History of science in science museums and science centers
Posted Dec 03 2011 10:00am
I just received a call for papers to a planned special issue of the journal Science & Education on history of science in museums.
That’s a great topic, in principle. But when I began reading the announcement, I had a weird feeling of the kind you can sometimes have when encountering otherwise familiar phenomena in a foreign setting:
Science museums and science centres are primary avenues to communicate science to the public and are the major non-formal settings for science education. Yet, the potential role of the history (and philosophy) of science in this cultural context is not well explored.
I guess what bewildered me is that history of science has been the obvious vantage point for most science museums for more than a hundred years. In other words, science museums have by definition been museums that displayed science historically: science museums have been identical with science history museums.
But then I realised that this call had been made by scholars who don’t at all take this for granted. On the contrary, from the point of view of science centers and science education, history of science is just one of several possible tools for educating young people about science. Science centers don’t necessarily care about the history of science at all.
This becomes more clear further down in the call, where history of science is mentioned as ”an exhibited narrative … introducing science to the lay audience in museums and centres” and as “a methodological tool for science teaching; that is as a topic featuring in the content of museum educational programmes”.
My weird feeling has to do with the fact that I’ve never entertained the idea that, from a science center and science education point of view, history of science could been seen as a new and exciting methodological tool to inform science museums — as if history of science museums didn’t exist and never had. It’s like coming to a country where cricket looms large and hearing an indigenous person say they’ve just discovered football as a great way of using the green turf for ball games.