The historical importance of science museums

What goals did early science museums set out to accomplish? And how do those same priorities relate to us today? A new series of articles published by the History of Science Society shows the important role science museums have played in North America and Europe over the past two centuries, and some of the challenges that museums have faced.

Here are some of the historians' key points about science museums:

  • Many science museums in the 1800s and early 1900s realized they couldn't simply display miscellaneous oddities of nature or assorted unusual objects (as traveling carnivals might do). A true museum needed to present organized displays and complex scientific principles while still retaining the "Wow" factor that sparks people's interest—often by making use of all five senses.
  • Exhibit labels help people understand scientific objects or specimens by explaining how they were discovered in the field or who donated them to a museum collection. Grouping related items together provides added context and meaning. Over time, the same object might appear in several displays, each with a different focus, as trends in science or public interest change.
  • Public response to certain exhibits can change as well—as documented by visitor comment books and letters sent to museums. In the past, some people have reacted with hostility (even mob violence) against exhibits about hunted animals, human physiology, or other topics that some groups find unsettling.
  • The fact that a science museum exists, and continues to adapt and thrive over time, shows that the surrounding community values scientific research and education—and sees how science is important in daily life. In a way, the museum itself becomes a kind of artifact or monument of science.

Growing out of the Saint Paul Academy of Natural Sciences and becoming the Saint Paul Institute in 1907, the Science Museum of Minnesota has a long history of preserving and displaying artifacts and specimens, and developing innovative exhibits and programs. More information about the museum's history is on display in the section of the Collections Gallery that features the Egyptian mummy, wildlife found near Mount Kilimanjaro, and the anatomical mannequin named TAM.

Your Comments, Thoughts, Questions, Ideas

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

Hmm a science post that refers to the host museum of the site for science news. Is this vanity press? Its nice you know your own history but why is this science news?

posted on Mon, 02/27/2006 - 7:15pm
James Satter's picture

The influence of science museums has been an often neglected area of scholarly research--and this post summarizes four new articles published in the latest issue of the History of Science Society's quarterly journal, "Isis." From that perspective, the conclusions are newsworthy for museum fans.

The closing paragraph about the Science Museum of Minnesota gives more information for people who are already visiting the museum or planning a trip here--the same way we might make similar connections about other Science Buzz topics.

posted on Tue, 02/28/2006 - 10:39am
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

I agree with you James. Nice piece. Linking a blog story up with as many related web pages as possible is standard practice. Since the Science Museum has a related web page, it was a good idea to link it up.

posted on Tue, 02/28/2006 - 4:02pm

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