free debate

April 11, 2011

Why Museums Matter

I grew up in a museum.
Ok, so there's a bit more on a nuance to it than that. I was homeschooled from elementary school through my sophomore year in high school. My "official" courses were online, through a virtual public school. I did my work at home, at the ice skating rink where my brothers practiced, at my other brother's violin studio, or where ever I happened to be on any given day. That was all great, but the place I really considered my school, and my second home, was the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. I took classes there within months of moving to Colorado. If my parents asked me where I wanted to spend the day, I would invariably say "the Museum." As soon as I was old enough, I started volunteering there. With how many hundreds of hours I spend within that building, you'd think I would have gotten tired of it. Quite the contrary; I couldn't get enough of it. I still can't. In any city or state, I feel most at home at a science museum. They spark my interest, make me ask new questions, and remind me that this universe is a fantastic place.

I was pretty pleased, therefore, when I ran across a news article titled "Surveys confirm enormous value of science museums, 'free choice' learning." Apparently, I am far from the only one whose excitement about science came from a museum. The study focused on a single museum in Los Angeles, California, recording who came there, what they thought about the museum and the role of science, and what they thought about "free choice" learning, which is the idea that the bulk of science knowledge comes not from school, but from self-education: using the Internet, watching documentaries or science programming, going to the museum. Instead of trying to present facts and figures through rote memorization and textbooks, this "free-choice" style inspires people to look further, to try to solve problems on their own, and to understand not only what science has discovered, but also how the scientific process works.

For a museum geek like me, this seems like common knowledge. But, my anecdotes do not count as scientific evidence supporting the value of museums and alternative schooling. This survey, covering over a decade and millions of people, confirms what seems basic to me: that those who have access to scientific facts in a clear, engaging way, get excited by science. And that's the first step to appreciating the natural wonders of our universe.