The Future of Science Based Institutions

The question of co-evolution amongst zoos, aquaria, and science museums has been a lingering muse for decades now.  Back in 1986, Jon Coe cleverly equated the historical relationships to convergent evolution, and through his paper, which was more history lesson than predictor of the future, compared their similarities through time.  Ultimately, he suggests "an awareness of others and ourselves, together with a willingness to communicate, can lead us further into an exciting co-evolution of zoo, aquariums and natural history museums." I'd like to take it a step further.

I often wonder why we separate all of our science institutions, dividing the natural world into equal, but succinct pieces: land animal (zoos), plant (botanical gardens), aquatic animal (aquaria), and the sciences (natural history museums and science centers).  Of course, overlap occurs; zoos have fish and aquatic mammals, botanical gardens have butterfly houses, science museums have dioramas of the natural history of living creatures.  Additionally, the method of teaching the general sciences varies greatly from conservative natural history museum approaches to more "fun" and interactive science centers.

As Coe mentioned, the teaming up of these institutions would be a powerful force.  However, if, going beyond what Coe suggested, we created one institution that presented all of these disciplines, we'd be teaching holistically, presenting a unified view of the natural world that so many children and adults rarely get the chance to see.

The world has changed dramatically since the inception of these learning institutions.  Most zoos and natural history museums began at the turn of the 19th century, when for the good majority of people, we still lived in a mostly untouched rurality.  These people grew up with nature, lived in nature, or could easily visit nature, and learning about the natural world was most easily understood by the breaking down of components.

Today, however, most people live in cities or suburbs.  Any nature we experience regularly is man-made or man-influenced, and certainly does not contain a wide variety of species or habitats.  Learning about nature now becomes easier through an immersive, holistic approach.  Add in society's constant bombardment with story driven entertainment and eye-candy, and learning almost requires the same treatment.  Or so I postulate.

The Museum of Life and Science in Durham, North Carolina has already come to the same conclusion.  Currently, they house live animals, present botanical displays, a natural wetland trail, and incorporate hands-on science center activities throughout.  This is not enough for them, however.

We envision a one-of-a-kind place, a science park, offering extraordinary experiences indoors, outdoors, and virtual where children and adults learn through the pursuit of their own interests and curiosity. We will be recognized as the leader in public engagement with science in the Triangle region and as a model for science museums across the nation.

Will this be the future of science institutions?  A one-stop shop, so to speak, for education and entertainment about the natural world?  All things are intertwined; nature is a web of life.  Why not present it that way?

Read the follow-up to this post: 'MULTI-DISCIPLINARY INTEGRATION...A MOUTHFUL OF FUN.'

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