Science museum or playground?

I approve of this article criticizing the dumbing down of science in museums. I think a lot of science museums need a good sharp kick in the pants, because they are going too far down the road of pandering to mass media sensations — our local museum is running a big show on the science of Star Wars, and that article is complaining about the exhibits at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia about “Real Pirates” and “Chronicles of Narnia”. These are real concerns, and there has been a steady drift away from challenging attendees with interesting ideas towards merely entertaining them.

On the other hand, some flash and dazzle is a way to get the younger set involved. Museums, especially ones geared for younger family members, shouldn’t go too far the other way in pretending that popular culture doesn’t exist, or become too dry and serious. When we lived in Philly, we’d occasionally (not often, though — as the article points out, these places have become absurdly expensive) take the kids into center city, and walk down Benjamin Franklin Parkway to Logan Circle, and we’d catch of few of the museums there. The Franklin Institute was always the one with the caravans of school busses outside and the mobs of kids running through it, so we knew what we were getting into there. I always preferred the Academy of Natural Sciences museum myself — it was just across the street, and it had lots more substantive science on display.

We need a balance. It sounds like the Franklin Institute has gone too far in one direction, but it’s still filling an appropriate role…except, maybe, for that “Narnia” thing. I don’t see how to make a science story from a complete fantasy without even a technological angle to its story.


  1. craig says

    I was a weird kid, because I LOVED museums that were smelly dusty old places that hadn’t been changed in almost a century… where the displays and dioramas themselves were almost ancient historical artifacts.

    Some of the saddest moments I experienced were showing up at the science museum and history museum and finding my favorite ancient displays being torn down, the old oak and brass windows full of crumbling displays replaced with sleek 1980’s hallways with plastic curved edges and computerized diplays that guided your experience.

  2. Moggie says

    Not sure what your objection to a “Real Pirates” exhibit is: given the link between pirates and global warming, that seems like a legitimate topic for a science museum.

  3. I am me says

    Just out of interest, how are museums funded? If they need to generate their own cash I can understand, if not condone, what they’re doing.

  4. says

    Heh…or you could have the situation like we had at the Royal Ontario Museum where no-one would fund the Darwin exhibit…

  5. craig says

    “Not sure what your objection to a “Real Pirates” exhibit is.”

    Maybe it’s sponsored by the RIAA and documents the atrocities of file sharing?

  6. JJ says

    I live in Boston, and we’ve got a pretty decent Museum of Science here. I went to see both the “Science of Star Wars” and “Lord of the Rings.” They did 2 things. First, both had a focus on special effects and technology (LOTR had a display about the software developed for the movie & another that allowed you to “hobbitize” yourself next to someone else you came with.) While not be “hard science” per se, they were at least trying.

    Second, and more importantly, is these exhibits get people IN the museums! Apart from the obvious financial benefits to the museums, they heighten the general populace’s awareness of them.

    PZ mentions busloads of children, but those children aren’t there of their own volition, but because there schools brought them there. A ton of people come to see these special exhibits. Will some people come and see ONLY these exhibits? Sure, but you’ll also get a bunch of people that never bothered with a science museum before who take a look around and say, “Well, since were here . . . ” and expose themselves to the rest of the science in the museum, which in turn can, at best, open their minds and hearts to the beauty and wonder of science, and at worst, plant a seed that perhaps science museums aren’t nearly as boring as they previously thought.

  7. Christophe Thill says

    Oh, but you could make a really great exhibition about Narnia. It would show some photographs and ms of CS Lewis, talk a bit about his life and works, and his philosophy. Some original editions of the books. Diagrams summarizing the characters, their relationships. A decoding of the Christian metaphores and Lewis’ semi-proselytizing intentions. And of course, some stuff from the movies: costumes, props, storyboards… I’m sure it would be more interesting that the movies themselves. And I’d gladly go and see it.


    But it has absolutely nothing to do in a science museum…

  8. Rarus.vir says

    “I don’t see how to make a science story from a complete fantasy without even a technological angle to its story.” Can you say, Discovery Institute?

  9. Roger says

    Here in the UK, one of the small but important achievements of the Labour government has been the re-introduction of free admission to most museums. In fact I’m looking forward to seeing Professor Dawkins in a debate at the Museum of Natural History in Oxford this October. (Though sadly this is a paid-for event!)

  10. Julian says

    Only flash and dazzle any child needs is a big honkin’ Dinosaur. Or maybe a room of flourescent rocks. Quite honestly, I think low museum turnout has as much or more to do with parents than it would with the kids.

    Then again, maybe kids were different when I was a knee-biter.

  11. Ferin says

    I think on some level a lot of science museums are just trying to figure out where they want to go over the next decades. With the success of science esque shows like Mythbusters and CSI, they’re trying to find a way to appeal to new crowds and new expectations.

    To be honest, as a kid I hated museums, but I loved COSI (Columbus’s Ohio’s science-y playground for kids), and learned a hell of a lot there while I was having fun. I think there can be a balance struck between having something fun and interesting to draw people in, and then showing them that it can open up a lot of interesting new ideas. As for the FI, the real pirates thing could actually be pretty science heavy. No too sure about the Narnia thing, but maybe that’s a good way to help draw people in.

  12. says

    #11 Roger – you beat me too it. You can spend a fantastic and cheap day wandering around the museums in central London keeping your money firmly in your pocket. I also think the NHM in London gets the balance of modern technology and traditional displays about right.

  13. ElectricBarbarella says

    Being a homeschooler, I look for what I can to “drive home” what I am teaching in a particular subject–to make it hard, real. I don’t mind, so much, the “Science Of” exhibits, as long as they are done with a leaning more towards the “Science” part as opposed to the “Flashy CGI:Here’s how they did it” part. Star Wars is actually a pretty good beginning for that: there is some real science in it that one can utilize in a compare/contrast format. What I do mind, though, is lots of “fluff”, that is like our local science museum MOSI. I do love the museum, don’t get me wrong, I have passes there and we go frequently. But what I mind are certain exhibits they have that are really nothing more than “ooooooh”.

    Take their “Disasterville” for example. It’s a series of “buildings” that you enter, and every so many minutes a “show” starts up. In one, you experience an earthquake(a floor mover–basically a vibrating floor), another a fire(lots of sounds, video monitors depicting “outside” and a little smoke), yet another a tornado(the basement of a house. A lot of loud noises, video depicting what’s happening outside and lights flickering). These are done, not for knowledge of the disaster, but for sensation. That is, you learn nothing from them.

    But, they have a “Body and Me” exhibit, that is mostly computer stuff and some babies in jars. You go from computer center to computer center, “playing” the game on it, “learning” about your body and how it works. They have a “Hollywood Squares” style game set up with actual puppets, where the person can be asked food/health questions and play against the puppets. They currently have a dinosaur exhibit that is nothing but animatronic(and not accurately sized) dinosaurs with some fancy noises.

    All in all, it isn’t very scientific for the high school set. A fun day, but not very guided or scientific. All that to say this: while I love science/history museums, unfortunately, they’ve got to gear their exhibits towards the mindset of the public–see a lot in a little bit of time and as quickly as possible; especially for school groups. It’s sad and I do agree with you that they are no longer museums, but one-day, “fun” babysitters, but that’s how it is today.

    I think I smell a blog coming on. Incidentally, I am on the advisory board for MOSI. I hope they can find my blog and see my suggestions.


  14. says

    They could talk about… um…

    how screwed a horse’s throat would have to be for it to be able to talk?

    And Leonine Growth Hormone and its effects on computer-generated main characters…

  15. Chili Pepper says

    The Ontario Science Centre had (hell, may still have, for all I know) a presentation on fake physics in movies. It was a great deal of fun: show a movie clip, stop it, explain why it doesn’t work.

    The two I remember were one from a submarine movie, where it’s travelling under the Arctic ice, and a bomb or somesuch is detonated on the surface. Great chunks of ice come raining down on the sub. The presenter stopped the movie, turned to the audience and said, simply, “ice floats.”

    The other was from the first Superman movie, where Lois is falling, and Supes flies past her, and then flies upwards to catch her. Again, the movie stops, the presenter gave a brief outline of vectors, and concluded with “she would’ve been in better shape if she had hit the pavement.”

    Masterful, truly masterful.

  16. says

    Oh, as for museums I like, Te Papa (NZ’s national museum, the place that did the colossal squid a while ago) has some exhibits like the one a while ago where you got to walk through a human body and they had, eg, a game that explained how snot works.

    And the Auckland Museum has one of those kid’s areas, except the walls are lined with labelled specimens in jars, including lots of big convoluted marine invertebrates… most kids spend at least half an hour wandering along getting chills down their spines. I’d say it’s at least part of the reason for why NZ produces so many marine biologists.

  17. Chris says

    Similar to Craig @ #2, I spent most of my free time at the science museum when I was a kid and even entertained the idea of studying “something scientific” like archaeology (I grew up to study computer science).

    I stopped spending my time there when they added art exhibits and the already mentioned computerized displays.

  18. Roger says

    You can forget silly computerized stuff as far as my kids are concerned: the highlight of the Pitt Rivers Museum (Oxford again) has got to be the collection of SHRUNKEN HEADS!!

