Rebooting Science Museums for the 21st Century

I am quite fascinated by Science Centres. This probably dates back from my first encounter with the Cite des Sciences et de l’Industrie in Paris, which was my favorite place to go as a kid. Mum would always complain that is was too far i.e. in the North East of Paris when we lived in the South West! But I just remember staying there for ours and trying all their exhibits, feeling excited about the world’s mysteries explained to me.

Just last night I was listening to a radio interview on NPR with guests from the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History, Museum of Life & Science in Durham, NC, the San Francisco Exploratorium and the Dublin Science Gallery. It was about the science museum of the future. Although all guests were from matured markets – USA, Europe – I think some of their ideas had a global resonance including here in Asia.

The Science Gallery in Dublin is only 5 years old and already one of the city’s top attractions. Their approach is definitely new: not a science museum, not an art gallery but both, melting science with art. They recognize that their audience and the environment they live in is always changing and therefore they need to constantly bring new exhibitions and events like an art gallery would do. They also believe in using art as a tool to educate about science. And they even push the boundaries sometimes to attract the hard-to-get crowd of 15-25yo. Recently they had an exhibition on bio art, which had to have a ‘funeral’ when it ended to dispose of the art. I wish I had seen that!

The challenge for long-standing institutions is to deal with an audience that has changed and wants to participate in the experience and with new environmental paradigms (climate change, etc). The Smithsonian – with 200 scientists and a great deal of ongoing research – is flipping the traditional museum inside out by bringing the ‘behind the scenes’ to its audience. The Museum of Life & Science is doing something similar with a one-month long challenge where visitors participate in an research project with daily tasks. And this produces real data, used for real research. Now, that’s revolutionary, a genuine two-way exchange between the museum and its audience.

The participants also talked about science lounges / cafes / hackerspaces and the individualization of museum experience through technology but to me the two ideas I will remember are:

– Combining art and science

– Turning your audience into one of your scientist/curator

So, what do you think? Have you come across any other idea worth sharing to reinvent the science museum of the future?

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