museums of science

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.
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museums of science

museums of science, institutions or buildings where collections relevant to science and technology are preserved and displayed to promote education and research. While the preponderance of these museums are in North America and Europe, the chief cities of Australia, New Zealand, Africa, and Latin America are known for outstanding collections in local natural history and ethnology. See also botanical garden; planetarium.

Development of the Science Museum Concept

Many early museums of science, e.g., the Ashmolean Museum (1683) at Oxford, the first public museum in the Western world, originated from gifts of private collections. At first most exhibits consisted of classified and labeled geological or biological specimens. Later exhibition techniques have emphasized the grouping of specimens to illustrate origins, associations, and interrelationships. Exhibition devices include habitat groups, restorations, murals, dioramas, models, and key installations in feature exhibits. The illustration of abstract ideas in biology, e.g., evolution and heredity, was extended to physics and chemistry, long neglected in science museums. A pioneer in showing the principles of mechanics, light, heat, and sound was the Buffalo Museum of Natural Science.

The modern science museum has a threefold function—exhibition of collections, sponsoring of research, and education. Many museums provide cataloged reserve collections for students and undertake research and the publication of results; some participate in expeditions for research or for enlarging collections. Provisions for adult education include guided tours, lectures, and classes; museums cooperate with schools by providing loan exhibitions, special exhibits and tours for children, and story hours. A growing trend has been the use of computer terminals and "hands-on" models to enhance the learning experience. Many museums now also attempt to educate the public in the principles of ecology and wildlife and resource conservation.

North American Museums

Outstanding in developing educational functions are the American Museum of Natural History, New York City, and the Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago. Although most science museums cover the general field, there are many, including a number of university and college teaching museums, that specialize, notably in anthropology; one of these is the National Museum of the American Indian, Washinton, D.C., and New York City. The establishment of the Adler Planetarium, Chicago (1930), the Fels Planetarium (1933) of the Franklin Institute, and the Hayden Planetarium (1935) of the American Museum of Natural History have stimulated science museums to deal with astronomy. The Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago, and the Franklin Institute, Philadelphia were pioneers in the field of applied sciences. The growth of local trailside museums, most of them in national parks, was stimulated by the success of Yosemite Museum (1921). The 1980s and 90s saw a number of new science and technology museums constructed in U.S. cities, and aquariums, which increasingly emphasized ecology in their exhibits, experienced a resurgence in popularity. Canada has notable museum collections, especially in Toronto, Ottawa, and Quebec.

The Smithsonian Institution, the national museum of the United States and the largest museum in the world, includes several constituent museums that specialize in particular areas of science and technology. There are many municipal and state museums of science. Universities and colleges that have notable museums include Harvard, with the Museum of Comparative Zoology (est. 1859 by Louis Agassiz, the earliest such collection in the United States) and the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology; the Univ. of Chicago, with the Oriental Institute; and the Univ. of Pennsylvania, specializing in ethnology and archaeology, especially of the Americas and of Asia. In addition to those already mentioned, the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia (est. 1812) and the Boston Society of Natural History (now the Museum of Science) are outstanding among American museums.

There are also many small special museums centering on limited fields of science or technology. Some are privately supported, others have been established by government agencies. Among them is the Robert C. Williams American Museum of Paper Making, Atlanta, Ga., which includes the Dard Hunter Collection (see Hunter, Dard); it embraces all aspects of papermaking and of the use of paper. The American Museum of Atomic Energy (now the American Museum of Science and Energy) opened in 1949 in Oak Ridge, Tenn. Many private companies have established their own museums. Such private museums often have unique collections, e.g., the glass museum in Corning, N.Y.

European Museums

Pioneers in the field of applied science include the Conservatoire des Arts et Métiers (the first industrial museum, est. 1799) and the Palais de la Découverte, both in Paris; the Science Museum, London; and the Deutsches Museum, Munich, Germany. Many private museums with unique collections have been established. The first of these, dating from 1916, was a button museum in Prague. Other notable specialized museums are the museums of oceanography in Monaco and in Berlin and the Jurassic Museum of Asturias in Colunga, Spain. Most of the principal countries have national science museums or strong science collections in general museums. In London are the great natural history collection of the British Museum, housed in South Kensington, and the Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons, with its Hunterian Collection. Other noted science museums in Europe include Norway's Bergen Museum; the Swedish Museum of Natural History, Stockholm; the National Museum, Copenhagen; the Rijksmuseum, Leiden, Netherlands, noted for its departments of geology, mineralogy, and zoology; the University Museum, Amsterdam; the Natural History Museum, Vienna; the Natural History Museum (Jardin des Plantes), Paris; and the Kunstkammer of the Russian Academy of Sciences, St. Petersburg. Germany has many excellent science museums in its cities and universities, and many Italian universities are noted for their science collections.

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