  19. Interrobang says

    Heh…or you could have the situation like we had at the Royal Ontario Museum where no-one would fund the Darwin exhibit…

    Given how awful the ROM’s curatorship has been historically, I’m not surprised. People were probably afraid they’d screw it up. (Hey, when I can go into a museum and notice that an artifact outside of my main field of historical expertise is mis-labelled, you know you’re in really bad shape.)

  20. Benjamin Franklin says

    I feel compelled and morally obligated in an onomastic kind of way to comment on this post.

    It seems to me that Karen Heller is pissed as much or more about the economic situation as the scientific one.

    First, let us address the economic issue.
    I recenetly returned from a short, but wonderful vacation in Cape Canaveral, Florida. I took my family to visit the Kennedy Space Flight Center (which I would heartliy recommend to all), and had to pony up 140 bucks for admission. This included paying the adult ticket price of $38 for my 14 year old son. Did I enjoy paying that much for admission? NO. I considered it part of the cost of education, which also seems to be going up at a much higher rate than the rate of inflation. Harvard for my kids? Study harder, less guitar hero, get a scholarship – its the only way you’re going to Ivy League, you little ragamuffins!.

    Overpriced water and pretzels? Sure. The last time I was at the Space Center, the only negative memory I had was that the food concession charged ridiculously high prices for crappy food, so this time, the family stopped at a nice diner along the causeway to the Space Center, pigged out, and were not raped when it came time for the bill. We also brought our own waters and drinks. Easy solution.

    Now for the scientific issues, Hellers article really only addresses the traveling exhibits. From the Franklin Institue website (It is not referred to as the “Franklin” on the internets), there seem to be some rather nice permanent exhibits, such as; The Giant Heart, Space Command, Sports Challenge, The Franklin Airshow, The Train Factory, Sir Isaac’s Loft, Franklin – He’s Electric, The Franklin Institute’s Joel N. Bloom Observatory, and the Franklin National Memorial.

    Are they using pop culture as a hook to increase their draw, admittedly, yes. But I think that this is necessary to frame science as inviting, and, hopefully, attendees will visit and learn from the other exhibits presented.

    It would take several orders of magnitude to dumb down their exhibits to the level of Kenny Ham’s Flintstone, Sin and Salvation Showcase.

    Instead of beating up on the “Franklin”, how about if we all become supporters, or board members, and provide input on what exhibits to show. As for me, I’m going to put my money where my mouth is, and today, I’m going to send them a certificate of achievement, a $100 award, and a copy of Dr. Kenneth Miller’s newest book, “Only A Theory: Evolution, and the Battle for America’s soul”.

    I am going to suggest that they use this as a prize for the establishment of the PZ Meyers Award for Real Science.

    Benjamin Franklin

  21. Benjamin Franklin says

    When the hell am I ever going to learn that spellcheck and preview are my friends? Sorry for the typos.


  22. Arno says

    Gorgeous description and a very nice initiative. And the post itself was almost inspirational. Shame about the Meyers thing ;)

  23. says

    Having spent s good chunk of last Friday wandering (sans chldren) though Charlotte, NC’s Discovery Place, I can say that they are doing a decent job for pop/kid-oriented science. The Wife and I went for the travelling Pompeii exhibit, but we spent time wandering the halls, as I had been there several times as a kid (including getting separated from my tour group and thus wandering the place unguided for several hours when I was nine; That’s how I got into the basements of the MNH in DC, too).

    A lot of the old displays were still there (they have an excellent, if small, aquarium, and the large stuffed brown bear near the door is still intimidating). The majority of the place is geared toward kids. They’ve got an excellent set of “science play” areas, and the dino exhibits would have had my son drooling. They were high on detail and accuracy, too, along with a lot of evolutionary history. Even the preschooler area was oriented around magnets, dinos, and water. Overall, it’s a good spot. I hear they’re closing everything but the travelling exhibits and IMAX for renovations soon, though.

    I can also speak to the cost. Had I brought the whole family, with two adults and two kids under five, it would have been close to $80, not counting any food or gift shop runs. That’s annoying, but they’ve got to play the staff and keep a huge building running, so I’ll pony up.

  24. Eric the half-bee says

    I haven’t lived in San Francisco for years but back then the Exploratorium did an amazing job of presenting challenging science while at the same time keeping it fun and accessible. I’ve always considered it the ideal science museum. If you had degrees in physics and biology, say, you probably wouldn’t learn much about the underlying principles, but you’d be fascinated at how they helped people discover them.

    I hope that decades of budget cuts and institutional hostility to science haven’t altered the place. I spent many a happy hour there.

  25. Grumpy Physicist says

    Re: Narnia
    Well, that’s the “temporary exhibit” space at the Franklin Museum; wait a few months and it will change.

    Not all of the temporary exhibits are scientifically rigorous, IIRC they had one about Star Wars, one about animation techniques, etc.

    But a couple of years ago, the topic was “Evolution”, just before that, I forget, but it was something to do with sea creatures.

    The temporary exhibits are what they use for “glitz” to get the kids in the door; it’s something new, something that they can advertise. Museums do need to do that, otherwise they slowly decline into irrelevancy.

    The Academy of Natural Sciences, as wonderful as it is, has a significant amount of its display area devoted to exhibits that haven’t changed significantly in 50 years, and look it. But they have kept up in other parts of the museum, so they’re hanging in there.

  26. Theodore says

    PZ – Who cares if science museums go over the top. The trick is to get kids exciting enough to learn more about science. Books and universities will take it from there.

  27. Svetogorsk says

    “I also think the NHM in London gets the balance of modern technology and traditional displays about right.”

    I completely agree – I took my kids (five and three) a few weeks ago, and they were absolutely enthralled.

    The biggest surprise was that my three-year-old daughter could take or leave the animatronic elements, but was riveted by the static dinosaur egg displays – “Look! Baby dinosaurs!”

    On the other hand, I was rather taken with the main Natural History Museum in Prague, which clearly hadn’t been updated since the nineteenth century (or hadn’t been in 1997, when I was last there).

  28. Iain Walker says

    Faouloki (Comment #14):

    I also think the NHM in London gets the balance of modern technology and traditional displays about right.

    Probably, although for some reason every time I go there a lot of the modern “interactive” displays seem to be broken. Mind you, sometimes this adds to the experience – e.g., animatronic Deinonychi that wink slyly at passer-by …

    Personally I find that the best science museums are usually University teaching museums. In Cambridge, we’ve got the Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences (highlights: Burgess Shale fauna, Deinonychus skeleton in attack pose over doorway to scare the kiddies) and the University Museum of Zoology (highlights: Greenland tetrapods, squid in jars).

    About half of the Sedgwick is still a Victorian cabinet museum, stuffed with fossils with their original (and often barely legible) specimen labels, while the Zoology Museum is exceptionally good at organising and presenting specimens in their proper evolutionary context. You can visit them a dozen, two dozen times and still find something new every time, which to me is pretty much the thing you should get out of a science museum – a sense of discovery.

  29. azqaz says

    As to funding, most are reliant on donations and fees I assume, but in some places like St. Louis many are funded by tax money. This means that general admission is free to several things like the Science Center and the Zoo. Notice I said General Admission. They are adding all kinds of specialty exhibits that cost extra, and they chage quite a bit for many of them.

    I remember as a kid they had a building at the zoo where they grew some of the specialty plants that some of the residents ate. You could walk through and see the stuff growing behind windows with little plaques telling you what it was and sometimes what it was for. I thought that was so damned interesting, but that is long gone.

    Oh, and I’ll never forgive the city for what it did to the Natural History Museum. The bastards.

  30. Richard says

    A couple of months ago I visited the Ontario Science Centre in Toronto, which I remember as being pretty good. Somewhat disappointing – a number of the more sciency exhibits were out of order, but there was still a good mix. Certainly catering more to the young, which I didn’t mind because it’s important to instill a sense of wonder & appreciation.

    What horrified me was the exhibit on “how accupuncture works” – a glitzy, high-tech body model that you can reach inside, beautifully annotated with the locations of the mysterious energy flows. No mention whatsoever of the fact that it’s complete BS, doesn’t work, no evidence, etc.

    This really concerns me – actively promoting non-science as science in a science museum.

  31. MS says

    Some years ago the local science museum had an exhibit on the science of music. They obviously had not done their homework and checked with actual professional musicians, as some of the music stuff was simply wrong. It made me wonder about the accuracy of the science parts that I lacked the expertise to judge for myself, and also made look at future exhibits with a bit of skepticism.

  32. says

    3 Things:




    If that doesn’t interest kids and adults alike, I don’t know what will…maybe nuclear explosions…

  33. negentropyeater says

    It’s “Have a Pirate themed party at the Franklin”, obvious entertainement for kids, but they still manage to pretend it’s science education, look they even have an educator’s guide :

    example : “Science Curriculum Correlations”

    3.2.4 Inquiry and Design
    A. Identify and use the nature of scientific and
    technological knowledge.
    B. Describe objects in the world using the five senses.
    3.4.4 Physical Science, Chemistry and Physics
    A. Recognize basic concepts about the structure and properties of matter.
    C. Observe and describe different types of force and
    3.5.4 Earth Sciences
    D. Recognize earth’s different water resources.

    It never stops to fascinate me how they always manage to justify anything, the hypocrisy is just unbearable…

  34. Svetogorsk says

    “This means that general admission is free to several things like the Science Center and the Zoo. Notice I said General Admission. They are adding all kinds of specialty exhibits that cost extra, and they chage quite a bit for many of them.”

    That’s true in London as well, but I don’t mind – I completely accept that they need to raise extra revenue, and high-profile exhibitions is clearly a sensible way of doing it.

    The crucial thing is that the permanent exhibitions are all free again after the enforced admission-charging of the 1980s and 1990s. This was greeted with outrage, not merely for self-interested reasons but because charging flew in the face of the whole purpose of the great Victorian museums, which were set up in the first place as philanthropic institutions aimed at the entire population, regardless of their financial or social status.

  35. says

    We need more places like the Exploratorium in San Francisco. You can have interesting and fun – AND expose (i.e: play with) deep scientific principles.

  36. Chemist says

    Hey, a topic and thread I have had experience with!

    Cutting to the chase, there are two words missing here:
    1. “Edutainment” — the concept employed by most popular science museums to “educate” through the medium of “entertainment”. (Let’s face it: you gotta have a gimmick to pack in the crowds to help pay the bills.) This has worked well in many places in the past (maybe even present).

    2. “Exploratorium” in San Francisco. Used to be back in the ’80s (hope it still is today!) the “sine qua non” of science museums. They even put out rough, working prototypes of exhibits on the floor for visitors to play with, yea even wreck, to learn what was the best way to demonstrate real science concepts and “tricks”. They even published “The Exploratorium Cookbook” to show other museums and classroom teachers how to do it. When I walked through their door back in ’86 or ’87, I felt like I had died and gone to SCIENCE heaven (note: not capitalized, PZ!)!!! Hated to have to leave (when the lights went out)!

    When our local science museum opened back in ’81, there were three main shows on the weekend: an “ersatz” (as described by a review at the time) Michael Faraday doing physics back in his Royal Institution “labroratory”, an intrepid jungle explorer (complete with pith helmet and khaki costume guiding you through the “Rain Forest”, and a “real scientist” (as exclaimed by a young visitor) dressed in a lab coat doing *real* (not simulated) chemistry experiments and demonstrations. That was yours truly. Later I had to resist the idea of dressing up like Robert Boyles assistant to demonstrate “Gases and Aires”, preferring to keep my lab coat on and just go out there and blow things up (pun intended)! Had as much, if not more, fun that my audiences!

    Ahhhh, memories!

  37. Epinephrine says

    I’m very much against the way museums (musea) are pandering to the lowest common denominator, and the tendency to avoid science and go for “wow”. Particularly noxious is the notion of “edutainment”. I agree that the museum should be entertaining, but it can be engrossing and amazing without selling out completely. Science can be entertaining, especially if the person conveying it is passionate.

    I worked as a guide (and later, supervisor) at our national museum of science and technology for 6 years (good job for a student), during the 90s. I got pretty good at teaching kids about science, and engaging adults to get them interested in a display. Unfortunately, I was one of few science-trained employees. When I was hired the museum hired students in the sciences (or recent graduates), but it changed soon afterward. They began hiring students in drama and performance who claimed to be interested in science. The interviews changed from single person interviews in which one was asked questions about science to see how well one could explain a concept, to group interviews in which the “interviewees” would work together to put on little “presentations” of material that was pre-written.

    While I see their idea – that it is easier to teach a natural stage presence a bit of science than to teach a scientist to present – it’s simply wrong. The guides became incapable of handling any questions outside of the FAQ, frequently made mistakes in their explanations, departed from scripts because they felt their explanations were better (and they weren’t), and lacked the scientific breadth and depth to link other areas of the museum together.

    It’s a bad trend, and the result is that while the shows are flashy and fun, there is little substance to them (and much of it is at least slightly misleading).

  38. azqaz says

    I don’t have an issue with them generating additional revenue, but the size of the institution does not grow, and more and more square footage is used up for permanent premium displays. Bringing in a traveling display for 6 months and charging is fine, but if the display is expected to be there for the next 30 years… Some of of the institutions aren’t too bad, but some are getting out of control. Especially in light of the fact that the science content is dropping, as mentioned by others.

  39. Natalie says

    I don’t have any problem with an exhibit on Star Wars – depending on how it’s done it might be quite educational and fun. What really bothers me is the price tag. Regular admission price at the Science Museum of Minnesota is $11 per person, and if you want to see a special show it’s over $20. That is straight up reeediculous. I loved living in DC, in comparison, because nearly every museum in that town is free. Even the special exhibits are free! And I always saw tons of people there.

    The high cost of stuff like this helps maintain the educational divide between rich and poor. In DC, everybody took their children to museums. Even the hardest working, most cash-and-time-strapped single mother would find a few hours to take her children to a museum. Schools took tons of trips to museums. I think the fact that they were free had a lot to do with that.

  40. negentropyeater says

    Gee, I remember spending entire days at the science museum when I was a kid.
    I was fascinated by the “Palais de la découverte” in Paris, 30 years ago there were no exhibits about pirates or Narnia or whatever, just old fashionned experiments about Physics, Chemistry and biology, you know, that kind of stuff, with young passionate people dressed in white blouses answering questions and performing the experiments.

    Ah well, I guess nowadays science needs to be the same as show business, that’s probably one of the benefits of free market capitalism.

  41. Chemist says

    Update on my #39 post. Yes, #26, the museum the “Mad Scientist” held forth in WAS/still is Discovery Place in Charlotte, NC.

    Glad to see that “Exploratorium” is NOW not “gone missing” thanks to #27 and #38.

    (Just shows how fast PZ’s threads move when you are typing and posting a Comment!) :-)

  42. Joe says

    It’s a tough call; I may be a special case but my favourite museum in the whole world has always been the Natural History Museum Of Ireland, a strange and overlooked little place beside the National Museum in Dublin. I have loved it pretty much since I could walk, for one simple reason – it didn’t talk down to me. Ever.

    It’s a proper 19th century museum, full of slightly shabby specimens, some of which haven’t been done quite right – it has a particularly odd specimen of a hamster, which was stuffed and mounted by someone who had clearly never seen a living example, not to mention a giraffe with huge stitches up its neck. Much of the ground floor is taken up with covered display cases full of insects, and on the upper floor, you can walk along exquisite cast-iron walkways, surrounded by century-old blanched invertebrates in long jars. There was everything from a full blue whale skeleton to numberless species of thrip, all on display. The exhibits were what they were, and nobody had decided that, for example, birds weren’t terribly interesting so they’d shift them off to a corner and stick some dinosaurs on the ground floor instead – and as a result at every turn, there was a fresh wonder for me to discover, on my own, without anyone telling me what it ‘meant’.

    These days, the London Natural History Museum disappoints me (far too much emphasis on dinosaurs, and not nearly enough fish), but Dublin’s still feels like what a museum is supposed to be.

  43. Natalie says

    “my favourite museum in the whole world has always been the Natural History Museum Of Ireland”

    Oh, I desperately wanted to go to the Natural History Museum when I was living in Dublin. Unfortunately a staircase collapsed and it was closed indefinitely. We left before it reopened.

    I much enjoyed Collin’s (spelling?) Barracks, but next time I’m there I’m getting to the Natural History Museum.

  44. says

    I am going to tackle this on my blog, but something just came to me as I read through the comments–something I don’t think any of us are really thinking about, even if it makes not one whit of difference.

    Offensive material. That is to say, so many people are offended by the slightest thing today, that Museums are being forced to “dumb down” exhibits to the lowest common denominator so as not to offend. Personally, I think a true Science Museum should be offensive, as that’s what gets the person truly thinking about what they’ve seen.

    But so many people complain about the stupidest of things(witness the bruhaa over the Bodies exhibit recently–wasn’t so much about the fact that there were questions where the bodies came from, but “OMG THEY ARE NAKED!! YOU CAN SEE HIS &*^%” as in: “won’t someone think of the children!”. Meaning, these idiots forced the Museum to cover up the “naughty bits” so kids couldn’t “see” them.

    yeah–too many idiots being offended by the stupidest of things–that could be a very good reason for the dumbing down of Museums, lately.


  45. says

    The Star Wars Experience came to the Science Museum of Minnesota as a result of a survey of members. I remember filling out the survey and thinking, there is no way any of these other options are going to beat out Star Wars. A close second was probably a Mythbusters exhibit. The rest were a lot of programs on different weather, one on global warming, etc. Science by itself isn’t attractive enough to get people into a museum for science. It’s been a problem for as long as science has been around.

  46. leki says

    When I was a kid in Ottawa, there was this fantastic science museum with a huge variety of smart interactive displays and rooms and rooms filled with ‘old-school’ cabinets of science miscellany. I haven’t been back in 15 or so years, so I cannot attest to its continued greatness, but DAMN, that was an awesome, awesome museum. There was this one display in particular that I was obsessed with–it was a room built on weird angles that you wandered through to learn about perspective. It was like walking through the set of the Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

    For traveling exhibits, Body Worlds was interesting, but I was disappointed with the lack of explanation about body mechanics, physiology, etc. I suppose if one views it from an artistic point of view, the exhibit blended art and science quite well, but I was hoping for some more detail about the process of plastination and slicing and whatnot.

