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Are science centers and science museums converging?

Posted Jan 06 2010 3:00am

Science centers — institutions for the promotion of public engagement with science and technology — have mushroomed all over the world since Frank Oppenheimer started Exploratorium in San Francisco more than forty years ago. (Jessica has just written an interesting review of K. C. Cole’s recent biography of Oppenheimer).

Would you agree with this view of the typical science center?

Situated in industrial-looking steel, glass and concrete buildings painted in bright colours, these institutions understand their basic aim as promoting a warm and cozy excitement about science and technology, especially to young people. They do so by presenting science in a flashy and Disneylandish way and by serving a variety of fast foods and ice cream in the cafeteria. The heart of a typical science center is a floor space crowded with ‘apparatuses’ and ‘installations’ where the kids can do ‘interactive experiments’, meaning they are supposed to push buttons and watch awesome electric sparks before rushing off to the next ‘experiment’; there’s a lot of running and yelling in science centers. All this is called ‘informal learning’, which means that the kids may (!) return home with some elementary understanding of gravity or electricity or the migration patterns of birds, knowledge which they would otherwise probably have needed several minutes to acquire by reading a book or by paying attention in class for a moment. But they surely have had fun — and so have their accompanying dads (and moms?). Most importantly the risk of meeting drunkards and abusive adults is much lesser than in an ordinary amusement park. You can safely leave your kid alone and wait for them to be so exhausted that you can bring them home and get them to bed early.

I’m afraid many of my collegues would hardly object against this deliberately caricaturised view of an ideal-typical science center. These institutions have a notoriusly bad press among curators and historians of science.

But maybe it’s time to change this attitude, because it seems like the science center institution is about to come to age after decades of uncritical expansion.

In the announcement for its 21st annual conference in 2010, the European network of science centers (Ecsite) admits that they may so far have presented science in a too positive and uncritical light. Therefore, this year’s meeting will take “a critical and thought-provoking look at the work of science centres”: “What happens when we stop playing it safe? What risks do we take in our exhibitions and programmes?”.

Actually similar kinds of self-critical questions were asked in some of the earlier Ecsite-conferences. For example, the 2006 meeting asked whether science centres are for children only — and what the kids are really learning?

Are questions like these signs of the beginning of a fundamental change in the science center as an institution? Could it be the case that, science centers are becoming more interested in adult audiences, which of course demand a less naïve attitude to science and technology?

If so, they are mirroring the tendency in history of science museums to focus more and more on outreach — unfortunately at the expense of their collections and their research programmes. Are we, for better or for worse, witnessing a convergence between the science center and the science museum as institutions?

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