In the next of our new, regular editorials on Of Schemes and Memes, we are running a mini-series looking at various aspects of science museums.
Museums are places for inquisitive minds. Appropriately, the name comes from the nine Muses who, in Greek mythology, were sources of inspiration in poetry, the arts and science. The origins of modern museums lie in private collections of rare and curious artefacts, which belonged to the affluent from times as early as the Renaissance. But what are science museums for nowadays? What do they offer the public and what goes on behind their doors? The rich variety of activities and events that are organised by science museums can easily be underestimated so in this post we will delve further into what a museum can really offer.
Look, but DO touch
Science museums function as interactive hubs where visitors can gaze at and interact with strange and unusual exhibits, both temporary and permanent. This is a very different proposition from the earliest museums where the “look but don’t touch” rule applied to everything. A modern science museum, by contrast, is an open-learning educational centre, rich in resources and inspiration for scientists of the future. The museums aim to encourage a more interactive approach using modern audio-visual technologies while at the same time preserving concrete, physical evidence and examples of our past.
In 1969 physicist Frank Oppenheimer founded the Exploratorium, a museum of science, art, and human perception located in San Francisco that’s an example of this hands-on approach. It was one of the first institutions to design and build exhibits giving visitors direct experience of the scientific world. Oppenheimer’s approach to exhibits has been adopted by most science museums worldwide, where there is a dominating focus on learning through physical interactivity.
Mixing leisure with learning
“No one ever ﬂunked a museum,”
as Frank Oppenheimer amusingly said. They stimulate and entertain – arousal of curiosity is all-important in encouraging future scientists. A study carried out by Naomi Haywood and Paul Cairns suggests that children who engage with scientific exhibits can benefit from positive learning experiences with careful targeting in the design of the exhibit.
But it’s not just the exhibits that help inspire children. These museums offer access to a myriad of activities: science shows, demonstrations, experiments, storytelling and workshops, all with an overall aim to inform and educate.
Some examples of current activities include the Hunterian Museum which is hosting an exhibition until the 23 July that includes skeletal remains from hundreds of extinct species. Matt Brown reveals more in his Dodos, megalodons, thylacines, mastodons post. The Natural History Museum is also holding an exhibition with an extensive collection of half a million images, including paintings and photographs all related to the natural world.
Preparation for these exhibitions is detailed and every care is taken to ensure scientific accuracy. The brand-new atmosphere gallery exhibit at The Science Museum, for example, was developed through extensive research and engagement with scientists and specialists, including expertise from the Met Office. As Richard Black, environment correspondent for the BBC website, commented:
“The gallery has begun to answer the big but persistent question of how to make climate science intelligible and interesting.”
The brand-new atmosphere gallery exhibit at The Science Museum. Source
In addition to encouraging children to think that science is fun, museums also hold lectures, talks and seminars that should appeal to wider sections of the public. In Germany, at Munich’s Deutches Museum weekly one-hour talks are given by renowned scientists who make their work and topical science issues accessible to everyone. Question and answer sessions at the end allow the audience to participate.
A night at the museum…
Another way museums promote the dissemination of science is by encouraging community involvement. In the US, for instance, every Thursday night, 6-10pm at the The California Academy of Sciences is NightLife, where the whole museum is open to adults only and plays host to a bar, a DJ and special lectures and exhibits. These themed nights are a great opportunity for those interested in science to come together and share ideas.
Similarly, Science Night at the Science Museum in London is an “all night extravaganza with a scientific twist” aimed at children. With adult supervision, up to 380 8 to 11 year olds can spend an evening carrying out “science based” activities followed by a night camping out in the museum galleries. This is topped off the next morning by breakfast, more science fun and an IMAX film.
The museum also encourages learning by hosting interactive tours. Their weekly tour, for example, the popular Spaced Out Tour, is aimed at children and offers a full interactive experience including roaring rockets, amazing astronauts and smelly space poo. Matt Brown also blogged about Touring The Science Museum Dressed As A Cockroach which is another creative activity hosted by the museum.
Preserving the past
Although outreach has become a major goal of science museums, their primary function has continued. Through storage and cataloguing of important objects and specimens, museums provide a trustworthy source of information and samples for scientific research. They preserve knowledge that could otherwise easily be lost and provide the ideal environment for research. It’s easy to forget that museums are places for research and that the artefacts they contain provide significant primary sources of information for the scientific community. An editorial in Nature this week has been discussing the importance of preserving the past:
‘historic objects frequently turn out to have great — often unexpected — value for cutting-edge research. Well-preserved old bones, for example, are a treasure trove for modern palaeontologists wielding new DNA-based analytical technologies.’
Over 300 scientists work at the Natural History Museum carrying out fundamental research into the natural world. Sadly for the future of this type of research, a distressingly high number of historic scientific collections — from herbaria to minerals — are being lost or left to rot in universities as there is neither sufficient space nor enough money to look after them. Unlike some universities, museums are the perfect hosts for protecting and preserving scientific artefacts. We will take a look at how scientific researchers use historic collections in our next instalment.
When the museum doors are closed their work doesn’t stop; it continues in the virtual world. Museums are now looking at the wider picture and opening their gates to the blogosphere. UCL has started a museum and collection blog where you can catch up on the latest news. Other museums across the world are providing a huge range of online resources for teachers, students and the general public. In Australia, Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum hosts an “Object of the week” blog which introduces users to some of the curators, their favourite objects and the stories behind them. The Dana centre in London also offers webcasts for lectures and talks that they hold, so if you are unable to attend in person there is no need to miss out as you can participate online. By making full use of the online world, where geographical constraints need not exist, museums are extending their boundaries globally.
We’ve had an unfortunate reminder of the unusual dangers faced by museum collections in recent years. When countries become unstable, these institutions can find themselves threatened, as we have seen during the present political situation in Egypt, where some of the world’s most ancient artefacts are housed. The importance of these items to the community can best be understood simply by viewing the picture above where the human wall protects the Cairo Museum.
In the next instalment we will take a look at what museum employees really do behind those doors….