Beyond bells and whistles: the role of the science centre in science communication

Communicating ideas and findings is one of the most important responsibilities of a scientist. Writing papers, submitting them for publication, giving talks, and attending conferences constitute a significant part of the time spent away from the lab. Most of a scientist’s audience consists of colleagues. Communication with a lay audience is generally limited and indirect (1). As scientists are busy conducting the research their job prescribes, the role of communicating science to the general public is shared between different media: the television, radio, virtual and print media, and the science centre. As a link between scientists and lay people, each medium faces the same problems: How can specialized scientific knowledge be translated into something comprehensible and relevant to the masses? How can the public be motivated to educate themselves on complicated scientific topics? These are the challenges faced by science communicators.

The science centre is often overlooked as a channel for science communication. Though it is often dismissed as an educational attraction for children or as a tourist destination, it has as much potential for increasing the public understanding of science in adults as other media. One advantage is that it is a place for communication as much as it is a method, and so can act as a physical forum or hub for science communication. Its exclusive mission is to educate the public on topics relating to science and technology (2). Its ability to deliver multi-sensory learning experiences also gives it an edge over other media. Regardless, the science centre faces the same challenges as the others in communicating science. Throughout its history, the science centre has been searching for ways to foster public interest in science and to effectively communicate scientific knowledge. The goal of this paper is to expose the scientific community to the science centre as a valid vehicle for science communication. I do this by informing the readers of the issues involved in communicating science at a science centre and providing a general background on the development of the science centre.

First, it is important to clear up misconceptions regarding the science centre. Most people know that the its primary didactic tool the hands-on exhibit. Fewer people are aware that exhibits are often complemented by live demos, films, workshops and discussion sessions. Even fewer know that though much of a science centre’s audience is comprised of school groups and families, exhibits and programs for adults also exist (3). For example, the exhibit The Geee! in Genome from the Canadian Museum of Nature currently travelling across Canada is intended primarily for adults. Furthermore, when the Ontario Science Centre (OSC) hosted this exhibit, it held a panel discussion on GMOs for adults. Another example is the OSC exhibit A Question of Truth, which is suited more for adults than children. This paper is primarily concerned with the science centre’s adult audience.

The history of science communication practises in the science centre begins with the science museum. Science museums, which flourised in nineteenth-century Europe, housed, preserved, and displayed collections of scientific and technological artefacts. One of the earliest was the Conservatoire des Arts et Metiers in France, opened in 1797 (4). In Britain, the South Kensington Museum’s scientific collection eventually grew into the Science Museum, whose workers believed that displaying scientific items would be of great benefit to both intellectual progress and industrial development (5). The Science Museum was to be a place where people could gain an appreciation for scientific discoveries and industry-advancing inventions (4). The Museum’s collection included educational materials such as books, models, and apparatus. As artefacts, these materials were curiosities of past scientific discoveries rather than evidence of living science. Consequently, any understanding of science the public gained was static and outdated.

Public interest in scientific pursuits increased with the social and political climate of the twentieth century. The launching of the Sputnik satellite by the USSR, the race to the moon, the atom bomb, the invention of the computer, and the cold war, all contributed to the general sentiment that science and technology were playing increasingly greater roles in society (6, 7). Science became fashionable. The science museum’s passive contribution to the public understanding of science was not sufficient for the more curious and politically-involved public. As the science museum took it upon itself to actively educate people on these topics (and perhaps capitalize on the public’s increased interest), it began developing new ways of involving the public. These included interactive exhibits, working models, and live demonstrations. For example, the Palais de la Découverte in Paris started performing public demonstrations of chemistry experiments (8). Visitors to Philadelphia’s Franklin Institute could walk through a giant model of the human heart (8). The Science Museum in Britain opened up a children’s gallery with button- and lever-operated working models. Museum educators believed that hands-on experiences with science would enchant lay people, catalyze oringinal scientific thought, and illustrate the scientific method (7, 9).

These hands-on exhibits culminated in the founding of the second-generation science museum, the “science centre” as we know it today. Two independent initiatives appeared in 1969. One was the Exploratorium in San Francisco, founded by the scientist and educator Frank Oppenheimer (brother of the atom bomb physicist Robert Oppenheimer). Oppenheimer envisioned a centre that would allow visitors to take part in the discovery and excitement of science, and become a laboratory for living ideas (10). A less-documented initiative was the OSC in Toronto. Raymond Moriyama, architect of the OSC and one of the promoters of the hands-on approach, was inspired by a Chinese proverb: Tell me and I’ll forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I’ll understand (11).

