The urgency of our time and the utility of the past: how American science museums can use their history to help build the future

I don’t spend a lot of time on the Internet. If ideas expressed here have been published or discussed elsewhere, please add a link in the comments and/or email me at domccullough@gmail.com and I’ll update this post accordingly.

 

The deadline has been set, and the clock to save life on Earth as we know it now spins with ominous speed. According to a new United Nations report, we have twelve years to stave off the most catastrophic of the inevitable impacts of climate change. To be successful, at base, every single global citizen must now take real, earnest steps to change their behaviors, neighborhoods, workplaces, and governance to maximize the potential of renewable products and processes. To be blunt, shit is incredibly real.

Having been one myself, I can imagine that science museum educators everywhere are taking this as a critical call-to-arms and an impetus to double down on the climate change education work that’s been done for YEARS. From my vantage point as a historian, science museum professionals seeking ways to broaden the impact of their  work will find some of their most useful tools in an unlikely place: their institutions’ own pasts. In order for science museums to meaningfully help build a livable future, they must confront the mistakes in their own history and reapply some of their success.

Beginning with the tremendously influential industrial science museums of the 1930s – the Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago, the Franklin Institute’s science museum, and the long defunct New York Museum of Science and Industry – many of these institutions have been stages used to promote and quite literally sell a consumption-based, product-driven image of American life that climate change demands we replace.[1] Several similar museums popped up around the country in the 1940s and 50s, and some established museums even incorporated industrial approaches into their practice, most notably the Boston Society of Natural History that transformed into the Boston Museum of Science in the 1940s.[2]

As an example, let’s take one of my favorite photos from the Franklin Institute’s history: this 1941 image of Nichol Smith, head of the museum’s Chemistry Section and a trained chemist, standing in his section’s newest addition: Sun Oil Company’s walk-through Oil Refinery.

SunOil_Smith_1941
Nichol Smith in Sun Oil Company’s 1941 Oil Refinery exhibit at the Franklin Institute

Amidst a miniature refining plant, bubbling tubes and flowing liquids showed visitors the scientific and technological processes involved in refining oil, all in front of a massive photomural of an actual refining plant. It looked spectacular, in both image and message. Here was an exhibit selling an unabashedly glowing and idealized version of the oil industry, promoting Sun Oil’s collective intellectual and mechanical prowess along with the entire fossil fuels enterprise.

Exhibits by corporations like Bethlehem Steel and Pennsylvania Salt Company sold similar messages with analogous grandeur, while products like Bakelite promised domestic comfort and advancement. In short, to borrow from the title of Du Pont’s iconic exhibit that was featured in each industrial science museum, better living was coming through corporate science.

 

IMG_5519
Bethlehem Steel’s 1952 exhibition at the Franklin Institute
IMG_6056
Du Pont’s iconic “Better Things for Better Living…Through Chemistry” exhibit

Of course, many of you (as I once did) might argue that the blatant corporate commercialism featured in these museums has been eradicated over the succeeding decades. But a closer, more difficult look at exhibit and program underwriting reveals that corporate presence has been muted, and, to be fair, often leveraged for positive, necessary educational outcomes. Inarguably, corporations remain impactful in American science museums, and revisiting their heyday of influence reveals two major tasks that modern science museums must take on to help save the world (I really wish that was hyperbole): First, science museums must directly engage the corporate-sponsored images of American prosperity that warp the expectations of many to this very day, and second, offer unabashedly glowing and idealized versions of more sustainable, and ultimately livable, alternatives.

As I’ve moved from being a museum educator to being a historian of science, technology, museums, and education, I had a realization that’s driven a surprising amount of my thinking: it’s hard to overstate how important it has become that Americans live full, satisfied lives of consumption to prove their superiority. The Cold War, for example, was essentialy contested to prove that capitalism was better for humanity than communism, and having bigger, better, faster, and stronger things was an actual front in that battle.[3] In America, we had bountiful grocery stores, toys for kids and adults alike to play with during their plentiful leisure time, and homes filled with comforts, entertainments, and tools to make everything easier and more enjoyable. The USSR had bread lines, rations, and government control over everything, including happiness. For many Americans, having more is a sign of strength. If all we do is talk about the dangers and science of climate change, we do nothing to keep the resulting recommendations to consume less seem like weakness. When you look at it this way, climate change science and how it tasks us with changing our lives is downright un-American.

