photo: The Maryland Science Center in Baltimore
The Maryland Science Center in downtown Baltimore, which opened in 1976, was among the first of a wave of science-based attractions that appeared across a wide range of American cities at the end of the 20th century. Chris Gardner/AP

Civic boosters were once convinced that planetariums and Tesla coils could revive American downtowns.

The science center is an adolescent among museum types, one whose main growth spurt was in recent memory. Over the past 40 years, they went from a sparse to a ubiquitous presence, now found in almost every major city. Their emergence stretched the ontological essence of the museum: They present not objects, but concepts. Many science centers define themselves explicitly this way and possess slim to no permanent collections.

The first of these urban amenities arose in the 1960s, but it was in the 1980s and ‘90s that the construction of science centers truly boomed. Inspired by historic World’s Fair exhibitions, industrial and natural history museums, and the sci-fi dreams of their early founders, science centers had a hands-on mission distinct from that of most museums—to engage rather than display. They offered levers you could pull, gyroscopes you could spin, lab experiments you could conduct. While unquestionably oriented toward children, they also promised that the joy of discovery doesn’t fade with age.

In time, science centers became more high-tech, often boasting gigantic IMAX movie theaters, planetariums, and computerized multimedia attractions. They also began hosting traveling blockbuster exhibits—sometimes with peripheral connections to science education, which has prompted questions about their pedagogical mission in changing times.

Few institutional building booms come without stylistic commonalities: America has dozens of neoclassical art and natural history museums built within a decade or two of 1900. So it was with the science center. The majority of science centers date from a similar span from 1980 to 2000, a less promising architectural moment, when Postmodernism had blurred back into the mainstream. Although a few of them are proper starchitecture (for better or worse), most are less fancy. Some science centers are wonderful; many are OK.

This all occurred at a hinge moment of museum popularization, at which nearly all museums undertook steps to increase their attendance, adding theaters, gift shops, larger public spaces, and splashier traveling exhibits to lure visitors. These measures weren’t only of interest to museums themselves—they were avidly sought by civic authorities and boosters.

Most U.S. cities already had art museums and sometimes natural history museums, too. But fairly often, these were not located downtown. Whether in St. Louis or Cleveland or Pittsburgh or Baltimore, the golden age of museum-building (roughly the 1880s through the 1920s) often looked to neighborhoods outside of congested business centers. So, amid 1980s efforts to revitalize downtowns, the science center seemed like a godsend—an all-new type of museum that would draw not sepulchral aesthetes, but lively and free-spending families to admire set pieces of visitor-focused urban renewal.

The Maryland Science Center in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor (1976) is an early, precise example: exhibits, a planetarium, and an IMAX theater, near stores and a convention center. In Cleveland, the Great Lakes Science Center (1996) was built along the formerly industrial waterfront to accompany the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and a new football stadium. Likewise, Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Science Center (1991) was built next to that city’s former Three Rivers Stadium. Toledo’s circa-1997 Imagination Station (originally called the Center of Science and Industry) represents a second phase in this sort of thinking, occupying as it did a failed 1980s festival marketplace on the riverfront.

The Carnegie Science Center in Pittsburgh, built in 1991, is right next door to Heinz Field, home of the NFL’s Steelers. (Gene Puskar/AP)

Sunbelt cities often built science centers in an effort to add cultural attractions to office-heavy downtowns. (Discovery Place in Charlotte, which opened in 1981, is one example.) A few operate on actual former exposition grounds—a vestige of their roots—such as the California Science Center in L.A.’s Exposition Park and the San Diego Science Center in Balboa Park (site of the 1915-1917 Panama-California Exposition).

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The Pacific Science Center in Seattle and Toronto’s Ontario Science Centre are generally identified as the trailblazers of the type in North America. Both have 50th anniversaries this year. They sought to break the diorama-and-dinosaur-bones model by foregrounding interactive exhibits.

