Scott Sayre, of the Corning Museum of Glass, once said, “Science Museums make complex ideas simple and art museums make simple ideas complex.” (Hear more from Scott here).

This comparison struck me as so incredibly powerful, not just for its succinctness, but also its insight. Both times of museums are two sides of one coin.  I have been mulling Scott’s observation around for a bit. If they are similar but different, what can they learn from the differences?

What have Art Museums got going for them?

Art museums develop interpretation in ways that encourage visitors to spend time with collections, by looking closely at the object. This invites people to go slowly and often along. The visual space is often sparse. Finally, the tone of the language is often geared for adults, with children’s/ family text being placed on ephemeral handouts.

In other words, Art Museums excel at the smart grown-up experience. In our society, there are few better examples of erudite and quiet.

What about the Science Museum folks?

Science museums embrace younger demographics with bold environments and active engagement. Their interpretation often asks questions and invites touching. Visitors learn in groups, either their families or non-family units. Visitors go to science museums to learn, but not necessarily for meditations or quiet.

So what?

Well, truthfully, all museums are seeing their attendance go down. In order to maintain and grow audiences, museums of all kinds should be looking to others to see what is working. Museums are after all evolved from a similar institution, as all the many dogs on earth are evolved from wolves.  This sharing across fields is certainly happening. Art museums have already seen the power of interactives, and environmental installations. Science museums could learn from art museums on ways to draw adults. But, this sharing could happen more often. The desire to share collections with visitors is greater than anything that separates us.

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