Afternoon Inquisition

Afternoon Inquisition, 4.17

This week, as you know, the Atlanta Skeptics have been in a kerfuffle about the goings-on at the Georgia Aquarium.  My post triggered some interesting comments about the nature of entertainment and whether science can be entertaining.  I certainly think it can but I’m a nerd and a science geek so maybe I’m in the minority.

But Skepchick commenters are some of the most creative minds I know:

If you ran a museum, aquarium or other educational facility, what programs would implement do to make science and education fun and interesting?  Do you have examples of places that are doing this already?


Maria D'Souza grew up in different countries around the world, including Hong Kong, Trinidad, and Kenya and it shows. She currently lives in the Bay Area and has an unhealthy affection for science fiction, Neil Gaiman and all things Muppet.

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  1. The Pink Palace – a museum in Memphis – had a bone exhibit at one time. This collection was over 50 complete skeletons of animals displayed beside stuffed animals or of pictures of animals. Kids – and a lot of adults – spent a lot of time tracing how the bones changed the shape of the animal and how the bones differed between species.

    Bones = fun

    (Yeah, yeah, I see the double entendre. Let’s just assume that someone says “That’s what she said!” and someone else says “In my pants!”, and then someone else randomly adds, “Don’t high-hat the monkey!”)

  2. If I ran an aquarium, I’d put together an exhibit displaying never before seen artifacts from the Titanic. It sells itself!

    Then next door I’d have an exhibit explaining what exactly “ghost hunting tools” actually do, and the faulty logic behind the thinking that they actually detect ghosts.

    Then I’d invite ghost hunters into the museum to do tours as a publicity stunt.

  3. throw a few kids to the sharks, that’s what I call fun.

    Seriously I have a hard time thinking like a normal person because I think that the Photoelectric Effect is totally awesome and bore my wife to death with “The Wonders of Fluorescent Lights”, my personal awesome speech series that I have also used to put my kids to sleep from time to time.

  4. The hands-on sections of museums have always been my favorite.

    I went to the Exploratorium in San Francisco which is pretty much all hands-on ( and had a wonderful time! Going through the steps of an experiment myself is the best way for me to learn.

  5. Oh, there are so many things that can be used to entertain as well as educate…
    – pyrotechnics
    – crash tests
    – gyroscopes
    – bugs (both live and edible)
    – frickin’ laser beams
    – liquid nitrogen

    One thing I’d like to see is a 3D simulator ride (with tilting seats, subwoofers, etc) that takes people on the Cassini-Huygens mission trajectory (obviously not real-time).

  6. I haven’t been there since I was probably 12 or 13 but I still vividly remember the Boston Children’s Museum because it was so hands on. If I was in charge of a place like that I’d take what they have there as a starting point and expand on it. I’d want some structured programs for kids where they could do chemistry experiments, learn some basics about robotics, build a trebuchet to learn about engineering and physics, etc. The more they get to apply things they’ve learned the better.

  7. I’m transitioning from being a young curmudgeon to being an old curmudgeon, and I can remember before the days of “interactivity” when museums were essentially warehouses of collections and exhibits. If you were interested in dinosaurs or Maori sculptures or whatever you could go and see them, but you were expected to do most of the brain work for yourself.

    Nowadays, many centuries-old, one-of-a-kind items have been moved into storage, and most museums are infested with knots of shrieking mall rats running from one dumbed-down, condescending, badly-thought-out, expensive, –and usually broken — video game to another.

    I don’t think the whole “let’s make museums accessible to the 90% of people who aren’t interested in museum stuff” movement has been handled at all well.

  8. We have a kickass science museum in Columbus – COSI, and they have so many cool things to do I can’t even list them. I’m waiting for the warm weather so I can go ride the Generotor.

  9. I remember as a kid, the local children’s museum had a huge setup that had people walk though “The Human Body”. You entered through the mouth and went, from organ to organ, looking at the exhibits and playing with experiments.

    Due to budget cuts the museum was moved to a much smaller location, but I think some other nearby places have similar tours.


    Mid-American Museum has 3 levels of hands on-playing around-hair raising capacitor-tesla coiled fun! I’m not sure how I could improve on it. It is the most awesomest museum out there. I know being skeptics, your job is to be doubtful of that claim, so I challenge each and every one of you to go down to Hot Springs, Arkansas, (yeah, Arkansas! Betcha didn’t see that one coming!) and see for yourself!