The new science centre offered participatory activities instead of passive observation of artefacts and was hugely popular with the public. So popular, in fact, that every major city in the Western world had to have one. What was at the root of this popularity? While the science museum displayed authentic scientific artefacts, the science centre built interactive exhibits on scientific principles and captured the public’s interest with buttons to push, lights that turn on, and sounds that echo through its noisy halls. What did the science centre have that the science museum did not? The answer is interactivity. Does this indicate that the public took interest in the bells and whistles and not in the scientific information they help illustrate? Quite possibly. As critic James Bradburne says, “science centres vulgarize knowledge to make it palatable to the masses, or sugar-coat science with gratuitous hands-on interactions to arouse visitor curiosity.” (12) And yet how could they not? Teaching science and its methods, insights, and predictions to lay people is not an easy task. Most people lack the vocabulary of science and the intrinsic motivation to engage in science. In addition, not a lot can be effectively learned during a two- or three-hour visit to a science centre, especially when the topic itself has taken years of academic study to develop (13). Science centres face the obligation to thin down the material and make it comprehensible and attractive. Sadly, the pre-digestion of information can stunt in visitors the thrill of discovery that motivates so many scientists. Consequently visitors to science centres often only superficially engage with interactive exhibits (14, 15).

The major problem seems to be not in how, but in what the science centre communicates. Science is not a set of discrete and past realizations, but a living, ongoing and shared course of action (10). However, most interactive exhibits communicate principles of science as established scientific “truths”, rather than as continuous processes, and so convey a fallacy to the public (12, 16). In response to this, some science centres have attempted to provide visitors with a true scientific experience by guiding them through the process of forming and testing a hypothesis. Unfortunately, an exhibit is not a science lab and it cannot support an accurate simulation of the scientific process. Furthermore, even the most successful of these exhibits are again mindlessly skimmed by visitors. The science centre which aims to make scientists of its visitors really is asking too much (16).

In the quest to solve the problem of science communication, science centres have been going back to square one, asking why the public understanding of science is desireable in the first place. First, the importance of basic research needs to be communicated to the general population since this research is, for the most part, publically funded. One can argue that the public, in turn, has a duty to understand scientific issues in order to ensure that the research institutions they fund remain accountable. Secondly, scientific research leads to knowledge which can help people make informed decisions regarding personal health and safety and the well-being of the planet. Thirdly, there is the assumption that if there is public awareness of the issues involved in science and technology, then companies in the research industry will be better supported and in turn positively affect the economy. Fourth is the assumption that citizens of a democratic society require scientific knowledge to make political decisions regarding issues touched by science and technology (4). Does understanding science really lead people to support scientific research and to be wiser regarding societal choices? The Laurentian University faculty behind the new Graduate Diploma in Science Communication think so. They believe that citizens need to get a handle on the quickly-evolving information to be in a position to weigh risks, make choices, and question the decisions of policy makers and politicians. Only then can they fully participate in the affairs of their communities and countries (17). The scientific information required by the public to form opinions needs to be relevant and just sufficiently detailed.

Many existing science centre exhibits are irrelevant to today’s politics and societal problems. With no link to current issues, exhibits become mind-numbing, leisure time “edutainment,” not too removed from amusement parks. Granted, there is nothing wrong with the science centre acting merely as a place for lifelong learning, nor is there anything wrong with science centres complementing the elementary school curriculum. However, the science centre’s potential to advance the public understanding of science in adults and to be a place for public debate must not be overlooked (18-20).

It has now been over thirty years since the inception of the interactive science centre. The new directions in which these centres are heading are more realistic regarding the “public understanding of science”. Instead of attempting to transmit scientific truths, they show an increased sensitivity to the social relevance of science. Rather than being content with interactivity, they seek to show visitors how scientific issues are important in the greater context of their society, nation, and world. Rather than taking it upon themselves to teach visitors complicated scientific information or to provide authentic scientific experiences, the “third-generation” science centre shows visitors how to think about and use scientific information to form well-supported opinions. One example of this is the Montreal Biodome, where the reconstitution of ecosystems gives a highly contextualized global perspective on issues surrounding biodiversity and the environment (21). Another example is the Canadian Museum of Nature’s travelling exhibit The Geee! in Genome, mentioned above. This exhibit places the issues around genomics in their social and political spheres, while providing the basic scientific details of cells and DNA for those who are interested.

This shift to social relevance is observable in the mission statements of institutions. The OSC’s current $40 million renewal project is creating a place where “young people will be exposed to the attitudes, skills, networks and tools that will enable them to become drivers of a sustainable culture of innovation.” (22) A discovery centre in Amsterdam, newMetropolis (opened in 1997), places its emphasis on “exploring the skills [people] need to meet the challenges of the twenty-first century.” (23) The new science centre is on its way to becoming a tool for the public, a forum people can return to repeatedly to continue learning about new issues and scientific discoveries. Time will tell whether it can successfully function as such.

