Julie Fooshee - Monday, October 26th, 2015
The Association of Science and Technology Centers Conference is an annual meeting of science center and museum professionals, informal educators, and professional development networks from around the world. It’s a great time to meet up with festival partners, as science centers play such a large role in producing these spectacular events. And that’s just what we presented on this year. As the organizer of a conference panel, it’s important to gather just the right people together to thoughtfully address the topic and who can provide different points of view. The great news is, with a network like ours, that’s not hard to find!
Our session was “Go Big or Go Home” and was focused on what it means to put on large scale, large format spectacles. Sometimes at a science center and within a festival, we tend to meet a lot of people that are self-selected science enthusiasts. To reach those audiences that don’t have an already vested interest in science content, you have to capture them in other ways, unexpected ways. Sometimes we do this by popping up in existing cultural and community festivals, but you’re still only reaching certain demographics – namely, festival goers. So what are ways to catch people’s attention? To really grab people where they are and invite them in to what you do. What are the benefits and the pitfalls? How much does it cost?
This is where our panelists come into play. Representing large format spectacles were Todd Boyette from the North Carolina Science Festival, Natalie Ireland from the Manchester Science Festival in the UK, Ellen Trappey from the Philadelphia Science Festival, and Mathieu Latour and Marianne Groulx from the Montreal Eureka Festival. While each festival presented on their own performances and spectacles, I think what’s more important than their individual achievements (though they are impressive) is rather the similar threads that emerged throughout the panel.
1. Your museum has walls, your engagement shouldn’t.
Thinking inside the museum is thinking inside the box. Extend the museum’s mission outside! You can go far into the community by having activities in community venues like having a science of beer night in a brewery. Or you can just utilize the space you have outside your museum in new ways like having a street-front explosion like Ellen talked about Philadelphia Science Festival doing.
2. Experimenting outside of the institution is a great way to assess risk.
When Natalie talked about their science of BMX riding – her museum balked at the suggestion so she took it to a public space. Because of the success of the event, they brought it back to the institution and held it in their outside space.
3a. Big name talent means big name dollars, but people will pay.
Sometimes you can take a risk on big name performers like Todd’s experience with Mythbusters – people want to get close to the performers and will pay big money for the opportunity! It also helps to promote the event from the institution so that people know who brought them there.
3b. But if someone else has cornered that market, engage your local talent instead.
But in big cities, there’s often already a group bringing those people in. Don’t be a copycat – draw on local talent and showcase community scientists. Just because they aren’t on the Daily Show doesn’t mean they aren’t a celebrity in their own right.
4. Spectacle isn’t about how many people show up, it’s about how many people you reach.
While it’s great to put on huge events like Eureka Festival’s Mathieu and Marianne showcased, it’s all about reach. Those events not only drew in a big audience, it spread their name through the community. But, at a smaller event in a prestigious location (weather balloons at the Governor’s mansion) as Todd talked about – only 40 people were there but the media blitz that followed spread their message far and wide.
5. Happenings have to reflect what the audience wants.
Mathieu and Marianne come from Montreal – a city of festivals. When your audience has expectations of arts and culture, you have to give them what they want to get them to show up. It’s good to stand out from others but don’t alienate.
6. Don’t be afraid of going cross-discipline.
Lots of festivals embrace not just being STEM-focused, but bringing in the arts and culture of the city to improve their events. What’s going on in your community? Bring them science to match.
7. Utilise spaces inside and outside the institution that you may not have thought to use before.
Science in the mall? Science at a farmer’s market? Science at a music festival? I’ve seen them all. It might not be a space that you’ve been to before, but that doesn’t mean you can’t do something there. Just like in your museum! Have an outdoor garden? Have a horticulture evening with victory gardeners.
8. Partnerships are the key to success.
Any of the above can create a new, innovative event but you can’t do it alone. Success is achieved by having strong partnerships in your community. With good partnerships you can share risk and reward, you build a strong relationship and you put yourself at the community table. If you aren’t there, people can’t approach you!
It was a great session, with our very talented presenters and great content. The only downside had to be that, as usual, we ran out of time. For more resources about spectacle and events, check out our resources!