Leading Museums, Museum Leaders

Changing role of science centres

Heureka broke its all-time attendance record on 4 Dec 2015 with 9,907 visitors attending the Night of Bio-economy. Photo Anniina Nissine.

Ecsite, Idea share – a white paper on the changing role of science centres, SPOKES#14, December 2015

When both global and national economies are going through tough times and you have the privilege of building an extension to your science museum, it is fair to be accountable about your objectives.

What do we need a science centre for in the future? More of the same stuff, or new approaches to science communication and audience participation?

How do you summarize the trends for change shaping our field’s future, what strategy do you put in place to make the most of them and how do you convince your organisation’s stakeholders that this is the way to go? This is exactly what we needed to do as the new foundations of Heureka, the Finnish science centre, are being concretely laid in Vantaa: it is time to revisit the strategy on which everything is built. The exercise resulted in a white paper, also soon to be published as an article in a Finnish science communication journal. Because we think this work might be of use to the wider science centre and museum community, we are sharing a summary of our main ideas (very much a work in progress) with Spokes readers. We offer it as a checklist, springboard or discussion starter.

Heureka opened in 1989 when there were approximately 400 science centres in the world.  In those days interactivity was a novel and exceptional medium both for science communication and museum field. Now, after one generation (26 years), the global number of science centres exceeds 3,000 and interactivity is commonplace throughout society.

Heureka – and the science centre and museums sector at large – are facing countless pressures for change. We needed to rethink our role and reposition Heureka. Let us first paint the picture of our changing environments, before we identify the opportunities we think science centres need to grab.

1. Changing environments

 1.1 SCIENCE CENTRES AS INTEGRAL PART OF SOCIETY

 During the last quarter of a century, new science centres have been founded around the globe at the rate of roughly a hundred per year. As societies become increasingly urban, science centres are being built to meet educational and cultural needs and to strengthen local identities. Science centres play a role in inspiring and motivating audiences, in strengthening scientific knowledge and skills and in reinforcing science’s importance and impact in future societies. Science centres have attracted public investment because they demonstrate how science and curiosity are a central part and ingredient of humanity – and of our well-being. Science centres are also (and increasingly) here to act as venues of dialogue and participation in science and its applications. Typically, science centres do not take an active role in formal education. Instead, learning at our venues is free-choice or  voluntary – no one fails at a science museum.  However, for educational and research institutions, science centres offer a natural channel for dissemination and interaction with wide audiences. To communities and local authorities science centres are not only attractions, but also hubs for various activities and ways to enrich the lives of local citizens. This has justified public support for many science centres, which rely not only on public funding but also on the active co-operation between a variety of stakeholders, many of which are also founders of the centres.

1.2 CHANGE-DRIVING TRENDS

The operating environments of science centres are changing at an accelerating pace. We have identified the following ten trends – we will not delve into them here, since they will be familiar to Spokes readers.

  1. The role of science in societies is under pressure.Science, research and knowledge based on scientific enquiry have a direct impact on our daily lives. We are convinced that future generations need to develop an interest for science and join crucial dialogues about the role and impact of science in society. We need to inspire a wide diversity of audiences.
  1. Innovation is changing and science isn’t its only or dominant source anymore.Innovation is being shaped in increasingly large circles, beyond traditional scientific institutions.  Linear approaches are making way to more agile approaches and hands-on experimentation, involving a wide range of stakeholders.  This new culture for research challenges science centres to define their public offer with a much larger number of players and sources of content and to invite visitors to participate and become content and idea sources themselves.
  1. Free time is a scarce and the leisure industry more competitive.Potential visitors can choose from a wider range of free time activities. Science centres compete for the time of consumers and against offers easily available through digital media and technology. The same technologies also offer novel ways of shaping visitor experiences.
  1. Visitor expectations keep on rising.Different audiences crave for lasting impacts and for the “wow-factor”. Visitors increasingly expect to participate and enter in dialogue – rather than being passive spectators.
  1. Education and learning are facing a revolution.Educational organisations have adopted new methods, using participation and experimentation as motivators. Science centres are not the only organisations offering free-choice or informal learning opportunities – instead their role as a learning platform is  being reinforced.
  1. Technology advances faster than our public offer’s ability to adapt.All audiences are much faster aware of what technologies can offer and faster in embracing them. Science centres face a challenge in keeping up with this accelerated technological race and the novelty value of gadgets per se is becoming less of a reason to visit our venues.
  1. The global community of science centres is becoming mature. Science centres and museums world-wide are federated in strong communities, like Ecsite, in which knowledge and experiences are openly shared. This collective pool offers single centres opportunities to improve and enrich their user experiences in a sustainable way.
  1. Non-profit does not equal non-value. The concept of public good is changing. Although most centres rely at least partly on public support, they need to think of their impact and be able to justify investments  like any other business and public service. Accountability and measurability have become imperatives.
  1. Partnering up and networking are more and more crucial.Science centres are taking on a new role as an enablers and as platforms for surrounding talents and expertise. They need to become or stay attractive hubs.
  1. Nurturing creative culture requires a leadership shift. Science centres and museums, like many creative organisations, are leaving hierarchical and top-down leadership behind. Experts and highly skilled individuals work in networks and expect a different leadership style.

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