Are Science Museums Going Extinct?

Will science museums survive when the topics they cover are invisible or impossibly far away?

Science Museum London

Think of the biggest discoveries in science in the past few years. The Higgs boson probably comes to mind, maybe. Or perhaps getting Curiosity on Mars. Now think of science museums. Their bread and butter is skeletons, fossils, animals and plants—things we can see. Will these museums survive when the science is invisible or impossibly far away?

Ian Sample asked that of a few people in The Guardian‘s science podcast recently. Ian Blatchford, the director of the Science Museum in London says that they’re doing all they can to “bring the ephemeral Higgs boson to life for the public in an upcoming exhibition.” But the challenges are huge, and some museums are turning to sponsors (like Shell and BP) to keep their exhibits alive. That decision, of course, has its own set of complications.

At the blog Museum 2.0, Nina Simon asked Eric Siegel, the director of the New York Hall of Science, why museums aren’t more innovative. His answer? “He commented that as non-profits, museums are built to survive, not to succeed. Unlike startups and rock stars, museums aren’t structured to shoot for the moon and burn up trying. They’re made to plod along. Maybe it’s time to change that.”

At the American Association of Museums they recognize that funding and participation are hard to gain in an increasingly online world. But despite financial woes, museums have persevered. In 2009, during the very worst of the economic crisis the AAM wrote:

My observation, after thirty years of working in the field, is that museums have an amazing ability to survive in the most adverse environments. They are the cockroaches of the nonprofit world–sometimes it really does seem like you can’t kill them with an atomic blast. Most of the time some improbable deus ex machina saves the day: for example an unexpected cash gift or a free building. Mind you, this often only saves the distressed museum from closure—it does not cure the underlying dysfunction. The museum may simply struggle along for another ten years before the next potentially fatal crisis.

Earlier this year, AAM published a report called TrendsWatch, which covered “museums and the pulse of the future.” They noted that museums are trying out new ideas, from social media to pop-up food-truck like experiences. They give some examples of successful techniques for future-minded museums:

  • The New York Public Library’s citizen cartography tool “that lets the public take information archived on digitized historical maps and use the data to tag a searchable interface built with Open Street Map”
  • The San Francisco Mobile Museum’s “touring exhibit that fits in the back of a car” and lets participants ”explore their local communities through personal narratives (including the creation of personalized shadow boxes and shrines) and then share them with neighbors”
  • “Wikipedians in Residence” at a number of museums (including the Smithsonian) “push museum data and images into the Wikipedia universe, as well as soliciting and managing content from the wiki-editing crowd.”

In the future of museums, museums might not even really be museums, per se. At The Museum of the Future, Jasper Visser writes:

Boundaries are blurring. I guess they have been blurring for a long time. The label becomes less important. Art fair, museum, library, shop, restaurant, gallery, to most people it’s just a place to go for a good story, entertainment and time to be with friends.

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