Thursday, March 25, 2010

What we should seek from our science museums?

Museums were a very important part of my pre-Internet, pre-cable childhood. I was fortunate to live within walking distance of Cleveland's University Circle that was home to world class art, science and health museums. I hung out at them a lot -- especially the science museum (I was a proud, card-carrying nerd).

Hard to know if museums will survive in today's politically polarized and highly networked world. (GW)

The Thrill of Science, Tamed by Agendas

A science museum is a kind of experiment. It demands the most elaborate equipment: Imax theaters, NASA space vehicles, collections of living creatures, digital planetarium projectors, fossilized bones. Into this mix are thrust tens of thousands of living human beings: children on holiday, weary or eager parents, devoted teachers, passionate aficionados and casual passers-by. And the experimenters watch, test, change, hoping. ...

Hoping for what? What are the goals of these experiments, and when do they succeed? Whenever I’m near one of these museological laboratories, I eagerly submit to their probes, trying to find out. The results can be discouraging since some experiments seem so purposeless; their only goal might be to see if subjects can be persuaded to return for future amusement.

Many science museums, for example, now feature prepackaged touring shows about hit movies to draw in the crowds. (I saw costumes from the “Chronicles of Narnia” films and the stage sets from “Star Trek” films on two separate visits to the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia.) Otherwise sober institutions present filmic extravaganzas with only the flimsiest relationship to science (an upbeat promotional travelogue about Saudi Arabia is now getting the Imax treatment at Boston’s Museum of Science).

But there are also serious inquiries going on in science museums, philosophical goals described in mission papers, conflicting theories about what should happen when visitors arrive. And differences in approaches are astonishing. I have seen meticulous displays explicating the structure of padlocks (London’s Science Museum), a hortatory exhibition of environmental apocalypse (New York’s American Museum of Natural History), a terrarium of dung beetles plowing through waste (New Orleans’s Audubon Insectarium), an array of physics demonstrations in which visitors play with sand, balls, pendulums and bubbles (San Francisco’s Exploratorium), collections of antique bicycles and movie cameras (Berlin’s and Prague’s science museums), and a 50-year-old exhibition in which mathematical principles are portrayed as beautifully as the topological surfaces on display (Boston’s Museum of Science).

This antic miscellany is dizzying. But there are lineaments of sustained conflict in the apparent chaos. Over the last two generations, the science museum has become a place where politics, history and sociology often crowd out physics and the hard sciences. There are museums that believe their mission is to inspire political action, and others that seek to inspire nascent scientists; there are even fundamental disagreements on how humanity itself is to be regarded. The experimentation may be a sign of the science museum’s struggle to define itself.

A century ago, such a notion would have been ridiculous. Museums were simply collections of objects. And science museums were collections of objects related to scientific inquiry and natural exploration. Their collections grew out of the “wonder cabinets” of gentlemen explorers, conglomerations of the marvelous.

Museums ordered their objects to reflect a larger natural order. In 1853, when a new natural history museum at Oxford University was being proposed, one advocate suggested that each specimen should have “precisely the same relative place that it did in God’s own Museum, the Physical Universe in which it lived and moved and had its being.” The science museum was meant to impress the visitor with the intricate order of the universe, the abilities of science to discern that order, and the powers of a culture able to present it all in so imposing a secular temple.

Not all of this was disinterested. Natural history museums typically treated non-Western cultures as if they were subsidiary branches in an evolutionary narrative; deemed closer to nature, these cultures were treated as part of natural history rather than as part of history. Self-aggrandizing posing was generally mixed in with the museum project.

But you can still feel its energy. Go to any science museum with an extensive collection and walk among its oldest display cases. The London Science Museum, for example, which had its origins in the Crystal Palace of the Great Exposition of 1851, has collections that still invoke the churning energies of the Industrial Revolution and its transformations.

