A question someone asked me recently got me thinking about science museums. Funny that I’ve hardly written about them here, despite the fact that I spent over 20 years working in museums, and fully expected to spend even more time working there until they showed me the door.

When it comes to museums, I often come off as arrogant, as if I think I know everything. If that happens here, I apologize. In reality, there’s so very, very much I don’t know about museums. I don’t know a thing about business models, bottom lines, making payroll, or keeping the doors open. I don’t know about liability, public-private partnerships, measurable outcomes, or marketing. I don’t know how they decide what to charge for a bag of stale popcorn or a watery diet Pepsi, or where they get all those crappy toys they sell in the gift shop.

What I do know is how to get kids excited about science. I know because for well over a decade in my 23-plus science museum career, that’s what I tried to do every day. I didn’t always succeed, but I succeeded more often than not. And in the process I learned what works and what doesn’t.

So here’s what generally happens in a science museum, and why it generally doesn’t do much to get kids to love science the way I and other museum people love it.

In a typical science museum, kids come pouring in like marines taking a beach. They see something shiny and scurry over. They push buttons; maybe something happens and maybe it doesn’t. If it makes noise or lights flash, they pay attention. If it doesn’t, they go on to something else. If they can get wet or (even better) get someone else wet, they love that. If they can build something or (better yet) knock it down, they love that, too. What they learn of science from all these things, I have no idea, and don’t really care. One thing I’m pretty certain of is that they don’t learn what the designers intended. Mostly they just get wet.

Every once in a while, the kids see someone at a cart, or walking in the halls with an interesting-looking prop. If the person seems friendly, if the prop is interesting enough, the kids might go over and see what’s going on. Too often, the person at the cart or holding the prop is another kid, a teenage volunteer or maybe a college student trying to make a little money. Usually these museum staff are not much better than the exhibits with the flashing lights or the splashing water. They might have memorized a script they drone out again and again, hoping no one asks a question. The kids eventually slip away, looking for another button to push.

But occasionally the person at the cart or holding the prop is someone who actually cares about the interaction. This person might be a dedicated museum professional, or at least someone being mentored by one. These are the “museum people.” Now the interaction takes on a different flavor. There’s no rote script; rather, questions and answers fly back and forth between the museum person and the kid. The kid is invited to touch, to try, to hold, to hear, to feel. There are terrible jokes that make the kid laugh because they’re so terrible. The kid asks a great question, and the museum person says, “That’s a great question. Let’s see if we can find out!” The kid gets so excited she starts jumping up and down in anticipation. She wants to know what’s next. She wants to try it again. Sometimes, she even wants to teach someone else how it works. And the museum person has to hold back tears, the interaction is that powerful. And all is right with the world.

The museum people who catalyze these reactions have a few common traits. Museum people have “it”, an infectious enthusiasm that makes everyone feel comfortable and not intimidated. You understand you’re in the presence of someone who is not lording over you with superior knowledge, but instead is genuinely excited about seeing how you will react to discovering something new. Museum people love to laugh, especially at really bad jokes. Museum people love questions, especially questions they don’t know the answers to. Museum people love to help others explore. They have no sense of time – an interaction can be brief or extended, it can cut into the published schedule, their own lunch time, even closing time for the museum, and it doesn’t matter. What matters is the exploration.

First, last, and always, museum people aren’t selling anything – nothing but their own joy and love of the cool things they know will make kids go “woah!” For a museum person, that “woah” is the greatest sound in the world. And we know how to get it.

Liquid nitrogen can get it. So can dry ice. Invisible electromagnetic fields are great at inducing that sound. Bones, especially skulls, can do the job. Fire is a sure-fire woah inducer. Flying things are great, too. So are explosions.

There are other, more subtle, ways of getting the woah. Things that feel funny, or that change color, or that light up at just the right moment get a woah, even if the effect itself isn’t the most exciting thing ever. It’s all in the set-up and the delivery. Every kid has one shot at getting that woah moment for every effect, and a museum person understands that every experience, every time, every kid is vital. They are all our starfish, in our hands for just a short time before we return them to the ocean. We have to make that moment count. Every. Single. Time.

Sadly, science museums aren’t built for the woah. They aren’t built with dedicated museum professionals in mind. Why? Lots of reasons. All of them bad.

Here’s how things often happen at science museums. A big business with an important message comes to the museum. “Hey,” they say, “we’d like to give you a wad of money. Can  you get kids excited about making healthy food choices?”

The science museum sees the wad of cash, thinks about how that wad of cash can help keep the doors open, pay the light bill, and make payroll. And so the science museum lies.

“Yeah, we can get kids excited about making healthy food choices.”

They know it’s a lie. They’ve tried before. Everyone’s tried before, and they’ve failed. Why? Because kids don’t want to learn about healthy food choices. They want the “woah!” Now maybe someone out there, a museum person who understands the woah even better than I do, has a great idea that involves healthy food choices. I doubt it, but then as I said before there’s lot I don’t know. But this I do know. You don’t get the woah by trying to sell healthy food choices. You get the woah by going for the woah – by finding that golden moment that makes kids go “woah!” and building your interaction around that. If the moment the museum people find happens to involve healthy food choices, well, they’re better than me. But it has to start with the woah. It’s not the outcome that matters. It’s how you get there. Wonder is a journey.

So the science museum lies. They take the wad of cash, and they build an exhibit about healthy food choices. It sucks. They might even have a cart activity or a traveling prop about healthy food choices. It sucks, too, and what makes it suck worse is that almost always the person behind the cart isn’t a museum person. It’s someone reciting a script, a script approved by the company with the wad of cash that wanted their name on something to do with healthy food choices.

There’s no woah. There’s no joy in discovery and no opportunity to fall in love. The journey is just a means to an end. Be sure to drink your Ovaltine. The kids walk away, uninspired.

Meanwhile, the museum people – despite being notoriously underpaid because they are doing what they love, and you can bet the museum takes full advantage (we used to say we keep the salaries low to keep out the riffraff) – are seen as a drain on the institution. As a result, they slowly disappear. Many move into “behind the scenes” jobs, jobs that pay better, get them home on weekends, and get them a lot more respect in the museum field. Having myself worked many, many museum jobs, I can tell you no one works harder than the museum people on the floor, looking every day for those starfish. It’s not even close.

Most museum people that don’t move into behind the scenes jobs eventually move on to something else. If you can’t get on full-time, you really can’t stay forever, and why would a museum make a full-time job out of something that (from the museum’s point of view) a part-timer or better yet an unpaid volunteer can do just as well?

A few museum people try to hang on, but eventually that budget will be cut and changes will be made. Because these museum people have no voice in management (they are notoriously rotten at politics, and avoid meetings like the plague because of course they’d rather be out there inspiring the woah), one by one they get cut from the staff. And because most visitors to the museum never encountered one of these museum people, never experienced the woah themselves, the museum people are hardly missed.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Here’s what should happen.

The museum, instead of selling itself as the place with flashing lights and splashing, should sell itself as the home of dedicated museum people who know how to get the woah. Then, when the company with the wad of cash comes, the museum can say, “No, we can’t get kids excited about healthy food choices. What we can do is keep paying our dedicated museum people to inspire a new generation of kids to fall in love with science. These kids who love science, who love learning, who are excited about discovering the world all around them, will have the tools they need to make good choices about themselves and their world. How’s that?”

And then the museum professionals, who know more about the woah than anyone else, can go to work.

That would be a museum worth going to.

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