Should exhibitions be the central focus of what science centers and museums do?

This is an extended discussion of the question that appeared in the Viewpoints department of the September/October 2012 issue of Dimensions magazine.

The central focus for science centers is serving the communities in their region. Many of the science festivals popping up in the United States are led by museums, reflecting the responsibility that science centers have to reach out to audiences that do not normally attend exhibitions. Science festivals enable this by hosting events and programs in places where the people in their communities naturally live, work, and play.

Many of the greatest successes of the science festivals I have seen are events that take place in unexpected venues (not in a museum facility or on a university campus). Bringing science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) experiences into the public sphere creates immediacy and relevance for your message, and resonates with audiences you never would have connected with otherwise.

A central focus on exhibitions is ingrained in much of the field, including institutional business models that rely on attendance at a single facility. But there are many clear arguments for leaving your building behind to reach new audiences in new ways (including evidence that it can work as an attendance driver). If you acknowledge that it is our charge to serve the diverse communities in which we operate, it follows that there must be diverse methods we employ to achieve our goals.

Ben Wiehe, manager, Science Festival Alliance, MIT Museum, Cambridge, Massachusetts

Absolutely, in my opinion. I think that the museum’s language of communication is museology, and the exhibition is the channel of that kind of communication. Of course, museums can develop other complementary activities, but the exhibition is always the star. Otherwise, museums would be abandoning their proper role in society and in the world of popular science teaching.

Guillermo Fernández, science museums consultant, science museology professor, IDEC Universitat Pompeu Fabra, Barcelona, Spain


Simply, no. For me, the main focus of science centers and museums should be the visitor—engaging them in as many ways as are relevant to them. Exhibitions represent just one important tool in the arsenal organizations can use to communicate with their audiences.

Over the past few decades, science museums and science centers have positioned themselves as multiexperiential communication hubs for STEM. The public has come to expect more than just exhibits. Experiences such as events, programming, and those on the web have greatly contributed to the sustainability of institutions and kept them relevant, I think ensuring the survival of many museums. Also, some of the best exhibitions are those that are augmented by compelling public engagement through programs or other nonexhibit means. All of these tools—including programs, events, web-based experiences, and exhibitions—need to be given equal focus in order to offer a holistic, high-quality experience for visitors. We, as a field, and our public have moved beyond the museum as a simple showcase for exhibits, and I think this is a good thing.

I have developed quite a few exhibitions, and hope to continue to do so, but no exhibit exists in a vacuum. Exhibitions can be compelling experiences, but they exist in a context of many other ways to communicate. It is exciting that we are working at a time where so many ways to talk to our audiences exist. If engaging the public with messages that are important to them and through means that are meaningful to them guide our work and are our main points of focus, then no single tool, such as exhibitions, should get more attention than any other.

Ben Dickow, consultant, Center for the Advancement of Informal Science Education, Venice, California


A number of colleagues across the United States are working to shift galleries to “maker”-type content. We know our science center visitors love Maker Faires and turn out for them in droves. But we don’t seem to have experience, let alone actual studies, informing us as to whether visitors learn content at the same levels as they do with exhibits, or whether maker galleries will be compelling enough to drive return visits and associated memberships. In addition, although we have—as a field—a lot of experience with the costs of building and maintaining exhibitions using different business models (volunteer, in-house staff, out-of-house), we need to develop this experience with building and maintaining maker spaces. Does a successful festival a successful 12-month experience make? We really don’t know, but there is a huge experiment underway in the field right now.

Marilyn Hoyt, nonprofit consultant, Riverside, Illinois, founding staff, New York Hall of Science, Queens

The prevailing winds from this year’s Ecsite (European Network of Science Centres and Museums) Annual Conference are that science centers’ focus should be on science communication across a wider audience and in new forums. This includes exhibits, but ones that are more connected to the outside world.

Eli Kuslansky, founding partner, chief strategist, Unified Field, New York City

Not only should exhibitions be what all types of museums, including science centers, focus on, but the authentic objects and experiences embedded in those social environments are what truly set the best exhibitions apart from any other creative medium.

Paul Orselli, president and chief instigator, Paul Orselli Workshop (POW!), Baldwin, New York
Experiences, rather than exhibitions, should be central. That emphasis places the focus more directly on engaging learners and encourages thinking more broadly than any one particular approach.

David Ucko, president, Museums + more, Washington, D.C.

The above statements represent the opinions of the individual contributors and not necessarily the views of their institutions or of ASTC.

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