Distraction Free Reading

Interactive Science Museums: Replicating Science Without a Context

“We want a different museum. One where people are not afraid to interact with the objects” were the words[1] of one of the promoters of the ITINTEC museum, the first interactive science museum in Latin America that opened in Peru in 1979 and closed in 1993. During its opening years, this museum became a space for school students to learn about physics and engineering through hands-on activities, where school teachers participated in workshops about science education, and overall, a space where different audiences interacted with science. The museum was part of the Institute of Technological Research, Industry, and Technical Norms, known by its acronym in Spanish as the ITINTEC. However, the museum was not part of the original plans of the institute, and it was impacted by the political context of the military years and the following unstable economic crisis in Peru. Its institutional vulnerability became evident when the institute was transformed into a new agency, the INDECOPI, that focused on intellectual property and industrial competence, where the museum had no place and ended up closing.

Like other interactive science museums, the ITINTEC museum put much effort into differentiating itself from traditional science museums by developing interactive exhibitions instead of displaying historical artifacts that visitors could only admire from a distance and rarely touch or experiment with them. The museum’s first director, Jose Castro Mendívil, designed and built 150 experiments to teach physics and engineering concepts through experimentation. Historical references or controversial aspects of science were not included in the exhibitions, and public participation beyond interacting with the experiments was limited. The ITINTEC museum was highly influenced by the first interactive science museums from the 1960s that opened in the United States and Europe, characterized by their hands-on approach and merging of education, entertainment, and science popularization (Pedretti and Iannini 2020). The first interactive science museums were also known because they showed a decontextualized version of science, where scientific facts could exist in a vacuum, separated from the context that influenced them, something that museums such as the ITINTEC museum also replicated.

Science in display

There is no doubt about the popularity of interactive science museums. Over the past two decades, hundreds of interactive science museums have opened worldwide, and it is common to find them as part of touristic activities in many Western capital cities. Their exhibitions and activities mix education with entertainment and often target young audiences, teachers, and parents. Science museums have become central spaces for informal science education, where the next generation of scientists are expected to be amazed by the knowledge and scientific progress (Caulton 1998). Interactive science museums worldwide have accepted and replicated the formula of teaching science through experimentation and focusing on designing experiences. However, their popularity does not exclude them from criticism. Historians of science have questioned museums’ goals and metrics (Kranzberg 1984; Macdonald 1998). Although science museums often claim to be promoting scientific vocations, it is hard to measure how a museum visit affects a student’s further professional choices. Further, although museums claim that they increase scientific literacy, they often measure the number of visitors or time spent in each exhibition. As we can see, these two metrics are hardly correlative (Tucker, Bricker, and Huerta 2011).

In addition to the impact of science museums, the narratives of science they promote have been questioned too. Like science, science museums are not socially or politically neutral institutions. Instead, they are highly influenced by their social and political context. In some cases, museums have had to remove artifacts from their collections or apologize publicly for past exhibitions promoting antiscientific ideas about gender or race. For example, natural history museums had a role in promoting eugenics in the 20th century (Wachtel 2020).

Further, some museums have been criticized for exhibiting ethically questionable objects, such as embalmed bodies of unidentified people to teach anatomy (Gazi 2014). Additionally, some museums have avoided specific topics because of a potential backlash from the audience, for example, the Smithsonian controversy with the Enola Gay exhibition (Mayr 1998). The critiques do not only come from experts but also the museums’ audiences that currently have more active participation and communication with the institutions.

Through their exhibitions and activities, some science museums reinforced the idea that science is a “neutral” topic when they expect no critical response from their audience. This problematic misconception considerably impacts the curatorial process and how science museums portray science. When curators reduce science to a collection of facts, they focus on science’s positive results, failing to show the processes that produce those facts and the mistakes that led to them, reinforcing the idea that science works as a black box. Focusing only on the positive aspects of scientific research affects public trust because the public sees museums as one of the most trustworthy institutions in a context of declining trust in science (American Alliance of Museums 2021). Museums are well aware of this; in the past ten years, museums have started including exhibitions focusing more on the public engagement of science rather than only expecting the audiences to interact through experimentation (Bell 2008; Pedretti and Iannini 2020). Museums have also expanded their topics and now more frequently cover ethical issues of current problems such as climate change, vaccine hesitance, genetically modified organisms, artificial intelligence, and other issues mainly directed towards adults to have citizens with informed opinions on scientific developments.

