Science museums

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museums of science, institutions or buildings where collections relevant to science and technology are preserved and displayed to promote education and research. While the preponderance of these museums are in North America and Europe, the chief cities of Australia, New Zealand, Africa, and Latin America are known for outstanding collections in local natural history and ethnology. See also botanical garden; planetarium.

Development of the Science Museum Concept

Many early museums of science, e.g., the Ashmolean Museum (1683) at Oxford, the first public museum in the Western world, originated from gifts of private collections. At first most exhibits consisted of classified and labeled geological or biological specimens. Later exhibition techniques have emphasized the grouping of specimens to illustrate origins, associations, and interrelationships. Exhibition devices include habitat groups, restorations, murals, dioramas, models, and key installations in feature exhibits. The illustration of abstract ideas in biology, e.g., evolution and heredity, was extended to physics and chemistry, long neglected in science museums. A pioneer in showing the principles of mechanics, light, heat, and sound was the Buffalo Museum of Natural Science.

The modern science museum has a threefold function—exhibition of collections, sponsoring of research, and education. Many museums provide cataloged reserve collections for students and undertake research and the publication of results; some participate in expeditions for research or for enlarging collections. Provisions for adult education include guided tours, lectures, and classes; museums cooperate with schools by providing loan exhibitions, special exhibits and tours for children, and story hours. A growing trend has been the use of computer terminals and "hands-on" models to enhance the learning experience. Many museums now also attempt to educate the public in the principles of ecology and wildlife and resource conservation.

North American Museums

Outstanding in developing educational functions are the American Museum of Natural History, New York City, and the Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago. Although most science museums cover the general field, there are many, including a number of university and college teaching museums, that specialize, notably in anthropology; one of these is the National Museum of the American Indian, Washinton, D.C., and New York City. The establishment of the Adler Planetarium, Chicago (1930), the Fels Planetarium (1933) of the Franklin Institute, and the Hayden Planetarium (1935) of the American Museum of Natural History have stimulated science museums to deal with astronomy. The Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago, and the Franklin Institute, Philadelphia were pioneers in the field of applied sciences. The growth of local trailside museums, most of them in national parks, was stimulated by the success of Yosemite Museum (1921). The 1980s and 90s saw a number of new science and technology museums constructed in U.S. cities, and aquariums, which increasingly emphasized ecology in their exhibits, experienced a resurgence in popularity. Canada has notable museum collections, especially in Toronto, Ottawa, and Quebec.

The Smithsonian Institution, the national museum of the United States and the largest museum in the world, includes several constituent museums that specialize in particular areas of science and technology. There are many municipal and state museums of science. Universities and colleges that have notable museums include Harvard, with the Museum of Comparative Zoology (est. 1859 by Louis Agassiz, the earliest such collection in the United States) and the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology; the Univ. of Chicago, with the Oriental Institute; and the Univ. of Pennsylvania, specializing in ethnology and archaeology, especially of the Americas and of Asia. In addition to those already mentioned, the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia (est. 1812) and the Boston Society of Natural History (now the Museum of Science) are outstanding among American museums.

There are also many small special museums centering on limited fields of science or technology. Some are privately supported, others have been established by government agencies. Among them is the Robert C. Williams American Museum of Paper Making, Atlanta, Ga., which includes the Dard Hunter Collection (see Hunter, Dard); it embraces all aspects of papermaking and of the use of paper. The American Museum of Atomic Energy (now the American Museum of Science and Energy) opened in 1949 in Oak Ridge, Tenn. Many private companies have established their own museums. Such private museums often have unique collections, e.g., the glass museum in Corning, N.Y.

