Episode 78

78. How Museums Present Public Health with Raven Forest Fruscalzo

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About this Episode

Museums across the globe are now closed because of Covid-19. Some of those shuttered galleries presented the science behind outbreaks like the one we’re living through.

As Raven Forrest Fruscalzo, Content Developer at the Field Museum in Chicago and host of the Tiny Vampires Podcast points out, the fact that museums are closed is an important statement: they trust the scientific information.

In this episode, Forrest Fruscalzo discusses the people that make up public health, how museums can be a trusted source of public health information, and examples of museum galleries that incorporate public health.

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Museum Archipelago is a tiny show guiding you through the rocky landscape of museums. Subscribe to the podcast via Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, or even email to never miss an episode.

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Below is a transcript of Museum Archipelago episode 78. Museum Archipelago is produced for the ear and the only the audio of the episode is canonical. For more information on the people and ideas in the episode, refer to the links above.

A few months ago, before reports of a new form of coronavirus now known as COVID-19 started appearing in the news, I visited an exhibit called Outbreak: Epidemics in a Connected World at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.

The exhibit laid out the coordinated detective work that public health workers and many other professionals do as they identify and respond to infectious diseases, such as HIV/AIDS, Ebola virus, and influenza. There was even a touchscreen game that invited me to work cooperatively with other visitors to contain an outbreak before it spread further.

Raven Forrest Fruscalzo: So the funny thing about public health and a lot of the scientists that contribute to the knowledge that public health workers use, is that if you're doing everything right, nobody realizes that you're doing it right. It's the opposite of a glamorous job.

This is Raven Forest Fruscalzo, a professional science communicator and writer who works as a content developer and production assistant at the Field Museum in Chicago, and hosts the excellent science podcast, Tiny Vampires.

Raven Forrest Fruscalzo: Hello, my name is Raven Forrest Fruscalzo, I am the host of the Tiny Vampires podcast and my day job is at the Field Museum here in Chicago. So public health is a little bit of a complicated thing because there are a lot of people who do public health that maybe people don't consider them to be public health workers.

Forest Fruscalzo lays out three broad groups of people working in public health: scientists, public health workers, and clinicians. The scientists generate new knowledge, the public health workers apply that knowledge by creating plans to prevent disease and increase access to treatment, and clinicians carry those plans out by directly treating people.

Raven Forrest Fruscalzo: As a science communicator, I think one of the issues between scientists or health workers and the public is this thing that we say insights, communication called the information deficit hypothesis, which is basically we're assuming that people don't know things and if only we could just give them the information, then they would know and understand. Using that model, which is basically how most science has been communicated in the past. It causes a lack of trust because it's kind of this assumption that on a scientist's standpoint that other people are ignorant and we decide what information they need. That has created this massive rift of this massive trust issue because the public doesn't trust the scientists because the scientists are assuming that they're ignorant and the scientists are not trusting the public to understand. With healthcare in particular, there's a lot of emotions, people are afraid of getting sick and they also have a lot of their own personal experiences that they're trying to incorporate into what public health officials are telling them.

And this is where museums come in.

Raven Forrest Fruscalzo: So museums, which I think is something that you've talked to a lot of on your show about is that they have a lot of trust, their credibility is really high. There's a lot of information out there about disease and different public health aspects that are kind of all over the place. For example, burning a tick with a match. So when you have an exhibit about why it's important to remove a tick with forceps or tweezers instead of burning it with a match, if a public health worker tells them that they might be skeptical about it. This is the way that my family has been doing it for years and years. Whereas with a museum they have that credibility and they have that ability to show in more detail and in a lot of different ways why that's important. People will take that information and internalize it more than with an organization that they might not trust as much. A lot of museums are starting to do exhibits that not only incorporate what we know, but also how we learned what we know. And that really increases people's trust in that information.

One of the advantage of presentations of public health within a museums is simply the context.