A museum’s change to show science and its context is not an organic evolution. Moreover, it is a drastic one. The first interactive science museums from the 1970s, such as the Exploratorium of San Francisco, presented a decontextualized version of science, showing concepts from physics and engineering without including further explanations or instructions and expressly excluding the social and political context that fostered the creation of the concepts they were offering, for example, the relevance of physics during the Cold War (Hein 1990; Ogawa, Loomis, and Crain 2009). Their approach to hands-on activities and free experimentation became popular in the post-war years in the United States as a way to promote scientific vocations without referring to the political context, where scientific development was a central piece for national security and when the public had seen science’s destructive potential (Wolfe 2003). The influence of the Exploratorium over museums around the world, including the ITINTEC, is extensive. Museums replicated the Exploratorium’s fun experiments, use of space, the incorporation of guides, and other educational methods. Museums also replicated their decontextualized version of science as the best way to teach about science, ignoring how this approach was highly influenced by the Cold War years and not only responded to educational methods but the political context that shaped the Exploratorium.

Copied Without a Context

The interactive science museum’s approach to decontextualized knowledge is also reflected in the museum itself. As mentioned before, many cities have opened interactive science museums, and even traditional museums changed their exhibitions to include interactive sections to respond to their public’s interest (Semper 2007). Many interactive science museums are replicas of each other or have the same exhibitions. For example, it is common in interactive science museums to find exhibitions about concepts from physics such as light, force, and energy. Museums also tend to include exhibitions about genetics, chemistry, and biology. In some cases, the rejection of context and history is so strong that when visiting a particular museum, one might feel that that museum can be located anywhere in the world because there is no indication of the local context. Even when interactive science museums ignore the context that shaped the first interactive exhibitions, particularly the Cold War, this is still embedded in the exhibitions and popularization methods that museums used and have been replicated and carried out by experts who traveled with them to other countries.

Such is the case of the ITINTEC museum that opened during a military dictatorship in Peru to promote science, technology, and national industry. The museum was part of the Institute of Technological Research, Industry, and Technical Norms, known by its acronym in Spanish as the ITINTEC. The main activity of the institute was the development and standardization of norms that regulated the Peruvian industry. The funds for the institute came directly from the 2% of the taxes paid by all Peruvian companies of the time. This made the institute well-funded and eventually provided the resources needed for the museum. The museum was not initially part of the institute’s goals. Moreover, like in many other museums, it resulted from personal interest. In this case of Jorge Heraud, a young Peruvian engineer who was appointed as the Director of the institutes. Heraud’s appointment was part of the interest of the second military government to designate civilians, rather than militaries, for leadership positions in some public agencies as a symbol of transition to democracy.

A picture of the main facade of a Museum

Front of the ITINTEC museum in Lima, Peru. Source El Comercio 1979, Lima. Courtesy National Library of Peru

Heraud’s interest in a museum resulted from multiple visits to the Exploratorium during his time as a Ph.D. student at Stanford. These early encounters inspired him to recreate the idea in Peru because he considered hands-on experiences more efficient ways to promote interest in science. Heraud’s interests became materialized in the ITINTEC and found the right match in Jose Castro Mendívil, the museum’s first director and designer of the 150 experiments that constituted the museum’s collection. Like Heraud, Castro Mendívil was also inspired by other interactive museums of the time, including the Exploratorium, the museum of science and industry of Chicago, and the Deutsches Museum. The international influence was beyond just inspiration; scientists established connections with other museum experts abroad during a time when the government limited external power in Peru.

