The closing of the Toledo COSI due to budget shortfalls last month after the public voted down financial support should raise a red flag for many science centers around the United States. Are science centers relevant? Do they need to change? How should they change?
Establishing Relevance Again in the Community
Looking at the top 20 Science Centers and Museums around the US not one mission is identical, but all are basically the same – advance the public interest/education in science and technology. The challenge most science centers face stems from a lack of audience appreciation and relevance.
Having helped design and consulted with Science Centers/Museums of Science, most still operate trying to communicate information on their terms with little regard to what is happening in the non-science world. Is it interesting to see a model of a space vehicle or a moch-up of a control panel when I can go home and interact, almost completely immersed in a virtual environment on my X-box?
Most Science Centers need to step back and do four things. (1) Understand and define the audience. Who can the institution most successfully reach and what is the expected impact? (2) Determine what is relevant to the lives of that audience (3) Define the science strengths in the institution and around the institution. (4) Develop a narrative and experience that connects from a point of audience relevance to the science issue that is a strength. Just like the department store – the days of selling everything to everyone no longer works in a world of specialization and the Internet.
Ironically – The very science and technology that these institutions promote is reducing the effectiveness of the institutions. But it could also be the greatest point to re-establish their relevance.
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