  11. I’d make the entire museum play nothing but The Mad Scientist all day long by the Large Professor.

  12. Oh, I forgot!

    Liberty Science Center

    I haven’t gone myself but most of my family (mother, sisters and nephews) and friends have.

    My sisters joke that they are willing to loan me a kid or two if I decide to go.

  13. Hands On is the way to go. Liberty Science Center here in New Jersey has a whole lot of hands on experiments and those exhibits are always the most crowded.

  14. I’d feature the “Throw the Christians to the Lions room”, with real lions AND real Christians!

    No I wouldn’t. I’ll get serious now (removing sombrero and evil smirk…there…)

    Lots of Museums offer classes on making stone tools. (aka flint napping).

    I’d have it set up so you could learn to make various periods of stone implements, unique to certain areas and times, etc.

    I’d LOVE to take one of those,


    Then again, I’ve been called a Neanderthal many times. Perhaps I’m just yearning to explore my cultural roots…

  15. I’m half way between these two great sciency places I happily took my kids to when they were younger. The Pacific Science Center in Seattle is one of the best imho.

    They both needed more exhibits and discussion about bad science and education about how science and knowledge changes as more information is obtained and theories are proven or discredited.

  16. I think I practically grew up in “Science World, in Vancouver, BC – before Telus decided to by it and rebrand it. There, and the Vancouver Aquarium. I never quite forgave my parents for making us move two weeks before my Girl Guides group got to have a sleepover with the Beluga whales. Science World has lots of hands-on stuff, and I think still has the electricity, sound, and optical illusions exhibits. I think hands-on is the way to go to teach children – especially when you want to teach them to think critically, it’s important to be able to let them work through the problem/principle themselves, and see that it doesn’t work just because an adult says so.

    Speaking of Titanic Exhibits, the Royal BC Museum did a phenomenal job when they had one a couple years ago. They recreated a typical room from each class, and a wee dining room with menus… but the best part was that when you picked up your ticket, you got a ticket for one of the real passengers as well , with their name, age, and why you were on the ship/where you were going written on the back. At the end of the exhibit, there was a wall with everyone’s names on it, sorted by class, and the object was for you to find whether or not “you” survived. It got everyone really invested in the history and the human element (and the racism and classism that made the tragedy so much worse). They also had actors who hung out in the rooms and would break out into story that went with the display – something that happened at dinner, someone’s first impression of the boat, the crew’s first reaction to the iceberg hit, etc. from the point of view of their character (an immigrant, an actress, the first mate) – when enough people were in the room. I even remember my passenger: I got the ticket of a woman who survived, and actually lived here in Victoria; she was coming back from buying her wedding dress. My husband had a priest who went down with the ship, ministering to the people who didn’t make it into the lifeboats.

    It was a wildly popular exhibit for all ages, and left a lasting impression on me, when I had thought I would be soured on all things Titanic for the rest of my life thanks to that awful movie.

  17. This past Sunday, there was an article (URL below) about a professor of osteology that willed his skeleton and his dog’s skeletons to the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History with the proviso that they be used as an exhibit. After various hurdles, both legal and technical, the exhibit has opened to rave reviews.

    Now, THIS man is a true scientist – Even in death, he still teaches the next generation of scientists. I am a bit humbled by his example.

  18. I remember my 1980s visits to the Museu de la Ciència in Barcelona. Games about sensory illusions were my favourites. They teach us a great deal about our perceptory limitations and they can play a role in stimultating questioning in the general public.

  19. A few years ago we took our older son to Discovery Place in Charlotte, NC and they had the Grossology exhibit where you can walk through a giant mouth and all the way to sliding out of the rectum.

    I decided then that I wanted to create a giant vagina and uterus, and make the children put on cute “sperm hats” ! They would have to climb up the vagina, grab the “egg”, and then escape via the vagina again or the trap door in the uterus.

    I don’t think anyone will ever let me create children’s museums.

  20. @heidiho:

    I decided then that I wanted to create a giant vagina and uterus, and make the children put on cute “sperm hats” ! They would have to climb up the vagina, grab the “egg”, and then escape via the vagina again or the trap door in the uterus.

