Our ongoing mission to seek out the perfect science museum

31 Dec

In fairly quick succession we’ve visited science museums in Singapore, Beijing and Munich. And we have a history with science museums in London, Paris, Sydney and Canberra to add in for comparison purposes. Naturally enough this has led to a fair bit of musing on what works and what doesn’t; so here are our top five thoughts.

1. The Museum must engage and excite. The line between science, magic and sheer fun is a thin one and that ought to be exploited. That doesn’t necessarily mean lots of hands-on exhibits; the Deusches Museum, for example, is very short on hands-on but has enough iconic exhibits to remain fully engaging. Generally though a science museum needs to be hands on – if for no other reason than there’s a shortage of things Newton touched to share round.
2. The exhibits must work. Much of science cannot be seen, only demonstrated – you can’t see air pressure or magnetic forces, for example. So if an exhibit is broken, and not labelled as such, it just leaves everyone looking at it with a puzzled frown. The aim of a science museum should not be to baffle: if a science museum had a Google-like mission statement it ought to be “Do not baffle.”. Beijing, in spite of largely Chinese labeling, takes the cake here – everything worked and was clearly explained.
3. A play area should not substitute for teaching science in the museum. Many museums seem to see a play area as a way of engaging kids relatively cheaply. While I’m all in favor of play areas, given how many kids visit science museums, that should not be substituted for teaching throughout the museum. London’s Science Museum has a wonderful kids area that blurs the line between play and learning perfectly.
4. Televisions and computers are no longer, in themselves, cool. Again through what I can only assume is cost-saving, many museums set up computers or TV screens as if they were cool, modern technology which people don’t see elsewhere. And then they leave them to age ungracefully. There’s not much excitement in seeing a clunky old computer running Windows 95 these days. (except maybe for historical purposes).
5. Museums should tell a story. Way too many museums just pop a lot of scientifically-related exhibits in one place, but then fail to join them up. Science is not just about what we know today, it’s about a continuum of learning and discovery. Museums should put that context around their exhibits and so leave open the idea that there is more to come. We’ve yet to see any science museum do this effectively, but we live in hope.

I’m not sure that the perfect science museum exists; but, hey, seeking one out remains a worthwhile undertaking.

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One Response to “Our ongoing mission to seek out the perfect science museum”

  1. Carina Marshall July 31, 2013 at 12:43 pm #

    If you ever end up in New York, check out the Museum of Math (MoMath). It’s just plain awesome.

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