From the history of the ITINTEC, it is exciting to see how science popularization trends traveled so fast to other countries and how they were adapted to very different contexts. For example, the Exploratorium opened in 1969, and the ITINTEC museum opened in 1979. The former was part of more considerable efforts of knowledge production with universities such as Stanford that often collaborated with the museum. In contrast, the ITINTEC’s museum was an independent effort and functioned without a university affiliation. Moreover, some motivations of the Exploratorium traveled back to Peru through ITINTEC’s promoters, for example, the need to encourage scientific vocations or to make science entertaining, even when the context of these two museums could not be more different.

Finally, the ITINTEC museum is considered the pioneering interactive science museum in Latin America and was followed by other museums. The value of studying these museums is to understand how they replicated global trends of science popularization, in many cases ignoring the context that produced their Western peers, but also by surfing very different contexts. One might consider that interactive science museums are just copies of one another and that studying them individually to understand how a society learned about science has no historical value. However, reality proves different. When looking at the similarities of these museums, we can see which trends and concepts were more important at the time they were created and how they responded to more considerable interests in national development or industry promotion. Furthermore, when studying their differences, we can see how each museum, even when showing a decontextualized version of science, was demonstrating their local understanding of science, one that audiences could touch and experiment.


Notes

[1] ITINTEC museum reports, 1975, INDECOPI archive

References

American Alliance of Museums. 2021. “Exploring Museums and Trust 2021.” American Alliance of Museums (blog). October 5, 2021. https://www.aam-us.org/2021/10/05/exploringmuseums-and-trust-2021/

Bell, Larry. 2008. “Engaging the Public in Technology Policy: A New Role for Science Museums.” Science Communication 29 (3): 386–98. https://doi.org/10.1177/1075547007311971

Caulton, Tim. 1998. Hands-on Exhibitions: Managing Interactive Museums and Science Centres. London; New York: Routledge

Gazi, Andromache. 2014. “Exhibition Ethics – An Overview of Major Issues.” Journal of Conservation and Museum Studies 12 (1): 4. https://doi.org/10.5334/jcms.1021213

Hein, Hilde S. 1990. The Exploratorium: The Museum as Laboratory. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press

Kranzberg, Melvin. 1984. Review of Science and Technology Centers, by Victor J. Danilov. 4S Review 2 (1): 18–20. https://www.jstor.org/stable/690356

Macdonald, Sharon, ed. 1998. The Politics of Display: Museums, Science, Culture. London; New York: Routledge

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Ogawa, Rodney T., Molly Loomis, and Rhiannon Crain. 2009. “Institutional History of an Interactive Science Center: The Founding and Development of the Exploratorium.” Science Education 93 (2): 269–92. https://doi.org/10.1002/sce.20299

Pedretti, Erminia, and Ana Maria Navas Iannini. 2020. “Towards Fourth-Generation Science Museums: Changing Goals, Changing Roles.” Canadian Journal of Science, Mathematics and Technology Education 20 (4): 700–714. https://doi.org/10.1007/s42330-020-00128-0

Semper, Rob. 2007. “Science Centers at 40: Middle-Aged Maturity or Mid-Life Crisis?” Curator: The Museum Journal 50 (1): 147–50. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.21516952.2007.tb00258.x.

Tucker, Mark, Jon Bricker, and Alexandria Huerta. 2011. “An Approach to Measuring Impact and Effectiveness of Educational Science Exhibits.” Journal of Applied Communications 95 (2). https://doi.org/10.4148/1051-0834.1172.

Wachtel, Anna. 2020. “Exhibiting Prejudice: How Twentieth-Century Museums Promoted the Eugenics Movement.” Museum Studies Theses, May. https://digitalcommons.buffalostate.edu/museumstudies_theses/24.

Wolfe, Audra J. 2003. “Scientists in the Classroom: The Cold War Reconstruction of American Science Education.” Isis 94 (4): 767–68. https://doi.org/10.1086/386486.

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