Science Centers Leading the Way

Mark WalhimerFuture of Museums, Museum Planning 3 Comments

Museums have evolved from display cabinets to communities.

For most of the history of museums, art museums and natural history museums have been the most prevalent, with children’s museums, science centers and corporate museums being an addition of the last 100 years.

Today’s modern science center started at the Science Museum of Boston, when staff wanted to engage visitors with the museum’s dioramas by adding push buttons that light areas of the diorama. That simple addition of a push button changed the relationship between museum and visitor, as it made the visitor an active participant in the museum experience, rather than a passive viewer.

Since the 1950s and the growth of science centers, children’s museums and corporate museums, there‘s been an evolution from museums being collections to becoming conveyors of content. Following the economic crisis of 2008, museums have been forced to rethink their business due to their new financial reality. We’re currently going through a significant change, with museums becoming communities.


Since 2008, I’ve been continuing to update my classification of museums. My current definition is: Museum – an organisation in the service of society and its development, open to the public, which researches, communicates and exhibits things and ideas, for the purposes of education, study and enjoyment.

Most museums are categorised by type: children’s museum; natural history museum; art museum; science center; or history museum.

In the future, I believe large destination museums, such as the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, AMNH, Exploratorium and The Met, will continue to follow the typical museum designations, but medium and small museums will become a community based mix of the museum types.

The reality is that not every community can support a museum of each type. Medium and smaller museums will, therefore, become an amalgam of disciplines including art, science, history and early childhood education.

Mission and voice

By looking at different museums’ mission statements, we can see that there’s more in common than there is different.

The Exploratorium is a museum of science, art, and human perception founded in 1969. Its mission is to create a culture of learning through innovative environments, programs, and tools that help people nurture their curiosity about the world around them. The Metropolitan Museum of Art (MET) was founded in New York in 1870 to collect, preserve, study, exhibit, and stimulate appreciation for and advance knowledge of works of art that collectively represent the broadest spectrum of human achievement at the highest level of quality, all in the service of the public and in accordance with the highest professional standards. The American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) aims to discover, interpret and disseminate – through scientific research and education – knowledge about human cultures, the natural world and the universe. The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis’ mission is to create extraordinary learning experiences across the arts, sciences, and humanities that have the power to transform the lives of children and families.

Museum Generations

Museums can be thought of as existing within four generations. The first generation museum offers collection cases, static displays, dioramas and is object centric within a hushed atmosphere. An example of this is The National Gallery in London, UK.

Second generation museums and science centres have collection cases within minimal decoration and trim for a modernist approach, so the art stands out without distraction. They provide a relationship between the museum and the visitor. An example is MOMA in New York.

Third generation museums and science centres are open ended, multi-layered and visitor centric and encourage conversation. An outgrowth of Piaget and constructivist learning theory, they’re more concerned about emotional and intellectual reaction than conveying specific content and encourage a peer to peer relationship. An example is MASS MoCA (Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art).

The fourth generation museum and science centre is the museum without walls – the experience starts prior to arriving at the bricks and mortar location and continues afterwards. The experience meets the visitor at their level of engagement, interest and is customised prior to their visit. There’s a flexible museum framework, consistent corporate identity across communication and a convergence of disciplines: art museums with children’s programs; natural history museums with art programs; and corporate museums with art collections. Examples of this type of museum are: Experience Music Project in Seattle, USA; Eyebeam Art and Technology Center, New York; and BMW Guggenheim Lab – a mobile laboratory, which travelled to major cities including Mumbai and Berlin.

Museum Spectrum

Museums exist along several spectrums including: high or low interactivity; academic or informal; inward or outward focused; early childhood or mature; collecting or non-Collecting; didactic or constructive; and innovative or traditional.

As an example, art museums are generally considered less innovative and more inward focused while science centres, by their nature, are thought of as innovative and outward focused. Generally, science centers are the most innovative of the museum type and all museums are moving towards the innovative end of the spectrum.  Of course, there are art museums that are more innovative than science centres, but this is rare.

