Public Engagement Activity Evaluation: Electric Generations: The Story of Electricity in the Irish Home at the dlr LexIcon in Dún Laoghaire by Jean Sutton
The writer attended the exhibition Electric Generations: The Story of Electricity in the Irish Home for four hours on Saturday November 25th 2017.
The exhibition Electric Generations: The Story of Electricity in the Irish Home took place in the dlr LexIcon Central Library and Cultural Centre in Dún Laoghaire from 2 October until 2 December 2017. The exhibition showcased the social impact of the introduction of electricity in the Republic of Ireland throughout the 20th century.
This short evaluation asks if Electric Generations could be described as a science communication event. In order to answer this question, the following report will encompass media analyses, an audience survey, observational notes and an interview with one of the exhibition organisers.
2. Overview of Electric Generations
Electric Generations was a collaborative event involving academics from the University of Hertfordshire, the ESB Archives and the Institution of Engineering and Technology Archives. The exhibition was free to attend and during the course of its run hosted school groups and held two ticketed events which tied into the exhibition’s content. The exhibition was held in an open plan area on the first floor of the library building, which is fully accessible for wheelchair users.
The exhibition was composed of artefacts such as hairdryers and hand-held vacuums dating from the 1960s in retro-looking glass cases, a model kitchen situated near the library entrance containing, among other things, a 1960s Sofono heater modelled on the Sputnik satellite, and colour reproductions of advertising campaigns and government policy documents dating from the 1920s up until the 1990s. The exhibition was laid out thematically and charted the changes in the public perception of electricity in Ireland. To quote one of the organisers, Dr Ceri Houlbrook, who agreed to an interview over email, “Tracing the chronology of electrification in Ireland, the three themes of the exhibition emerged very early on in the research: Fear at electricity’s initial introduction; the Functionality of electricity as it was accepted into the home; and the Freedom it eventually granted.” This lent the endeavour “a narrative approach to viewing the material.”
The exhibition focused on the social sciences, with its genesis stemming from an earlier exhibition curated by organizer Dr Ciara Meehen. Modern Wife, Modern Life was an exploration of Irish women’s lives in the 1960s, as portrayed in contemporary women’s media. The ‘New Technologies’ section of that exhibition was seen as the stepladder to a further conversation about how electricity transformed life in Ireland throughout the 20th century.
This evaluation assesses the exhibition under the umbrella of science communication, given the specific focus on the societal domino effect of the introduction of electricity to Ireland; an incidence requiring decades of policy work and community outreach.
The public communication of social sciences (PCSS) is an understudied field, with scholars like Cassidy (2014) outlining an “urgent need for more consistent, systematic research addressing PCSS” (p. 225).1 Published literature on the topic of science communication is “usually taken to mean the physical, chemical, biological and occasionally medical or engineering sciences” (Cassidy, 2014, p. 225); subjecting PCSS scholarship to a “relatively sparse and scattered” (p. 225) state. Such an imbalance is a pity, and a conundrum. Social science research and events are among the most consistent contributors “to the central, day-to-day content of modern media.” (Cassidy, 2014, p. 226) To assess the science communication possibilities of a social science event is an attempt at helping an accessible area of research find its way onto the podium.
4. Data Collection
1) Survey design
The original premise was to ascertain if a social history exhibition also functions as a science communication event. Beyond immediate analysis of the exhibition, survey design through the medium of a printed one-page questionnaire was decided upon.
The survey was the most effective tool to ascertain the abovementioned evaluation criteria. This quantitative method was chosen in a bid to maintain “detachment, neutrality and separation” (Neresini, 2014, p. 239) and to assess the impact of the event on participants.2
Willing participants, 11 in total out of approximately 25 attendees, were provided with a survey containing seven questions, six of which were drafted in such a way as to demand single responses only. The final question was an open-ended ‘Any other comments?’ This simplicity meant less work for the participant. A decision was also made to keep demographic questions to a minimum. This was another defence against perceptions that completing the survey would be mentally fatiguing and invasive. Questions were kept brief and composed using large, generously spaced sans serif font. The questionnaire was entitled ‘Electric Generations – The story of electricity in the Irish home’, with a brief transparent introductory sentence: ‘Survey by Jean Sutton, MSc student, Science Communication, DCU’.