James Backstrom worked at several science centers over his career and was for a time the director of the Maryland Science Center. He recalls that, at the Pacific Science Center, founder Frank Oppenheimer (Robert’s younger brother) initially had difficulties with the American Alliance of Museums. The alliance asked where the center’s collection was. “[Oppenheimer] said, ‘I have a collection of the greatest ideas that have affected mankind.’” The museum officials weren’t persuaded.

“Essentially, there was a group of people who were interested in using science education and hands-on science in ways that didn't really fit the traditional definition of the museum,” Backstrom says. So they founded their own organization, the Association of Science and Technology Centers, in 1973; it now has over 650 member institutions worldwide.

Early science centers “were not stiff and starchy,” Backstrom says. “They reflected a growing realization that science was fun—let’s have some fun.” Early exhibits could be very low budget, but kids could jump right into the science involved. But others were more high concept: Charles and Ray Eames’ “Mathematica: A World of Numbers … and Beyond” debuted at the California Museum of Science and Industry in 1961 and duplicates were made for other centers. The show (now on display at the New York Hall of Science) features interactive elements demonstrating celestial mechanics, the Mobius strip, symmetry, geometry, and more.

Space exploration rapidly became fodder, with displays of Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo craft that one could get into, and other more interactive elements. “NASA was a great source of videos, movies, and spacecraft,” Backstrom says. Some larger elements, like Foucault pendulums and Tesla coils, became standard. Hoberman spheres—geodesic-dome-like sculptures that fold—are on display in several locations, with one of particular size at the Liberty Science Center in Jersey City.

The planetarium at Liberty Science Center in Jersey City, N.J, is the largest in the western hemisphere. (Seth Wenig/AP)

William “Mac” Sudduth, who directed science centers in Atlanta and Schenectady, New York, remembers an early ethnographic exhibit on Soviet Women and Soviet culture, which featured demonstrations of various handicrafts and art. Another exhibition theme was “the advent of the personal computer,” which quickly became obsolete. “[F]or a while the exhibit was about the future,” Sudduth says. “By the third year it was really a historical exhibit.”

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For a designer, the prime challenge with science centers is that they lack the clear programmatic requirements that define other museums. There’s no requirement to hang art on the walls or to fit a set of dinosaur bones. Architects with experience in science-center commissions say that the essential mandate is to design a black box, to be filled with … well, whatever the preferred exhibit type of a future decade might be. Form might follow function, but that’s not much of a guide when function is a question mark.

Early on, with their human-scaled exhibits, the buildings could be small. But as displays grew to the size of spacecraft or morphed into multimedia extravaganzas (like “Star Wars:® Where Science Meets Imagination,” a blockbuster exhibit of props and models from the film series created by the Museum of Science, Boston), they had to grow, too. Yet science centers almost uniformly lack the sort of endowments that some traditional museums possess: They typically rely on ticket revenue and fundraising drives to sustain themselves. A few have run into serious financial trouble; in 2011, the Detroit Science Center, which opened in 1978, was shuttered, only to re-open in 2012 as the Michigan Science Center.

The Detroit Science Center embarked on a major expansion in 2001, but closed due to financial difficulties a decade later; it reopened as the Michigan Science Center in 2012. (Paul Sancya/AP)

The centers almost always feature a large ceremonial entrance space, much like other museums, but clarity can frequently be lost in adjacent spaces, especially if ad-hoc additions have been made over time. There’s usually a theater or planetarium, or both—large windowless structures that make it even harder to engage the world around you.

Pritzker Prize-winning architect Thom Mayne, who designed the 2012 Perot Museum of Nature and Science in Dallas, told CityLab, “I’m not going to name them, but we toured several [science centers] when we were working on the [Perot] and we were kind of startled: They were incredibly disorganized and disorderly. Many of them, you literally needed a map to get around.”

Brad Nederhoff, managing principal and CEO at Werner Johnson, an architecture firm that specializes in museums, worked on the St. Louis and Great Lakes science centers in the 1990s. In his experience, institutional leaders tend to favor large, precast concrete, column-free spaces. “A lot of times, they prefer no windows; that becomes difficult architecturally,” Nederhoff says. “On the outside, you then don’t have windows or views to work with, and some of the buildings can be pretty bland.”

