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Agencies Of Influence

It wasn't long before people began to realize that museums could be used to influence people. The South Kensington Museum in London was created in 1857 specifically to encourage better industrial design in Britain. It was radical in that it combined engineering with art, and valued objects from the past purely for their capacity to inspire the present. It is difficult to quantify how effective it was—William Morris's famous wallpaper designs were directly influenced by its collections—but the museum gradually lost its motivation and in 1893 was split into the Science Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum, thus creating new categories of museums for science and engineering and the decorative arts.

However, the proactive educational spirit sown by the South Kensington Museum became hugely influential. The push-button displays in the Science Museum were the direct inspiration for the Exploratorium in San Francisco, established in 1969 by Frank Oppenheimer, to help people understand new developments in science. The Exploratorium is not really a museum at all—it doesn't have collections—yet its approach has spawned science centers in almost every major conurbation.

The most radical recent developments in museums have sprung from the desire to educate, rather than to collect. Michael Spock put the old toys in the Boston Children's Museum into storage because he realized his young visitors weren't interested in them. He created a new type of museum in which children could explore the adult world through interactive displays. His methods, particularly his audience participatory programs, have been hugely influential on museums, and new-style children's museums have become almost as widespread as science centers.

Interior of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, c. 2001. This museum, located in Washington, D.C., is one of twelve in the U.S. alone dedicated to remembrance of the Holocaust. Chartered in 1980, the institution offers extensive programs, exhibitions, and publications. © PICTURE NET/CORBIS

Since the 1960s museums have been transformed by the introduction of modern media such as video and film, audio guides, and computers. It is now possible for museums to catch the imagination of a very wide public, but only a few, as yet, have begun to put their visitors first in this way. Most stick to their old, categorical presentations and assume that their visitors will want to learn about microliths, monstrances, and moths, without asking why they might be interested in such things, let alone if they would prefer to find out about something else. When he was commissioned to create what was to become the Museum of the Jewish Diaspora in Tel Aviv in 1968, Jeshajahu Weinberg, a former theater director, realized that it would not be possible to tell this story using original artifacts, because virtually none existed. He therefore created a display that used no original material at all, only reproductions. But, since it has no collections, it cannot really be categorized as a museum at all.

Weinberg's greatest museum, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. (opened 1993), uses all the storytelling techniques he developed in Israel together with real exhibits to mesmerizing effect, and attracts two million visitors per year. One reason for the recent proliferation of Holocaust museums (there are twelve in the United States alone in the early 2000s) is that its last living witnesses are being lost. One of the most important roles of museums in the future may be to preserve the evidence of past events, such as the Holocaust, of which it is imperative that they are not forgotten.

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Molecular distillation to My station and its duties:Museums - Origins, Early Development, Growth, Agencies Of Influence, Future Challenges, Bibliography