What’s in a Name?

By Anthony (Bud) Rock

We have a love/hate relationship with labels and definitions. They can promote and glorify, or they can constrain or even misrepresent. They can be irrelevant, or they can be essential.

ASTC is a robust collection of centers, museums, institutes, academies, places, and “ariums” of all sorts. Much has already been written about the hands-on, interactive, experiential learning activities that have been the most distinguishing features of most ASTC-member institutions. Today, the value of this approach is appreciated more broadly within the museum field, including among historically collections-based science museums that are incorporating some of these practices.

I had the honor of representing the diverse ASTC-member community at the recent 2016 General Conference of the International Council of Museums (ICOM) in Milan, Italy, at which ASTC was elected as a new ICOM affiliate member. ASTC is proud of this new relationship with ICOM. We look forward in particular to working closely with ICOM in any future effort to explore a new and potentially more inclusive definition of museums.

Why does this definition matter? In those circumstances where museums may have the potential to receive public funding, the reason is obvious. But examining this definition can also give us insights into how we can best accomplish our missions.

The term “museum” should not be constraining. The definition can no doubt change to reflect convergences in missions, methods, and impacts that all museums provide in our communities. The current ICOM definition calls on museums to “acquire, conserve, research, communicate, and exhibit.” In the future, we might envision an expanded definition with terms such as “engage, challenge, and inspire.” We should work closely with ICOM in any effort to examine and perhaps adjust the definition. Our science institutions have much to learn and to offer as we exchange ideas on how best to promote science literacy and public engagement with science for the betterment of society as a whole.

But in my discussions at the Milan conference, I gained valuable insights from my ICOM colleagues about the emphasis in the ICOM definition concerning the “tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment for the purposes of education, study, and enjoyment.” I have expressed my view in this column before that our visitors gain a deeper appreciation for many contemporary issues of science in society when these topics are presented along with explanations of the (often inspiring) historical scientific journeys. It is precisely this preservation of our heritage (and our efforts to help people learn from it) that is a truly distinguishing feature of museums of all types.

How then do we define ourselves as ASTC institutions? And does it matter? The ways that museums engage their audiences is changing, and ASTC institutions are leaders in this trend. But a core tenet for museums will always be to examine the world of today and tomorrow through the valuable lens of our prior successes (and failures). I hope that we will include this perspective often in our programs, not because it affords us the museum label but because it is integral to a deeper public appreciation of science in our world today and in the future as we envision it.

Anthony (Bud) Rock is ASTC’s president and CEO.