European Museums

Pioneers in the field of applied science include the Conservatoire des Arts et Métiers (the first industrial museum, est. 1799) and the Palais de la Découverte, both in Paris; the Science Museum, London; and the Deutsches Museum, Munich, Germany. Many private museums with unique collections have been established. The first of these, dating from 1916, was a button museum in Prague. Other notable specialized museums are the museums of oceanography in Monaco and in Berlin and the Jurassic Museum of Asturias in Colunga, Spain. Most of the principal countries have national science museums or strong science collections in general museums. In London are the great natural history collection of the British Museum, housed in South Kensington, and the Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons, with its Hunterian Collection. Other noted science museums in Europe include Norway's Bergen Museum; the Swedish Museum of Natural History, Stockholm; the National Museum, Copenhagen; the Rijksmuseum, Leiden, Netherlands, noted for its departments of geology, mineralogy, and zoology; the University Museum, Amsterdam; the Natural History Museum, Vienna; the Natural History Museum (Jardin des Plantes), Paris; and the Kunstkammer of the Russian Academy of Sciences, St. Petersburg. Germany has many excellent science museums in its cities and universities, and many Italian universities are noted for their science collections.

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SCIENCE MUSEUMS. The first public science museum was the Ashmolean Museum, founded at Oxford University in 1683 and created to educate and entertain the British public. In the United States the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia (1824) and the American Institute of New York (1828) were among the first organizations to hold exhibitions of scientific developments. For many years, only natural history science museums existed, such as the Smithsonian Institution (1846), the American Museum of Natural History (1869), and Chicago's Field Museum of Natural History (1893), which served as depositories for rich collections of specimens ranging from plants and animals to geological materials and human artifacts. By 1969 two different types of science museums existed—the traditional natural science museum, with its collections for viewing, and the science museum that incorporated science and technology with participatory activities. Most science and technology institutions are not engaged in research but rather in the hands-on interpretation of science. The traditional natural science museum is deeply involved in research and the care of collections, and are storehouses for the world's natural treasures.

Many science museums had their beginnings in world fairs. The first major international exhibition of a world fair of science was the 1851 Crystal Palace Exhibition, sponsored by the Royal Society of Arts in London. A similar exhibition was held in New York City in 1853. The well-known Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago occupies the sole surviving building from the 1893 World's Columbian Exhibition. Moreover, the idea for the Field Museum of Natural History also developed along with the plans for the World's Columbian Exhibition. The participatory science movement in the United States began in the 1970s, and by the 1990s there were twenty-three major science and technology centers and some 260 smaller institutions. The first major science and technology museum that did not house any collections was the Exploratorium in San Francisco, which opened its doors in the early 1970s. Most science centers that have opened since that time have copied the Exploratorium's style of hands-on exhibits.

These museums are constantly seeking ways to involve visitors. Many have gone through major additions, such as the Saint Louis Science Center (1959), which, in addition to pre-Columbian North American Indian artifacts, has modern interactive exhibits. Discovery Place (1981) in Charlotte, North Carolina, has a living rain forest and in 1991 added an Omnimax theater and a large planetarium. Traditional planetariums, such as the Adler Planetarium (1930) in Chicago, have also added interactive science exhibits. The California Museum of Science and Industry (1880) in Los Angeles houses exhibits on aerospace and computer-aided design and manufacturing. The Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (1944) in Portland has exhibits on earthquakes, computers, and electricity.


Conn, Steven. Museums and American Intellectual Life, 1876– 1926. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.

Danilov, Victor J. America's Science Museums. New York: Greenwood Press, 1990.

Hein, Hilde S. The Exploratorium: The Museum as Laboratory. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1990.

Macdonald, Sharon, ed. The Politics of Display: Museums, Science, Culture. London; New York: Routledge, 1998.

Orosz, Joel J. Curators and Culture: The Museum Movement in America, 1740–1870. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1990.

Freda H.Nicholson/a. e.

See alsoAmerican Association for the Advancement of Science ; Museum of Science and Industry .

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Science Museums (Kensington). The museums are the fruit of the Great Exhibition of 1851. It made a profit, and land was bought in Kensington Gore; Prince Albert hoped to establish there a great cultural centre, but to many people it seemed remote from central London. In 1862 the next exhibition was staged there; in 1864 the underground railway station was authorized; and the Department of Science and Arts ran what grew into the Science Museum. Richard Owen, superintendent of natural history at the British Museum, campaigned from 1861 to have ‘his’ exhibits moved to a new building, and in 1881 the Natural History Museum opened its doors.

David Knight