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On Learning in the Museum, Science Centres as Agents of Change, Toronto Declaration Dissected

In July 2008, at the Fifth Science Centre World Congress (5SCWC), the Toronto Declaration was signed. It is the first internationally joint statement of beliefs and goals for science centres. According to Cristy Crosby from the Ontario Science Centre “it’s a global statement of believers and goals for the science centre community. It’s the first such document to come out of a science centre world congress, setting out six commitments designed to guide regional networks and their members until the next world congress in 2011.”

Lesley Lewis, chair of 5SCWC, president of ASTC and CEO of Ontario Science Centre in Toronto, where the congress was held, said “This is a landmark event […] For the first time, science centers around the world have worked together to issue a collective statement that identifies the issues facing our field globally. Today we have committed to a series of actions that will guide us for the next three years.

But what does it really mean for science centres across the globe?

The Science Centre World Congress has been held every third year since 1996. During the fifth Science Center World Congress, in July 2008, 400 delegates from 51 countries attended.

In opposition to many conferences of its kind in the science centre community 5SCWC’s focus was not on the everyday learning in a science centre, but instead focused on the “bigger issues”, the global politics of science centres and the similarities and differences of problems in science centres around the world. On the agenda you could find things like environmental sustainability, social responsibility and the future of science centres. Nina Simone, writer of the blog Museum 2.0 and visitor at the conference comments it as:

in most sessions, I didn’t learn new things to apply to my own museum practice; instead, I learned new things about what that practice looks like in different countries. […] Casual discussions were steeped in government policies, national literacy rates, and worldwide attitudes towards science.  It was not unusual for a person to pull out a document showing national dropout rates for their country in the middle of a cocktail party

On the 5SCWC webpage we can read about the closing ceremony and the presentation and signing of the Toronto Declaration. It says that “delegates shared expertise and developed common agenda for action”. It also says that the Toronto Declaration talks about global cooperation and the importance of science and science centres in a world that consumes natural resources and sees global environmental challenges. It talks about science centres as a “powerful source for good” and that children who visits science centres see that a change is needed for the future. It specifically mentions the need to understand science to be able to understand problems such as climate change, human health, renewable energies, water shortages and HIV/AIDS.

Behind the Declaration we can find all major international science centre networks:

During the congress the declaration was also signed by many individual science centres, attending the conference, and for those who couldn’t attend there is the possibility to sign it digitally on the 5SCWC webpage.

Contents of the Declaration

According to the 5SCWC blog the thought behind the Toronto Declaration was first concieved at the ECSITE conference in Helsinki in 2005. At a meeting between representatives of ECSITE, ASTC and the Fifth Science Centre World Congress International Program Committee it was decided that the “future World Congresses should result in the identification of an inspirational agenda that would motivate other organizations to view science centres as an important resource on global issues”. It should look at the importance of science centres, investigate important future issues and identify important steps to take over the following years until the next conference.

In the Toronto Declaration we can read that “In 2008, science literacy is as important as other forms of literacy and numeracy. It is also a powerful tool for social inclusion”. It also says that “research shows that science centres demystify science, conveying its beauty, showing its necessity and making it accessible to the general public”. It goes on to tell us about the importance of science centres and locates ten important points.

It says that around the world today, science centres:

From this it deducts six important points to work with over the next three years. Six promises to make if you want to be a part of the process. All who signed the declaration agreed that:

Finally it sets a date to assess what has been done:

At the Sixth Science Centre World Congress, to be held in Cape Town, South Africa in 2011, we shall assess the extent to which we have, as individual institutions and collectively, moved forward on the goals established here.

What this really will mean is still hard to tell, but hopefully we will see the results in 2011.

Who’s Behind, and How Was it Created?

It all began in 2005 at the ECSITE conference in Helsinki. At a meeting with representatives from ECSITE, ASTC and the fifth Science Centre World Congress, the future of Science Centre World Congresses were discussed and a decision was made that future world congresses should result in an inspirational agenda for others to view science centres as important. It should pinpoint significant issues facing science centres around the world and it should be an inspiration for the next three years, until the next conference.

In her presentation of the declaration at the 5SCWC Lesley Lewis especially mentioned five people besides herself for making the first draft of the declaration:

Besides these Lewis mentions the international programming committee and says that there were about 70 other people involved. She continues to say that in her hope for future declarations even more people can be involved. Much of the document, and the 5SCWC webpage, mentions consensus among visitors behind the signing of the declaration, which took place at the end of the congress, but the congress seemed not to have been actively involved in the progress of creating the document. It appears to have been designed beforehand and the congress shaped around it. Many of the speakers talked on subjects in the declaration even though no one seemed to have talked directly about the document. It’s a great step to start the work of a common agenda for science centres around the world, but without engaging people directly in it, will it result in any practical change? Nina Simone talks about the declaration in her blog Museum 2.0 and seems to hold similar opinions:

I would have much more preferred to read the “Toronto declaration” at the beginning of the congress, and use the following days to discuss with the colleagues at the congress and online how can we actually implement the goals that are stated in such a declaration. As it is now, I fear the risk that the declaration will remain a big “pat on the back” for all science centers. It is certainly full of good intentions and great goals. But does it help to really understand the potential and limitations of science centers? Does it really help to ignite the process of working together […]?

Opinions Beyond the Scoop of 5SCWC and What’s Next?

To find external sources and additional information on the Toronto Declaration has been difficult. Many mention the declaration, repeat the words from 5SCWC, and are proud of signing it and to be a part of the process. But it’s almost all quotes from the declaration and links to the original information without putting it in additional content. It doesn’t say what they mean by citing it, and it doesn’t say what it means to them!

Some comments has been raised, most notably Nina Simone in her blog Museum 2.0. She gives us a long view of the declaration from an outside perspective. From her point of view we can read that she worries about it only being words on a paper, forgotten once the conference is over, something she wants to help prevent: “I’m not sure what the global strategy looks like from here or how these goals will be achieved or attempted. I’m concerned that such a strategy may not exist. “Go home and try it” is not going to get us much closer by 2011. Frankly, I don’t see the platform for the extension of the Congress, and in the spirit of dialogue, I’d like to help create a forum for these initiatives and related actions to exist outside the vacuum of international committees.”

I believe Simone is on to something important here. In my opinion we should keep in mind that the 5SCWC’s focus was on the big picture, on CEO:s and international organisations. For the Toronto Declaration to really mean change and aspiration for something bigger each individual science centre which signed the declaration must work hard to root the ideas in their own organisation, and on a larger scale we need to discuss how to root it in the science centre community as a whole. Simone continues: “What is the roadmap for the continuance of the discussion started at the Science Center World Congress? I ask this both to the CEOs and international leaders who led the conference and to those of you who might want to be involved. If museums are really committed to changing the world, we need to move out of conference rooms and plenaries and start working. We need to create some collaborative structures […] for continued dialogue and mutual support. Who’s leading that charge? After all, a declaration is only as good as the revolution that follows it.”

A lot of people and institutions inform the public that they signed the declaration, but I haven’t found anyone who says anything about what it really means for their science centre, nor what the declaration means for the word. Many use the declaration pdf, and many use quotes from the declaration, but without deeper explanation it really doesn’t mean anything.

The words are there, now it’s time for implementation, now it’s time to decide! What does the Toronto Declaration mean for you?


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1 reply to On Learning in the Museum, Science Centres as Agents of Change, Toronto Declaration Dissected

  1. Mariana Back 2009-05-20 13:32

    Hej fil mag Back.
    Jag tycker att detta var en mycket elegant och intressant artikel som jag gärna sprider.
    MVH/ fil mag Back.

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