Chapter 3. From Closed Exhibits to Open Labs

The Continued Evolution of Science Museums

Oliver Medvedik

Growing up in New York City, I have vivid memories of taking class trips during grade school to the American Museum of Natural History. Located right across the street from Manhattan’s equally historic Central Park, I remember the breathtakingly realistic dioramas of stuffed and mounted wildlife, representative of every continent. Posed within meticulously crafted environments that captured their habitat and behavior in a three-dimensional snapshot, they were encased behind walls of glass. Despite their continued haunting beauty, they also unwittingly captured forever a past outlook on science’s interaction with the public. The exhibits said almost as much about the societal mindset that had created them as they did about the flora and fauna held within. With the work of science hermetically sealed off, only to be gazed at with passive awe, they placed the uninitiated public squarely to one side of the scientific divide.

On few occasions, as young students, we sometimes managed to get a glimpse of the scientific work that went on behind the scenes. Once, we even got to go on a special trip to the geology laboratories that were closed off to the general public where the staff scientists analyzed specimens for the museum. At that time, during the early 1980s, that was as close to interactivity as it got for me at a science museum. However, things have been rapidly changing, and it seems that the spirit of the late '60s has finally penetrated science museums around the globe.

Interactivity at the Exploratorium

But just what is the mission of a museum these days, especially one dedicated to the dissemination of science? According to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, one definition is “a building in which interesting and valuable things (such as paintings and sculptures or scientific or historical objects) are collected and shown to the public.” Simple and to the point as far as storing and displaying artifacts is concerned, but what about when it comes to science and technology museums?

With the advent of the Exploratorium in San Francisco in the summer of 1969, the science museum was effectively reinvented. Started by the physicist Dr. Frank Oppenheimer, the Exploratorium was to be an entirely new way of educating the public. A space where interactivity was the rule, with static hands-off displays being replaced by hands-on exhibits that encouraged the public to tinker, engaging the additional senses of touch and sound.

This radical departure from the traditional, staid museum caught on rapidly, with science, technology, and even math museums around the nation vying to outdo one another in the depths of interactivity. In this era of high-bandwidth connectivity, 3D printers, and cheap, fast electronics, the tools at the disposal of the science museum curator offer unprecedented flexibility to design immersive scientific exhibits.

Exhibits are one thing, but museums—ever on the lookout for the next wave in the promotion of science—are now opening up their spaces to the teaching of science, technology, and medicine. As one example, the Liberty Science Center, opened in 1993 in New Jersey, has multiple laboratories where students can do projects and take courses. There are even teleconferencing links for students to talk to surgeons live during open-heart surgery!

The American Museum of Natural History also offers a diverse variety of hands-on, after-school research programs available for students, in subjects as diverse as biotechnology and astronomy. Other museums, such as the New York Hall of Science, along with the Exploratorium on the West Coast, play host to the annual Maker Faire, the wildly popular gathering of makers, doers, tinkerers, and inventors.

With all this happening at science museums, is there anything else left for them to do? Have we possibly reached the limits of public involvement in science and technology?

Open Labs Reach Science Museums

The emphasis on citizen science-based initiatives has definitely not escaped notice in science museums around the world. This past month, I was privileged to visit and help organize and run several biotechnology workshops held at the Zhejiang Science and Technology Museum (ZJMST) just south of Shanghai, in the city of Hangzhou in China (see Figure 3-1 and Figure 3-2). Part of its stated mission is to lead the development of science museums in Zhejiang Province and to disseminate scientific knowledge to the public. Along with my friend, neuroscientist Dr. Pia-Kelsey O’Neill from Columbia University, I embarked on the trip at the request of Bing Zhu, the deputy director of the International Department of ZAST, the Zhejiang Association for Science and Technology. ZAST is tasked with helping to promote scientific outreach within the province of Zhejiang. Each province in China has its own Association for Science and Technology, with similar missions. Upon arrival, we were quickly introduced to Mr. Li Ruihong, the director of the science museum. Ever since the initiative to promote interactive exhibits was launched at the Exploratorium, the continued evolution of science museums and the expanding roles that they can play as advocates of science has certainly taken root around the world. After many discussions with staff at ZJMST, it quickly became apparent that they were ready to start moving beyond what had been achieved thus far. Our brainstorming discussions started to envision how open labs could function in spaces such as science museums.

A New Community of Science

Where do I see the evolution of science museums heading? With the flexibility inherent in their mission as public institutions dedicated to the promotion of science and technology to all citizens, I believe that they are uniquely poised to play a central role in helping to launch citizen-science initiatives. They can act as hubs for the planning, gathering, and analysis of data gathered from a variety of crowd-sourced projects. They can serve as a fertile meeting ground between educated amateurs and trained scientists. And not least, like community biotechnology laboratories and hackerspaces, with no inherent publish-or-perish imperative, science can be more freely pursued here in the most positive sense of the term "amateur": for the sheer love of gathering knowledge.

Those who have participated in shared coworking spaces, either community biotech labs or other hacker spaces, have experienced firsthand the need for more spaces that facilitate such interactions. With the addition of community laboratories, a huge step will be taken, not just toward the global accessibility of scientific information, but for the practice of science as well. Will the establishment of open community laboratories within science museums harbor the emergence of a sort of new secular cathedral? Will there be a global race among museums and nations to outdo one another in making the skills, tools, and philosophy of science and technology accessible to everyone as a result? If yes, then this is a trend I will certainly be supporting.

Staff of Zhejiang Science and Technology Museum practice pipetting for a multiplex PCR and gel electrophoresis workshop used to identify several species of animals for the purposes of food identification
Figure 3-1. Staff of Zhejiang Science and Technology Museum practice pipetting for a multiplex PCR and gel electrophoresis workshop used to identify several species of animals for the purposes of food identification
Staff of Zhejiang Science and Technology Museum use electrodes placed on the surface of their skin and connected to a SpikerBox, an inexpensive open source device used to amplify and measure the rates of action potentials traveling through neurons
Figure 3-2. Staff of Zhejiang Science and Technology Museum use electrodes placed on the surface of their skin and connected to a SpikerBox, an inexpensive open source device used to amplify and measure the rates of action potentials traveling through neurons