24 October 2017




What is the purpose of museums?

                                           Why do they matter?

                                                                     What should they strive to achieve?

I invite you to think critically about museums. What is their purpose? Are they meeting the needs of their visitors? Source.

We can easily say the purpose of museums has changed over the decades, depending on the needs of society and the wishes of the those running the institutions. However, to be most relevant, I argue the former is most important for determining the museum's purpose. What then is the role of a museum in today's society?

I put forth here the model I have observed frequently arising in science centres across the country and highlighted in the CEO Plenary Session I attended at the 2017 Canadian Association of Science Centres Annual Conference in May. The conference, and thus also the session, focused on the theme of "next" and the future of the industry. The CEOs of the Ontario Science Centre, TELUS Spark, Exploration Place, and Science East participated in panel discussing the following question:

What is the role for a science centre?

The discussion revolved around the shift of a science centre's purpose from focusing on providing scientific knowledge to being a place for the development of skills and behaviours. This radical change in purpose was described as stemming from the characteristics of today's society. Knowledge is no longer obtained in a top-down model; with the rise of technology, scientific knowledge can be obtained rapidly and with little effort. Individuals have a wealth of knowledge at their disposal, but what do they do with it? How do they understand it? The panelists described visitors' needs as including learning how to think and how to understand the scientific method.

Arguably more importantly, the panelists also described the need for visitors to learn how to fail and to gain confidence (for example with tools or STEM concepts). The skills and behaviours being fostered here should also include collaboration, leadership, curiosity, and resilience.

A group of visitors collaborates at one of the puzzle tables in Science World, Vancouver, BC. Source.

The desire to stimulate the development of skills and behaviours in visitors can be seen in institutional mandates, visions and purposes but also the galleries science centres house. TELUS Spark in Calgary invites visitors to explore Open Studio, a gallery where visitors can combine art with technology and "take creative risks, question assumptions and explore new ways of thinking by building and combining unexpected materials."

The Puzzles and Illusions Gallery at Science World in Vancouver challenges visitors with a large array of optical illusions and physical puzzles. The space houses a large number of tables with different puzzles and stools to encourage visitors to sit and play awhile. While in this gallery I can remember my friends and I working together to decipher instructions, solve puzzles and understand our failures.

Puzzles are a fun tactic to promote collaboration and critical thinking if the difficulty level and structure is thoughtfully designed. Source.

Similarly the Ontario Science Centre is currently running their temporary exhibition titled Inventorium. After learning about the inventions of Canadians in Canada 150: Discovery Way, visitors are invited to explore and nurture their own creativity, curiosity, and ingenuity. The OSC includes these telling sentences in their description of Inventorium: "Through creativity, collaboration and critical thinking, anything is possible. Ignite your imagination at Inventorium and see where your curiosity takes you."

Science centres still act as distributors of scientific knowledge and concepts, but it is the shift in the focus of their purpose that other genres of museums should take lessons from. Science centres are de-emphasizing cognitive learning and emphasizing the development of skills and behaviours in their visitors. Small patches of this model can be seen in other genres of museums, for example making-spaces in art galleries, or behaviour-based visitor outcomes in exhibition development and interpretive plans, but larger adoptions of this practice could help museums reach their greatest potential. In a society where facts and knowledge are readily available, perhaps museums' purpose is not to deliver knowledge but to help visitors develop skills to decipher the information swirling around them and to tackle the challenges facing our society.

Questions and more questions. Source.

What do you see as the purpose of museums? What would a history museum look like if it focused less on the delivery of knowledge and more on skill and behavioural development? Where does the science centre model fail?

This discussion has left me with more questions than answers, but that will likely be the result when we look outside the boundaries of traditional museum practice! Feel free to leave your comments below!  

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