4. The educational context

Over 80 per cent of what we know we did not learn in school. But many of our attitudes, responses and knowledge base are initiated and formed in the school years by an admixture of formal education, the home environment and informal activities. Informal education happens via the electronic and print media, clubs and societies, pressure groups, peer learning and exhibitory institutions (including zoos, galleries and museums). Each of these reaches a different but overlapping set of audiences and the relative importance of each is different for every individual and social grouping. Each has a different set of messages and is subject to a varying set of pressures and objectives -- commercial, political and social considerations are inherent in all of these to some degree.

It should be made clear that Science Centres and Museums of Science and Technology are restrictive concepts, both in their own way necessary but not sufficient for the task at hand. Their very titles reinforce the supposed divide between Arts/Humanities, Science/Technology and the "softer sciences"/Design. Rather, what is needed is an opportunity here to provide a integrative experience in which science and technology are the prime delivery mechanisms but also take their rightful place alongside the other social and cultural activities in defining and informing what it is to be a human society in the late second millennium.

However, there has been this growing anxiety over the status of science and technology and the efficacy of science teaching in schools, in many countries, including the USA, where High Schools students come near the bottom of international leagues in basic sciences; in Germany, where, for the first time there are more University students than industrial apprentices; and in Britain, where there are neither the teachers skilled in science nor the resources to retrain those that are not and update those few who are. But even if schools science education were as perfect as we remember it as being in some golden past, formal education could never supply the full range of stimulation, experiences, interesting activities or diversity that informal educational programmes can.

We expect too much of schools. They have had their primary remit changed from academies of learning to agencies of social control with a strong social work element -- at its worst, zoos for children who would otherwise run wild and who need containing and diverting.

Schools have neither the structures nor resources to manage this as well as to educate and it is the education which suffers. Informal education therefore plays a vital role in reinforcing what schools teach. Museums in particular provide access to resources, equipment and materials which individual schools or even education authorities could never hope to match, and as such are the best partners for schools in helping them realize their pedagogic objectives and their pupils realize their potentials. And, of course, informal education benefits from being one step removed from the vagaries of policy, theory and finance which schools suffer.

5. Third Generation Museums — the challenge

There will always be museums and science centres and nothing in this document should be taken to imply that they are redundant. However, it is galling to see opportunities wasted as major funding is granted to institutions which replicate the first or second generation ethos rather than grab the opportunity to do something radically different.


This article is based on a conference paper delivered in the session "Third generation Museums" presented at the First World Science centre Congress in Heureka.