University museums focus on the new science

Harvard, MIT and Broad Institute museums expand to improve communication about current state of the art to the public.
Written by ZDNET Editors, Contributor

In an effort to buck the trend of university science museums to be merely repositories of old artifacts, the Broad Institute, the MIT Museum and Harvard's Museum of Natural History are expanding their museums to focus on changes in contemporary science, reports The Boston Globe.

"Scientific institutions have a social responsibility to tell the public about the science that's happening now," said Bang Wong, creative director at the Broad Institute, the joint MIT/Harvard center for biomedical research in Cambridge. "But there are not enough venues to tell those stories."

Harvard is beginning an expansion to make its science museum more contemporary. A Harvard committee recently released a report proposing that the university's venerable science museums move to its Allston campus.

"Just because people are good scientists, it doesn't follow that they're good communicators to the public," said Christopher Stubbs, an astrophysicist at Harvard and cochair of the university committee that issued the report. "But museums can be their translation mechanism."

The goal is to have the university science museum reflect recent changes in science. But according to John Durant, director of the MIT Museum, they haven't been very successful.

"I don't think museums of science and technology worldwide are doing a particularly good job of recording recent science and technology," said John Durant, director of the MIT Museum, home to a relatively small collection, unaltered in recent years except for the addition of a robotics exhibit.

The new exhibits will be much more relevant to contemporary changes in science. "We are trying to connect people with what's exciting at MIT today," Durant said. The 2007 expansion includes one exhibit on oceanography and deep-sea exploration, another on futuristic automobiles from the university's Media Lab, and a third involving biologist Nancy Hopkins's cancer research.

The Broad Institute focus will be digital, featuring a curling, 76-screen interactive display of science news in its lobby. Currently, Harvard's Museum of Natural History only nod to DNA is limited to one placard about a stuffed mountain lion, but changes are afoot.

"The university museum has two major functions," said the Museum of Natural History's director, Dr. Elisabeth Werby. "What's interesting for us is not a special show about genomics but integrating that into other shows rich in specimens," Werby said. "That's what the public comes to us for. People are tied to these 19th-century displays, and I understand that, but I'm hoping we can do 21st-century displays with the same sense of wonder."
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