Difference between a science museum and a science center

What’s the difference between a science museum and a science center? To insiders, the difference is the extent a museum is based on a collection of objects vs. experiences they create for visitors.

To the public, it’s largely immaterial.


The first science museums began to develop in the 18th and 19th centuries as naturalist or natural history museums with collections on display to educate the public. They had a Victorian passion for collecting and classifying the wonders of nature, although a number of museums began earlier in the industrial revolution as centers for the promotion of technology.  For example, the Wagner Free Institute in Philadelphia, founded in the 1850’s, is still filled with Victorian cabinets of neatly mounted specimens, systematically arranged by classification.  Some collections-based science museums include: the American Museum of Natural History (1869), New York; Denver Museum of Nature and Science (1900); California Academy of Sciences (1853), and also living collections like zoos.

The science center movement, which had a greater emphasis on the use of technology to educate, began in the beginning of the 20th century. Some of the first major such institutions (which were not called science centers at that time) include: Deutsches Museum, Munich (1903); Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago (1933); and Franklin Institute, Philadelphia (1934).

Institutions can fall anywhere along the continuum. For example, nature centers often incorporate components of both, and children’s museums are typically not collection based.

Learning vs. history or research

There was recently a casual discussion among museum/center insiders on a public email list. Here’re some of the views…

Charles Carlson, senior scientist at the Exploratorium, says, “The hallmark of science centers is a focus on emotional and intellectual engagement, they’re a somewhat theatrical production of science with an attention to verisimilitude. Engagement varies with people, cultures and social recognition and time. It will into the foreseeable future.”

Beryl Rosenthal, executive director of the Waterworks Museum, says “science centers are far and away much more savvy about how visitors learn, and how to utilize technology more effectively… They also have a greater sense of humor. However, museums have a much clearer sense of their own collective history and place in society.”

Rita Mukherjee Hoffstadt, an assistant director at the Franklin Institute agrees, “because there are many more science and children’s informal education institution that are ‘centers’ due to their relatively youthful age and, overall ASTC/ACM institutions tend to be more progressive with respect to how they interface with visitors in comparison to the rest of the ‘museum’ field. But speaking for science/children’s ‘museums,’ I think we are just as interested as ‘centers’ are in engaging our visitors in impactful learning.”

Jeff Rosenblatt, director of Science City at the Union Station Kansas City, says visitors at a museum expect their overall experience to be passive: Observe, read/view, discuss, reflect. Wheras, at a science center, visitors expect their experience to be active: Participate, observe, read/view, discuss, reflect.

Erich Rose, an exhibit designer and developer, says “some of those older ‘museums’ don’t just collect, they also do research and publish. All directly related to the subjects they cover. We now see a great deal of publication in our world of Informal Learning but it is not quite the same.” He wonders how many science centers, children’s museums and other non-traditional museums are doing peer-reviewed scientific or historical research.

Also, a smaller issue is politics. Martin Weiss, a science interpretation consultant for the New York Hall of Science notes that it depends on whether the institution wants to be certified by the ASTC, or AAM.

Public views

Erich Rose says the “discussion is splitting hairs amongst the very people who already have internalized the differences and is 99% meaningless to the general public.” And Kim Hunter, senior director or exhibit development at the Orlando Science Center says, “I can guarantee you the public is also not sure what a science center is.”

But science centers do seem to have disassociated themselves from museums to an extent in the popular imagination. Joe Hastings, executive director of the Don Harrington Discovery Center in Texas, says that his science center does not appear in the local newspaper in the “Museum” section, but rather under “Attractions” alongside Chuck-e-Cheese, Wonderland amusement park, and the local snake farm. Hastings says, “We used to be a bit sensitive about being lumped in with mice, roller coasters, and rattlesnakes, but I’ve grown comfortable with the idea that families come to us seeking an enjoyable, leisure-time activity.”

Source: These quotes and comments are all based on recent discussion by science center staff on a email discussion list run by the Association of Science-Technology Centers. There are additional comments in that thread which are an interesting read.

For additional reading, see: Friedman, A. 1996. ” The Evolution of Science and Technology Museums” The Informal Science Review (pp.1, 14-17) (March/April 1996)… and an October 2010 article by Allan Friedman on the evolution of science museums from early twentieth century natural history through museums such as CMSI to contemporary science centers. Also, Karen Rader at Virginia Commonwealth University is currently writing a book about the history of science museums.

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