February 3, 2006

Prof Explores Aims of Museums

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The average American childhood is marked by many commonalities: Oreos, tricycles, and Nickelodeon, to provide some modern examples. For anyone living near a city, science museums can be added to the list; most children attend such museums with their parents, exploring the most visually dazzling aspect of one of society’s most important fields.

Prof. Karen Rader, science, technology and society, Sarah Lawrence College, visited Cornell yesterday to speak on the history and purpose of the modern American science museum in a lecture entitled “Exhibits, Education, and Expertise: ‘New’ American Science Museums and Their Pedagogical Ideals of Display, 1960-1980.”

Her speech detailed the history of several of America’s most well-known and discussed museums, such as the Boston Museum of Science and the Exploratorium in San Francisco. She included with these histories accounts of the ongoing discussion over whether these museums are designed mainly for entertainment or education, and whether these museums have succeeded in their endeavors.

“The older concept of a science museum was that of a place that collected and stored objects to be put on display, focusing mainly on paleontology and natural history,” Rader said, referring to the American Museum of Natural History in New York City as an example. “But soon a new type of museum became prominent, one that focused on more abstract fields such as physics and chemistry, using pleasing examples like Bernoulli’s ball [a ball suspended in midair by a stream of fast-moving air] to entertain. Soon more traditional museums began losing funding, until they were practically fighting for their existence.”

Rader noted that the Boston Museum of Natural History was forced to change its name to the Boston Museum of Science due to these trends.

“A common eye-catching exhibit at these new museums was called the ‘transparent woman,'” Rader said. “A robot would be built with a plastic casing and realistically human insides and would be programmed to teach anatomy by explaining how it ‘functioned.'”

She then moved on to the history of the Exploratorium in San Francisco, a museum based in an old warehouse formerly housing a national Center for Fine Arts. The Exploratorium, first conceived in 1968, is the brainchild of Frank Oppenheimer, physicist and brother of Robert Oppenheimer, an integral member of the famous Manhattan Project.

Oppenheimer built the museum after teaching all forms of science at a public high school for several years. According to Rader, he wanted to design a place that would allow the visitor to learn science in a form most comfortable for the individual.

“Many of the debates surrounding science education today focus on the problem of creating ‘teacher-proof’ curricula, lesson strategies that will minimize the impact of the individual instructor to provide a more unified understanding of basic principles. Oppenheimer, in designing the Exploratorium, sought the opposite: in his museum science would be dependent entirely on the user, allowing them to create their own path and making the average citizen more comfortable with sometimes daunting ideas.”

She concluded by stating her belief that the distinction of “New Science Museum” requires historical analysis in order to differentiate it from its more traditional counterparts, and fully understand its impact and context on American society.

“These museums represent a cultural shift in scientific interest that occurred shortly after the end of the Second World War,” Rader said.

Archived article by Tom Beckwith
Sun Staff Writer