June 3, 2016  |  Intern Chronicles
Why So Siloed? Costs and Benefits of Interdisciplinary Approaches in Museums
On the wall at Science Museum, London. Photo: Veena Vijayakumar

On the wall at Science Museum, London. Photo: Veena Vijayakumar

I remember a high school chemistry teacher of mine singing a song about hydrogen and then asking our class to create our own piece (poem, painting, performance, anything) about our favorite element on the periodic table. Needless to say I will not forget the atomic mass of neon anytime soon. This combination of seemingly disparate disciplines not only allowed appreciation for both, but also lent to an enriched experience for us students. Educators work to create multiple entry points for students to connect to a subject in their own personal ways, because a personal connection means greater retention in the future. As informal learning institutions, museums have the potential to experiment with these types of interdisciplinary practices.

In my nine months at MoMA I have been learning to take these approaches, usually reserved for young students, and apply them to adult learners. One of the first programs I worked on was MoMA’s annual Studio program. This past year’s theme was Design Interactions, and the monthlong programming saw inventors, designers, musicians, visual artists, and other professionals come to lead workshops and discuss their practices. These workshops and events brought new visitors to the museum, and it seemed this multidisciplinary approach was a cause.

At the end of April, I set out to Dublin, Ireland, and London, England, to research institutions that are creating similar interdisciplinary exhibitions and programs. While attending the MuseumNext conference in Dublin and meeting museum professionals in London, I focused on how successful these programs were in thoughtfully encouraging visitors to consider a wide range of social topics.

Two institutions that stood out were Dublin’s Science Gallery and London’s Arts Catalyst. The Science Gallery, housed in Trinity College, focuses on science outreach and the intersections between arts and sciences. Their recent Trauma exhibition explored the effects of trauma on an individual’s brain, body, and psyche, then explored how processes like art and storytelling can record and sometimes mitigate those effects. The Arts Catalyst is an organization that commissions art that engages with science in experimental and critical ways. Their recent exhibition Notes from the Field: Commoning Practices in Art and Science presented physical and digital archives of artists who focused on ecological issues or used science and technology in their work to incite social action in their communities. Both the Science Gallery and the Arts Catalyst are using interdisciplinary practices to bring in diverse audiences and address social issues.

From institutions like the Science Gallery and the Arts Catalyst I learned the importance of having specialists on staff—or as contributors—in order to thoughtfully develop and implement programming. Outreach is an important factor as well, to ensure that target audiences are aware of the programming. Lastly, evaluation of these interdisciplinary programs can determine whether they are truly engaging diverse audiences in critical dialogues about social issues, which is important for both the institution and for the field as a whole.

Creating interdisciplinary programming takes great effort and sensitivity, but it has proven successful in various institutions around the world as a strategy for engaging audiences in critical conversations about social issues and beyond.