Science museums exhibit renewed vigor: stewardship and educational dialogue with the public form twin missions

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Date: Mar. 29, 2004
From: The Scientist(Vol. 18, Issue 6)
Publisher: Scientist Inc.
Document Type: Article
Length: 3,534 words

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A preschool girl with black braids presses a finger to a disk that twists a brightly lit DNA model, transforming its ladder shape into a double helix. Her head bops from side to side in wonder as the towering DNA coils and straightens. When a bigger boy claims her place, the girl joins meandering morns and dads with their charges as they twist knobs, open flaps, and simply stare at flashing helixes and orange information boards: all a part of the museum exhibit called "Genome: The Secret of How Life Works" at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia.

One of many interactive displays streaming through today's museums, the traveling exhibit is part of an international drive to engage the public in science. Not content to rely on formal education through the schools or for the media to inform, governments, universities, and private donors increasingly are putting out money to bring people into museums and science centers. Animated with sound, color, light, and technological wizardry, once static displays of stuffed animals and inventory panels now tell rhythmic tales of species' origins and future survival, or of the wonders of the cell.

Beyond the colorful facades, researchers are developing another kind of tale: a massive taxonomy of worldwide species. The scientists have collected, counted, and consolidated mil lions of specimens, including fish, mammals, birds and more, and are transcribing them into cyberspace. Museum staffers hope the online species information will encourage research of economic and ecological importance and aid public knowledge.

"Museums are doing more [because] science is more essential to people's lives," says Bruce Alberts, president of the National Academy of Sciences. The Academy's new project, the Marian Koshland Science Museum, set to open this April in Washington, DC, bases exhibits on members' published papers. "If the public doesn't understand, the kinds of judgments they will make won't be the correct ones."

Museums are good places for educating the public, at all levels. They "are the heart of story telling," says D. James Baker, president and CEO of the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia. The original museum mandate was to collect what populates the world. "And we're still doing that. It's very important," he continues. "But we have a new role, and that is to teach people [about] the environment. We can see the human impact, and we're using museums to teach that. This is a new direction."

At the Darwin Centre at the Museum of Natural History in London, storytelling is direct. "We allow the public to meet with real scientists," explains Richard Lane, director of science. "This is one of the very few places it can actually happen. It's a two-way street, because it also helps scientists understand what society wants."

When Philadelphia's Academy opened in 1812, what society wanted was much different, says Leo Joseph, the museum's head ornithologist. Most people didn't travel, so their knowledge of the world was limited. Those who traveled and gathered collections often wanted "to have a place to discuss their...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A115077561