A science museum or a science centre is a museum devoted primarily to science. Older science museums tended to concentrate on static displays of objects related to natural history, paleontology, geology, industry and industrial machinery, etc. Modern trends in museology have broadened the range of subject matter and introduced many interactive exhibits. Many if not most modern science museums - which increasingly refer to themselves as 'science centres' or 'discovery centres' - also put much weight on technology.
"...The public museum as understood today is a collection of specimens and other objects of interest to the scholar, the man of science as well as the more casual visitor, arranged and displayed in accordance with the scientific method. In its original sense, the term 'museum' meant a spot dedicated to the muses - 'a place where man's mind could attain a mood of aloofness above everyday affairs.'" — Museum of Jurassic Technology, Introduction & Background, p.2
As early as the Renaissance, many aristocrats collected curiosities for display to their friends. Universities and particularly medical schools also maintained study collections of specimens for their students. Scientists and collectors displayed their finds in private cabinets of curiosities. Such collections were the predecessors of modern natural history museums. The Utrecht University Museum, among others, still displays an extensive collection of 18th-century animal and human "rarities" in its original setting.
The first science museum was the Museo de Ciencias Naturales, in Madrid, Spain. Opened in 1752, it almost disappeared during the Franco regime, but it recovered afterwards and today works closely with the CSIC.
Another line in the genealogy of science museums came during the Industrial Revolution, with great national exhibits intended to showcase the triumphs of both science and industry. For example, the Great Exhibition in The Crystal Palace (1851) eventually gave rise to London's Science Museum.
In America, various Natural History Societies established collections in the early 1800s, which evolved into museums. Notable was the early New England Museum of Natural History, (now the Museum of Science) which opened in Boston in 1864. The Academy of Science of Saint Louis was founded in 1856 as the first scientific organization west of the Mississippi (although the organization managed scientific collections for several decades a formal museum was not created until the mid-twentieth century.
The modern interactive science museum appears to have been pioneered by Munich’s Deutsches Museum in the early 20th century. This museum had moving exhibits where visitors were encouraged to push buttons and work levers. The concept was taken to the U.S. by Julius Rosenwald, chairman of Sears, Roebuck and Company, who visited the Deutsches Museum museum with his young son in 1911. He was so-captivated by the experience that he decided to build a similar museum in home town of Chicago. Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry opened in phases between 1933 and 1940.
In 1959 the Museum of Science and Natural History (now the Saint Louis Science Center) was formally created by the Academy of Science of Saint Louis featuring many interactive science and history exhibits.
In the mid-twentieth century, Frank Oppenheimer included interactive science exhibits at San Francisco's Exploratorium. The Exploratorium made public the details of their own exhibits in published "Cookbooks" that served as an inspiration to other museums.
Opened in 1967, the Ontario Science Centre continued the trend of featuring interactive exhibits, instead of just static displays. Most science centres have emulated this since.
Four years after the Exploratorium opened, the first OMNIMAX theater opened as the Reuben H. Fleet Space Theater and Science Center in San Diego's Balboa Park. The tilted-dome Space Theater doubled as a planetarium. The Science Center was an Exploratorium-style museum included as a small part of the complex. This combination interactive science museum, planetarium and OMNIMAX theater set the standard that many major science museums follow today.
As the flavour of interactivity crossed the Atlantic, the massive Cite des Sciences et de l'Industrie opened in Paris in 1986, and smaller but no less influential national centres soon followed in Spain, Finland and Denmark. In the UK, the first interactive centres also opened in 1986 on a modest scale, but the real blossoming of science centres was fuelled by Lottery funding for projects to celebrate the millennium.
The mission statements of science centres and modern museums vary. But all are united in being places that make science accessible and encourage the excitement of discovery. They are an integral and dynamic part of the learning environment, promoting exploration from the first 'Eureka!' moment to today's cutting edge research.