One of the most astonishing collections I have seen is the Wellcome Collection, also in London. It includes moccasins owned by Florence Nightingale, Napoleon’s toothbrush, amputation saws, an array of prosthetic limbs, a Portuguese executioner’s mask, Etruscan votive offerings and obstetrical forceps. Henry Wellcome, who had made his fortune with the invention of the medicinal pill, owned over a million objects by the mid-1930s and imagined them fitting into a great “Museum of Man” that would encyclopedically trace humanity’s concerns with the body. After his death, the collection was partly dispersed, but even what is left is as exhilarating as it is bewildering. You look at such collections and sense an enormous exploratory enterprise. You end up with an enlarged understanding of the world’s variety and an equally enlarged sense of the human capacity to make sense of it.

But that ambition is gone and so is the trust in ourselves. This may be the crux of the uncertainty in contemporary science museums. Where does the museum place us, its human creators? Consider two great American planetariums that have been renovated and reconfigured in the last 10 years: the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles and the Rose Center for Earth and Space in New York.

The Griffith reopened in 2006 after $93 million of reconstruction that carefully left its design unaltered. The 1935 building had to be hydraulically lifted so its exhibition space could extend into the mountain on which it sits. Internally, too, the old design was preserved. Its rotunda’s ceiling is decorated with Jupiter, Mercury and Venus reigning in the skies: the first heavenly bodies you see. They are also surrounded by images of human enterprise and invention. The Griffith, in its displays and its approach, presents a universe that may be divinely inspired but is deeply human-centered.

The opposite approach was taken by the Rose Center, which opened in 2000, replacing the old Hayden Planetarium. The Hayden, built in the same era as the Griffith, originally presented a human-centered cosmos both in its planetarium and in its exhibitions. But the Rose deliberately excised all of that, diminishing what is human rather than elevating it. The building’s ramps, which double as scale models of time and space, show the inhabited earth as an insignificant and inconsequential sliver of space/time when compared with the cosmic expanse.

Humanity almost seems extraneous; some special-effects planetarium shows introduce us to the most exotic aspects of matter and time, but are not very revealing about the ordinary human experience of the heavens.

Of course, the insignificance of human existence is one of the fearsome lessons of modern science. But when we are young, we learn differently. We begin by learning to value our own understanding and only gradually come to recognize its limits. We begin by making sense of the world before we see how much lies beyond sense. The process doesn’t work well in the other direction: we can be left mystified by the world and lose respect for the human.

Something like this has started to happen in some museums. This decentering of the human can become a devaluing of the human; the museum may even begin to see human frailties as a great flaw in the cosmic order that must be repaired. So this new variety of science museum must not just display or explain. It must be relevant, useful, practical, critical — something that helps with fund-raising as well.

Right now environmentalism has become the dominant theme for this kind of museum. The California Academy of Sciences, a research institution in San Francisco, conceived of its new 409,000-square-foot building, which opened in 2008 with a design by Renzo Piano, as a declaration of environmental sensitivity, making it metaphorically green in its use of resources and literally green with an undulating sod-covered rooftop. Its major rainforest exhibition emphasizes ecological frailty. Another exhibition urges visitors to change eating habits and “make a pledge” to alleviate the “climate crisis.” Little new science is learned here, but many arguments are taught. But a Foucault pendulum on display in a spare spot — once a major feature of science museums, with its demonstration of earth’s rotation — seems as irrelevant to the academy’s current purpose as its fossil collection.

Leaping into the same fray, an exhibit on climate change in 2008 at the American Museum of Natural History seemed so intent on urging consciousness change that it became uncharacteristically sloppy. Data was used selectively, and a scary model showing southern Manhattan smothered by a five-meter rise in sea level turned out to be — if you read the label — something that “experts consider unlikely anytime soon” but could take place “thousands of years in the future.” Issues about assessing probabilities or the cost of technologies were left unexplored in order to cultivate apocalyptic fears.

This model of advocacy has even become explicit at the Liberty Science Center in New Jersey, where its president, Emlyn Koster, has stressed his wish for “relevancy” and an interest in developing “social and environmental responsibility.” The flaws in the natural order remain precisely the same. Humans, we learn in various exhibitions, “pose the greatest danger” to certain creatures, “damage” the climate and are in turn threatened by disaster and pandemic. Humanity isn’t only decentered; it is decentering.

