A Dialogue Between Public and Institutional Ways of Knowing

Reading over the Bandelli article about governance in science centers, I was struck by the call to “expose the epistemological basis of museum exhibitions and programs to the public” (93) and to create opportunities for “dialogue about the societal aspects of current science,” a dialogue which “has the potential to impact the very nature of the epistemological process of the museum” (94). Dialogue calls to mind our discussions about discourse last week and how discourse forms a public. Yet, I’m not sure if this dialogue could impact the existing epistemology of the museum. It seems like the terms of engagement are already set and the public just contributes rather than enacting a fundamental shift.

In Bandelli’s sense, the public feels like a fixed group of people. For example, he writes, “For science centers, sharing the decision-making process with the public and building the necessary mutual trust cannot be achieved without a better understanding of who the public is that will engage in this process” (98). This makes it sound like science centers can know who exactly their public is and then engage with them with that knowledge in mind. But shouldn’t the public always be shifting and changing? Shouldn’t the public decide what constitutes them?

This is a very abstract view, though, and I agree with Bandelli that perhaps the best way to go about knowing the public is to have deep connections with a subset of the population or what he calls “small groups of ‘engaged citizens’ – those who are committed to discuss and participate in the dialogue about science and society” (101). These groups are representatives of a larger public, not quite the science professionals, but a kind of expert. What is unclear though is if these groups of engaged citizens already agree with the epistemology of the science center or if they are able to enact a different worldview. Would a dialogue between this group and the science center lead to a shift in the way science centers operate? Are we as public humanists part of this group of engaged citizens? Or are we the institutional voice? Or do we exist somewhere else in the dialogue or outside of it?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *