The issues facing science museums are plentiful: sparking public interest, balancing between science and fun and finding funding. These were just some of the questions raised at a meeting organised last November at Munich's Deutsches Museum, Munich. In a series of thematic workshops, more than 600 specialists took a close look at the present and the future of these institutions.
During the Make a Face exhibition at the Nemo Science Centre in Amsterdam, the children take on the role of the parents and are able to use various genes to create a virtual baby
'Nobody wants to go anymore to a natural science exhibition which consists solely of display cabinets with explanatory texts saying what is inside them. In today's highly competitive cultural environment, exhibition organisers who want to keep their public must satisfy the new demands and find the corresponding financial resources. The other constraint is the need for constant renewal, again in response to public demand. We put on one or two temporary exhibitions a year, with at least two years' work going into each one,' explains Michele Antoine, Director of exhibitions at the Musée des Sciences Naturelles in Brussels (BE).
The sixties revolution What is the best way of reaching out to various target audience, arousing their curiosity and enriching their knowledge? This is not a new problem. Even the very first science and technology museums back in the early years of the last century – such venerable scientific institutions as the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry (USA), the Deutsches Museum in Munich (DE), the Science Museum in London's South Kensington (UK), and the Paris Palais de la Découverte (FR) – provided demonstrations and opportunities for visitors to touch and activate certain devices.
'Interaction was present, but in a very different way to that of today,' explains Melanie Quin, Director of the British section of Ecsite (European Collaborative for Science Industry & Technology Exhibitions) network. 'But the real revolution in the whole approach to and presentation of science and technology came in the 1960s. This was when the Russians were the first to venture into space with their Sputnik mission, which represented spectacular progress, and the Americans began to ask questions about the way science was being taught. The idea which emerged during that decade was that one should try and put the visitor in the position of the inventor so that he or she can also learn by exploring different possibilities, asking questions and actually operating certain devices.'
In the late sixties, this new approach gave rise to a new generation of educational centres in North America – such as the San Francisco Exploratorium and the Ontario Science Centre – which were seeking to innovate and offer an alternative to the traditional museographical centres. The concept later took root in the United Kingdom and then in continental Europe, but took about 20 years to become really established. One of the engines for this growth was the use of new information technologies and audio-visual communication. These tools can now be found wherever the communication of knowledge is at stake.
Form in the service of content 'But there is a dividing line which must be clearly established. The point is not to entertain and become some kind of amusement park, but to educate. This does not of course prevent an experience-based approach. The aim is not just to disseminate knowledge but to generate interest. To do this, we have no hesitation in using well-known psychological levers. We want to fascinate, awaken curiosity, appeal to the senses and the imagination of our visitors,' explains Diana Issidorides, director of exhibitions at the Nemo Science Centre in Amsterdam (NL).
‘Form is in the service of content,' she continues, stressing how much science museums and centres contribute to educating the general public in the reality and implications of science and technology. 'In a context in which everyone is worried at the declining interest in these subjects, this role must be stressed and recognised.'
Although people like to be surprised and to have fun, they also – and perhaps above all – want to learn something and find some answers to their questions. 'We are immediately criticised if the content is too light. We are taken to task very specifically. We see this in the spontaneous reactions or during the satisfaction surveys we carry out,' points out Dominique Botbol, Head of the Department of Museological Projects at the Cité des Sciences et de l'Industrie in Paris (FR). The Cité's policy is to meet the expectations of a public who want exhibitions on subjects of relevance to society – diet, GMOs, the environment. The current Climax exhibition, for example, presents some of the possible scenarios which could result from climate change. 'The museum is becoming a forum for discussions on science and technology and their consequences, which was not at all the case when the Cité was founded 20 years ago. Our approach at that time was to explain phenomena.'
Visible Soundwaves – Universum Science Center in Bremen (DE)
But such a development also requires substantial resources. 'Money is our oxygen,' observes Goéry Delacôte, Executive Director of the San Francisco Exploratorium and chairman of the Paris Exploradome’s Board of Directors. The only way to generate the budgets needed to manage and realise the ambitions of today's science centres and museums is through co-operation. These can take a variety of forms: sponsoring, partnerships with other science centres and museums, the use of external designers, hosting travelling exhibitions, etc. 'Co-operation with the private sector is guided by financial considerations, but is not limited to this dimension,' continues Delacôte. 'It is up to the partners to express what they want and what objectives they share clearly.'
Travelling exhibition to increase awareness of traffic and children, produced by the Technopolois science centre (BE) www.technopolis.be
This is what happened in the case of an exhibition on climate change at the Deutsches Museum in Munich. 'We wanted to target the right partner,' explains Walter Hauser, Director of the museum's Centre for New Technologies. 'The first criterion was [for them] to have the scientific competences. We were looking for a partner able to contribute its own data and analyses. We also wanted a company with a local presence and a good image as our visitors are mainly from the surrounding area.' The insurance company Munich-RE, a global group based in Munich, was the final choice. It is concerned by the subject (storms and earthquakes triggered by climate change can be costly) and presenting such a subject can boost its image. 'The group’s experts contributed their know-how in terms of analysing the risks and data in this field. But the museum retained final control over content and scenography. Discussions with Munich-RE soon identified shared values which we were seeking to promote, namely a commitment to sustainable development and a desire to make the general public more aware of the risks linked to climate change, while remaining close to the facts and figures and avoiding any over-dramatising.'