The structure of the questionnaire aimed for logic, with questions taking on a narrative flow, travelling from general to narrow. The first question was ‘How would you have described your knowledge of the history of electricity in Ireland prior to today?’ That question demanded one of five answers ranging from ‘very good’ to ‘very bad’.3 The second question asked ‘Has this exhibition significantly altered your knowledge about the history of electricity in Ireland?’4
A cool tone was enforced to battle any element of social desirability bias. An impartial tone such as in question six, ‘Are you familiar with the term and concept ‘science communication’, gives a respondent room to answer honestly without the sense of stigma.5
In retrospect, the final question of the survey was deeply flawed. ‘Do you think this event could be described as a science communication event?’6 is leading and required far more pre-emptive reflection.
2) Media analyses
As mentioned prior, the exhibition was divided up into three thematic strands. Dr Ceri Houlbrook worked on the Fear silo, which mostly concentrated on electricity’s link to the supernatural. This relationship was evident in public advertising campaigns. Some companies played up to the magical perception, as seen in reproduced advertisements for a ‘Merlin’ clothes washer and the electrical manufacturer Pifco’s illustrated demon ambassador for batteries in the 1930s. Electricity’s reputation as ‘electrickery’, something akin to evil, was brought to the fore with extracts from asylum records wherein a patient claimed her delusions were caused by wires implemented as part of rural and urban electrification. Quotes about fears of fires also featured heavily, with oral history excerpts bringing that message to the audience in a colloquial and empathetic manner.
Dr Houlbrook notes: “These private beliefs and fears weren’t exclusive to Ireland; we’ve documented many examples from England also, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the same fears were expressed in all corners of the world at the advent of electricity. Scepticism and fear are understandable – and largely unavoidable – reactions to the introduction of something new and unfamiliar, particularly when it’s brought into the home.”
Dr Houlbrook confirms nostalgia was firmly on the minds of organisers. “We were hoping to appeal to members of the older generation who may remember the introduction of electricity and will be familiar with some of the objects on display,” Houlbrook wrote. “But we also wanted to demonstrate to the younger generation, particularly children, that electricity hasn’t always been ingrained in domestic life.”
Observation over four hours noted that the objects on display were the most popular segment of the exhibtion, attracting better footfall, longer viewings than the media on display and prompting cross-generational dialogue. Parents explained dated devices to their children. One attendee told the writer that his sister still had many of the objects on display, at home in their original packaging.
“We wanted a range of objects from a range of periods, to show the extent to which electrical appliances became part of everyday domestic life,” Dr Houlbrook noted. “We also wanted objects that some members of the audience might remember using themselves, to incite a sense of familiarity and nostalgia, such as the irons and hairdryer. However, some objects were chosen because of their unfamiliarity, such as the Veret electric bed warmer, which doesn’t bear any resemblance to the bed warming devices we use today. We wanted visitors to enjoy the mystery of this object and hazard guesses at what it was used for.”
Some survey respondents vocalised an appreciation for this element of the exhibition with comments such as “due to the change in technology today, my girl thought the hairdryer was amazing” and “fascinating to see such a range of artefacts and adverts” among the written comments.
Was Electric Generations: The Story of Electricity in the Irish Home a ‘ninja’ attempt at cloaking science communication amidst social history? Despite the rich seam of potential to explain the science of electricity, the opportunity was barely glimpsed at.