    Funnily enough, the regular natural history museum in my city has more legitimate science/less dumbed down science than the actual science museum.

  47. Budbear says

    One of the great joys of my (long ago) childhood were the trips to the American Museum of Natural History and Hayden Planetarium in Manhattan with my mother. It was a long subway ride from our home in Brooklyn, but I loved being there so much, that getting there was a mere distraction. It was there that my love for science was born and grew. I am still an avid visitor and am glad to see that AMNH is still the gold standard for science museums. They always manage to balance the glitz factor with real science continuously. The idea is to get the kids in there first, then show them that real science is just as interesting if not more so. When that silly Ben Stiller movie came out the attendance at the AMNH surged, and though the little ones showed up wanting to see the dino bones running about and tiny diorama people having at it, they were also introduced to cladistics in the dino halls, principles of anthropology in the culture halls, Earth history, geologic time, evolutionary theory with real evidence, biodiversity, astronomy, etc. You could see their enthusiasm at learning things they had never been exposed to before. Hey, science is fun and cool too! That’s the point. How can they understand that there is a world of adventure they can be a part of if they’re not given the chance to learn of its existence? In this media driven culture the reality is that a museum is a competitor in the entertainment market whether we find that uncomfortable or not. Museums need to find a way to attract the ignorance laden, and while they are there, relieve them of that onerous burden. Science museums! Come for the show, stay for the knowledge!
    The alternative is in Kentucky.

  48. Parsnip Money says

    As an employee of the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago in the Education/Exhibitions department, the concerns raised by PZ are hard issues that we deal with every day. The process for creating exhibits such as ‘Narnia’ and ‘Star Wars’ is more complicated than it seems: the studio that owns the rights to the film sends out a notice that they are interested in putting out an exhibition. Then they invite exhibit designers from all the major museums from around the country to come to california to make a proposal about what the exhibit would be like. Then the studio picks which exhibit they like the bet and puts their money into it. Thus, while the individual museum gets some say as to the content, ultimately the money is coming from a studio, so they have the final word. Museums respect this because having a high-profile exhibit not only brings more visitors to the museum, but it also creates awareness about other exhibits in the museum to the public. As unfortunate as having a Narnia exhibit in a science museum is, it’s likely that the museum has seen a boom in visitors since the start of the exhibit, and frankly, i’d rather have as many people in the museum space as possible so they can be exposed to the real science that is already there.
    Here’s an example that’s happening here at the MSI: we are in the process of developing a similar movie tie-in exhibit about the Indiana Jones series. As exhibit developers, we face an interesting predicament: we want to show off the artifacts we get from the studios in the best way possible to appease the studios, yet we also want the exhibit to fit into the larger vision of the science museum. Thus, we are debating what focus the exhibit should have, and have landed on the theme of modern day exploration/archaeology and the technology that goes along with it.
    Despite what you may think, semi-science exhibits such as Narnia are ultimately good for museums, and for the general public, in that they draw people into science museums that would not normally go. These people tend to come to the museum with a fresh face and really love exploring the permanent, hard-science exhibits that they may not have been exposed to. Thus, I don’t see this recent trend as the ‘dumbing down of science,’ PZ, but rather as a clever marketing ploy to get as many people as possible into the museum space to expose them to the real science that is already there.

  49. El Herring says

    Science of Star Wars?

    WHAT science?

    There is NO science in Star Wars. None. Nothing. Zero. Nada. Zilch.

    Honestly, there is more science in The Wizard of Oz than there is in all six Star Wars movies put together.

  50. amphiox says

    Science of Star Wars:

    People need air to breathe.

    Getting your hand chopped off really, really hurts.

    Um, can’t think of anythign else.

  51. Benjamin Franklin says

    There is an interesting meme developing on this comment thread; that being the correlation of science museums to beneficial & warm feelings produced by religion and churches.

    In some posts, there is almost a reactionary feeling about their old time, or all time favorite museum, and questioning about not dogma, but changes, and staying current, competing with other economic and social factors such as funding, admission, pop-culture, glitz, attractiveness, etc.

    Particularly, BudBear’s comments mirror my own youth experience, down to taking the “D train” express from the dreary, yet wonderful Kings Highway station in Brooklyn, after taking a bus to the subway, and, If economy didn’t present it’s miserly face, to get an egg cream at the newspaper stand under the subway station. From then, the magical journey through the bowels of the streets of Brooklyn, across the majesterial Brooklyn Bridge, descending once again to the subterrainian journey ending at the Museum of Natural History, to view with amazement the life sized Blue Whale, dwarfing me, while hanging serenely from almost invisible lines from the ceiling.

  52. Brian says

    Ug. If AMNH is the gold standard for natural history museums, we’ve got a long way to go. Go ahead – go to the exhibitions office and try to get an exhibit put up without some kind of ‘interactive video’ in it somewhere. And the temporary exhibits – Christ! Baseball. Chocolate. Pretty stones (pearls/gold/diamonds/whatever). And don’t forget Dragons, Unicorns, and Mermaids. Just because it’s not quite as tacky as the Science of Star Wars doesn’t make it any more substantive.

    Maybe I’m overreacting a little bit. They do try harder than most. But still, there’s this prima donna attitude of ‘We Are The American Museum of Natural History. We Do Science Better Than Anybody Else, So You Better Listen To Us.’ I worked there – I know they do amazing science (more on the research end), but they play the game just like everybody else. They just play it with UES types. Which is why, when they had the temp exhibit on Petra a few years ago, guess where one of the $15000/head Discovery Tours went? Product placement in museums – it’s the wave of the future.

  53. says

    I grew up (partially) in Cambridge MA. Lived there from the age of 10 to 14. We had the Boston Science Museum and the Museum of Comparative Zoology and the Aquarium and a dozen or so smaller museums in and around Harvard and MIT. These are the places I would go with my droogs and hang out. Most all were within about 2-3 miles of where I lived. Easy bike, bus, or walk from home. I didn’t know enough about science at the time to say whether one exhibit was good or not or better than any other. I really liked all of them… even the non-interactive ones.

    Late 2005 the BMoS had a “Star Wars: Where Science Meets Imagination” which wasn’t half bad. They had some actual props from the movies. It was interesting to see how cheezy some of the props look in reality as compared to how slick they looked on screen (bits and pieces peeling off and taped together.) It was mainly about the technology: rockets, robotics, space travel.

    I can’t see that there is anything of scientific merit in the Narnia stories though. Narnia is just plain old made up crap. I was even kinda bored with the Narnia stuff as bedtime stories. The Hobbit and LoTR was much cooler. But none of them belong in a science museum. There just isn’t, even remotely, any science in it; not that I can think of anyhow.


  54. says

    I’m so excited – I’m going to London in a week, and one of the biggest highlights for me will be hitting the NHM, the Science Museum, and the British Museum. I can’t believe that much stuff is available for free, when I had to pay $14 to go to Chicago’s Field Museum.

  55. Benjamin Franklin says

    El Herring @ #53

    Science of Star Wars?

    WHAT science?

    There is NO science in Star Wars. None. Nothing. Zero. Nada. Zilch.

    Why, sure there is.
    -analysis of civilization types. For example, (overly simplified) we are currently in a Type 0 civilization, A type 1 civilization can manipulate an entire world struction, Type 2 uses an entire solar sytem, Type 3, a galaxy. What are the qualities and requirements of each type, and how can we use this to better understand our current civilization to determine fact based predictions?

    -analysis of Faster Than Light potential for space travel

    -teaching of cyborg & robotic concepts and mechanisms,

    just to name a few.

    Reccommeded reading – Physics of the Impossible: A Scientific Exploration into the World of Phasers, Force Fields, Teleportation, and Time Travel by Michio Kaku.

  56. Brian says

    Re: Parsnip Money

    Oh, you know better than that. The people come for the temp exhibits, they look at the dinosaurs, and maybe, fleetingly, they’ll glance at some of the other exhibits. Nobody that comes to museums for Narnia/Star Wars/Jurassic Park (yes, that one was AMNH again) tie-ins cares a whole lot about North American Birds or the Hall of Pacific Peoples – or the equivalent in your museum. I’ve seen these people and I’ve heard them talk about how boring these halls are as they practically sprint through them to get where they’re trying to go.

    The only thing being served by these ‘marketing ploys’ is the museum’s bottom line. The general population would learn more science if the museum was to pay for a PSA ad on TV. But these ‘marketing ploys’ do allow the museum to pay to disseminate science to those who actually want to learn. Which is all well and good, but it’s really annoying to hear these self-deluding statements that a temp exhibit based on the Princess Bride is going to bring thousands of people in to learn about South American insect populations.

  57. Epinephrine says

    @ Parsnip Money, #51

    As an employee of the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago in the Education/Exhibitions department … Despite what you may think, semi-science exhibits such as Narnia are ultimately good for museums, and for the general public, in that they draw people into science museums that would not normally go. These people tend to come to the museum with a fresh face and really love exploring the permanent, hard-science exhibits that they may not have been exposed to.

