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Exploring Science Museums Through Google Street View

Posted by Phillippa Pitts on October 16, 2013 in Science in Museums |

by columnist Catherine Sigmond

Finally, Google has brought its widely acclaimed Art Project to science museums… sort of.

Lately, I’ve been indulging my penchant for travel by exploring the world through Google Street View (did you know you can tour the Galapagos?!).

So when I read about how Google Street View had recently released a virtual tour of the Ontario Science Centre in Toronto I was pretty intrigued.

Street View’s embarked on similar projects in the past. Last year, for Japan’s national space day, the company released virtual tours of nine space centers and science museums around Japan for people to explore, including the famed Miraikan (National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation). In an arguably more visually exciting initiative, Street View has even mapped a series of zoos and botanical gardens around the world.

But unlike their impressive Art Project, Google Street View’s indoor tours of science museums fall flat.

In the Art Project, not only can visitors tour nearly the full interiors of around 80 world-renowned museums, but they have the option of doing so with an easy-to-read indoor map to help guide them throughout their tour. A huge range of paintings and sculptures from each institution are available for people to examine in stunning detail. And visitors to the Art Project can even create their own collections and access extra content on the pieces they choose to view. The site gives people the option to instantly share what they discover, and the accompanying Art Project YouTube Channel contains engaging videos featuring museum curators and integrates with Google Hangouts for even more sharing potential.

This interactive content is completely missing from the science museum virtual tours. All of this begs the question- why bother to map the insides of science museums

Michael Scott once declared on The Office, “You don’t go to a science museum and get handed a pamphlet on electricity. You go to the science museum and stick your hand on a metal ball and your hair sticks straight up… and then you know science.”

Cheesy quotes aside; he’s got a point. People go to science museums to learn by doing. Yes, observation is an inherent (and important!) part of the scientific process. But ultimately people need to be able to touch and measure things, make observations, predict results, and test their ideas in real time to engage with science in a meaningful and lasting way.

So I find myself struggling to reconcile the enormous potential of a “Google Art Project for science museums” with my belief that doing stuff is necessary in order to truly engage with and enjoy the scientific process.

Google’s foray into mapping the insides of science museums definitely has a ton of untapped potential. It could be a great way to increase involvement in citizen science projects. And a central YouTube Channel of videos made by the world’s science museum educators à la Google Art Project would surely garner a lot of hits.

I’m eager to see what Google has in store for this project, so I’ll wait to make up my mind before I decide if the all the effort to map science museums’ exhibit halls is a worthy endeavor.

What do you think? Are virtual tours of science museums worth it?

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