My thinking about a spectrum of innovation in museums was inspired by an article in the New York Times in 2010, by Edward Rothstein, called The Thrill of Science, Tamed by Agendas.  An excerpt from the article reads: “A science museum is a kind of experiment. It demands the most elaborate equipment: Imax theaters, NASA space vehicles, collections of living creatures, digital planetarium projectors and fossilised bones. Into this mix are thrust tens of thousands of living human beings: children on holiday, weary or eager parents, devoted teachers, passionate aficionados and casual passers-by. And the experimenters watch, test, change, hoping….”

It’s exactly this active visitor participation that first got me excited about science centres in 1992, when I started work at Liberty Science Center

In the article, Rothstein discusses several recent incarnations of new science centres. What strikes me about the article, and the examples, is the sense of experimentation in science centres – each example is different in character and approach. It’s this sense of experimentation that’s leading the museum field.

The museum innovation spectrum, starting with the most innovative is: science centers; aquariums; children’s museums; natural history museums; mobile museums; military and war museums; corporate museums; state history museums; art museums; zoos; local history museums; living history; farm and agriculture museums; with historic houses being the least innovative.

The position on the spectrum is due to cultural differences of the institutions. The culture of Art museums, historic houses and history museums are ones of preservation and protection. Every museum has a culture, but we’re at a cross roads and museums that don’t change and adapt will disappear. Too often I’m brought in as a consultant to work on an exhibition and hit a brick wall when the conversation turns to “doing things differently”. I agree that technology doesn’t equal innovation, but often innovation uses technology as a tool. Technology is often what causes the brick wall to pop up.

Although painful, much of the impact of the economic crisis of 2008 has been positive for visitors and museums.  Museums have been forced to be more inclusive and accountable to both visitors and funders. Both visitors and funders want to know what they’re getting for their money, forcing museums to be accountable to their audience.

I see art museums becoming more like science centers, by being open to educating visitors. In the past, many art museums had an “if they have to ask” attitude, only wanting to further educate those who are already in the know. By nature, science centres have been educational institutions and more inclusive than many art museums.

Currently, science centers are leading the way for delivery of content at museums. It’ll be interesting to see how science centers continue to advance.

Museum Evolution
1. Museums as private cabinets of wonders

2. Museums as keepers of culture

3. Museum visitors as active participants

4. Museums as communities

How are science centers leading the way?

•  Engaging community, having an outward facing communication with the visitor

•  Incorporating programming as part of exhibition development, including on floor staff activities and hands on activities to accompany exhibitions

•  Having open-ended exhibits with multiple outcomes

•  Having an egalitarian attitude – all visitors are equal including those unfamiliar with a topic

•  Creating profit and non profit relationships, as part of exhibition development

•  A visit should be fun first, educational second

•  Inclusive of all groups

•  Welcoming the use of technology

Comments 3

  1. This is very interesting and exactly as I feel. I work as Director of Outreach for a small art museum. While we don’t have the funds or the space to create truly interactive exhibitions, we welcome school groups free of charge (over 2000 area children visited through our ArtReach program last year), offer a gallery tour that usually involves some kind of I Spy game and then work on an art project designed to be doable by the least capable child, yet interesting to the most capable child. Children always leave enthused.

  2. I love this topic! When I was doing my MA I wrote a small paper about the evolution of medical museums and was surprised to learn that visitors to these museums used to be encouraged to touch specimens. The focus was on allowing visitors to gain their own experiences with the items as much as possible–and also, in many cases, to strike the fear of disease into their hearts in order to then sell quack cures. Then of course the museums became what we usually think of as a traditional museum: everything closed off, for display purposes only. I’m thrilled to see the trend toward emphasizing visitor experience, although I’m not sure I’ll ever be encouraging guests to fondle a preserved organ anytime soon!

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