Curating research-based climate exhibits – 4 challenges and how we addressed them [Case Study]

Today’s Guest Post is by Jaime Clifton-Ross, Research Curator for CRC Research and Changing the Conversation in the School of Environment and Sustainability at Royal Roads University.

Never before has tackling climate change, biodiversity loss, and acting on sustainable community development been more important. The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued a special report in 2018 stating that we have just 12 years to take unprecedented action to cut carbon emissions and hold global warming to a moderate yet dangerous and disruptive level. Given this critical timeframe, we must act now and take unprecedented action.

However, we may have a communication problem.

Given the spread of misinformation and the failure for climate science to reach political agendas until recently, it is vital that research is effectively communicated to the public. But there are many challenges with communicating academic and non-academic research, namely making it more accessible to the public. Traditionally, research is disseminated through peer-reviewed articles, conference presentations, and in the classroom – but these mediums lack interpretive frameworks to help engage the general public.

Our latest CRC Research exhibit, Sustainable Community Development: Making a Difference, showcases our research on climate change adaptation and mitigation, biodiversity conservation, social capital and agency, community vitality, co-benefits of climate action, deliberative online dialogue, and research curation. We used this project as an opportunity to experiment with framing and interpreting dense academic research in an exhibit setting. Currently on display in the Royal Roads University Library Showcase, this space promotes the University’s innovative, applicable, and real-world research.

Sustainable Community Development: Making a Difference, image courtesy of Royal Roads University

Our exhibit highlights a series of projects that embody the core subjects, themes, and methodologies that drive our research process.

Challenge #1 – Content Formula

The first curatorial challenge we encountered was deciding whether we should frame our content thematically or by project. We ultimately decided that highlighting each project (8 in total) was more straightforward and would enable us to interpret each one using a consistent content formula. Broken down into 4 parts, the formula provided a general outline of each project, the challenges, the research process, and our research findings. We designed colourful giclee prints on framed canvases that juxtaposed written content with striking visuals.

Challenge #2 – Integrating Technology

The next curatorial challenge we faced was finding a balance between visual, text, and digital content. Using technology for the sake of technology often makes for ineffective displays. Since a lot of our work is presented through data visualizations, videos, and on social media, we needed to find a way to seamlessly integrate our digital content into the exhibit.

We developed a series of Squarespace webpages to display on iPads below select project giclees. Using a clean design with striking open-source images, each webpage contains a high-level description of the specific project with 4 clickable boxes linked to interactive content. This digital feature encourages visitors to click on content, play videos, and trigger animations. We also created an interactive activity that allows visitors to explore outcomes from three possible climate change scenarios: ‘incremental change’, ‘reformative change’, and ‘transformative change’. By prioritizing interactivity and user-control, our digital content encouraged visitors to dive deeper into our research.

MC3: Meeting the Climate Change Challenge iPad Webpage, image courtesy of CRC Research

Challenge #3 – Oversimplifying and Overcomplicating Research

Since this exhibit curates research and is displayed in an academic setting, we risked either oversimplifying or overcomplicating our research findings. The Skim, Swim, Dive framework, a methodology developed by Charlotte Sexton (former Digital Media head at The National Gallery in London), provided the perfect formula to tackle this challenge.

In structuring content into three levels, this framework helped us present high-level information while encouraging visitors to explore our research further. For example,

  • our MC3: Meeting the Climate Change Challenge giclee described the project (skim level)
  • while the iPad provided information on our case studies, our learning exchanges, our virtual conversation series, and a series of data visualizations (swim level).
  • If visitors wished to dive deeper, they could scan QR codes linked to journal articles or read reports and books displayed throughout the exhibit (dive level).

Our goal in applying Skim, Swim, Dive was to create enticing content that captured and maintained the attention of users while encouraging them to explore our research further.

Social Capital and Agency Giclee, image courtesy of Royal Roads University

Challenge #4 – Integrating Visuals

Leonardo DaVinci is often credited as saying

art is the queen of all sciences communicating knowledge to all the generations of the world.

Leonardo DaVinci?

Whether he said this or not, the sentiment still rings true despite the portrayal of art and science as opposing disciplines. While we create visual representations of our research through videos and data visualizations, finding suitable images or art to represent our projects is a constant challenge.

We drew on our Instagram project, Sustainability Stories, to experiment with using art and photography as visual representations of research. We found that such media engages people on more visceral levels and that images of everyday life provide visual cues and symbols that help people relate more personally to the content. Since our goal in merging art with science was to engage the hearts and minds of the public, we applied these findings to the design of our giclees. We also displayed “Carbon Thoughts”, a large-scale painting by Nancyanne Cowell portraying the Parliament buildings in Ottawa. By including this striking painting, we visually communicated the importance of connecting research to decision-makers.

Mapping and Visualization, image courtesy of Royal Roads’ University

Reflections

We used this exhibit as an opportunity to not only engage the public with our research, but to also experiment with curating dense academic information.

While there are always areas for improvement, we believe this exhibit was a success as it emphasizes the importance of sharing and interpreting academic research to our campus community. Shortly after it opened, an undergraduate class toured the exhibit. Our research team was amazed at how engaged the students were and how much they enjoyed exploring our content. What was most apparent, however, was how every student was drawn to something different. This confirmed for us that presenting our research using a variety of media (giclees, iPads, scenario activity, reports, etc.) effectively provided multiple points of entry.

Questions for the reader

How do you curate dense information? Have you faced similar challenges, and if so, how did you address them? Have you identified any other challenges?


Sustainable Community Development: Making a Difference is on display at the Royal Roads’ University Showcase until March 31st, 2019.

To find out more about CRC Research, please go to:


Jaime Clifton-Ross is a regular contributor to the CMCJ Blog. She is passionate about digital storytelling and knowledge sharing via online communication channels, including blogs and social media. She holds a Bachelor of Arts, specializing in Art History, from the University of Victoria and a Master of Museum Studies from the University of Toronto. She currently works as a Research Curator for CRC Research and Changing the Conversation in the School of Environment and Sustainability at Royal Roads University.

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