Science Museums

views updated May 11 2018


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 .

Science Museums

views updated May 17 2018

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

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Science museums