The Changing Science Center: Sustaining Our Mission into the 21st Century
Building Our Future
By Per-Edvin Persson
The future of the science center movement looks bright to me as we enter the year 2000. Although our continued success depends on meeting challenges as they arise, our basic mission—to enhance the public understanding of science—seems as vital in the 21st century as it was in the 20th. Activities will change, but the core objective remains the same: to explain scientific knowledge to nonexperts and demonstrate its relevance in everyday life.
I have two reasons for my optimism: first, the enormous growth in the industry as a whole over the past few decades, and, second, the changes we are seeing in the area of professionalism.
Though some may dispute the long-term trends, the increasing volume of visitors (worldwide on-site attendance among ASTC-member institutions of 121,942,172 in 1997 and 127,622,864 in 1998) and the number of science centers opening or expanding (55 in 1997 and 81 in 1998) are a clear indication that our industry—which now numbers more than 1,200 centers globally—is a success. In addition, presentations at recent ASTC and ECSITE conferences and other science-center network meetings, as well as new products coming on the market, show that we are working hard to create more meaningful visitor experiences. From combinations of museological and interactive exhibits to immersion experiences to collaborative efforts designed over the Internet, science centers are reaching out to new audiences through a variety of innovative programs and exhibitions.
It is true that we face increasing competition in the leisure market, both from virtual entertainment and from "destination" attractions. Unlike some critics, I do not believe that science centers will be out-competed by the Internet and electronic media. As Falk and Dierking documented in The Museum Experience (1992), people come to science centers because such visits are a social event. That is not likely to change. Furthermore, science centers provide visitors with the chance to perform real-world experiments, something computer simulations can never do.
As for competition from other real-world attractions, we should be careful how we respond. There are lessons to be learned from the theme parks—particularly in the area of amenities such as access, security, quality of service, and hospitality. These elements improve the quality of the visitor's experience. But that does not mean we should make our science centers more like entertainment centers. Our main competitive advantage is our scientific content, and that is where we must put our emphasis. Everything follows from that.
What are the practices that will sustain our mission into the 21st century? Those that have served us well until now: Understanding where we have been and where we need to go. Holding fast to our scientific integrity. Working hard to stay current in science, to adopt practices across disciplines, to respond to community and individual needs, to incorporate new technologies, to forge new partnerships. In other words, our future depends on renewing three commitments: to build on our success, to learn from our setbacks, and to never lose sight of our goal—enhancing the public understanding of science.
Defending Our Mission
Whatever our role in the public sphere, we must put scientific integrity first. Many players in the field—politicians, sponsors, and various interest groups—may think they have a right to control the contents of the science center they support. They do not. Think of the controversy over the Science in American Life exhibition at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History or the Enola Gay exhibition at the National Air and Space Museum. In each case, the museum had to defend its integrity against outside critics. In cases of conflicting demands, science centers must always defend science itself—i.e., the advancement of human knowledge for the sake of knowledge.
Maintaining the scientific quality of our exhibits requires constant dialogue with the scientific community. Exhibit designers may be talented, but they often are not scientists. For a top-quality exhibit you need both. One way to get expert help is to develop your networks with universities and research facilities: That's where the scientific experts are. They are the ones who can tell us what is known about a subject we wish to develop and what the scientific questions are.
Both parties benefit from such dialogue. The initiative for the Niniveh exhibition at Heureka in 1995 came from one of the foremost Assyriologists in Finland. This researcher brought experts around the world into the project. In return, the Assyriologists reached a much larger audience than their field usually attracts.
We are sometimes criticized for failing to address current scientific issues. It is important for us to inform the public on topics of scientific controversy, as well as on political or social issues that involve complex scientific argumentation. The typical interactive exhibition takes two years to produce. To deal with current issues, we must become more flexible and react more quickly. How to achieve this was one topic of Here and Now: Contemporary Science and Technology in Museum and Science Centres, a 1996 conference at London's Science Museum (see Farmelo and Carding, eds., 1997).
Adopting New Practices
One criticism of science centers is that they focus on phenomena rather than processes. It is true that the interactive exhibit devoted to a single phenomenon—as fundamental as it is to our philosophy—is not applicable in all cases. Many biological processes, for example, cannot be conveyed effectively with interactives. By shifting our focus from "hands on" to "minds on," we increase the methods available to us to communicate the fundamental approach of scientific inquiry.
