The natural history museum in Ashland is extinct. It was a great idea, with lots of money and a spiffy building back in 1993. But after three years, the museum closed and the building was shuttered for six years. Community leaders investigated how to repurpose the contemporary structure on the edge of town. They decided that something more participatory, with a science bent, might succeed where dioramas had failed. A consultant proposed a $4 million retrofit, which didn’t fit either the spirit or budget of the new enterprise. So they got local volunteers to build exhibits and refurbished the place for a tenth that amount. Now Chip Lindsey, Executive Director, oversees a thriving educational resource. “The intellectual bank of capital in this area is huge. There’s no reason a museum like this exists in a community this size. It’s the community’s museum. It could only happen in Ashland.”
As museums go, Scienceworks is not splashy. But the homegrown quality of some of the exhibits actually adds to the participatory gestalt. Nothing seems precious here. Chip, his staff of fourteen, and their army of volunteers provided science opportunities for almost 75,000 people last year – more than three times the entire population of Ashland. They’ve even turned their ability to create exhibits into a profit-center, earning $100,000 last year by building exhibits for other institutions.
Chip’s background is in biology and education; he takes an organic view of learning. “The phrase, ‘a man never steps into the same river twice’ applies to how children learn.” We cannot know, in advance how a given child will respond to a particular opportunity. Scienceworks’ objective is to provide opportunities unlike those found in traditional classrooms. “All learning is free choice. Here, we are masters of free choice learning.”
Oregon has no standardized test requirements in science, only Language Arts and Math. As a result, science can be relegated to as little as fifteen minutes of classroom time every other week. Many elementary school teachers are uncomfortable with science, and so aren’t keen to teach it. “If you look at a child’s total waking time from birth until adulthood, only 15% of it is spent in school. We have to focus on capturing some of that other 85%. On Saturdays, we see affluent white and Asian families. We don’t see working class families and people of color. Our challenge is to make this place relevant to people who didn’t grow up going to museums. If people don’t put wrinkles on kid’s brains early, their brains won’t get wrinkled.”
Although Scienceworks, like most science museums, has a focus on school-age children, it also promotes programs that merge art and science, provide hands-on opportunities for adults, and offers family-centered programs. “We simulcast the Mars Landing in our theater at 10:30 at night. The place was full, although people could have watched it at home. We made it a group experience. One that spanned across our entire community.”
How will we live tomorrow?
“The museum of the future will be a place where people go to learn on their own terms and share. We have to make it interesting and relevant.”