It isn’t just environmentalism that inspires this message. At the Field Museum in Chicago, in a recently created permanent exhibition devoted to the early history of the Americas, nothing is said that might diminish one’s judgment of any native culture. Human sacrifice is glossed over, and even “hunting and gathering” becomes “a great way to live,” a “lifestyle” that “respected” women and the elderly. Here, as in the other exhibitions, contemporary Western society is the main obstacle — at best an irrelevance, at worst a threat.

In his book “Stuffed Animals and Pickled Heads: the Culture and Evolution of Natural History Museums” (Oxford), Stephen T. Asma suggests this theme has international resonance. The Grande Galerie de l’Évolution in Paris, he argues, offers a “heavily moralized tour through the human destruction of nature.” Mr. Asma even suggests that the “single greatest constant” in contemporary natural history museums is a form of “self-loathing.”

But even if self-loathing is overcome, the science museum has already been transformed. The Franklin Institute created an exhibition about the nature of human identity (now at the Boston Museum of Science), in which sociological, psychological and genetic factors are used to examine how we think about ourselves and others. The real purpose of the exhibition, it becomes clear, is to undermine prejudice.

It might seem churlish to object, but is this what we should seek from our science museums? Learning is guided by a political judgment; it is also limited by it. Couldn’t an intriguing exhibition be mounted, for example, showing the inevitability and importance of prejudice? Not prejudice in the socially evil way we now use the word, of course, but prejudice as a process of prejudging, predicting, preventing — acts as necessary to scientific understanding as they have been to simple survival.

Experiments in relevance, then, at least for this visitor, have a very bad track record; they preach and prod, and diminish. My hopes lie elsewhere. The Boston Museum of Science, for example, more than makes up for its gestures toward pop entertainment (hosting an exhibition about the “Harry Potter” films), or vague political advocacy (the Imax paean to Saudi Arabia), with three fine exhibitions that show how a contemporary science museum might take a traditional collection and transform it.

A remarkable 19th-century collection of finely wrought glass models of sea creatures, for example, becomes part of an exhibition about modeling and its importance to the pursuit of play, fashion and science. In another exhibition, the museum’s animal specimens are joined with a mineral collection, vintage dioramas and other artifacts to explore the nature of collecting and categorizing.

These exhibitions, created by Larry Bell, a vice president at the museum, explain important concepts about how science is done while displaying extraordinary objects and spurring new ways of seeing — all without pressing viewers into a particular program. Here, too, is the classic 1961 exhibit “Mathematica,” created by Charles and Ray Eames: its exploration of abstraction was inspiring to a young boy who saw it long ago; it remains a touchstone.

Or, for lighter fare that never panders and is never ponderous, look at the $25 million Audubon Insectarium in New Orleans: classic collections and contemporary thrills are intertwined. We watch Formosan termites eat through a wood model of New Orleans or giant cockroaches scurry in a kitchen closet. We are offered snacks of crunchy Cajun-fried crickets. The museum contains models, animations and much live swarming. And you emerge with a sense of amazement about the world that could be a science museum’s most valuable gift.

Where, then, are we headed? In 1969, when San Francisco’s Exploratorium was created by Frank Oppenheimer, it overturned every regnant idea about science museums. There was no collection; there were no display cases; there wasn’t even a pretense that objects were special. They were expected to break, and a workshop was just off the museum floor. This was a museum without a proscenium. Visitors provided the forces that made these pendulums swing and balls roll. Two generations later, the concept thrives after having given birth to similar institutions all over the world.

The Exploratorium suggests that brilliant transformations of the science museum model might be unforeseeable. And perhaps today’s rampant experimentation with exhibition styles might eventually yield a new model as yet unimagined. But for now, when being experimented upon, I have my preferences.


Post a Comment

<< Home