Museum of Science not just for kids
Nowhere in the mission statement of the Museum of Science will you find the word “kids.” It mentions that learning is exciting and fun, and that curiosity, questioning and exploration are encouraged. But one of the museum’s main goals is to attract “the broadest spectrum of participants” to its activities, exhibits and programs.
“We’ve always had some significant number of adults that come to the museum without kids,” says David Rabkin, director for Current Science & Technology. “Something like 25 percent of our visitors are adults who aren’t here with kids.”
Rabkin, 48, who grew up on the South Shore, vividly recalls coming to the museum as a kid and seeing Spooky the Owl and the big lighthouse lens and a demonstration of feathers dropping in a vacuum.
“I have this memory that kind of mixes up the T-Rex, the giant grasshopper and the planetarium projector, all into this kind of prehistoric, futuristic techno-monster thing,” he says. “It’s one of my earliest memories of the museum.
“And,” he adds, “I kept coming back.”
These days the former software engineer directs the museum’s programs, exhibits and media that are targeted to adult audiences.
“There have always been adult programs here that typically took the form of a traditional lecture,” he explains. “We still have great lecture series, but about five years ago, we began to make a more concerted effort to create new adult programs.”
A great example is next Monday’s “One Giant Leap: Space Exploration and the New Pioneers,” a panel discussion with NASA’s Doug Cooke, the FAA’s Ken Davidian, University of Mississippi’s Joanne Gabrynowicz and the X Prize Foundation’s William Pomerantz. The moderator is Wired Magazine’s Spencer Reiss.
“Everybody loves space exploration,” says Rabkin. “It’s a totally hot topic. And here you’ve got some real leaders in the field, and a great moderator, so you know it’s going to be a great discussion. The format will be panel discussion, moderator, and then Q&A with the audience.”
Rabkin has been at the museum only since 2000, but he explains that the push to bring in this type of programming really started in the mid-’80s.
“It was when we opened up the Omni Theater,” he says. “Yes, it’s a family venue, but at night, an adult audience comes to the Omni. That was a way to bring more adults into the museum.”
During the day, the museum is apt to be packed with young kids — on school field trips or just with their parents — but a number of programs have developed that are aimed directly at grownups.
Rabkin mentions the Current Science & Technology Stage, where there are usually three adult- and teen-oriented presentations a day, with topics ranging from biotechnology to health science to energy. There’s also the annual Lowell Astronomy Program, a joint project every May with the museum and the Lowell Institute, which is presenting “One Giant Leap.” On Wednesday, May 13, they’ll present the panel discussion “One Giant Leap.”
There’s plenty more, from the planetarium (Rabkin is interested in presenting concerts in there, particularly live choral work) to the still unnamed new art gallery in the Blue Wing (Rabkin calls it “sophisticated, a bit of a sanctuary in the museum, intended to be responded to quietly as a reflective kind of place”).
But he seems most animated in talking about the program called Forum, which takes place about five or 10 times a year.
“It’s dialogue-based,” says Rabkin. “We don’t set up a panel where people debate each other. We’re trying to have people get involved in actually working on a problem, in a group. For instance, where would you site off-shore wind turbines, or say you’re the parent council of an elementary school – will you serve genetically modified food in your cafeteria? We’re trying to bring together the public, scientists and policy makers.
“We invite a diverse set of experts,” he adds. “So if it is about genetically modified foods, we’ll bring in a researcher, and someone from the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council, and someone from the organic farm growers association, and someone who works of the labeling of foods and from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. Then each of them will share information with the audience. People are broken into groups to talk about it, then report back to the larger group on what they came up with. We’ve had fascinating discussions with this program.”
The Museum of Science is always going to remain an educational and entertainment haven for kids of all ages. But Rabkin is making sure that the place is inviting to everyone.
“We really want people to get that the museum isn’t just for kids anymore,” he says. “And that it’s got an important role to play for adults. We want to be a place where people can explore what’s new in science and technology, and understand what it means to us in our lives, to our culture, to our world.”
Ed Symkus can be reached at email@example.com.