    I also worked in a museum; 6 years on the front lines. While it’s not involved in exhibit design, it exposes one to the public, and what they take from the exhibits much more.

    I don’t think that the new style of exhibit helps anything but revenues. Visitors leave with no substantial learning having visited an “edutainment” exhibit, and often with the wrong message.

    The best way to teach science, instil wonder, and convey passion is to interact with the public. A tour through the warehouse with a curator is one of the highlights of my time at the museum, and I know that I made a difference in many people’s visits. I’m going to respond to another person, then get back to this topic:

    When I was a kid in Ottawa, there was this fantastic science museum with a huge variety of smart interactive displays and rooms and rooms filled with ‘old-school’ cabinets of science miscellany. I haven’t been back in 15 or so years, so I cannot attest to its continued greatness, but DAMN, that was an awesome, awesome museum.

    That was the National Museum of Science and Technology, I worked there for 6 years as a guide and later as a supervisor of visitor services. Unfortunately, it’s taken the route of most museums, and shed the majority of its science. It now focuses on the technology and history more than anything else, and the exhibits (one sponsored by Nortel) are not as good as the old physics hall was for showing how science works. They also went through a period in which they tried to emphasise drama and performance, even teaching the guides to juggle.

    There was this one display in particular that I was obsessed with–it was a room built on weird angles that you wandered through to learn about perspective. It was like walking through the set of the Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

    Ah, the Crazy Kitchen. Yes, a very memorable room, and one that’s still around.

    Now, this part is for Parnsip Money:

    – the Crazy Kitchen that leki remembers so well is an example of the problem with fun, flashy exhibits, but as well how they CAN work. It is not about perspective (as leki recalls) so much as about the interaction of the visual system and the vestibular system in balance. The whole room is sloped, and as a result the visual input suggests that gravity is acting on an angle, as all the straight lines that are normally parallel to gravity (door frames, walls, etc.) aren’t. To strengthen the effect, the wallpaper is a grid pattern, providing additional lines, and IIRC, lower on the wall, the wainscotting features clear lines between boards. The vestibular system meanwhile reports that gravity is acting in the correct direction. The conflict between the two systems results in disequilibrium and dizziness.

    So, it’s a great example of how one can fool the senses, and with someone to explain it can get children and adults interested, realising that there is so much more to something as simple as balance – you can encourage them to experiment, by trying to balance outside of the room with their eyes open/closed, and noting how vision aids them with their balancing, and then lead them back through the room with their eyes close, which removes the disequilibrium and dizzyness, and reduces the sloping sensation of the floor.

    What a great way to engage people – but if you don’t engage, it sticks in their mind simply as that cool slopy room, and they end up coming away with possibly the wrong ideas. The exhibit is handy, but alone it fails to inspire. When a museum is willing to spend million building exhibits, but hesitates to pay for people to explain the science and angage the public, it’s not a good sign.

    I won’t say that exhibits can’t work as you suggest they do, but I think that alone they fail pretty badly. Much as sticking children in a classroom with a textbook doesn’t work that well, a museum will be at its best when it has people to convey the information.

  58. jon says

    Whatever gets children interested in things is good. We don’t complain that fictional movies are preferred over science documentaries. But if a museum has a tie in to something fictional, then the cold shivers affect the elites! I bet they’d cancel their membership to the local philharmonic if it dares play something as recent as the later, decadent works of Sousa.

    That being said, I refuse to subject my children to Tucson’s sad excuse for a children’s museum. It’s designed to be a field trip rather than something to interest the minds of children, as if some educational rubrik was designed and the museum had to fit it rather than the museum acquired interesting exhibits and the children learn from them. It really shouldn’t be hard to make a decent children’s museum: get a mummified something, a suit of armor, a car engine under glass, lots of bugs, weird things the Ripley’s museums would otherwise keep in storage, and whatever local things old people would love to donate and you’d have a fine museum that could be geared to the curious. Tucson’s children’s museum is easily the worst museum I’ve ever had the displeasure of visiting.

  59. uncle frogy says

    If I am not mistaken P.T Barnum had a museum are we afraid that our modern museums are going that way by dumbing down the exhibits with entertainment?
    It is my understanding that most of our institutions that are involved with culture; all museums & historical sites, symphony orchestras, theaters, libraries and schools at all levels from primary to universities are suffering from funding problems.
    We do not seem to be able even to fund the physical infrastructure to keep up with maintenance let alone any improvements that may be needed either.
    The outcome is everyone fighting over a smaller share of the budget while the military and the security budgets seem to be able to grow and the portion of the budget devoted to debt grows and grows. short sighted priorities?
    I am not optimistic that the situation will change in my life time.

  60. jj says

    As a kid I used to LOVE the Hands On Science Museum in San Diego, along with the other cool museums in Balboa Park, ohh and the Zoo

  61. azqaz says

    Mr. Franklin,

    While I do lament upon the remuneration for services at many of these institutions I do so not out of a sense of outrage at the simple cost, but at the outrage that is the value. While my local institutions are reasonable in the extreme when it comes to price I still feel that the value, in all meanings of the word, is lacking. I fail to see how this opine would equate to a religious belief.

    As to not questioning dogma but changes I believe that many here are commenting that with the physical changes came a change in the “dogma”. In the past the dogma was that museums should impart knowledge to the visitor. When one left the institution you would do so knowing what a light year and parsec were so that when Han Solo made his utterance in “A New Hope” you could turn to your seatmate and say “Huh? That made no sense!” The modern dogma is that museums should inspire a sense of wonder. A feeling that science can be “Entertaining!”

    There is a great difference between science that is entertaining and entertainment that contains some science.

  62. Natterjack says

    California is not exempt. The last time I visited the Monterey Bay Aquarium, I found an alarming degree of dumbing-down. A special exhibit on sharks did not include the Latin names of any of the live specimens. Why is Carcharhinus harder than, say, Protoceratops? Signage appeared to be pitched to a grade-school audience. The E-word was conspicuous throughout by its absence, in a venue that could have been a showcase for evolutionary evidence: the fossil history of whales, for one. And I was struck by one label which described the teeth of the monkey-faced eel as designed for crushing mollusks. Designed?

    As to pirates in Philadelphia, the obvious science connection would be the life of buccaneer-naturalist William Dampier. And let’s not forget that pirates invented workers’ compensation and founded the admittedly short-lived anarchist Republic of Libertalia, on the coast of Madagascar.

  63. leki says

    @ epinephrine

    Thanks for reminding me exactly what that crazy kitchen was for. I remember getting quite ill from it, but still going through it over and over again.

  64. jj says

    “California is not exempt. The last time I visited the Monterey Bay Aquarium, I found an alarming degree of dumbing-down.”
    I disagree, actually. I think they do a good job at the aquarium (Monterey), and I’ve never seen an exhibit that doesn’t state the Latin name of a species in the entire place. They have some corny exhibits to try to bring in more people, but when all is said and done, that place is AMAZING! I knew someone who was there for the necropsy of the worlds oldest captive tuna (actually she was my Professor who did work for the place). They are a great voice in the name of marine conservation and education.

  65. Natalie says

    Joe @ 66
    Still closed? How long is it going to take them to fix that staircase. I was in Ireland last summer, so it’s been over a year already.

  66. Benjamin Franklin says

    azqaz @ #68

    While I do lament upon the remuneration for services at many of these institutions I do so not out of a sense of outrage at the simple cost, but at the outrage that is the value.

    Agreed. As I was returning home from my aforementioned vacation at an excretory relief and victual consumption stop on the way home, we were tempted to visit the “Don Garlitz Racing Car Museum. Admission to this average warehouse sized collection of neat autos would’he cost me $50. Half a Franklin, as it were. I demurred, then told the family that we would have to pass on this. Insufficient value.

  67. says

    While not a science museum, per se, the second best xmas gift I ever got was a membership to the Museum of Natural History here in NYC. The only problem is that you know all the exhibits by heart after a while.

  68. jj says

    @69, again:
    “Signage appeared to be pitched to a grade-school audience. The E-word was conspicuous throughout by its absence, in a venue that could have been a showcase for evolutionary evidence: the fossil history of whales, for one. And I was struck by one label which described the teeth of the monkey-faced eel as designed for crushing mollusks. Designed?”

    First off, the aquarium is pitched towards grade schoolers, no doubt about it, most aquariums are. And you are way off with the whole “e-word” thing. Okay, they could use some fossils (check out Long Marine Lavs and the Seymoure Center, they are affiliated with the Aquarium and are in Santa Cruz at the north end of the Bay), but the aquarium is about the educating the young ones one our vast sensitive oceans. I like how the word “design” now means “anti-evolution”, believe me, the aquarium people are not IDers. Like I said before, I’ve had professors work with aquarium (having been Marine Biology Major at UCSC), and there is no underlying message about evolution/creation they are trying to sell, just show the world what’s out there in our ocean, and make us all aware of the trouble it is in.