    Love it. But wouldn’t the Catholic Church interfere? They would make you enter via a latex wall which anyone can easily pass through, especially people dressed as HIV viruses.

    You could turn it into a kind of Laser Tag game, where there are little antibodies dressed as Mary defending the uterus from every child who is not carrying a little toy marriage license — to those kids, the eggs are forced on them as if by some demented Easter bunny. (And all the ppl in the HIV costumes are warded off UNLESS they came in through the latex, and the Marys become powerless.)

    Borrow the rectum design from the place in Charlotte, and you can do something similar, except no one gets in.

    It would be a powerful message, and have at least as much grounding in science as we have at the Georgia Aquarium.

  21. @phlebas:

    Masala Skeptic is officially the luckiest woman in the world, and Atlanta is the coolest place in the world.

    Can we also have really good, cool techno music at the rectum?? And make people cover themselves in baby oil before they get in? And it would have to be a really tight squeeze, almost as if you were sure you could not get in. But once you were in, the party would be AWESOME!

  22. As a docent, I would say museums should heavily invest in their volunteer program and ensure that their docents understand that just standing there in front of specimens or samples isn’t likely to catch people’s interests.

    I’ve been a docent for the hands-on room at NMNH in DC, and am still one (occasionally) at the Dinosaur & Fossil Hall at SMM in St. Paul. In both places, other volunteers marvel at how I can (seemingly) effortlessly get an engaged crowd around me.

    The way I do it though is by actively engaging their interest. If you don’t engage people, don’t look like you’re interested in the stuff yourself or don’t seem like you are living and breathing only to answer their questions, then they aren’t going to be comfortable asking the questions that museums create.

    When things were slow at the Smithsonian, I would trot out the stuffed porcupine. The second I put it on my desk, a gaggle of kids would run over, and then I had a 5 minute spiel on porcupines that included a lot of Q&A, fun facts, and a lesson on how to safely touch a porcupine. After that, kids would run back and forth from different parts of the room to ask me questions about different items in the room – I was a trusted, interesting person.

    Or if I was manning the door and people were waiting to get in, I would conspiratorially ask the kids if they wanted to see the *coolest* thing in the museum. When their eyes lit up, I would point them to the shrunken head display. After that, it was implied anything I showed them was cool once they got into the room.

    At SMM, they have some boxes for us to use, but I tweaked the one on digestion to talk about teeth. I have some t-rex teeth, a saber-tooth cat head, a Megalodon tooth, a mammoth tooth, some herbivorous dino teeth and a few other things laid out in a hard-to-miss manner.

    I then have a spiel on carnivore vs. herbivore (with the final, end of spiel question being about omnivores). I generalize heavily (’cause really, sometimes teeth CAN be supremely boring), but basically I talk about sharp, pointy teeth vs. flat, grindy teeth, ask them whether it’s bite/chew a celery stick or a hot dog, and even insert a bit about how it’s important to brush your teeth or you have to eat *baby food* for the rest of your life – and what’s life without pizza!

    It’s not a comprehensive discussion on teeth, but it’s enough to get them moving and talking and taking a harder look at the displays. (Especially when I say “piscivore”, a word designed to sound like the speaker is intensely intelligent ;) ).

    I even get them to come to me when I see them looking aimless, when I point out the display across from my desk with the big magnifying glasses shows….FOSSIL POO! (But it’s not stinky…)

    I can have entire families sitting in front of the desk acting like a room full of 4th graders answering questions, and then looking around the dinosaur hall at the different teeth on display. I’m totally exhausted at the end of a shift and talk almost non-stop on a busy Saturday. But I usually have more than one family on each shift thank me for making their day interesting.

    It’s not about interactive displays, per se, but finding a topic and a way to explain it that is accessible to everyone so they *want* to interact. So many volunteers I’ve seen at museums in the US aren’t that aggressive. They stick to a script and it *sounds* like a script. That’s just not interesting at all.

    Think of yourself as a modern carnival barker when you’re a volunteer. Your job is to draw people in to your attraction. It requires banter and patter skills in abundance. Making education interesting (not necessarily “edutainment” mind you, just interesting) is the name of the game. And I assure you, it is a game.

  23. Curmudgeon, Part 2:

    Well, I’ve been feeling a little guilty about my post above – did I overdo it?

