Monday, November 17, 2014

Science at a History Museum

by Erin Doane, Curator

I have always been a little jealous of science museums when it comes to their interactives.  They have so many opportunities to create wonderful hands-on activities for their exhibits.  Being able to touch things and try experiments within a gallery is a great way for visitors to learn.  Unfortunately, one of the main rules in most history museums is that you cannot touch things on display.  We have, therefor, decided that our new exhibit on medicine in Chemung County, To Do No Harm, will include a science-based interactive.

Science in To Do No Harm
I know that may seem like cheating in some ways but it really isn’t.  Science is a huge part of our everyday lives (whether we realize it or not) and has been throughout all of history.  It makes sense to integrate science into our history exhibits just as it does to integrate art.  Some history topics almost beg for the addition of a science component.  Take, for example, our previous exhibit on farming in Chemung County, Locally Grown.  We presented the history of agriculture but also the science behind developments over time.  We had a section with live plants where we explained how plants used sunlight, water, and nutrients to grow.  That information is essentially the basis of all agriculture.  All the history that followed was made possible by the natural science.

The science corner from Locally Grown
The science in our farming exhibit was not hands-on, however.  In To Do No Harm we’re taking science up a notch and giving people something to do.  Next to our history of microscopes, we have included a magnifying glass and a binocular microscope that visitors can use to examine a variety of samples up close.

Microscope and box of samples including wool, newspaper, duct tape, and a toothpick
I have to admit that I had forgotten how very exciting science could be until I unwrapped our microscope and started looking at things on my desk.  Suddenly, I was transported back to school and felt the thrill of making a new discovery for the first time.  I went around the office making the rest of the staff and interns look at bits of foam and their own fingers through the microscope because it was so cool.  I’m hoping that our visitors, both young and old, will feel that same sort of excitement and inspiration.  While the 20x magnification of our scope is not extreme by any means, it is a lot of fun.

Images from our microscope
clockwise from top left: foam block, plastic plant,dried flower, kitchen sponge
While I did steal inspiration from science museums, that doesn’t mean that there is no other way to bring hands-on activities into a history exhibit.  In To Do No Harm we are also trying out a new interactive that will connect people more personally with history.  At the entrance of the gallery, visitors can choose a medical chart.  In that chart, they will learn about a fictional historical character who needs to make their way through the medical system.  Visitors will learn about the history of medicine by helping their character find the right doctor, choose the correct medicine, or select the best hospital for their illnesses or injuries.  I don’t want to give away too many details but I will say that not everyone survives.

Choose your own exhibit adventure in To Do No Harm

Try out all the hands-on activities at the grand opening of To Do No Harm: Medicine in Chemung County on Thursday, November 20, from 5:00 to 7:00 pm.


  1. Can't wait to see the new exhibit! Looking forward to picking up a medical chart and following my patient..... Will be fun and interesting always love to learn new things about our history in Chemung County...

  2. A nice insight into the planning that goes into exhibit-making. I remember the interactive part of an earlier exhibit where visitors were asked to put a pin in a local map to show where their family was living at the time of a historical event. That was also good.