Raw Thought

by Aaron Swartz

Museums and Exploratoriums

The San Francisco Exploratorium is widely regarded as one of the finest hands-on museums in the world. There are spinoffs in the San Francisco airport and a Klutz book. Like Richard Feynman, the museum has become something of a touchstone of rightness for the science-minded community.

The Exploratorium is no doubt a fine museum, as far as such things go, but like all museums, it is deeply flawed. Like most media of American education, museums are hugely ineffective edifices.

The museum presents a golden opportunity to teach. You have a crowd that is explicitly seeking out knowledge, coming to you in person, giving you a large chunk of their time, and accompanied by their friends and family. It is hard to imagine a more ideal setting for education. And yet, this golden chance is squandered by boring exhibit designs.

Many museums simply present nominally educational things, like pieces of art or natural specimens of science, with a couple sentences of explanation. It is not clear what one is actually supposed to learn from this and in practice the answer seems to be: not much.

Science museums take things another step by showing actual examples of physical principles, and the Exploratorium goes a step further by letting the kids control them. But in my experience although there were many interesting principles on display, there was little learning. Each exhibit has been regarded as a little toy, to be pushed and prodded until you get bored and move on to something else.

It’s not the visitor’s fault: the exhibit makes the principle at work less than clear and even if someone was interested in reading the accompanying text, it rarely says much more than the name of the phenomenon; no actual explanation is provided.

Museums have infuriated me on this front since I visited them as a little kid. I remember drawing up plans for a genuinely educational museum, and although I was extremely young at the time, the general principles still seem sound: split people up into groups, have them try to solve real problems, encourage them to sit and engage with something over time instead of flitting from exhibit to exhibit, make it just as rewarding for adults as well as kids. (My more specific ideas from that period, involving floating chairs going down rear-projection tunnels, seem a little sillier.)

But even in the multi-exhibit model used by the Exploratorium there is much that could be improved. The exhibits could use what Tufte calls “small multiples” to give kids a physical intuition about a phenomenon by letting them change the relevant variables, rather than just showing them one case. The descriptions could give the force vectors and equations for each examples instead of just the name. Some of it might go over kids heads, but even just getting them accustomed to such things is a valuable skill.

Museums, like lectures, seem to be one of those things that are simply taken for granted as a necessary part of being cultured. Cities have to have them, citizens have to visit them. Everybody involved feels virtuous about the enterprise and nobody ever asks if anything is being learned.

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December 21, 2006


“…nobody ever asks if anything is being learned.”

That’s not true. You just did as have many before you.

We have come to equate “interactive” with a wikification and they’re still in some broadcast model where interacting consists in changing channels rather than changing what’s on the channel.

We are in the minority about this but we are also in the minority who wouldn’t be allowed in the famous psychological experiments (like the prison one at Stanford) and hence those are made absurd with their claims about “human nature”, etc.


posted by William Loughborough on December 21, 2006 #

I agree - many museums do not connect dots, and do not inspire new conclusions.

There are some museums that promote viewer analysis and spark new conclusions. For example, the Holocaust museum in Washington D.C. evaluates, through strong copy and powerful artifacts, the social, political, and economic factors that gave rise to the holocaust. Every exhibit is well integrated with other exhibits on the timeline.

posted by Anthony on December 21, 2006 #

Hmm. Judging from this and a couple of other posts I really wonder why you bother writing these elaborate put-downs of one thing or the other. They are all well written, often insightful but just as often they are very one-sided. One-sidedness is very helpful in making them concise and to the point but at the same time, makes them hard to take seriously. It almost feels dogmatic at times (I hope this word isn’t too harsh, I’m not a native speaker and often miss the subtleties).

If this is a quest to define yourself in comparison to others and what you do and do not like, I’d find it more worth your while if you made that explicit. Just my 2 cents.

posted by ingo on December 21, 2006 #

I largely agree with your criticism, but I’m skeptical about there being some ideal interactive scenario that allows you to teach science to museumgoers. I have a much better time taking my kids through old-style archival museums like New York’s Museum of Natural History or even Harvard’s no-frills Zoological Museum than a place like Boston’s Science Museum, which is more hands-on and modeled after SF’s Exploratorium. Part of this is what you describe: you approach an exhibit asking yourself, “what’s the game going to be this time?” I get the impression that figuring out how you’re supposed to interact with each exhibit and what the agenda is may crowd out the experience of learning in a more passive, contemplative way. I remember as a kid in New York’s Natural History museum being impressed by the massive collection of specimens mounted behind display cases, a style of exhibit that seems to be frowned upon these days. But I took a lot away from it: the astonishing variety, how different species were adapted to a particular environmental task, addressing how to classify them all, etc.

posted by Mike Sierra on December 21, 2006 #

Experiencing The Exploratorium as a visitor is like surfing the web without ever contributing content. Frank Oppenheimer’s vision extended to more than just an experience for visitor’s. The experience starts with the creator’s of the learning displays. Why don’t you make a display there yourself? The institution is pretty open, or at least it used to be.

posted by Seth Russell on December 26, 2006 #

ingo: If you can’t read a critique without believing it either entirely or not at all, you’ve got bigger problems. Perhaps it’s one sided, but someone else can give you the other side.

posted by Aaron Swartz on December 29, 2006 #

Hi. Just came across your Museums and Exploratoriums post.

Research and evaluation in museums (some of which is summarized at www.informalscience.org) has shown that science museum visitors do learn, not just the specific pedagogical messages of exhibitions, but they learn about themselves, about the world, about asking and answering their own questions in a non-threatening environment, about sharing their ideas and proposing investigations. Perhaps museums’ strongest suit is to engage, intrigue, inspire, and delight: how often does this happen in school science classes? A positive experience at a science center can offer learners a radically different face of science, one that they feel welcomed and intrigued by. Children’s early interest can significantly shape their later careers: A recent study by Tai (May 2006, Science, 312, p.1143) shows that students who imagined themselves having a science career were more likely to go on and take a degree in science (even controlling for obvious variables like achievement and parents’ demographics).

Most science museums do in fact provide explanations, and the Exploratorium in particular tries to give visitors an explanation rather than mere vocabulary. But complex abstractions such as force vectors and equations have been deliberately reduced from most exhibit collections, in response to studies that have shown that they tend to overwhelm and intimidate visitors who do not already have science backgrounds. Adding information to labels also tends to decrease the chance that visitors will stop and read them, so the trick is to create explanations that are as brief as possible, yet feel satisfying to the majority of visitors. Just as the most effective teacher is someone who can translate science to the level of a learner, the most effective exhibit labels turn out to be those that invite the public to participate in something just slightly beyond what they already know, not those that present symbol-heavy physics curricula.

posted by Raphael Rosen on January 9, 2007 #

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