  69. says

    I was an Education Department employee of the California Science Center in Los Angeles for many years. I can say that this is something of an invalid discussion from the start. This is not an issue of dumbing down museums, but of the creation of a new class of destination.

    You cannot compare the Franklin to the Academy of Natural Sciences any more than you can compare Chuck E Cheese’s to Las Vegas. These are not equivalent institutions. Persisting in calling The Franklin, the Exploratorium, and their ilk, “museums” is placing them in a class where they do not belong and cannot be compared. Museums are collection-based institutions where actual research is performed. These science centers serve a completely different purpose. They are there to get kids interested in science and show them a very few concepts to get them excited about it and thinking in the right direction.

    Obviously, we need both types of places, but judge a true museum against a science center, and the science center will always come out the worst for content – but that’s not its point. The museum will always come out the worst for the ability to convey the interesting and valuable nature of science to 99.5% of children – but that’s not its point, either.

    So, if we stop labelling any science-oriented building where kids go on a field trip as a “museum,” then this whole issue pretty much disappears.

  70. says

    I have lived in Saint Paul for almost 20 years and have never been a fan of our science museum. I got excited when they moved to a brand new building, but was sorely disappointed when I went to visit. The exhibits contain little information and are not grouped in any particular way.

    Of course, I’m spoiled because my parents took me to the Ontario Science Center in Toronto when I was a kid. Now that’s a science museum.

  71. says

    Colin Purrington has been accumulating an interesting collection of signage from zoos and museums about evolution which you all might like to check out. It shows both good and bad ways in which these places represent evolution, and shows just how subtly you can replace evolution with ‘change’ and stop teaching our kids while making their easily offended parents happy.

  72. El Herring says

    Benjamin Franklin – I still insist that there is NO science in Star Wars.

    Sure, there’s a robot or two, as everybody knows. But they are used simply as comic characters. Replace them with a couple of annoying kids, and what have you lost?

    Lots of fancy gadgets, sure, but that’s all they are – gadgets. Their workings aren’t explained, nor do they need to be. The plot doesn’t require it.

    Faster than light travel is used as a plot device, but not explained or analysed in any way. It’s just used for a fancy special effect.

    Light sabres – what the hell are they? I’ll tell you – they’re just swords. OK, they’re made to look as if they’re made of light, but they’re still just swords. All glitter, no substance. Does anybody bother to explain how they are supposed to work? No.

    Hell, you could rewrite the whole saga as a romantic western or fairy tale, and lose nothing in the process. There is absolutely nothing in the entire Star Wars story that hinges on any aspect of actual science or scientific speculation. I stand by my original comment.

  73. Steve Marley says

    I find what passes for science museums these days to be a major disappointment. There are hordes of children running from one interactive display to another, often searching for the exhibits that are functioning properly. Most museums are chaotic, noisy places that don’t seem to offer much in the way of “focused learning”. I’ve taken my own children to many of them across the country and always tried to ask them “what did you learn today that you hadn’t known about before?” For the most part, their memories were of animated rubber dinosaurs, dramatic IMAX images and vague recollections of “playing” with an interactive display. My kids had a difficult time remembering any concept they could use to establish a foundation of awareness or having discovered a single interesting subject for continued study. At best, they came away with the general feeling that science can be “fun” – without understanding the reward of knowledge requires some effort. Too frequently, children come away with little more than an overpriced book or plush toy animal from the huge (and well placed) gift shop.
    I understand from reading a few articles about museum management that administrators and curators are very aware they are competing for those discretionary “entertainment” dollars with sporting events, movies, concerts and theme parks. However, it may be a self destructive policy to chase those all those potential dollars by abandoning the “core” mission of public education. You end up with a “hyped-up” educational institution that cannot match thrills of the latest amusement park ride, but has a much higher overhead than required of the old “cabinet” museum. In these old school museums, many children (some of them today’s top scientists) took the time to study each diorama, read every word of a displays description and marvel at the fossils in the wooden cases. Perhaps I’m just a grumpy old man, but miss those dark, quiet places where you could slow down and gaze at a single, amazing specimen for 5 or 10 minutes.
    Is it any wonder that so many children are diagnosed as having ADD?

  74. says

    You mention the cost of the museums, but if you approach it a bit more rationally, they aren’t that expensive. A one year membership, individual or family, costs about as much as 2 separate one day tickets. Most of the museums in the area allow free admission to their museum to people with membership at another museum. If you travel, many out of state museums discount admission or give free admission to those with museum membership. When my child was little we would buy one membership per year and have unlimited entry to most of the museums in Philadelphia. When you visit museums frequently, the cost is much less and quite affordable for a single parent. Membership may include passes to some extra fee events, invitations to members only events, and parking passes, which are just some more incentives to join. When you tell them you like/dislike an exhibit, they are more interested in the opinion of a member, than a one day visitor. Membership also allows you to by-pass the long lines.

    Philadelphia is an excellent place to visit for museums, since they are all so close – you can walk from one to the next.

    Almost unlimited visits to most of the museums for the price of 2 separate visits? That, over a year of frequent visits, is very affordable.

  75. bsci says

    There seem to be a few people with with Chicago Museum of Science and Industry connections. I stopped by there last summer and it was extremely depressing. While some of the other critiques here focus on the pop-media themed exhibits (it was a CSI exhibit when I was in Chicago), I was horrified at the low quality of the fixed exhibits (this was after an expensive renovation of the whole museum).

    Most of the exhibits presented objects with little room for answering or asking why or how. There were few things for children to play when where playing was education (i.e. the amazing SF Exploratorium style). Pressing a button and seeing a video is rarely education.
    Some of the display text used such complex wording that if people knew the words, they probably already knew the science. In an effort to “modernize” they did things like having a computer science area with almost no clear content, but 10+ digital projectors flashing “1’s” and “0’s” all over the floor along with a lot of exhibit related noise. This overwhelmed many of the children and made it impossible to concentrate on anything (not to mention, I can’t imagine the cost or the wasted donations for that many digital projectors).

    The two best things I saw there were old exhibits. There was the live chick hatchery and dozens of gearing mechanisms to turn rotational into linear motion. Those gears where buried in a stairwell with no explanation and were clearly a remnant of a better exhibit efficiency in gearing.

    When I left, I really couldn’t figure out what they goal of the museum was and why they expected people to take away from it.

  76. Budbear says

    I certainly can understand your feelings on this subject and would never minimize your knowledge of the inner workings of the museum, but I think you may be overinvested a bit in personal outrage fueled by honest frustration. I agree that not every individual that is lured into a museum by some loopy pop culture tie-in is going to have some sort of science epiphany. That being said, there are those who will. I have known some. You may be upset about “pretty stones”, but I got my god-soaked sister in to the Hall of Minerals and Gems to see the diamonds, but before she left I managed to get her to understand the basic chemistry of mineralogy and she knew more about why things look different than when she walked in. Now ,granted, she may have not done so if I wasn’t there to steer the conversation, but maybe that is what is lacking. The personal touch of an interested teacher (as per #62). Also, one of her grandsons was introduced to the Hayden by me and is now pursuing a degree in aerospace engineering and has told me that interest was kick-started by his first Planetarium visit with me.
    Even if it is a small percentage that go on to achieve an appreciation of the things we work so hard at understanding, it is a percentage that would not have done so if not put there in the first place. Please be kind to us and not accuse us of delusion as to the efficacy of such goings-on, but understand that we see this in terms of practicality. As you admit, these things pay for the real science that goes on. Museum directors are but whores in a global bordello. None of us are pure. You have my deepest gratitude for working at the AMNH and helping make my life better.

    Benjamin Franklin:
    We took the N train from the Kings Highway station, although back in the 50’s and 60’s it was called the Sea Beach Express.It seemed that every station in NYC in those days had a candy store/newspaper stand next to it selling egg creams (whatever happened to that exclusively NYC institution?) among other local delicacies. Ah, such memories!

  77. Parsnip Money says

    I just want to reiterate what I said in an earlier comment as some responders seemed to get the wrong message. Despite what the anecdotal evidence says, research and evaluation with museum guests has shown time and again that ‘flashy’ exhibits do indeed draw people to the museum who would have never gone, but also these individuals actually become regular museum-goers. The point is not that people are going to come to the flashy exhibits and then leave with nothing else, but rather that the flashy exhibit serves as a point of interest that draws people to the museum who had simply never come to the museum before, and succeeds in not only keeping them there after the flashy experience, but keeps them coming back as well. Although this may seem odd, I trust the research; enough anecdotal evidence i’m sure could be provided by both viewpoints to make a convincing argument. As a side note, it’s important to realize that museums don’t just do whatever the hell they want to do and then see how the public responds; there is an extremely lengthy (i.e. 3 year long) process of evaluating and prototyping every part of every exhibit to make sure that the exhibit maximizes the precious time that guests give them.
    Another point that i’d like to contend is the commonly held belief that ‘museums just do things for the revenue.’ speaking from my experience designing exhibits, i can tell you that this is patently untrue. while a lot of museums do indeed charge admission, museums are non-profit organizations, and the revenue must be generated to offset costs that the museum goes through on a daily basis. the money for new exhibits in most cases comes from donors, not from revenue. When a museum charges extra for a traveling exhibit, it’s because the exhibit is costly to develop, transport, and maintain, not because the boardroom executives want to pocket more cash.