The space demands of these facilities add all manner of challenges. “If you don’t have enough height in your ceiling, it’s hard to fix that ever,” especially in the age of “huge traveling exhibits that rely on crates and trundles.” Industrial elevators are a key submerged portion of science-center infrastructure.

It’s a fraught commission from the start, and the results are often uninspiring. Pompidou-on-the-cheap measures, like leaving wiring and pipes exposed, are common.

Designed by Thom Mayne, the Perot Museum of Nature and Science in Dallas debuted in 2012. (LM Otero/AP)

At the Perot Museum, Mayne’s solution to the unavoidable institutional “request for black boxes” was to focus on the public spaces, not the ephemeral exhibits, and to tightly orchestrate the sequence of movement through these spaces, in a pinwheel trajectory modeled on the Guggenheim’s. “As you literally enter the building, you look up and you see how the building is laid out,” Mayne says. One dramatic detail is a glass-faced escalator that’s cantilevered out of the building, emphasizing vistas of the nearby downtown. “We wanted to make the connection to the city become an architectural event in real life.”

Moshe Safdie, another eminent architect, took a different path at Exploration Place in Wichita (2000). “Most organizations believe that black boxes give true flexibility,” he says. “We’ve resisted this again and again. My belief is that the architecture and exhibits should reinforce each other. Designers and curators belong together.”

It used to be that media exhibits required dark spaces, but technology has largely moved on, he pointed out. And although some flexibility must be retained, exhibits can often be adapted to suit interesting spaces, like installations. Exploration Place has a “wind wall,” composed of thousands of discs, that responds to air currents produced by an airplane propeller and wind generators. This exhibit was designed for the architecture, not independent of it.

Safdie’s team tried to express the scientific mission of the institution in the building’s form. “The concave roof facing the sky is reminiscent of the great telescopes poised up a mountain facing the sky,” he says. “I remember visiting the Jantar Mantar [an 18th-century observatory] in Delhi. Nobody thought of them as anything other than instruments, but we look at them as architecture.”

***

Designed to change with the times, science centers certainly have. STEM is now ascendant, but technology has proven a double-edged sword. Although it enables increasingly sophisticated exhibits, it may cause centers to lose contact with their early ideals. To Backstrom’s mind, screens “don’t show you anything that you couldn’t do at home.” The best exhibits, he says, remain “hands-on as opposed to finger-on: tap, tap; swipe, swipe. You want to have something more to do.”

At the 1996 opening of the Great Lakes Science Center in Cleveland, Ohio, 9-year-old David Shilling experiences some hands-on bubble science. (Anthony Onchak/AP)

The relative dearth of families with children in a few U.S. cities (and the declining U.S. birth rate in general) isn’t great for science centers long-term, but they have been working harder to attract adults without children, sometimes through exhibits with mass appeal, sometimes with evening programming. (Sudduth notes a rise in cocktail events.) IMAX theaters were once the near-exclusive domain of science centers, and many show non-educational films to bring in revenue. Event rentals are another frequent recourse.

Some of the downtown districts that science centers helped to revitalize are now a generation old (or older), and will soon be in need of another rethink. Science centers are poised to play a role in that. The rise of the science center, the most “popular” of major museum types, seemed to play a role in a broader reorientation of cultural facilities toward accessibility. The reverberations of this trend were felt not only in museums, but also in libraries—a building type that has fueled urban regeneration in the 2000s.

Even with knowledge more accessible than ever on one’s computer, people still gather in public places to learn. The balancing act for science centers is ensuring that their pursuit of new visitors doesn’t obscure their educational mission—just as in making their architecture flexible, they don’t dematerialize the building altogether. Luckily, we have ready examples of good practices as the architecture of the science center matures. Let’s hope they’re followed.

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