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Battle over humanism at the science museum


Griffith Observatory. Photo by Matthew Field

The New York Times published an excellent article by Edward Rothstein last week on the science museum. He visited science museums in the US and internationally, and discovered a variety of conflicting approaches, which he speculates may be “a sign of the science museum’s struggle to define itself.”

One of Rothstein’s most interesting findings is that there are “fundamental disagreements on how humanity itself is to be regarded.” For example, the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles “presents a universe that may be divinely inspired but is deeply human-centered,” while the Rose Center for Earth and Space in New York “deliberately excised” a human-centered cosmos, “diminishing what is human rather than elevating it.” As Rothstein writes, “this de-centering of the human can become a devaluing of the human; the museum may even begin to see human frailties as a great flaw in the cosmic order that must be repaired.”

The predominant expression of this “devaluing of the human”, Rothstein says, is environmentalism. At the Liberty Science Center in New Jersey, humans are said to “'pose the greatest danger’ to certain creatures, ‘damage’ the climate and are in turn threatened by disaster and pandemic.” But, Rothstein notes, environmentalism isn’t the only manifestation of anti-humanism. At an exhibition on the early history of the Americas at the Field Museum in Chicago, “contemporary Western society is the main obstacle – at best an irrelevance, at worst a threat.”

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