Raven Forrest Fruscalzo: A lot of museums are starting to do exhibits that not only incorporate what we know, but also how we learned what we know. And that really increases people's trust in that information.Because if I just tell you a fact, you might be skeptical, you should be skeptical and want to look into that deeper. But if I tell you a fact and then explain to you how we got that information, your ability to trust that information vastly increases. I think a lot of exhibitions and a lot of museums have started to put a priority on that. And I think that's really important because museums in the past have done and said some really terrible things and we're constantly trying to acknowledge and move past that or at least the Field Museum is. And I think one of the ways of accounting for that is starting to tell people how they know what they know. Because if that was the philosophy of museums back when they were presenting a lot of racist information, they would not have been able to support it with scientific information or scientific research because it's not there. The new way of doing things is you can't just say things, you have to back it up. And I think that is a really important way of accounting for the past.

There are a number of museums that present public health topics, either as outreach or by focusing entirely on the subject.

Raven Forrest Fruscalzo: There are actually a few museums that, that's all they do. There's a public health museum in Massachusetts and then the CDC actually has a museum of their own. Museums really have the ability to make a large impact when they do public health sorts of exhibits or incorporate public health into their existing exhibits. So a good example of that is like at the Field Museum, part of our Ancient Americas exhibit is about the smallpox transfer from Europe to the Americas and how that impacted the native people of South and central America. So that's not what the exhibit was about, but it is incorporated into it. So another great example is the Northwest African American Museum in Washington. They did a really cool exhibit that was about five diseases and conditions that disproportionately affect the African American community. And there are a lot of art museums around the country who have art therapy programs that aid people who are being treated for mental illness. So there are a lot of different museums that are starting to think about what their role is when it comes to the health of their community.

The Outbreak exhibit at the National Museum of Natural History opens with videos of planes taking off and landing at various airports around the world -- underscoring one of its main points that the world is connected. As I was walking through the exhibit -- and I can’t stress how abstract the threat of viruses seemed to me at the time -- I was suddenly aware of walking through the gallery with many other people. Reading about infectious diseases, I was less eager than usual to use the touchscreen exhibits with my bare hands.

Raven Forrest Fruscalzo: It really is a testament to the power of that exhibit when you're pulled out of the exhibit and then realize that what it's about is something that you're currently participating in. I think that's where museums really fit in. Because they have so much experience in helping people to understand complex ideas and using lots of different types of media to make that happen.

We’re broadcasting during this pandemic: the end of March 2020. Almost all of the themes presented in the Outbreak exhibit seem relevant today: that diseases aren’t “exotic, in other words, they don’t all arrive from distant places. That a connected world has advantages even during a pandemic. But as Forrest Fruscalzo points out, the fact that the National Museum of Natural History is physically closed because of COVID-19 -- and so is the Field Museum and every other museum we’ve ever featured on this show is telling in itself.

Raven Forrest Fruscalzo: So museums closing I think is a really important statement that they're making. That they trust the scientific information that is being put out there. There's a lot of scientists who work at museums, but that does create a gap. Museums are where people get a lot of their scientific information, especially adults. Once you're out of school there really isn't as much access to scientific information, a lot of it's behind paywalls. So museums are institutions that the public is relying on. COVID-19 has really changed my view on how important digital media is to how the museum is interacting with the public.

On her podcast, Tiny Vampires, Forrest Fruscalzo avoids the assumptions of the info deficit hypothesis as she communicate science to her listeners. Each episode is instead guided by questions sent in by listeners about insects that transmit disease and the scientists that are fighting them. And like a good museum exhibit, the question is answered with background information and the story of how scientists were able to shine a light on that particular mystery.

Raven Forrest Fruscalzo: People are far more intelligent and far more understanding than the scientists, public health workers of the past gave them credit for. This whole concept of talk to people like their fifth graders is exceedingly condescending. We're all in this together regardless of our educational background or anything. So yeah, it's definitely a... We're all figuring this out and just being good stewards of the information and having really good communication.