Museums of Science and Technology

views updated


Science and technology museums have the power to inspire and educate millions of visitors each year. As mediators between expert scientists and the general public, museums have the responsibility to provide informed and balanced exhibits. Ethics are embedded in museum decisions, from determining what objects to collect to what exhibits to mount and what to say about them. This discussion examines the long history of science and technology museums and raises some of the ethical questions museums face, particularly how an educational mission is defined by the competing tensions of representation, political influence, funding, and entertainment.

From Cabinets of Curiosities to Science and Technology Centers

As showcases for scientific discoveries, technological marvels, and natural wonders, museums became popular across Europe during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. These palaces of the muses began as private collections for acquiring physical knowledge and became displays of individual wealth and power. As explorers brought back new curiosities from around the world, these collections were a systematic attempt to organize the explosion of new knowledge. A complete cabinet of curiosity would have one of everything in the world, organized and displayed in a continuum from the ordinary to the exotic, sometimes even including the imaginary.

Natural history dominated scientific representation in museums for several centuries. From the mid-eighteenth century, collections of ornithology, entomology, paleontology, and geology formed the basis for large public museums. These museums were organized by Linnaean classification with hierarchal representations of human progress. When curators began including technology exhibits in museums in the late nineteenth century, the exhibits were also organized as a reflection of human progress. A typical framework included synoptic series that traced the evolution of a particular technology—for example, a series on sailing from rafts to steamships.

In addition to permanent museum facilities, the public had opportunities to see the latest in science and technology at temporary shows and traveling exhibits. The "great exhibition of the works of all industry of all nations" opened in 1851 at the Crystal Palace in London and ushered in an age of world's fairs. Cities sponsored these year long celebrations to showcase top standards in industry and national pride in technical achievement. In the early twentieth century, several companies turned their exhibits into traveling shows that toured cities after the fairs closed, allowing even more people to see their wares. Many factories even offered tours of their facilities, giving visitors an inside look at working in different industries.

In 1969, the year a human being first walked on the moon, an innovation in science and technology museums occurred: the launch of the first hands-on science and technology centers. San Francisco's Exploratorium and Toronto's Ontario Science Centre forged a new path for exhibiting science. Frank Oppenheimer, a Ph.D. physicist who worked on the Manhattan Project (headed by his brother J. Robert Oppenheimer), founded the exploratorium to supplement science curricula. He wanted to combine invention and play in order to encourage students to look at science from a new perspective. Science and technology were no longer tied to national or history museums, and curators began interpreting objects using new exhibiting techniques in a variety of non-traditional museum settings. In the 1980s industrial archaeology gained momentum, displaying technology in the physical spaces of abandoned factories.

As the notion of what constituted a museum expanded, traditional methods of exhibiting objects also changed. Throughout the twentieth century, museums began showing science and technology within social and cultural contexts. Natural history exhibits began placing animals in realistic groups representing predator-prey relationships and biodiversity within the environment. Technology ceased to be represented as a forward march of progress, and the complicated relationships among science, daily life, and the environment began to be explored. These changes in exhibit practices set the stage for the ethical questions for museums of science and technology.

Ethical Questions of Museum Exhibitions

Museum practitioners are well aware of the ethical dilemmas posed by every acquisition or exhibition. The museum studies literature often raises extended blocks of questions, such as Sharon Macdonald's introduction to The Politics of Display, a collection of essays addressing ethics in science and technology museums:

Who decides what should be displayed? How are notions of "science" and "objectivity" mobilized to justify particular representations? Who gets to speak in the name of "science," "the public" or "the nation"? What are the processes, interest groups and negotiations involved in constructing an exhibition? What is ironed out or silenced? And how does the content and style of an exhibition inform public understanding?

The museum community has not reached a reasonable consensus on any of these questions.

The literature in the field has traditionally addressed these questions through case studies, but the analysis of individual museums or exhibitions does not often lead directly to changes in collection and exhibition practices. The difficulty in assessing effective exhibitions and implementing guidelines for future directions is that the ethical dilemmas museums face are a tangled knot of competing interests. Frequently, each new exhibit struggles with the same fundamental questions, hoping to maintain a balance among the diverse tensions of exhibit design.

At the core of the debate is the fundamental question: What is the purpose of museums? For many museums this can be generally answered under the aegis of education. Most museums exist to collect and share information, but how this mission is interpreted highlights the ethical dilemmas museums face: What should be collected? How should the objects be displayed? Who is the intended audience? What should they learn?

Although many science and technology centers have similar exhibits demonstrating scientific principles, are these fair representations of scientific practice? Science is a coordinated practice of trial and error: state a hypothesis, create trials, collect data, analyze the results, draw conclusions, and repeat as necessary. However, museums often display science as a finished product. Where are the experiments? Where are the failures? Even the popular hands-on interactive exhibits do not reflect the dynamic nature of science because they fail to show the evolution of scientific thought and practice.

Interactive science centers frequently push the boundaries of an educational environment. Techniquest in Cardiff, Wales, is billed as the largest hands-on science center in Great Britain, but the cacophony of children running in every direction raises the question: Is any active learning taking place? Advocates for science centers argue that stimulation of multiple senses encourages learning. They also argue that interacting with science in a fun and entertaining manner encourages students to continue studying science at more advanced levels. As funding for school trips to science centers grows, teachers must ask at what point does the balance shift from education to entertainment, and museums must make their positions clear.

