExxonMobil and a foundation started by the founder of Chief Oil & Gas, Hinkley states that neither the museum’s donors nor its board of directors has any say in museum content, nor have they expressed opposition to the display of information about climate change. And some museums acknowledge the difficulty of presenting such “bummer topics” in a way that opens minds to learning rather than keeping them firmly closed.

“We don’t need people to come in here and reject us,” said Carolyn Sumners, vice president for astronomy and the physical sciences at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. But in her article, Kuchment notes that studies including this one have shown that when science museums tackle controversial topics head-on, they boost their credibility even more.

In a 2010 survey, 73 percent of museum visitors said that they would like to learn more about climate change and that they trusted informal science institutions more than any other source to provide that information. Project director Anthony Leiserowitz says that “[t]he fact that many [museums] were being intimidated into silence was doing a big disservice to many visitors, who were coming to them as a trusted source.”

So what do you think? Should museums stick to the popular flash of dinosaurs and comets, ignoring our presence and influence on the world? Was the Perot Museum right to leave this omission unaddressed until someone noticed? Where did that panel end up, and how should the museum handle the replacement? What would you think if this was your local museum? Do you consider museums to be a credible source for information, or do you need to be skeptical of their outside influences? Are museums too hesitant to make statements about “bummer” topics like climate change? How can museums best discover what their patrons want to learn about? 

The Art Inquisition (or AI) is a question posed to you, the Mad Art Lab community. It appears on random days at 3pm ET…because NOBODY EXPECTS THE ARTIST INQUISITION!

Featured image by David Baird and licensed for reuse CC BY-SA 2.0. (via)

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Beth Voigt

Beth Voigt

Beth is a graphic designer in Chicago, a superhero in her own mind, and absolutely nothing on TV. She wrangles fonts professionally, pummels code amateurishly, and has been known to shove fire in her face for fun. Fond of volunteering, late-night bursts of productivity, and making snacks, she dislikes grocery shopping and public transit and is still on her first smartphone. Her opinion is that you should try everything twice; if you don't like it, you were probably doing it wrong the first time around.

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