Science museums: lab rats or researchers?

22 Mar

It depends on where you visit, but maybe a little of both.

This NY Times article from last week tries to distill apart the complex reaction of visitors within the vessel of a science museum and sniff the ether of what’s to come.

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, fossilized 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. …

Hoping for what? What are the goals of these experiments, and when do they succeed? Whenever I’m near one of these museological laboratories, I eagerly submit to their probes, trying to find out. The results can be discouraging since some experiments seem so purposeless; their only goal might be to see if subjects can be persuaded to return for future amusement.

On a fundamental level the people who work at science museums and who develop exhibits for them are hoping that they entertain visitors so that they come back for a return visit. But having worked on a museum floor in one museum and having developed exhibits for another, I don’t think the analogy completely holds up. Part of it is that I think about these spaces as 3D science communications zones– they inform, educate, inspire. In the best scenarios, a visitor touches– maybe even smells or tastes– as part of the experience. And in those moments, a visitor is a researcher, and I don’t think even the best exhibit developer or staff member is  is a  puppetmaster who can pull all strings.

Regarding the future– in this article Rothstein describes The Exploratorium in San Francisco (a wonderful museum, and I love that there’s an edu suffix on their web address)– as the most recent great shift in museums. And that space lets visitors experiment with exhibit pieces. I particularly remember playing with a DNA transcription puzzle when I visited. And that opportunity to engage allows a visitor to participate in their experience in a novel way.

When I worked at WonderLab while I was a graduate student in Bloomington, Indiana, though, my job included everything from visitor safety to doing science demonstrations. It was a job, but a joy. I was expected and encouraged to engage with the curious (sometimes young) researchers who entered the experimental world for that day. I never thought of those visitors as lab rats, thought perhaps I was an unwitting researcher. I asked them questions, found out what they wanted to know, and looked for answers when I didn’t have them. But at the same time, those conversations with visitors transformed how I think about communicating science.

Who’s the lab rat now?

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