How Did a Museum Change?

In 1979, the Center for Science in the Public Interest issued a White Paper by Howard Learner that described Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry (MSI) as a “supermarket of corporate logos.” He stated further that “without assertive curatorial control by the museum, the exhibits can result in glossy, image-building advertisements, at best, and blatant corporate propaganda masquerading as ‘education’ at worst.”

This critique was based in part on MSI’s legacy from World’s Fairs, which relied on corporations to fund and develop exhibitions. The Museum opened in 1933 within the renovated Palace of Fine Arts, the only remaining building from 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition (and former home of the Field Museum). Its director from 1940 to 1968, Lenox Lohr, had served as general manager of Chicago’s Century of Progress World’s Fair and then as head of NBC. The industrial participation model that Lohr established was continued by his successor, Dan MacMaster.

Like World’s Fairs, MSI provided the space for companies to promote their industry and products. In return, corporate sponsors paid exhibit designers and fabricators to create the exhibitions, along with hosting an opening event and funding a five-year renewable annual maintenance agreement. The MSI Exhibits Department, whose staff had expertise in exhibit design and maintenance, provided input and review. 

Many of resulting sponsored exhibitions, such as IBM’s Mathematica, were educational and well designed. Others, however, were overly zealous in advertising or promoting an agenda. An exhibition by the electric utility Commonwealth Edison was described as “little more than unrestrained advocacy of the suggested virtues of nuclear power.” It drew protestors wearing gas masks handing out anti-nuclear literature. In a U.S. Army exhibition, visitors could simulate firing a machine gun at Viet Cong from the cabin of a “Huey” helicopter.

Vic Danilov became President in 1978 after MacMaster retired. One of his responses to the criticism in the year that followed was to hire me to bring science education expertise to the exhibition development process. We formed a Science Department to work with outside exhibition designers, enabling MSI to begin to gain greater control over exhibit content. At the same time, we created alternatives to industry-focused exhibitions by developing our own in-house, using support from federal agencies, private foundations, and internal funds. 

Our first major project was the large multi-part Basic Science exhibition (Grainger Foundation) that featured interactive devices illustrating key scientific concepts. It included Inquiry, funded by NSF’s Public Understanding of Science program, which sought to demystify the process of science by showing how it is actually carried out, rather than presenting a textbook-version of the “scientific method.” 

In Technology: Chance or Choice? (Illinois Humanities Council/NEH), we highlighted those technologies that had the greatest impact over the 50 years from 1933 to 1983, ranging from the birth control pill to nuclear energy. (We formed a Humanities Advisory Committee with local scholars to guide content selection and interpretation.) In contrast to most exhibitions at the time that focused on benefits, it depicted technology as a “double-edged sword” having both positive and negative outcomes, as well as unanticipated consequences. We made early use of personal computers (Texas Instruments 99/4A with 16 kb RAM!), letting visitors select a quote that reflected their view of each technology and then see the choices made by others; there was no “right” response.

The technically challenging Everyday Chemistry exhibition (Regenstein Foundation) illustrated basic chemical concepts and their relevance to our daily lives using actual chemical processes. We worked with Bassam Shakhashiri and Rodney Schreiner at the University of Wisconsin to develop, test, and convert them into visitor-activated reactions. We added humor with a video of Julia Child preparing “primordial soup” and a recording of Tom Lehrer singing “The Elements” at a 30 ft sample-filled periodic table. 

We created the traveling exhibition My Daughter, the Scientist to encourage girls to consider careers in science and technology by showcasing female role models drawn from a variety of disciplines and challenges they overcame. It featured interactive science elements, along with personal artifacts to help make the women’s lives more accessible. We followed up with Black Achievers in Science, which was developed along similar lines.

Creating these and other exhibitions in-house provided experience and capacity-building for the new Science Department, along with establishing credibility with external organizations. Most corporate sponsors gradually became willing to let Museum staff take the lead or work closely with them in content development and design. By the time I became a vice president in 1986, only a few long-time sponsors, like General Motors, continued to rely on internal trade show divisions to create their exhibitions. This transformation was made possible by dedicated Science Department staff, an Exhibits Department willing to partner, and a Museum President ready to take risks and support change. And as Danilov noted in Science and Technology Centers regarding sponsored exhibitions, “the key, of course, is strong-willed museum management that will not sacrifice integrity for dollars.”

Related Articles

Ucko, D. A. (1983). “Technology: Chance or choice?”- A museum exhibit on the impact of technology. Science, Technology, and Human Values, 8(3), 47-50. doi: 10.1177%2F016224398300800308

Ucko, D. A. (1985). Science literacy and science museum exhibits. Curator: The Museum Journal, 28(4), 287–300. doi:10.1111/j.2151-6952.1985.tb01756.x

Ucko, D. A., Schreiner, R., & Shakhashiri, B. Z. (1986) An exhibit on everyday chemistry: Communicating chemistry to the public. Journal of Chemical Education, 63(12), 1081-1086. doi:10.1021/ed063p1081


Danilov, V. J. (1982). Science and technology centers. MIT Press.

Learner, H. (1979). White paper on science museums. Center for Science in the Public Interest. 

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