A Tour of the World’s Science Museums!

I’m chanson, I’m an expat (American in Switzerland) mom of two boys (ages 7 & 9), and I’m one of the Rational Moms. This is my first post here at Science-Based Parenting.

It’s funny how much the ending of the Curious George movie really sums up the way that science and technology museums have changed in the past few decades. You parents with young kids have probably seen this film — remember how the happy ending is that the museum trades in all the dusty, dry old exhibits for fun, interactive exhibits, face-painting, etc.?

Science is amazing and can show you things that will thrill you and fill you with awe.  But in our instant-entertainment culture, it’s a challenge for anything (even something as cool as science!) to compete with all the noise. Fortunately, a lot of modern science museums have really stepped up to the plate. At the same time, some of the more old-fashioned science museums can give you a real feel for how these scientific discoveries came about. Scientific knowledge isn’t something that just appeared out of nowhere by magic, and museum artifacts can show you how new discoveries were built through simple steps based on existing knowledge. So rather than suggesting that all museums need to dump their old stuff and get with the times, I’d recommend taking your kids to a variety of science museums and learning a little from each.

On the modern end, there’s the Swiss Science Center near Zürich. This place is amazing. It has several floors of giant, open halls full of little stations of different hands-on activities and experiments illustrating different properties of electricity, magnetism, physics, mechanics, optics, and, well any kind of science you can think of.

The most astonishingly old-fashioned science museum I’ve ever seen is the Natural History Museum in Bordeaux (France). The museum itself is essentially a living artifact (see our visit). It was founded about two hundred years ago, and in all that time they haven’t made any major changes in the museum layout or style. It’s fascinating because you can get a sense of how natural history worked back in the days of Darwin.

You can flesh out that image a bit by visiting the natural history museum in Maastricht. The museum in Maastricht is a modern museum — kids can see bees at work, plus that’s where the mosasaur was discovered, so they have some cool mosasaur skeletons (if you don’t know what a mosasaur skeleton is, ask your kids). But they also have a very interesting room upstairs where you can get a feel for how naturalists of centuries past worked. It was a room where researchers examined specimens. It’s set up just as it was in those days, with a long wooden table, display cabinets along the walls (to store the specimens people were using), and an old-fashioned heating stove on one end.

Italy also has some fascinating history-of-science museums, in particular the Leonardo da Vinci Museum in Milan and the Galileo Museum in Florence. Both museums give you a fascinating look at how our modern technology got started. You get to look at actual machines from centuries past, and see how simple (yet ingenious!) they were. For example, you can see some of the earliest machines people used to generate electricity, the first batteries, and the earliest experimental electric motors. There are purely mechanical devices that demonstrate the acceleration of falling objects (using bells placed at different intervals and a simple pendulum to keep time). You can see a loom that used punch cards program the design — an example of the earliest (mechanical) computer programming. Plus you can see some of the earliest radio and telegraph devices and how they worked. Here’s an early “fax machine” that could send images using telegraph technology by using a pendulum to synchronize the reading stylus on one end and the writing stylus on the other:

The science museums in North America are a bit of a mix, but they tend to lean more in the modern direction. The Museum of Science in Boston was fun. In particular, my kids liked the fantasy fish tank where you can design a fish according to your own parameters and set it to interact with other fish.

Then there’s the American Museum of Natural History (in New York).

This museum is even older than many of its European counterparts, so quite a lot of it is devoted to dioramas (which are quite interesting, but lean a little in the old-fashioned direction).

My kids’ favorite thing, though, was the way they used the planetarium sphere to illustrate the relative scale of things in the universe, starting from galaxy clusters and covering each scale right down to subatomic particles.

There was a little terrace set up around it with a series of stations, each with a comparison of the form “If X were the size of the planetarium sphere, then here’s how big Y would be” (where X might be a drop of water and Y might be a cell).

In all their varieties, science museums make for great family outings!

2 Responses to A Tour of the World’s Science Museums!

  1. Ticktock says:

    Welcome to the blog! Sounds like fun!

  2. Julie says:

    Wow, someone should actually do a science tour of Europe. That would be such a great tourist type of thing, for us nerdy tourists.

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