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Science in Museums: Science Museums and History of Science Museums

Posted by Phillippa Pitts on July 17, 2013 in Science in Museums |

by columnist Cira Brown

I’ve recently been doing a bit of work for the Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments, part of the Harvard Museums of Science & Culture. I love the CHSI and have used it and its exhibitions as a basis for some of my papers here at Tufts. Over the past year I’ve also had internship and volunteer experiences at the Museum of Science and the MIT Museum, and have watched an assortment of visitors engage with each museum’s content. Each of these Boston-area museums attract different types of people, and I want to explore their expectations of their museum visits. I’m also curious as to whether their visit was motivated by an interest in history, science, or even the history of science – and even whether that expectation makes any difference at all.

There are numerous important distinctions between museums of science and museums of the history of science. Most notably, the former is often a presented as a place for exploration, family engagement and discovery. These museums (sometimes called “science centers”, eschewing the museum title) may not be active collecting institutions at all, and, unlike other museums, its archives and collections objectives may have low priority. Instead, the content of the science museum usually takes the form of interactive exhibits, which are occasionally accompanied by an artifact. There is an expectation, I’ve learned, for exhibits at science museums to be interactive and family friendly. Aside from the ubiquitous “excuse me, where are the rest rooms?” the most common question I’ve received at the MIT Museum is an inquiry into what areas are for children. Fellow columnist Kacie Rice has written extensively about this expectation and whether we’re alienating adult visitors as well.

History of Science museums are often affiliated with university departments, such as the ones at Oxford, Cambridge and Harvard, and are used for teaching and research by scholars. During my visits to both the Oxford and Cambridge museums, I was struck by how little curatorial interpretation there was in each exhibit. The objects were arranged neatly and thematically, though there was minimal explanatory text about what they actually did and little, if any, connection to the present. While the Oxford Museum of the History of Science held an incredible exhibition on modern artists’ depiction of the Steampunk aesthetic (to date, one of the best exhibitions I’ve attended), it seemed detached from the rest of the museum. While there were items that would appeal to experience-seeker visitors (such as a chalkboard written on by Albert Einstein), little about the narrative of the history of science could be discerned from the collection. Why was Einstein at Oxford? Why is this piece of writing important? And, if we’re ambitious exhibit developers, what does it mean? ┬áIs that information (or at least the option to “dig deeper”) needed for a meaningful experience by a non-academic at a history of science museum? How do we measure the effectiveness of this kind of display?

The task of interpreting objects, machines and instruments of science is complex and can be approached in numerous ways. In my experiences at MIT in creating a floor demonstration for the Apollo Guidance Computer, I’ve found it difficult to strike a balance between explaining the significance of the object, the workings of the machine, the appearance and the historical context – it’s a lot of information at once. But seeing as these objects are tools with complicated histories and purposes, I feel that it is the museum’s responsibility to interpret them for various audiences at numerous levels. However, perhaps this practice requires different methodologies than in standard history or science exhibitions, and that’s what I’m eager to explore.

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