Notes on Exhibiting Current Science About a Current Controversy

In the year and a half since we began working on Rivers of Ice: Vanishing Glaciers of the Himalaya, we have learned a great deal about what's known - and what isn't known - about the Himalayan glaciers. In the process, we've learned just as much about developing an exhibition that focuses on a current scientific topic. For the MIT Museum, this exhibition is something like a snapshot of a moving scene.

The first time our staff saw David Breashears' photographs, we heard gasps in the room when he compared them with historic photos shot in precisely the same locations. Confident that our visitors would find them as engaging as we did, we began to ask a basic question: What are these photographs telling us?

We've learned that the answer to that question is not simple. The Himalayan glaciers are the subject of intense scientific study, with results that are sometimes in conflict. In January, 2012, a scientific team reported satellite data indicating that there had been no loss in the total amount of ice in the glaciers from 2003-2010. This result conflicted with an earlier scientific report (PDF), and it underscored for us the importance of the Museum's role in interpreting what conclusions can be drawn about a rapidly changing field of scientific inquiry.

As our thinking about Rivers of Ice evolved, we came to realize that the exhibition gives us an ideal platform for opening discussions about climate change, about water resources and, fundamentally, about how science works. Acquiring scientific knowledge is a back-and-forth, trial and error process. As the research continues, we hope for more clarity, but we're prepared for more disagreement about what exactly is happening to the glaciers in the Himalaya.

We'll be presenting news as it comes in, here and in the exhibition, and offering programs throughout the year to share news and facilitate discussions. We hope you'll join in.