Nature Talks: Outreach that works

When it comes to delivering content, sometimes presentation is crucial.

We’ve seen this firsthand. Already-good food tastes even better when presented with visual flair. The right teacher, lit up with knowledge and passion, makes practically any subject come alive.

Dynamic delivery has always enhanced the message, however it’s distributed. For a good modern example, just take TED talks. Their tag line is “Ideas worth spreading”. The mission is to deploy “Riveting talks by remarkable people, free to the world” – a goal that would almost certainly fall flat without the “riveting” part.

Visiting different museums I am often struck by which ones are doing “it” well and which ones are not – namely, getting people to care about what’s being presented. A difficult task. Money is always a problem – and then there’s the whole issue of audience.

Should museums dumb things down? Presenting content as entertainment sells more tickets, hopefully. Alternatively, institutions can go high-brow and cultivate support from well-heeled elites. That seems to work fairly well for things like art. It used to work well for classical music, only most symphonies are hurting now too. But history and science seem less able to tap into the patron scene that historically boosted high culture.

High-brow, low-brow or academic, most institutions stand in need of public engagement and what gets called “community”.

It’s a huge challenge and an important one. I worry that catering to indifferent masses is a path to irrelevance. After all, entertainment is a fickle, movable feast. Meanwhile, museums that “go Disneyland” run the risk of alienating their true supporters. Worst of all, some organizations fail both camps by becoming unentertaining and irrelevant.

Disneyland is just a metaphor here – there’s a valid place for making money by providing entertainment. Only making money is not the core mission of real museums. Experts often say differentiation is essential: identify a need, or a niche, and serve the heck out of it. But what if the mission strikes many as…boring?

That vexing dilemma is why it’s interesting to observe who is doing what regarding public engagement, including this venture out of Ottawa.

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Dr. Jordan Mallon was the first speaker in “Nature Talks” – he blogs about the experience here. Image courtesy of Canadian Museum of Nature

The Canadian Museum of Nature is trying out a series of TED-style “Nature Talks”. They are free, though reservations are required. The first one “sold out” – and not everyone who is interested can be there in any case. So the talks are being video taped and provided online, with French subtitles.

Here’s the first talk, from January 15th on “De-extinction: re-thinking forever

Imagine a world where T. rex steak is on the menu and Passenger Pigeons darken the skies once again. Movies such as Jurassic Parkplanted the idea of resurrecting extinct species in the popular imagination, but can we? And if we can, should we?

Palaeontologist Jordan Mallon will guide us through what science is able to achieve in this field, and under what circumstances.

“Rethinking” is the theme. Upcoming talks include: Species Hybridization: Rethinking ExtinctionPlant Intelligence: Rethinking Thinking and Parasites: Rethinking Healthy.

My husband said while I’m on the subject of talks I should give a shoutout to Canada’s Massey Lectures, a long-standing Toronto event that is packaged up into thoughtful late-night radio on CBC. But I’m not sure that falls into what I’m talking about here: ways to spice up museums and such like.

We are told interactive events are essential to attract modern/young audiences. So what would that look like, without “selling out” the mission of knowledge as its own pursuit? Of course, enhancing mission without compromise is something all sorts of organizations grapple with. (Ellen Rocco knows this and is fond of saying the station never rests on its laurels.)

From museums, to local libraries, to public radio, what’s your take on this topic? What’s worth trying to keep old things relevant – or help good things come across even better?

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