What lies at the intersection of decoloniality and philosophy of science? To answer this question, I turned to the informal science educators at Cincinnati Museum Center (CMC) for guidance. Informal science educators, Brenda Hunda and Brian Pollock were both speakers at the PEWS 2021 Workshop. I also watched Brenda’s presentation addressing Ways of Knowing while finishing up a graduate reading seminar in Geosciences on coloniality, led by Prof. Andy Czaja and Graduate Assistant Andrea Corpolongo.
My prior interdisciplinary background in religious and Islamic studies had already familiarized me with some trends in post-colonial and de-colonial studies, and I had come to the UC Philosophy Department with a driving question: What does it mean, and what would it take, to do philosophy with an inclusive canon? An inclusive canon of philosophy is a concept I encountered previously while studying the work of Turkish philosopher of religion Recep Alpyağıl (for more on that journey, see my book Dialectical Encounters). Doing philosophy with an inclusive canon in a North American, English-speaking context poses the question: What if the intellectual authorities we take on as dialogue partners and the concepts we draw on to formulate philosophical inquiries were conceptually driven by non-European languages and thought systems, or deeply informed by indigenous histories? Would that change the questions that we ask? Would that shed light on implicit assumptions and priorities not made explicit in the current practice of philosophy in the North American academy? Would it be fun and gratifying, challenging and terrifying, enriching and thought provoking?
Exploring nontraditional perspectives
My suspicions said there was a lot to gain by exploring intellectual traditions and perspectives that traditionally fell outside of what passes for philosophy in North America and parts of Europe, particularly in the case of philosophy of science. Based on my Ph.D. work and dissertation exploring some of these traditions, I knew that Arabic-speaking philosophers have been developing navigation techniques, optical theories, and logical systems long before the European renaissance. I wanted to see what a more intellectually inclusive and historically representative philosophy of science might look like.
Back to Brenda Hunda’s PEWS talk: Ways of Knowing involve thinking about the rich diversity of ways humans learn and come to know. The term can refer generally to the various ways in which we come to know, be that sense perception, reasoning, or imagining, etc. In a decolonial or post-colonial context, the concept can also refer to different cultures of knowing, including indigenous ways of knowing (IWOK) as distinct from more Euro-centric, academic approaches to knowledge. Ways of knowing have an increasingly important role to play in museum spaces, which more and more seek to design content and experiences that speak to the wider diversity of individual needs and communities they are tasked to serve.
For my project, I wanted to think about how informal science education intersects with different ways of knowing in ways that present science as the shared product of many cultures and intertwined histories. Take for instance, this informal science activity teaching about heat conduction through Cherokee fire pots. Combining ways of knowing with informal science education, allowed me to ask: What sort of impact could it have to present science to diverse audiences in such a way that stressed in the inclusive and collaborate sides of science? Could ways of knowing teach science without sending the message that science as something defined and regulated by a single, dominant culture? I wanted to see how the CMC had already taken steps in this direction. Brenda Hunda, Brian Pollock, Claire Pollock, and Tyler Swinney all took time to walk me through some of CMC’s recent efforts.
Informal education at the CMC
The CMC is an exciting place for its intersection of informal science education and concern for way of knowing, diversity, inclusion, and equity. CMC fosters a wide range of initiatives aimed at rising to the present challenge of representation and relevance that cultural institutions currently face. CMC engages in diversity training for staff, representative and diverse content, as well as active and welcoming relationships with guests and communities. For instance, in order to reach a wider range of potential visitors, CMC posts content on several digital platforms, including a YouTube channel (Cincinnati Museum Center) active since 2008. CMC also participates in the Museums for All program that offers free parking and a reduced 2-dollar admission for those on food assistance or medicaid. Though no panacea, such efforts are all part of building a climate of fostering introspection, belonging, and greater social accountability. CMC further offers many spaces that invite participation—from the highly interactive Children’s Museum, to the two artificial cave trails in the Natural History Museum. CMC has a long history of providing interactive content to guests, but when renovations were underway in 2016, CMC decided to expand community engagement work, investing in neighborhood partnerships such as West End, Price Hill, and Madisonville. In case of the historic African American community in West End, CMC made collection items available for a community member to make an exhibit from photos of this historic community divided by the construction of interstate-75. CMC also coordinated with a Guatemalan community in Price Hill to make the recent exhibit on Mayan culture accessible through programming and ticketing options. Although CMC is still working on an official land acknowledgment, the You are Here exhibit features a 45-foot wall (albeit partly obscured by a deep stairwell), reminding visitors of the names of peoples who inhabited the land prior to the arrival of European settlers.
All of these efforts are driven by staff and organizational leadership committed to internal work and introspection. I continue to introspect on how the way we teach science frames science—as a product of a single culture or as a composite endeavor informed by many cultures? As museums, including CMC, strive to reshape their institutional identity as more representative of their local and regional populations, there are exciting possibilities for rethinking informal science education.
Acknowledgement: Summer funding for this project was provided by the University of Cincinnati University Research Council.