How can we best engage the intellectual participation of our visitors? In myriad ways. Exhibits based on everyday life ("What happens in the dishwasher?") are good, as are questions that relate an observed phenomenon to the visitor himself ("Are you faster than a chimpanzee?"). Activities with unexpected outcomes, such as optical illusions or a ride on a counterbalanced high-wire bike, are a classic way to arouse visitors' curiosity and launch them into scientific inquiry. Heureka's Illusions exhibition contains optical conundrums developed by the great American conjurors Jerry Andrus and James Randi. My favorite is a giant pen that seems to make an impossible bend through two giant screw-nuts. When you see it, you cannot resist the urge to step closer and find out the explanation.
Another criticism is that science centers depict science out of context. This is partly true. Individual, free-standing exhibits can seem disconnected unless they are placed in a larger historical and social framework. Possible solutions include developing story lines, clustering exhibits by theme, and encouraging deeper involvement—even immersion—of the visitor by theater and role play.
Nordic Explorers, a traveling exhibition created by Heureka in 1996, encouraged viewers to interact with historic artifacts. One exhibit of scientific instruments used by Scandinavian explorers provided three possible labels for each item; only after the viewer pushed a button to choose one was the true explanation revealed.
The immersion approach has been used to particular effect by German exhibit designer Andreas Heinecke. In his Dialogue in the Dark exhibition, blind or partially sighted guides lead groups of 10 sighted visitors through four re-created environments—a garden, a tactile gallery, a city street, and a café bar—in total darkness. At the end of the tour, visitors are invited to relax with their guide at the bar, enjoy a drink, and ask any questions they may have. For many, it is the first time they have talked with a blind person about how he or she perceives the world.
Dramatic interpretation—a technique commonly used by historic sites and museums—is another way to bring science to life. The Pantecnicon outreach project of Techniquest presents the science of communication and perception through dramatic performances by professional staff. At Science City, in Kansas City, Missouri, explainers dressed as citizens of an imaginary urban community help to convey scientific content. And of course, live-science demonstrations in many science centers make for vivid and impressive theater.
Expanding Our Reach
I believe that the Internet, far from being a threat to science centers, will become a valuable ally. Our task is to learn to apply its technologies to teaching and learning in our own facilities and in a larger context. For example, use of the World Wide Web may result in yet closer cooperation between science centers and institutions of formal education.
I also envision exhibitions combining material provided on the Internet with physical exhibits in galleries. By late 2001, the European science center network (ECSITE) will produce a virtual exhibition on biosciences. This online component, accessible anywhere in the world, will relate to exhibitions in individual science centers. In the future, virtual exhibitions could be available as extranets—special networks requiring a password for entry—for a fee.
Ultimately, science centers will form international networks, co-producing and swapping exhibitions or exhibits the way we now exchange information. Recently, Heureka led the coproduction of an interactive exhibition, Communication, that will tour Europe's nine Cities of Culture in 2000. The exhibition, which operates in 14 languages, focuses on the ways communication technology is changing the lives of people in industrialized countries. Appropriately, planning for the exhibition was done through an extranet.
Procedures like these will be commonplace within the next few years. Through international cooperation, science centers will cut costs, generate income, and enhance the visitor's experience. International exhibitions will enrich our programs, enabling us to think globally but act locally.
Per-Edvin Persson is director of Heureka, the Finnish Science Centre, in Vantaa, Finland, and vice president of ASTC.
Beetlestone, John G., Johnson, C., Quin, M., and White, H. 1998. "The science-center movement: context, practice, next challenges." Public Understanding of Science 7, no. 1: 5–22.
Bradburne, James M. 1998. "Dinosaurs and white elephants: the science center in the twenty-first century." Public Understanding of Science 7, no. 3: 237–253.
Falk, John H., and Dierking, L.D. 1992. The Museum Experience. Washington, D.C.: Whalesback Books.
Farmelo, G., and Carding, J., eds. 1997. Here and Now: Contemporary Science and Technology in Museums and Science Centres. London: Science Museum.
Hein, George E. 1998. Learning in the Museum. London and New York: Routledge.