Today, let's look at an experiment that's afoot in
our museums. The University of Houston's College of
Engineering presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization run, and the people
whose ingenuity created them.
Modern museums are up to an
odd business. The other day I told a group of
museum directors I was worried. Museums seem to be
moving away from the mystery of artifacts. They
seem to be going into programmed learning. I
expressed grief over seeing not rocks and bones,
paintings and sculpture, but rather computer
screens and push buttons.
The problem with my complaint is that a whole new
enterprise is arising under the old name, museum.
This new institution is no longer a place to store
and display pictures and artifacts. It is, instead,
a place where we come to learn in new ways. They
would better be called virtual museums or learning
So we find I-MAX theaters, artificial rain forests,
exploratoriums, children's museums -- all kinds of
new displays. As these places appear, they
sometimes displace the old museum content. Some are
experiments that will fail. Some give us much to
criticize. Yet some are truly spectacular, and some
are finding radically new ways to touch us and to
Maybe I'm a Luddite to be bothered by a push-button
computer standing next to our antediluvian
ancestors' bones. Still, it seems to miss the point
of the bones themselves to lead viewers through
preprogrammed questions in the face of such a
physical presence and all it evokes.
At the same time, the virtual museum is a new wind
that incriminates teaching as I've known it, and
done it, all my life. The still-new electronic
technologies are on the way to creating remarkable
means for passing on information.
The history of harpsichords is like that. Two
centuries ago, harpsichords began turning into what
would become the piano. At first, harpsichordists
feared for their instruments and their art. But
they needn't have worried. In the end, the new
piano became a thing apart. Harpsichords, and their
purpose, were left intact.
These new museums are only embryos. They seem to
threaten the old art and science museums because
that's where they first appear. But it's not the
old museums that they really threaten. What they
will really change is education as we know it.
All the experimentation going on in museums will,
eventually, yield long-range pedagogical successes.
Those successes will enter and transform the
classroom just as radically as the piano
transformed the 19th-century concert stage.
But the new learning centers will also break free
of the artifact display museum and leave it largely
intact. And 21st-century minds and senses will
still be nourished by the physical presence of
beauty, of history, and of our origins.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds