In the Name of Science

New Museum Opens in April

Posted February 27, 2004 at 1:21pm

Those working for the National Academy of Sciences like to point out that science is an all-encompassing and yet often-ignored part of our daily lives.

Under this premise, the academy is opening the Marian Koshland Science Museum in April in downtown D.C. in an attempt to move past the dry data often associated with scientific discovery and show the public exactly what the organization’s research means to the average person.

“It’s for anyone who cares about current events or is responsible for interpreting those current events for others. I think it really goes to the heart of what is happening now, and of course science and technology issues are interwoven in so many of the complex policy decisions that are being made for us,” said Patricia Legro, the museum’s director.

The museum is named after Marian Elliott Koshland, a member of the academy who worked in the fields of immunology and molecular biology and died in 1997.

The museum will be a change for those accustomed to large, cavernous museums in which onlookers stand behind ropes and look at exhibits through plated glass. With only 6,000 square feet of space, the museum has a much more intimate feel than its competitors on the National Mall — something the museum directors hope will add to their patrons’ personalized experience.

“We’ve always called ourselves the appetizer, not the entrée,” Legro jokes about comparisons to the Smithsonian.

When the museum opens in April, it will feature exhibits on the “wonders of science,” the human genome and global warming. The “wonders of science” exhibit will be a permanent fixture, highlighted by films produced by the academy on current studies in science, while the other two exhibits will stay for two years and then travel the country.

“The ‘wonders of science’ will focus on the scientific questions that scientists are trying to answer today. The first film will be talking about what the universe is made of, and how scientists are looking at that question,” said Jennifer Saxon, director of marketing and communications for the museum.

The museum’s operators designed the museum’s exhibits primarily for people over age 12 who already have an interest and basic knowledge of science. “Science centers are fantastic, they give a great overview of science and an introduction to science, especially to young children, but I think adults as they get older, that science doesn’t hold the fascination it used to,” Saxon said. “So we want to remind visitors that science is affecting what you do everyday whether you actively realize it or not.”

Next to the displays are interactive kiosks that visitors can activate with their ticket and explore everything from the replication of DNA to the makeup of dark matter.

The global warming exhibit will feature a large copper globe with a Plexiglas atmosphere. The thicker areas of Plexiglas will trap in light and heat up the globe in an attempt to demonstrate the greenhouse effect on our planet.

Although the topic of global warming has been a contentious one for lawmakers and scientists for the past quarter-century, the museum director says they are simply putting the NAS’s global warming studies on display in a form easier to digest than the mountainous amounts of dense information they have presented to policy makers over the past decade.

“We’re not advocacy groups, we don’t go about changing people’s minds,” Legro said. “We’re asked to study what the evidence is and that is what we are providing. People will draw their own conclusions.”

In another part of the global warming exhibit, visitors can input into a video screen what type of sacrifices they would make to lessen greenhouse gas emissions. The museum will record these responses and send the data to Pennsylvania State University as part of an ongoing study.

“Part of how we select the exhibits that we’re using depends on just how current they are,” Saxon said. “If they are on topics that policymakers are currently considering, then that’s a huge indicator for us that this would probably be a good topic for visitors.”

The DNA exhibit demonstrates how scientists used sophisticated techniques in identifying the SARS virus by analyzing its genetic material, another example of placing a current spin on scientific research.

“SARS was in the news a huge amount and then all of a sudden it wasn’t, and that’s probably due to the fact that [scientists] were able to identify it and keep it from spreading,” said Saxon.

Even though the museum has been billed as an educational tool for the general public, Members of Congress — especially those who have a stake in farm subsidies — might be interested in the exhibit on genetically modified corn and which countries are producing it.

President Abraham Lincoln signed a Congressional charter in 1863 designating the National Academy of Sciences as an independent advisory body to the federal government in matters of science. It currently operates as a nonprofit organization. The museum receives its financing entirely from private donations, while the academy as a whole gets about 80 percent of its funding from the federal government.

The museum is at 500 Fifth St. NW. Admission for adults will be $5, while seniors, children and college students will be charged $3. To learn more, visit www.koshland -science-museum.org.