What’s Next?

This is the start of an occasional series by leaders in the science center field, reflecting upon how they see the future, the changes we need to make, the impact of new technology, the increased understanding of the markets through big data, new business models—even perhaps the importance of conversations. (If you have a point of view you would like share in this space, please write to ASTC’s Todd Happer.)

And, for a start, here are a few thoughts of mine to get this going.


“Change is the law of life. And those who look only to
the past or present are certain to miss the future.”
—John F. Kennedy

Humans have always lived in a changing world and, I suspect, always thought life was changing faster now. So I am always a little doubtful when we hear that we are on the edge of a paradigmatic shift and wonder if we, and the world in general, are really going to be so different. Some things stay—parents love their kids, they want a better life for them. We all hope for a better tomorrow, though we may well fear that will not be. One of the changes that is happening now is in how people shop, with department stores in particular being challenged, especially by online shopping. It’s interesting and potentially relevant to look back at their history.

Mercantile emporiums emerged in the 19th century, a response to the burgeoning middle classes resulting from the successes of the Industrial Revolution. People were increasingly urbanized, better educated, and flush with money to spend. The new stores went out of their way to welcome people. New cast iron construction meant that large plate glass windows could display wares to people passing on the street. Palatial entrances invited people in for an exceptional experience. It was also a major breakthrough for women, who could now both shop unattended and be served by young, unmarried women. The latter was an exciting new career opportunity for women, even if, by today’s standards, these jobs seem exploitative, as pay was poor and hours long—it was definitely an improvement on the farm or the mill. Waiting rooms, reading rooms, temporary exhibitions, events, the personal shopper—all were new experiences on offer to make the shopper welcome and stay.

So why does this no longer work, and what are the lessons for our field?

Even the best innovations have a shelf life, and department stores are clearly suffering from the increasing predominance of online shopping. Is there an online science center about to do the same for us? In some aspects of what we do—yes. There are certainly many new organizations providing high quality informal learning experiences both online and off. So we need to explore what we do that is exclusive for us or done better by us, as well as think about what we should be doing next. There’s a need for collaboration with all the new emerging providers. They share our mission; how can we together enhance our services and enlarge our reach?

Our demographics are changing, just like they did in the 19th century. What is our response? If we don’t change, will we survive as a sector? And what will we do about all the other organizations that are stepping up and providing exciting, compelling science activities—science cafés, makers spaces, citizen science activities, and more. I say let’s celebrate it, join in the fun, and together make informal science something accessible to everyone.

We can make a better future together.

Want to get your teeth into something?

For more to reflect on, in the many ways that science education happens in and out of school, check out