Pattern Pod – Wellcome wing - Science Museum, London (UK)
'The local situation, the partnerships with scientists or local companies must help give each museum its own identity,' stresses Olivier Gies, exhibition Designer and Director of the Kunstraum GfK in Germany. 'Science centres and museums must do more to cultivate their individuality, through original presentations and subjects. Why visit a place which is the same as another you have already visited?'
The science-society interface In addition to organising costly exhibitions, another activity pursued by some museums is the holding of debates and Q&A sessions, which are both inexpensive and very interesting. Jerusalem's Bloomfield Science Museum – where many activities are aimed at both a Palestinian and Israeli public – sees itself very much as a centre for continuous learning. 'We call them dialogue groups and they are in keeping with a very old Jewish tradition. Adults, some scientists by training and some not, come together to discuss scientific subjects with researchers,' explains Maya Halévy, the museum’s Director.
Another example is Madrid's Museo Nacional de Ciencia y Tecnologia (ES) which organises 'conversations with researchers’ for children aged between eight and 14. But the most surprising initiative, which has proved a great success, is the six-hour 'science marathon' held eight times a year. 'Spanish scientists, the best in their field, each speak for about 20 minutes on their chosen subject, followed by time for questions from the audience. The 120 seats in the hall are always taken right away so we have had to start putting up a screen in the lobby. Our initial idea was for members of the public to wander in and out for the various presentations, but we have found that people generally stay from start to finish. We cover everything from nanotechnologies to life in extreme conditions. They have all been very successful.'
This move towards a combination of rigour and conviviality seems to be evident just about everywhere. 'We are moving away from mere popularisation,' concludes Ecsite’s Quin. 'The museum is becoming a place of dialogue, an interface between science and society. People already have some scientific knowledge and a certain scientific culture. They contribute their ideas and their questions. The museum's role is perhaps gradually becoming that of a forum.'
The Wheel of Invention – from the idea to the patent . This travelling exhibition was produced for the European Patents Office by the German company ArchMeDes. The focus is the potential fascination of science and technology for young people, with a combination of carefully selected objects, interactive elements and multimedia presentations. The first stage, held at the Munich headquarters, was a success. www.wheelofinvention.org
An experience unlike anything else in the world… In November 2002, the Mathematikum opened at Giessen, a small university town north of Frankfurt am Main in Germany. It is devoted to a single and, one may be tempted to think, rather unattractive ...
In addition to temporary and travelling exhibitions, a number of other projects are made possible thanks to partnerships between museums. Fatal Attraction – when animals speak the language of love is the result of a co-production between ...
Some of the science museums and centres mentioned ...
An experience unlike anything else in the world… In November 2002, the Mathematikum opened at Giessen, a small university town north of Frankfurt am Main in Germany. It is devoted to a single and, one may be tempted to think, rather unattractive subject: mathematics. Its 1 000m2 floor space is the site of about 100 interactive exhibits plus regular conferences, especially for children, debates and science weekends. 'During the first year, we had 135 000 visitors, which is more than the number of people living in the town,' notes Albrecht Beutelspacher, the centre's director. 'The success has grown since then and we should soon be self-financing.' Schools, students, families and groups of adults all come to the centre.
'Mathematikum is seen as very much part of the town and the inhabitants are proud of it. They no longer need persuading that mathematics can be enthralling. www.mathematikum.de (mainly in German but also in English)
In addition to temporary and travelling exhibitions, a number of other projects are made possible thanks to partnerships between museums. Fatal Attraction – when animals speak the language of love is the result of a co-production between natural history museums in Leiden (NL), Brussels (BE) and Paris (FR). The co-operation began right from the conceptualisation stage, making it possible to pool the necessary human resources and to share the financial and technical risks. Each museum agreed to contribute the same capital and presented the exhibition in the knowledge that it had been designed for the three sites. 'We had to know each other well to work together in a spirit of trust,' explains Michele Antoine, Director of exhibitions, Musée des Sciences Naturelles. 'The initial wider theme of animal communication was subsequently reduced to that of the communication of affection. Preliminary discussions lasted a year and resulted in a contract between the three institutions. The chemistry between the individuals on the three teams was particularly good. We shared common values in terms of content and organisation. We wanted to show specimens from our collections and we agreed on the level of scientific discourse and type of presentation. Everybody contributed on an equal footing and every museum had to take ownership of the exhibition. The revenue was shared equally until the break-even point, after which the profit was shared out in line with the number of visitors. The whole process was totally transparent and I believe that is why it was so successful.'
The peacock, a symbol of seduction, presented in Fatal Attraction .