Recent elections have shown the long-term effectiveness of the strategies companies used to linked their products and consumption to our country’s well-being; strategies that included science museum exhibits. Politicians have needed only to conjure images of a dream-like American past of opulence and freedom to return voters to the trough of fossil fuels. Many of these images were powerfully sold in science museums, and those of us who still work in science museums must work to erase their negative impacts and find ways to repeat their successes. For example, we can revisit the Sun Oil Company’s 1953 “Oil Serves America” exhibit, looking at the exhibit’s language and supporting documents and talk about how those messages turned out to be wrong.

Oil Serves America Booklet Cover
These images and text from the 30+ page “Oil Serves America” exhibit booklet point to the kinds of ideas museums used to promote, and that still shape how we think about science, industry, and America

 

 

We can talk about how mid-twentieth century science museum exhibits were recognized in advertising communities as “industry’s softest sell,” where marketing was so neatly woven into education that it was thought to be imperceptible.[4] And we can talk about how those ideas were about products and profits, and NOT about data and sustainability. We can’t just pretend those things didn’t happen. If you think this can’t or shouldn’t be done, a great example is the Looking at Ourselves exhibit at the Field Museum that reconsiders the museum’s deeply racist The Races of Mankind exhibition from the 1930s to directly refute the resist dangerous ideologies that the museum itself once promoted, identify their lasting consequences, and offer fact-based remedies.[5]

But these exhibits also show that depictions of real world applications of scientific progress can be powerful tools in shaping public opinion, raising the question of why we aren’t showcasing visions for the sustainable future that scientists and engineers can help us create. Where are the exhibit showing off not just the science of windmill farms and solar cell production, but also the actual corporations doing this work and the careers that could be booming in the future? Why aren’t there more exhibitions highlighting construction companies and architectural firms making green homes and buildings? Why aren’t there cheesy depictions of happy sustainable homes and children being amply fed by locally-sourced, sustainably farmed foods consumed seasonably? People don’t want to be frightened, they want to be reassured. We can’t sell doom and gloom as a reason for action, we have to sell action as a path to happiness and security. That’s exactly how science museums nursed the public through the Great Depression, World War II, and the Cold War, only the action was consumption. If we have any hope of bridging the gap from a country in denial to real, substantive change, we have to do the same, and sell the jobs and environmental industries that will help us build a livable future.

Of course, there’s far more to learn from museums of the past, many of which I think can help museums today. And there are also real questions about centering American industry in narratives coming from science museums, which is problemmatic at best. But those are posts, academic papers, and presentations for days to come.

 

[1] We need a ton more research on these museums’ early years, which I’m working on. Jaume Sastre’s work on the New York Museum of Science and Industry that closed in the 1950s has been huge in getting  the ball rolling. See Sastre-Juan, Dr Jaume. “Pilgrimages to the Museums of the New Age.” Science Museum Group Journal 6, no. 06 (2016). https://doi.org/10.15180/160606.

[2] Victor Danilov, former head of the Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago has written a lot about the development of science museums. See Danilov, Victor J. Science and Technology Centers. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1982.; The current name, Museum of Science, Boston, came later. See https://www.mos.org/history

[3] Carroll Pursell’s work has been most impactful, but these ideas are found in several histories of technology. I also remember living through the last years of the Cold War, when the importance of consumption was as strong as ever to American superiority. See Pursell, Carroll W. Technology in Postwar America : A History. New York: Columbia University Press, 2007.

[4] “Industry’s Softest Sell: Museum Exhibits.” Business Week, September 30, 1961.

[5] There are some interesting newspaper stories considering the exhibit online. See http://www.chicagotribune.com/entertainment/museums/ct-field-race-sculpture-column.html

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