    But some of the other posts here are reinforcing my reservations. It’s certainly *possible* to do good museum interactivity that is both entertaining *and* educational.

    But like they say, 90% of everything is crap, and interactive museum exhibits are a subset of “everything”.

    Most modern museum visitors, donors, and even in many cases administrators are basically interested in “entertaining” and don’t have a very good handle on “educational”.

    If it explodes, if it lights up, if it’s gross, if it’s freaky, if it’s scary, hey, that’s the *point* of interacting with science and history, right?

  24. So many things I could say about museums. Early experiences at the Natural History Museum in N.Y., (Awesome…..I’ll never forget walking into the gallery with the blue whale model when I was 8 or 9) My experiences as an adult going to the Exploratorium in S.F. (I found out that I despise children). But mostly this thread has inspired me to take advantage of this latest bout of unemployment to go to the recently reopened California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco. I’ve been told by many that it has been completely mobbed by visitors since it opened, but maybe if I strategically pick a day in the middle of the week, and get there just as it opens, I can actually walk around in there and look at stuff without aggravating my misanthropy too much. Now I have a plan.

  25. I’d hold a fish fry. Seriously; I would!!! Who doesn’t like a fish fry? That’s the best aquarium I’ve ever been to. And when I was through, it was lunchtime, and I really wanted some fish. …hard to find around there. :-<

    Maybe I could include the “Wheel of Fish” game:

    The whole Titantic – ghost thing is bad: Isn’t science. Disrespects the dead. (…and that always annoys the ghosts. ;-)

  26. I understand the desire to make displays interesting, to try and engage people in science, but I find it depressing, as well. I was a kid that was interested in science at an early age, read all kinds of things about my area of interest (sharks, whales,in particular) and when I finally went to NYC at 8 (my first “big city” experience) the Natural History Museum was the most amazing thing I could imagine. This was in the late 70’s, and a museum was still just a museum, with dioramas and bone displays, etc. I identified all the sharks by name without looking at the tags. Man, I was so into it. (A fact that I still must take some geeky pride in, because here at almost 40 I’m still mentioning it….. pathetic.) Anyhow, I brought my interest in science and history with me. Now, when I do go to a museum, I have to wade through all the flashy, noisy, cheesiness that is being employed to get people interested in what they’ve paid to see, and to a large extent I think it interferes with people’s ability to learn anything.
    My first visit to the Exploratorium was pretty bad. The place was mobbed with unruly kids that had no interest whatsoever in being there. Some displays were broken, and I soon saw why. I would be in front of display, some kids would run up yelling and shoving each other, grab whatever handle or crank or button that was the interactive part of the display, try industriously to break it or beat on it or whatever, without even looking at what you were supposed to notice about the display, then run off shouting in search of something else to occupy their 5 second attention span. Grrrrrr. Get Off My Lawn. I know.
    The one funny thing that happened that day was as I was walking through an area I passed a door with a curtain over it, and a small card next to the door. I walked over and read the card, and it said “A summer evening in Tompkins County, N.Y.” I stood there for a second, stunned. It seemed odd that here in San Francisco I would run across something related to where I grew up. I pushed through the curtain and found myself in a mockup of a front porch complete with 2 porch swings and a yellow bug light over the door. I sat down in a group of women, all of them silently listening to the recording of peepers and other night sounds. After a few minutes a kid came running up, poked it’s head through the curtain, looked around, then withdrew and went off hollering. A woman next to me sighed, and said something along the lines of “little monsters.” Then she got up from her moment of peace and quiet, and said, “I guess I’d better go find mine.” It was pretty damn funny.

  27. The reasons I would make it Over 21 Only 6 days a week and All Ages 1 day a week is because there is enough emphasis on children as it is and I’m tired of being at these places and people thinking they can put their child in front of me in line without asking or cutting me off from seeing an exhibit simply because they are holding a child.

  28. @Tressa:

    I understand where you’re coming from, but I think 21 is a little much. I’ve never seen someone try to cut in front because they have a 19-year-old with them. It’s not like most museum are selling alcohol and installing stripper poles.

    (Although that might make money for them. Apparently anything that makes money and is fun is fair game, so why not Naked Science?)

  29. @phlebas: Hmmm… The City Museum sells beer; has two bars on premises. I’ll have to mention the pole idea to them… see what they think of it. ;->

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