Tuesday, July 29, 2008

What Happened to the "Science" in Science Museums?

Karen Heller wrote an interesting article in the Philadelphia Inquirer recently about "The Franklin" (formerly known as The Franklin Institute, before its "rebranding.")

Let's just say it wasn't pretty. She bemoaned the museum's lack of science in it's glitzy offerings and equated the museum's exhibit areas with a casino.

For the most part, I'd say Ms. Heller's article could have just as easily been describing most of the "big" science centers (like those in Boston, or L.A., for example.) The emphasis seems to be on quick, flashy ways to bring people in and sell them junk from the gift shop(s), and downplaying, almost apologizing for, the science.

Is this what happens when the only bottom line is the "bottom line"? Take the time to read Heller's article (note especially the responses to the poll questions about The Franklin) and let us know what you think in the "Comments Section" below.

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  1. Paul: Thanks for bringing this to our attention--been years since I've been in Philly, and years more since I've been in The Franklin!

    This is what happens when cultural/scientific institutions are squeezed by economics. They believe that creating a sideshow, where "science" or "history" is fun, will get them the visitors they seem to lack when they tackle their subject seriously.

    Visitors will come when they see the institution is doing something that will interest them (I'd love to know if The Franklin did any market or visitor research before they remade themselves), but once they arrive, they expect something educational as well.

    I rather suspect that we have to examine the entire funding structure of museums, zoos, aquaria, and science and nature centers. We ought to be able to keep the lights on without having to sell our souls to the retail gods.

    Claudia Nicholson

  2. Thanks for posting this. I actually saw it first on PZ Myers' blog, and passed it about to colleagues. Reactions were mixed. Some felt that it was overly critical, others thought she hit it spot on. I think she has a real point, but am at a lost as to what to do about it. As a young museum professional, I am increasingly dismayed by the direction we are headed. It seems that as we overcompensate for our formerly didactic ways, we have swung too far the other direction, and are now failing to really teach anything.

    My concern is that what we are doing is putting lipstick on a pig. We are under so much pressure to compete with theme parks and casinos that we lose sight of what makes us special. So we make exhibits shine and sparkle, and we use technology and call it innovative. But we aren't innovative educationally.

    Not sure what to do about it, and it frustrates me.

  3. Hi Sarah and Claudia,

    I obviously share your concerns. Museums are playing a losing game when they try to compete against other types of entertainment (or edutainment) venues like amusement parks and casinos.

    (Mostly because they're too cheap/underfunded to be able to keep up the maintenance on things to the same degree that parks and casinos do, and usually look tawdry by comparison --- if that's possible.)

    The one thing that museums have to capitalize on are REAL objects (or phenomena) with REAL stories. (A REAL moon rock, REAL laser demo, Lincoln's REAL hat, etc.) That sort of experience is not easily replicated on the Web or on TV.

    At the end of the day, if you can't get excited about REAL stuff already existing in your exhibits and collections, neither can your visitors, and you're probably in the wrong business to begin with.

    Believe me, I understand the need to generate revenue to keep a place going, but I don't think it's a coincidence that most of the "questionable" (in my opinion) promotion happens in the very largest museums.

    Perhaps we need more small self-supporting museums more directly rooted in their communities and fewer gigantic museums that have trouble supporting themselves from the day they break ground.

    The only "solution" I know of is to keep trying to create exhibitions and programs that promote museum-based and object-based learning, not cheap sideshow hucksterism.

  4. Never been there but our local childrens museum is very science oriented and we used to visit often. Their only problem is they don't often update the exhibits, so unless they have a special program we don't go anymore.

  5. Paul, completely agree. I have had many discussions with classmates and colleagues about the "real" of museums. I start to fear that in an increasingly disposable society, we are losing our appreciation for the actual pen used to sign the Civil Rights Act, etc. Do people still get it? I hope so.

    Are large museums the problem? I am not sure. Giant institutions like the British Museum, The Met, and the Smithsonian have always been huge and generally maintain their credibility. I think the issue is the commercialization of exhibits.

    Even in exhibits like Tut, Diana, Vatican, that have real objects, the exhibit itself is a commercial venture, and is treated as such. With a several million dollar guarantee, the only viable players are the largest museums with the highest attendance.

    What is unfortunate, is that the power players (big institutions with history) are being increasingly sucked in by this commercialization, leaving small museums to take up the standard for the field.

    How wonderful will it be when we again appreciate real objects and real stories? I hope the tide is turning, and we can start again appreciating learning for the enjoyable experience that it is.