Leading Museums, Museum Leaders

New Directions

One of the analysed sessions was “After Exploratorium: The shifting identities of science centres”. Here: The Exploratorium’s Outdoor Gallery during a summertime After Dark © Exploratorium, All rights reserved.

Marianne Achiam and Jan Solberg, Practices of today and visions of tomorrow: New directions for science centres and museums, Spokes#15, ecsite, January 2016

The “Dreams, the spirit of innovation” Ecsite Annual Conference held in Gothenborg in June 2013 was attended by Marianne Achiam and Jan Sølberg from the Department of Science Education at the University of Copenhagen. The overall purpose of their research was to provide a status report of the directions in which present-day museums and science centres are headed. They also wanted to develop a conceptual framework for understanding and contextualizing the old and new functions of these institutions.

To me their analysis proves that many of the presentations at the annual conference go beyond “show and tell” and in fact stimulate imaginative thinking about science education. Enjoy your read! – Maarten Okkersen, Spokes Editorial Committee Chair.

In recent decades, science centres, museums, and related institutions have experienced pressure to respond to challenges such as decreased availability of funding, increased demands for accountability, increased demands for accessibility and diversification, and growing competition from leisure experiences [1]. To understand how science centres and museums are meeting these challenges, we visited the annual Ecsite conference in 2013, held in Gothenburg. The conference was entitled ‘Dreams: The Spirit of Innovation’. According to the conference organisers, the quest for a sustainable world requires a spirit of innovation; indeed, this spirit should be seen as the responsibility of all employees, at all organisational levels, in the development of science centres and museums towards the future [2]. Many of the conference speakers specifically addressed how they saw their institutions taking on these responsibilities to face the challenges of the future, thereby painting a picture of the practices and visions of museums and science centres from across the world. We attended three of the conference sessions that paid particular attention to this topic: 1) After Exploratorium: The shifting identities of science centres, 2) Do science centres need objects?, and 3) Content re-development: An academic science museum and the freedom to innovate. The three sessions featured staff members from 21 science centres and museums in Asia, Europe, North America, and South America.

A particularly interesting observation was that we were able to identify, among the narratives of the speakers, a number of new directions for science centres and museums; directions which transcend the traditional museum functions of preservation, communication and research formulated in the 1980s by the Reinwardt Academie in Amsterdam [3]. We believe these new trajectories represent responses to the present-day challenges experienced by these institutions. In the following, we report on these new directions taken by museums and science centres and their rationales for doing so.

However, among staff members of both science centres and museums, we observed subtle signs that the three core functions are beginning to be re-appropriated by these institutions to reflect a more outwardly responsive perspective. For example, a number of speakers invoked the ability of material objects to create ‘magical moments’, and discussed the necessity of prioritising this meditational potential of the object over the object in itself. This shifts the emphasis of the preservation function away from the collected objects towards scientific and cultural practices that make those objects meaningful to the public. We observed a similar shift in staff members’ discussions of the research function of their institutions. It seems research is increasingly being seen as a means to improve the institutions’ ability to reach their publics, rather than the internally justified curatorial practice of past decades. And finally, although the communication or educational function is arguably the most outwardly oriented of the three traditional museum functions, even in this case, we observed a strong focus among the speakers on the ways in which science centres and museums can contribute to their communities and societies through education, rather than the focus on transmitting institutionally sanctioned messages which perhaps characterised science centres’ and museums’ educational efforts in the past.

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