When asked ‘Would you characterise this as a science communication event? Why/why not?’, Dr Houlbrook returned a diplomatic answer: “Yes and no. The exhibition communicates science to the extent that it’s concerned with electricity. However, we weren’t aiming to educate audiences on how electricity as a harnessed physical phenomenon works.” Houlbrook notes that the exhibition was the output of historians, who “were more interested in communicating the cultural history of electricity, exploring how people in the past used and understood it as an invisible power that entered their homes.”
The organisers’ objective was not science communication as it is generally conceived. The exchange of social history knowledge was rich, but in taking on a scientific topic it could be argued they had a duty to bridge knowledge gaps as opposed to inviting ‘guesses’ about technology on display. There a distinct lack of emphasis on dialogue. While the ESB campaigns explored by Electric Generations are clear examples of the deficit model in action, the exhibition itself would have benefitted from more dynamism.
Perhaps some positivity can be gleaned from Claire O’Connell when she talks of “this shared bond” that can bring all humans together – that of living in the world (O’Connell, 2017).7 The science writer recalls her thesis project, which explored the role of the biography in science communication, and the potential of the narrative, “…stories about people, living or dead, tend to resonate with readers.” (O’Connell, p. 63)
In that light, Electric Generations served a purpose. It depicts how policy and people interact, it touches on distrust in emerging technologies, and it tells a story about a mass science communication project.8
Yet, “privileging the point of view of the promoters of the communication” is a weak outcome (Neresini, 2014, p. 242). A missed opportunity was discerned in Dr Houlbrook’s answers. “Today, most fears surrounding new technology focus on health risks,” Dr Houlbrook commented. “There is still a lot of anxiety over electricity pylons, with studies being carried out (for example, by the EU) trying to assuage fears that pylons pose health risks. It’s the same with the use of mobile phones, microwave ovens, and what is viewed by many as ‘electromagnetic pollution’. Take Stephen King’s 2006 horror novel Cell as an example; people are turned into zombies through a signal broadcast globally on a mobile phone network. This is fiction, yes, but it does draw on common fears and widespread technophobia.” This glimpse towards the role electricity plays in the 21st century in a horizontal communicative and participatory setting could have formed a fourth stream in the exhibition: future.9
1 Cassidy, A. (2014). Communicating the social sciences: a specific challenge?. In (Ed) Routledge Handbook of Public Communication of Science and Technology, Second Edition (pp. 186-197). London: Routledge.
2 Neresini, F. and Pellegrini, G. (2014). Evaluating public communication of science and technology. In (Ed) Routledge Handbook of Public Communication of Science and Technology, Second Edition (pp. 237-251). London: Routledge.
3 Very good: 0%, Good: 54.55%, Neutral: 18.18%, Bad: 18.18%, Very bad: 9.09%
4 Yes, significantly so: 36.36%, Yes, a bit: 54.55%, Neutral: 9.09% (one respondent)
5 Yes: 45.45%, No: 54.55%, Maybe: 0%
6 Yes: 63.64%, No: 0%, Maybe: 63.64%
7 O’Connell, C. (2017). Connecting with the human stories in research. Fahy, Murphy, Trench (Ed.), Little Country, Big Talk: Science Communication in Ireland (pp. 62-65). Dublin: Celsius.
8 Short, D. (2013). The public understanding of science: 30 years of the Bodmer report. School Science Review. 95. (pp. 39-44). “It is important to place science in a broader cultural context: to present scientific development as an integral part of cultural and social development, showcasing its connections with society at large.”
9 Neresini, F. and Pellegrini, G. (2014). Evaluating public communication of science and technology. In (Ed) Routledge Handbook of Public Communication of Science and Technology, Second Edition (p. 241). London: Routledge. “It can be seen that the more PCST activities aim at dialogue and participation, the more their evaluation tends to coincide with that of initiatives aimed at engaging the public in decision-making on issues with a high techno-scientific content. Even if we are dealing with a wide range of different activities, they often present interesting challenges in evaluation focused not only on the public side ( Joss and Durant 1995; Rowe et al. 2005).”