Thursday, December 13, 2007

True Informal Learning Needs A Truly Informal Learning Space--Like a Bar

I have been aware for awhile of the innovative adult-oriented informal congregating-while-learning-and-debating space that is the Dana Centre at the Science Museum, London, however, I was not aware that similar places exist here in the States as well until I read Nina Simon's post on why museums should have bars.

And she is absolutely right. I remember at my last job during the process of exhibit master planning and general planning for rebuilding the museum we used to joke about including a bar that would incorporate informal education into its drinks and atmosphere. But it's not joking matter: there is an actual value that can be gained from having a truly relaxed space in which adult visitors can relax, chat, learn and maybe even show-off a little bit of their own knowledge via things like trivia games, spelling bees or even just sharing their own scientific/artistic/literary/historical musings.

Think about the cafes or salons of Paris and New York. Why shouldn't museums provide spaces like those, especially when they seem eager to woo the elusive 20-something and 30-something audiences? Imagine what kind of crowd could be drawn by having a curator's lecture in a bar, or better yet, a stump-the-curator game in a bar?

I've seen first-hand how successful serious museum-oriented discussions can be within the casual and comfortable atmosphere of a bar. Every year the Mountain-Plains Museums Association has one official Late-Nite Bar session. At this most recent conference, the session addressed the question of, "Who needs museums? We have the Internet!" The session was packed and even AAM President Ford Bell contributed his two cents!

Nina talks about how events that happen in a bar are fluid (you can come and go) and are completely focused on the audience (participants) rather than on the facilitators (say, the bartender or the guy running trivia night), but there is another benefit to bar sessions: they level the playing field. In a bar, you are either the bartender or a bar patron. It doesn't matter if you are a vice-president of a company, an intern, a middle manager or unemployed--while you are in the bar, you are all just bar patrons. Bars are places for people to loosen their ties and at least partially hang up their job titles. You can be king for the night if you win a trivia contest, even if by daylight you are at the bottom of the food chain in your organization.

An argument can be made that, even just within the museum environment, people may still be too aware of their stations in life, their relative knowledge or lack thereof to actually be comfortable enough to fully participate. For example, a visitor to an art museum who doesn't know a lot about art might be too shy to ask a docent a question about a particular painting or artist. However, that same visitor might be fearless in the context of a bar and feel free and comfortable enough to ask his/her neighbor at the bar. Museums are all about informal learning, but this can be tricky when museums often still feel like such formal spaces. Nina's right: museums need bars.

And speaking of neat, new, experimental, interdisciplinary spaces, Le Laboratoire has opened in Paris. It is a laboratory that "promotes the links between art and science." "While similar to MIT's Media Lab and the Wellcome Trust in London, Le Laboratoire is 'a scientific structure that accepts doubt about scientific progress' while also providing 'a place for experimentation.'"

Other informal settings for discussion:
Cafe Scientifique in Denver
Secret Science Club in Brooklyn (whoops! thanks for the correction, Michael!)


Michael C said...

Great post!
I have very small correction...the Secret Science Club is in Brooklyn, not Boston.
If you're in NYC, please let us know and we'll shout you.
Secret Science Club

Allyson Lazar said...

Awesome, thank you, Michael!