A couple of weeks ago saw the University of Waikato Open Day. (Acually, two days). There were some fantastic displays set up across the whole univerisity, with some exciting lectures and activities. With a dual-audience of would-be students and members of the public, our displays were meant to be eye-catching and fun, and I thought they were. There were some good whizz-bang displays, and some really great whizz-whizz bang-bang displays and activities. I think nearly everyone had a good time there. (Naturally the Van de Graaff generator was its usual hit…)
However, when the feedback on the day(s) began to roll it, it became apparant that some displays were not as fun as I thought. At least, the audience didn't think so. Too boring. I wonder whether this is because people have come to expect that whizz-bang-interactive-touch-it-yourself-excitement is the normal, basic thing to expect in science displays now. Whizz-bang just doesn't cut it – you need to be double whizz – double bang or you don't get a look-in now.
Is this down to 'interactivity inflation'? When I was very young, the most exciting place in the world to visit was the Natural History Museum in London. Back in the late seventies it wasn't really interactive – that came in slowly – there was lots of stuff in cabinets just to look at. But what it did have was a fossil skeleton of a diplodocus in the main entrance hall (yes, some entrance hall). It didn't move, it didn't grunt (or whatever diplodoci did), it just stood there looking, well, wow! – dinosaur-ish. What more could you want. Further into the museum one found the whale skeleton suspended from the ceiling – again – wow! with the pickled contents of its stomach in a large glass jar. At that time, a large jar of krill in formaldehyde was indeed exciting stuff. I loved it.
Nowadays a jar of long-dead krill is simply silly. Yuck. Have we come to expect too much from our scientific displays? Or is it an example of the current generation's requirement for things that can be instantly double-clicked, shared, downloaded, posted or liked. Whatever, it certainly takes a lot of time and thought to put together something double-whizz double-bang.
And, finally, is WWBB what recruits future students anyway? Sure, it gets their attention. But does it maintain it over several years? I suspect not.
P.S. I've just looked at the Natural History Museum Website. (Obviously a thing that didn't exist when I was 8.) The first thing on it: "Download the UK Tree Identification App." What happened to taking the time to carefully learn different leaf and fruit shapes, bark texture, canopy shape etc? Who cares about that – just let the app do the work…