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Science Museums of the Future

In the light of urgently needed system transformations that serve contemporary complex societal challenges, many science centers and museums are - and are increasingly expected to be - renewing their role at the interface of science and society. In ‘science museums of the future’ we investigate and support science centers and museums in experimenting with new science-society interface roles.

In addition to their more traditional roles as informal science educators, entertainers and curators, many science centers and museums experiment with taking on new roles. These experiments of science centers and museums with ‘transformative role-taking’ seem to cover a wide spectrum, from more traditional forms of science communication with one-way communication from museum (e.g. as representative of science) to society, towards participatory forms of science communication.

Many of these experiments take place at the level of content design: searching for new ways to present collections, designing of new types of exhibitions and additional programs that invite visitors or stakeholders to relate to contemporary complex societal challenges. These new roles require new skills among science museum employees, for example related to inclusion and facilitation, as an extension of their current capacities for exhibit development, history-informed curatorship of collections, teaching and entertainment.

The contexts and aims of these experiments are strongly connected to how a science museum, its professionals and actors that engage with the museum (visitors, sponsors, research institutes, etc.) make sense of their role at the interface of science and society.

Although a shift in this sensemaking might be happening in the minds of professionals and on a strategic level of the organization (e.g. mission, vision, etc.), their translation into the communicative practices and the institutional culture can still be a challenge; and vice versa, new experiments do not guarantee structural mind and culture shifts.

While much research has been performed into sensemakings of visitors and citizens regarding the science society interface, little research has been done so far into sensemakings of science museum professionals regarding this, let be while pioneering with transformative roles in their science museums.

This action research project, therefore, aims to promote learning between and distill recommendations for science museum professionals to equip them and their museum in internalizing and shaping new, tailormade roles. We do this by exploring various sensemakings of professionals throughout their processes of experimentation with new transformative roles at the science-society interface.   

The research investigates:

1. various sensemakings of science museum professionals on their (museum’s) role in system transformations regarding contemporary complex societal challenges,
2. the different ways by which these sensemakings materialize in new science museum content, and the diverse impacts that these materialized roles achieve.

Through literature study, interviews with professionals and participatory observations in various pioneering science museums, and reflection sessions within these science museums and (later) a wider community of science museum professionals (in collaboration with VSC), the research also aims to develop a community of practice through which the above-mentioned aims are co-creatively realized and translated to local contexts.

Athena’s role
The Athena Institute is initiator of this research project. The project is realized with the rather newly initiated internal starter-fund of VU University Amsterdam, and the set-up is co-created with VSC, the Dutch association for science centers and museums. Assistant professor Marjoleine van der Meij is the project leader and co-promotor, PhD researcher Christianne Blijleven is the executive researcher, associate professor Frank Kupper and Barbara Regeer serve as promotors in the project. Throughout the project, the Athena staff continuously observers and co-creates in transformative role taking experiments of science center and museum professionals, while also facilitating learning and reflection within the VSC network.

Project details