Over hundreds of years, scientists have adopted many different strategies to communicate science to the public. Rigorous scientific papers, letters to the editor, web sites and blogs all have taken part in converying the role and import of science. Even television plays an important role—nothing else could have drawn my 8-year-old self to mathematics like PBS’s Square One.
We need and use all these channels to communicate research, discovery, and scientific milestones. No single message can reach all audiences. Some people are drawn in by big and powerful stories, others are touched by the personal and relatable.
That’s why museums play such an important role in communicating science to the public. In one space, different exhibits can hit everyone, at some point, right between the eyes.
When I was a kid, I loved the birth- and death-rate counter at the Boston Museum of Science. It flashes red every time someone on earth dies and blue every time someone is born—empirically, of course. It’s a tiny display, hidden near the exits. But when I was little, I always insisted on visiting it. My sister, on the other hand, liked the T-Rex exhibit and dragged the family to the big, intimidating skeleton. To each her own.
The Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, which I visited recently when I found myself with a free afternoon in D.C., runs the gamut from big and powerful to the small and personal. They have on display a reconstructed 45-foot, 28,000-pound V2 missile and a pre-Apollo 15 Lunar Roving Vehicle test unit. My sister would have loved those.
Me, I was struck by the smaller, more personal exhibits. I imagined what it would be like to be onboard an aircraft carrier during World War II and learned a bit about legendary German fighter pilot the Red Baron. I was also riveted by a list of requirements to be a stewardess in the 1950s. (Of the eight requirements, I meet only two. Totally moot and pointless, but I couldn’t help feeling a little discouraged.)
As I wandered around the museum—free of charge, by the way—I saw kids and adults ooh and ahh over the missile-type exhibits and go in for closer looks at the Red Baron. Many audiences, one channel.
Have you ever visited the Smithsonian? Do you think museums are a good way to communicate science to the public?