In developing countries where non-scientific world views persist and significant portions of the population remain illiterate, do science museums have different education responsibilities? Armalendu Bose, retired director of the National Council of Science Museums in India, sees museums as having "the responsibility of educating the masses—literate, semiliterate, or even illiterate—about the social benefits of science and the need to imbibe a value and [to] practice a way of life imbued with scientific outlook." This brings an explicit value judgment to bear on exhibit design, raising a host of new questions: Where should museums position themselves along the spectrum of education to avocation? Do museums have the responsibility to explain the effects of policy decisions on scientific research? Should they be forums for debate? Can they be advocates for policy change? These questions in turn become questions of representation and interpretation.

Museums make choices at each stage in designing an exhibit. From what objects to include to what descriptions to write, curators craft a specific experience for the museum visitor. Until the end of the twentieth century, the voice of interpretation was the anonymous museum authority, but in the mid-1990s two exhibitions by the Smithsonian Institution brought the question of museum authority to center stage. The highly controversial exhibits Science in American Life and The Crossroads: The End of World War II, The Atomic Bomb and the Origins of the Cold War garnered international attention and sparked what would become known as the "history wars." Science in American life, which was funded in part by the American chemical society, explores the interaction between science and society. Criticism of the exhibit came from scientists who felt that it trivialized scientific achievements while emphasizing negative outcomes of scientific research. The debate over the crossroads exhibit centered on the Enola Gay, the airplane that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Should a museum attempt to ask critical questions of wartime actions, as original plans for the exhibit did with a section describing the aftermath of the bombing? Or should museums allow interested parties, such as veterans groups or members of congress, to write a heroic narrative of the events? The debate, amplified by the media, eventually led to the cancellation of the exhibit. The battle over the exhibits sparked debate over who controls the information presented to the public. Is it the museum? Is it the donor? Is it the person or company featured in the exhibit? Is it the media? Is it a political party? Is it a scientific expert? Who speaks for science in history museums? How do you represent a heterogeneous group of scientists? These questions forced the museum community to reflect on the purpose of museums and their ethical responsibilities to the variety of audiences they serve.

As a reaction to the controversies, many museums have shied away from politically sensitive exhibits. This limits the amount of contemporary scientific research that is exhibited to visitors and makes museums artifacts of science history. One suggestion for mounting exhibits without offering potentially controversial interpretations is to let the objects speak for themselves. Unfortunately, this presents a dilemma leading back to the educational mission of museums. Lacking any explanations, museum visitors may not understand the exhibit's content unless they are already informed on a particular subject matter. Another approach is to allow all interested parties a platform for explaining their views, but this can make an exhibit cumbersome and likewise confuse the visitors.

Tied to questions of representation and interpretation are questions regarding museums' responsibilities to their donors. Museums operate on a precarious business model; proceeds from visitors rarely cover operating expenses. Museums rely on grants, donations, and government funds to maintain and expand their collections, and these monies rarely come with no strings attached. Should donors have any input into the content of an exhibit? Historically, this has not been an ethical dilemma. In the 1910s the Smithsonian's curator of mineral technology built the collection by soliciting corporate donations and relinquishing control of exhibit labels to company copyeditors, making it explicitly clear that the company's name "would be conspicuously present." But as critics began noticing the increased advertising in museums during the 1990s and suggested that corporations had undue influence on exhibit development, museum directors began reforming exhibit policies. Curators in the early 2000s attempt to make clear breaks between funding and content, acknowledging financial contributions but attempting to limit influence on exhibit design.

Possibilities for the Future

It is unlikely that any of the questions raised here will be resolved decisively. Rather, museums will continue to attempt to balance the competing internal tensions inherent in exhibit design. As institutions of learning, museums need to evolve to reflect changes in current scientific practices while being mindful of their histories. In tackling current ethical questions and uncovering fresh ones, here are a few suggestions for possible directions for future exhibits at science and technology museums.

  • Museums should reflect current scientific practice. Boston's Museum of Science has started the Current Science and Technology Center to highlight leading edge research and science in the news. Following this model, museums could become educational centers for sharing scientific research with the public, and museums could position themselves as forums for debate.
  • Museums should tackle complex scientific problems. If museums are intended to be institutions for life-long learning, they should not be built exclusively for children. Exhibits should aim for a range of intellectual audiences, ranging from the uninformed novice to the educated non-expert.
  • Museums should highlight the multifaceted and interdisciplinary nature of modern science. Science is no longer neatly divided into disciplines, and museums should not be either. An example would be exhibits showing the interactions among biologists, engineers, and doctors in the development of new medical devices. Exhibits could also explore the relationships between science and other disciplines, such as the law or business. Both of these intersections would be shown in an exhibit on technology and the patent system.
  • Museums should take advantage of new technologies to share their collections with a wider audience. Visitors used to have to travel to museums to see wonders, but the Internet has brought these wonders into the home, office, and classroom. The Science Museum of London has started an ambitious program to catalogue its collection online. If other museums follow suit, the diffusion of knowledge could reach tremendous numbers of people.


SEE ALSO Activist Science Education;Education;Interdisciplinarity;Science, Technology, and Society Studies.


"America's Museums." (1999). Daedalus: Journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences 128(3): entire issue; contains 15 essays.

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

Findlen, Paula. (1994). Possessing Nature: Museums, Collecting, and Scientific Culture in Early Modern Italy. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Henderson, Amy, and Adrienne L. Kaeppler, eds. (1997). Exhibiting Dilemmas: Issues of Representation at the Smithsonian. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press.

Lilenthal, Edward T., and Tom Engelhardt. (1996). History Wars: The Enola Gay and Other Battles for the American Past. New York: Henry Holt.

Macdonald, Sharon, ed. (1998). The Politics of Display: Museums, Science, Culture. London: Routledge.

Society for the History of Technology. (1965). Technology and Culture VI(1).

Spaulding, Julian. (2002). The Poetic Museum: Reviving Historic Collections. Munich: Prestel.

About this article

Museums of Science and Technology

Updated About content Print Article