In conclusion, I invite any scientist with an interest in the public understanding of science to visit their regional science centre and to consider it as an important forum for the discussion of science. As science centres in Canada are beginning to explore partnership opportunities with university researchers (24), it cannot hurt to become familiar with the science centre as one of the ways Canadians learn about science.


1. Though scientists do communicate to the public (for example by submitting press releases to the media and submitting research summaries in common English with grant applications), this communication is mediated by a third party like a granting agency or the media.

2. For example, consider the objects of the Ontario Science Centre, as described in the Centennial Centre of Science and Technology Act of the Ontario Parliament: The objects of the Centre are, (a) to depict to the public and to conduct a program of education in the origins, development and progress of science and technology, and their relationship to society; (b) to depict the role of Ontario in the furtherance of science and technology; (c) to stimulate the interest of the public in matters depicted by the Centre; and (d) to collect and exhibit objects and displays and to maintain and operate a museum and related facilities for the furtherance of the objects of the Centre established as a project of Ontario in commemoration of the Confederation Centennial. R.S.O. 1980, c. 60, s. 6.

3. Science centres rarely market to an adult audience thereby reinforcing the misconception.

4. Macdonald, S. (2002). Behind the Scenes at the Science Museum. New York: Berg.

5. (no author) The Science Museum: The first hundred years. (1957). London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office.

6. Hein, H. (1990). The Exploratorium: The Museum as Laboratory. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press.

7. Cossons, N. (2000). “Museums in the New Millennium.” In S. Lindqvist (ed.), Museums of Modern Science; Nobel Symposium 112 (3-15). Canton, MA: Science History Publications.

8. Caulton, T. (1998). Hands-on Exhibitions: Managing Interactive Museums and Science Centres. New York: Routledge.

9. Schaffer, S. (2000). “Object Lessons.” In S. Lindqvist (ed.), Museums of Modern Science; Nobel Symposium 112 (3-15). Canton, MA: Science History Publications.

10. Arnold, K. (2000). “Fact and fancy: Art in the presentation of science.” In S. Lindqvist (ed.), Museums of Modern Science; Nobel Symposium 112 (3-15). Canton, MA: Science History Publications.

11. Personal communication with Raymond Moriyama in Toronto, March 2, 2005.

12. Bradburne, J.M. Museum Management and Curatorship. 17(2), 119-137. (1998).

13. Personal communication with Carl Benn in Toronto, December 16, 2004.

14. Bradburne, J.M. Museum Management and Curatorship. 19(1), 75-84. (2001).

15. For a more complete critique, see Shortland, M. Nature, 328, 213-214. (1987).

16. Bennett, J. (2000). “Beyond Understanding: Curatorship and Access in Science Museums.” In S. Lindqvist (ed.), Museums of Modern Science; Nobel Symposium 112 (3-15). Canton, MA: Science History Publications.

17. Retrieved April 9, 2005 from the Graduate Diploma in Science Communication web site

18. See Garnett, R. The Impact of science centre/museums on their surrounding communities (2001) for a literature review of the personal, social, political, and economic impacts of science centres. Retrieved April 30, 2005 from the Association of Science- Technology Centers Web site tudy02.pdf

19. An example to illustrate the potential for science centres to increase the public understanding of science in adults: Of the Ontario Science Centre’s 846,026 visitors in the 2002-2003 fiscal year, 26,000 visited specifically to attend a program for adults. This number does not include adults visiting general Science Centre events and exhibits or adults accomanying young visitors. Data is from the Ontario Science Centre’s 2002- 2003 Annual Report, retrieved April 30, 2005 from assets/2003.annualreport.en.pdf

20. See Miller, J.D. FAS Public Interest Support: The Journal of the Federation of American Scientists, 55(1) 3-6. (2002) for a report on studies measuring the impact of informal learning environments like the science centre on public scientific literacy.

21. Schiele, B. (2000). “The Silences of Scientific Museology.” In B. Schiele & E.H. Koster (Eds), Science Centres for this Century (447-491). Sainte-Foy, QC: Editions MultiMondes.

22. Retreived December 15, 2004, from the Ontario Science Centre web site

23. Bradburne, J.M. Museum Management and Curatorship, 18(2), 159-171. (1999). See the Canadian Association of Science Centres 2005 conference program for current discussions on forming links with universities and on expanding audiences, at program.htm

Share your thoughts

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.