Why aren’t there more virtual science museums? (And when I say “science,” I mean “STEM-related.”)
If a major barrier to access for science museums is their physical location or cost of admission (or both), why aren’t virtual museums flourishing on the internet? According to 2011 Census Bureau data, 71.7% of households in the US have access to the internet and there are about 2.4 billion internet users in the world. Although problems with access persist, and visiting a virtual museum isn’t quite the same as getting up close and personal with real objects, virtual museums could have great potential for increasing the reach of informal STEM education.
Virtual museums do exist. There are innumerable virtual museum websites – see, for example, the Cyber Museum of Toasters – but even among these “labor of love” online museums, science museums are scarce. Although some seem to be well-researched, I’m not sure if I would trust the reliability of information from one-off online museums like the Cyber Museum of Toasters. Big-name museums have an advantage in this area, and a number of major science museums have virtual panoramic tours – see, for example, the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. Unfortunately, while visually very appealing, it is difficult and sometimes impossible to read the text in the NMNH’s panoramic tour, making it more useful as a “teaser trailer” than an actual virtual museum. A number of science museums and have “online exhibits,” but these are often more like traditional, informative webpages than virtual museums. Other museums have tried hybrid approaches, such as the Natural History Museum in London, UK’s Nature Plus, which allows visitors to the museum to “collect” objects in the museum in a virtual account, which can then be accessed via the internet.
Possibly the best format for a virtual museum thus far is the Google Art Project, which, in addition to a slick and visually appealing interface, allows you to search and browse art from around the world by museum, artist, subject, time period, etc. It also lets users “curate” their own collections of art, which other users can then browse. Sadly, there is no comparable virtual science museum – no Google Science Project. (Incidentally, there are quite a few virtual art museums. Is there something about science that makes it harder to exhibit online?)
What about other formats? A list of museums in Second Life (and to answer your question, it turns out that about 60,000 people still play Second Life) showed one science museum (which seems to be defunct). Free online tools like Thinkport and Scratch let you create virtual museums, and teachers have been using Power Point to make (or have their students create) educational virtual museums since at least 2005. There are even user-curated “museums” on Pinterest.
Virtual science museums aren’t a replacement for physical museums (many of which serve another extremely important function – keeping safe a record of life on the planet for use in research and education). But good virtual science museums could offer what physical science museums can’t: lots of interactivity, customizability and personalization, the ability to “collect” objects in the museum and share them, recommendations and suggestions for related objects a visitor might enjoy, and increased accessibility.