  78. Don't Panic says

    Having had ~40 years of experiences with science museums (repeated visits to some 14+ and casual visits to at least half-again that number) I had to weigh in. I too am a bit disappointed by the move towards glitz and fantasy. I also generally think the introduction of computer “simulations” was a bad move overall. I don’t think kids get all that much out of them; good ones can teach kids something but most are quite mediocre or even piss-poor.

    I have fond memories of Boston’s Museum of Science, in the early 70’s at the tender age of ~10 my mother used to drop me and my brother (2yr older) off for the day. I loved that place and a visit a year ago didn’t disappoint — I think it’s generally retained it’s commitment to actual science. The SF Exploratorium is a great place and smaller places like Aurora, IL SciTech (mentioned above), Lansing, MI Impression 5 and Rockford, IL Discovery Center work off that same model on a smaller scale but to good effect. I’ve been pretty disappointed about Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry — perhaps too much “Industry” and not enough science.

    I visited the Star Wars exhibit as it travelled through at the MSI. It was kinda’ cool to see the props and all but I felt the actual learning was quite limited. My 10yr old son, a big Star Wars fan (who else hums the Darth Vader’s theme regularly), basically blew through the exhibit pretty quickly, unimpressed for the most part.

  79. says

    @ chemist #44

    How long did you work there? I attended every one of those shows at one point or another as a kid. I remember attaching myself to one of the rainforest tours during my “groupless” excursion. Given that, maybe I was in your audience! Watching a guy turn a penny to “silver” and “gold” cemented science as cool for me. They’re still doing some demo shows, but I didn’t hang around for the content this time to see what had changed.

  80. Cliff Hendroval says

    Science of Star Wars?

    WHAT science?

    There is NO science in Star Wars. None. Nothing. Zero. Nada. Zilch.

    You forgot anthropology, specifically technological convergence: despite great temporal and spatial displacement, cultures will inevitably invent the Cuisinart.

  81. says


    I’m not arguing the cost(for me) as the cost of a membership to a decent museum is always justified versus the cost of a one day ticket. I don’t mind paying extra for traveling exhibits such as the Bodies Exhibit, but frivolous exhibits such as “The Science of Magic” (the last exhibit we had) were not worth the extra cost. The new Dino exhibit is as I said, animatronic(and poorly done) dinosaurs (10 in all) with a few fancy fake plants. It’s $3 each for that. Not worth it.

    I’ll gladly pay extra for good stuff worthy of my money. I just like being treated as though that extra money I don’t spend is a hardship on them, if I cannot be guaranteed a good spend.


  82. Parsnip Money says

    quick response to bsci @ 82:

    here at the MSI we are aware that some of our fixed content needs work. I don’t know who told you that there was a whole-museum renovation, but actually that just started 2 months ago with our Science Rediscovered program. We have just closed 3 major areas of the museum for an entire, $205 million revamp. Some of the stuff really needed it, especially the 80s-tastic hall of basic science.
    I’m surprised at your experience with the NetWorld exhibit, it has routinely been one of the favorites of visitors aged 10-14 since it opened a couple of years ago, and our evaluations of the experience it provides guests have been suprisingly good, especially in regards to the content. People come away with a lot more than we expected. I’m sorry that it wasn’t your favorite, it’s hard to please everybody all the time. As far as the gears, those have been in the green stairwell untouched since the museum opened 75 years ago. they’re not remnants of a past exhibit. I find that the text that is supplied with the gears is actually really great, perhaps you missed it as you were walking by.
    Everyone comes to museums for different reasons. As I mentioned in an above comment, museums would never put an exhibit piece on the floor without extensive evaluation data showing that it fulfills the goals of the exhibit and the vision of the museum, which for us is “to inspire the inventive genius in everyone.” The reason that we are undergoing an extensive renovation is that when you are running the largest museum in the Western Hemisphere, it’s hard to keep the content of all the exhibits up with the current science and changing needs of the target audience, which for us is kids aged 8-14. I’m sorry you did not enjoy your visit, I think you should give it another try the next time you are in chicago and you will find an entirely changed museum.

  83. TonyT says

    I’m glad PZ that I’m not the only person bothered by this. I’ve was really upset when I went to the Chicago Field Museum after many years to find out that it has turned into some kind of interactive fun park for kids.

    I remember the section on anticent egypt, and instead of having all the artifacts in a single room, they put them inside a giant fiberglass pyramid where the people are suppose to walk through it as if they are in an Indiana Jones movie. The worst part was how they incorporated the artifacts into the pyramid as if they were just props instead of something really special. The artifacts didn’t even have cards to tell people what they were or where they came from! “Oh look at the Mummy!”

    The Chicago Field Museum also has a very large stuffed gorilla which is known as Bushman. The gorilla lived most of it’s life at the Lincoln Park Zoo and then when it died back in the 40’s they stuffed it and put it in the museum. It was a very popular exhibit and anyone could go up to it and read about it’s history, which was a little history on the Chicago area as well. Now when you go to the Field Museum, Bushman has been put in the basement near the bathrooms and food court, and the only thing it says inside the case is a card reading “Bushman”.

    Aren’t the items themselves suppose to be the attraction? Why don’t they just keep them in a glass case in a hallway with a description of them? Again, the items are the attraction, not the case they are in.

  84. gwangung says

    Aren’t the items themselves suppose to be the attraction?

    This is akin to the facts teaching themselves.

    Except, empirically, we know that they don’t. There are a number of stylistic and methodological ways that we teach information; they change with the audience and they change with the times.

    Ignoring that ignores the empirical research done. I thought scienceblog-types were very much into empirical research and not ideology?

  85. Bureaucratus Minimis says

    If I am not mistaken P.T Barnum had a museum are we afraid that our modern museums are going that way by dumbing down the exhibits with entertainment?

    Yes, Barnum, a Unitarian(*), had a “museum” in NYC but it was more like Ripley’s than Smithsonian. He was a consummate showman.

    Barnum’s museum was so popular that he posted copious, large “this way to the egress” signs to trick people into exiting so he could keep the line moving and the nickels coming in.

  86. Epinephrine says

    Parsnip Money

    Despite what the anecdotal evidence says, research and evaluation with museum guests has shown time and again that ‘flashy’ exhibits do indeed draw people to the museum who would have never gone, but also these individuals actually become regular museum-goers. The point is not that people are going to come to the flashy exhibits and then leave with nothing else, but rather that the flashy exhibit serves as a point of interest that draws people to the museum who had simply never come to the museum before, and succeeds in not only keeping them there after the flashy experience, but keeps them coming back as well.

    I’m sorry, your answer just sounds like, “we have more visitors, yay!”

    That just demonstrates that new people are going to a museum, not that anyone is actually learning anything. And it relates very nicely to the criticism that museums are after money. Everything expressed there relate to museum managements concern of drawing in new people, getting them returning, and not at all about fostering scientific and technological literacy.

    You’ve said that you “trust the research”; that’s well and good, but what *is* the research? there are two basic questions that research tends to address: does it boost attendance, and do they learn anything? I’ll grant you attendance boosting.

    Unfortunately, the question that they tend to ask to address the question of learning is, “Is a flashy, semi-science exhibit more educational than nothing?”

    After all, testing to see if people learned anything from an exhibit is a little pointless, it’s not a good control. Pretty much any experience can teach a percentage of people something.

    I’ve watched the museum test exhibits, and sure, some small amount of learning occurs between not having attended an exhibit and having attended it, but this isn’t proof that the new style of exhibit works better to disseminate information, it simply justifies what they already want to hear. That going to their exhibit helped with correctly answering a few pre-selected questions that the exhibit is likely to convey. Additionally, it only counts up correct answers, and doesn’t penalise for answers that are wrong, that were inspired by an exhibit.

  87. Benjamin Franklin says

    El Herring @ #79

    Light sabres – what the hell are they? I’ll tell you – they’re just swords. OK, they’re made to look as if they’re made of light, but they’re still just swords. All glitter, no substance. Does anybody bother to explain how they are supposed to work? No.

    We are just arguing the semantics of scimitars. Speaking of which, whoat would be the physics and engineering required for a light sabre. We certainly have lasers that can cut, so the problems would be ones of power supply, miniaturization and control mechanisms.

    Perhaps I have you at a disadvantage because in college I took a course taught by Dr Kaku on “The Physics of Science Fiction”. An amazing instructor, (Dr. Kaku was co-founder of, and one of the co-authors on the first paper on string field theory) it was a truly enlightening class.

    I still recommend you read Kaku’s books, listen to his radio show, or even visit his website or myspace page for a journey into wonderful.

    For a great interview with Dr. Kaku – go to and learn something new!

  88. Bureaucratus Minimis says

    Re: Edutainment

    They type of kid whose going to grow up to be a SJ Gould or PZ Myers doesn’t need the edutainment “hook” — these kids will research on their own. Museums are a playground and high secular temple to them.

    The next tier of kids needs some gee-whiz stuff to get their attention, but once you have it they might actually learn something.

    It’s important to not completely forget the average kids. They need a lot of gee-whiz, and will probably never go into research, but may actually learn something. They are the majority, after all.

    Remember, these are kids.

    Also, don’t forget that under- or poorly-educated parents accompanying their kids might actually learn something, too.

  89. bsci says

    Re: Parsnip Money #89
    Checking some news sites, it seems like the last revamp was mostly for the exterior and parking lot and not the exhibits.

    People come away with a lot more than we expected. I’m sorry that it wasn’t your favorite, it’s hard to please everybody all the time.

    I stand by my statement that the “Networld” exhibit was terrible. I’m well more than an amateur with regards to cognitive science and computers and I can say that there are few better distractors than filling a room with randomly moving white dots and lots of noise. Not only did I dislike being there, but, looking around, 90% of the children were running around rather than engaging with anything (That’s the effects of distractors) Perhaps there are some things of value in that display, but they museum needs to really think about how it can attract people into a room without flashing lights. Perhaps I am an SF Exploratorium-style purist, but they seem to have no problem getting children and adults of all ages to interact with their exhibits without flashing lights. The best I can say is if you think people are coming away with more than you expected, your expectations are way too low.
    What parts of this exhibit were designed to “inspire creative genius” and what metrics did you use to measure success?

    As far as the gears, those have been in the green stairwell untouched since the museum opened 75 years ago. they’re not remnants of a past exhibit. I find that the text that is supplied with the gears is actually really great, perhaps you missed it as you were walking by.

    I went up and down the entire stairwell slow (like I said, this was one of my and my daughter’s favorite parts) and only noticed the small signed saying what each gear is supposed to do. If there were any more global signs, they were very well hidden. If the museum is doing a revamp, perhaps that can use the gears in a better manner.

    I want to be clear that I am being very critical and probably putting you on the defensive, but I don’t want to diminish the serious education work that you do. I just have very high standards and know that the museum can be done better.

  90. Epinephrine says

    @ Bureaucratus Minimis, re: types of kids, museums

    I agree that those who will be drawn into science deeply are likely to have this done anyway, by some means.

    Obviously, reaching more people results in more learning opportunities (at least in a measure of number of potential people affected), but it seems to come with a sacrifice in the quantity and quality of the information.

    And also obviously, good exhibits will be more likely to impart knowledge, much as a good book is better able to. In my mind a good exhibit tries for a bit of both ends of the spectrum, but I certainly don’t want to see museums exhibits give up on those who want depth – that’s one thing a museum can provide that other places can’t. You can entertain and even educate a child at a science centre, with a video or tv show, but a museum houses a huge collection to allow those who are interested to learn more.

    I know that the museum I worked at only displayed about 4% of its collection, and that number is likely lower with the increasing floorspace devoted to flashy things like a ride-on snowmobile that bounces.

    A good exhibit, to me, is one like the birds display in our local Museum of Nature. It has hundreds of specimens, some in dioramas, but for the most part simply perched in display cases. There are a few little games, a “bird hospital” area for kids to pretend to nurse stuffed animal birds and so on, but the clever thing is the way that the exhibit is arranged. One case will have a lineup of different birds in front of their eggs, and kids can just marvel at the differences in colours, sizes, shapes; they can see that a black bird might lay a plain egg, while another bird’s egg is spotted. If you read the panels, you learn a lot more – why that eggs is pointed, this one speckled, and so on. Each display case, while offering many specimens to examine for those that wish to, has a theme – wing shape, beak shape, patterns, size, legs/feet, colours/migration patterns…

    It’s a wonderful exhibit, with no appeal to recent movies, no flashy holograms or anything, yet the kids love it, the adults love it, and I bet people come away not just knowing something, but also potentially thinking, generalising from what they’ve seen. By arranging the display to emphasise certain features, even without reading the panels one can begin to see patterns among them.

  91. Parsnip Money says

    Epinephrine @93:

    I’ve already addressed the issue of ‘museums after people for their money’…it’s simply not true. most museums are non-profit and revenue generated by visitors is often the smallest fraction of the total museum’s intake. It’s all well and good to make your first priority “fostering scientific and technological literacy,” but that doesn’t matter if no one is in your museum. Money is spent in a fine balance at museums between getting people to visit and delivering content at an engaging and appropriate level.
    Also, I think you are a little confused as to what I am arguing. PZ’s post, and the topic of this thread, is the purpose of the recent movie tie-in, flashy exhibits such as ‘Narnia.’ I agree with PZ that these exhibits are not what I came to know and love museums for, and in a perfect world they wouldn’t exist. However, I’m arguing that in today’s world, capturing the time of tourists and other potential visitors is tough for museums, who have to compete with theme parks and other thrilling experiences. The only thing that I said is that although these exhibits often make me groan as well, the research shows that they are successful in getting new visitors to the museum who keep coming back. As to your other point about the content and degree of learning that is gained, that is an entirely different debate that occurs on an individual museum basis. The methods for measuring such things are often debated and can be inaccurate as you said. Each museum is different, and each has its own goals, so it’s hard to generalize about how much a guest has ‘learned’ after leaving the museum. However, that is a whole other discussion, and one that takes place after you have guests in your museum. All I am saying about this new breed of exhibits is that they are a successful way to introduce people who are unfamiliar with museums to the idea of what a museum can do in order to inspire them to keep coming back, a goal that has been proven successful. Everyone working behind the scenes at a museum is dedicated to getting as many kids (and other visitors) interested in science as possible; the methods used are constantly changing to reflect the changing nature of education in the modern world, just as teaching methods have changed dramatically in the past 30 years. At the end of the day, museums are there to continue the idea of science into the next generation, and we do everything we can to fulfill that goal.

  92. says

    Yegods, it was nearly 50 years ago that I was one of those junior-high age kids getting dis-bussed at the doors of the Franklin Institute. The walk-through heart is still there??! I’m thrilled. It blew my young mind–partly, I suspect, because I’d never heard a bass sound quite like the “lub-dub” background. I won’t pretend to be highminded even now; it was the sensual hook, the change in scale, the logical flow, that grabbed me at the same instant as the learning. That’s why Body Worlds got my attention the first time I read about it: perfect union of aesthetics and teaching, POOF, instant revelatory blossom.

    The big pendulum had a similar effect, and there was a talk about snakes by a woman with a big snake, a boa or python, I forget, that I loved too. probably kickstarted my enduring fondness for herps. She was certainly a more appealing role model than the nuns who taught us the rest of the time, who probably never got to play with snakes. Or, more’s the pity, wanted to.

    The Exploratorium rocks. Much more fun to be up close and personal at a cow’s-eyeball dissection, just e.g., than get roared at by yet another “stimulating” gadget.

    I’m thinking that it’s better to have a museum that one grows into than something that one outgrows. Time and quiet to think up one’s own questions are pretty damned important.

  93. CrypticLife says

    Going to museums is an interesting balance. On one recent trip to AMNH, we ended up spending virtually the entire day on the fourth floor tracing through their vertebrate evolution halls. It’s a neat exhibit — it’s four connected halls, and each hall represents part of a cladogram, with branches off into various niches. My son wanted to trace exactly and note the different physiological changes at each branch (reading the description and then examining the exhibited skeletons for the particular feature). He is one of those kids for whom the museum is a secular temple.

    He has little patience, though, for some of the edutainment-type stuff. It surprises me slightly, because he is still a kid, but he’s really not interested in a lot of the flashy things. When we went to the World Science Fair a month or so back, he was only slightly bemused by the animatronic dinosaur and he almost immediately judged the “science rapper” (ostensibly a performance for kids) as “weird” and wanted to go somewhere else. Anywhere else.

    So, I think there’s a point where you’ll turn off the kids who are more seriously interested in science. When you take the secular temple and make concessions to the “magic” of Narnia, it’s like you’re desecrating the temple.

    You know. . . not that we should hold anything sacred or anything (sorry, PZ, I’m with you, it’s just too easy to make fun).

  94. Qwerty says

    “Start your engines, adults 12 and older. This Wednesday is “Race Car Day,” when that great organization of higher learning, NASCAR, teams up with the Franklin for a full day of science and fumes.”

    Her article ends with the word “fumes.” And she is fuming over the lack of science in some exhibits as well as the high cost of attending one of these “science” exhibits. I would agree that the Franklin may have gone too far.

    The last time I visited a science museum was when the Science Museum of Minnesota had the Pompeii exhibit which I found worth the money. I still remember reading about Pompeii in my dad’s National Geographics. It was good to see this display as I may never get to visit Italy.

    She does make one point worth thinking about which is that if Narnia is displayed as science; then, will this tell us that science is imagination. Might as well have a creationist museum!

    Indeed, Pirates could teach science. How to use the wind to sail. How sailors used stars to navigate. Why ships founder and sink.

    Instead, the display justs romances the life of a pirate. And pirates are crooks.

    (It is interesing to note that the world still has pirates. Most of these work along the east coast of Africa and prey on small merchant vessels.)

    So, some so-called “science” museums for children are using popular culture to get people in the door for a small fortune in admittance; plus, an additional outlay of loot for food and/or the souvenir shop. Perhaps piracy isn’t dead in the Western hemisphere either; you can find it at your local science museum!