The Museum’s Foundations, Fundraisers and Beyond

Wisconsin and Madison are destinations for sporting events, art exhibits and plays, music and festivals, and the outdoors. But despite Wisconsin being a top research state in the U.S., other Midwest states still have the upper hand on science museums that offer locals and visitors interactive experiences with science. A group of Wisconsinites is trying to change that with a Wisconsin Science Museum – a place where people can hear the stories behind major research and discoveries and engage with science themselves – and they are looking for interested members of the community to help by volunteering time, resources, connections, and stories.

Founded in October 2015 in a temporary location on the 6th floor of the Madison Area Technical College (MATC) building on N. Carroll Street in Madison, the board of the Wisconsin Science Museum recently began scaling up efforts to build a permanent location in Wisconsin. They have begun work on details to be part of the Nolen Waterfront Project – a 20- to 30-year project that will create a public green-space and developments over John Nolen Drive in Madison. The goal, according to executive director Arianna Murphy, is to make the museum “one of the preeminent museums.” A place that would house the stories connected to research in Wisconsin and have hands-on exploration of ideas and opportunities for conversations.

Besides cheese (and often because of cheese), one of Wisconsin’s biggest economic sectors is research. As a result, the history of science in Wisconsin is the history of major discoveries and advances in not only agricultural fields, but in human life and health sciences, earth sciences, and social sciences. For those who don’t do scientific research, however, such discoveries often are told as one more history date or list of facts, with little of the original interesting details left. The role of the museum, as one of the founders and current board president Dave Nelson, emeritus Biochemistry professor at University of Wisconsin-Madison, described it, is to “put flesh and blood on the otherwise barebones of science.” Nelson started the museum because he saw a need for a place located in the community that provided opportunities to engage with science beyond temporary science events on campus, and wanted it centered where it would be more publically accessible, both in terms of parking and its open hours.

Starting a museum from scratch is a long process, though. And the museum is non-profit and separate from UW, so the work to do this depends on donations and help from people in the community.

To begin its scaled up fundraising efforts, the Wisconsin Science Museum held an event that brought together members of the museum with top researchers at UW-Madison on Thursday evening, September 28 at Cooper’s Tavern, for a discussion on human gene editing and the gene editing tool CRISPR-Cas9. Researchers Alta Charo, a professor of Law and Bioethics at the UW-Madison School of Law, and Dietram Scheufele, a professor of science and political communication at the UW-Madison Department of Life Sciences Communication, presented an overview of human gene editing – both the science and the ethical questions tied to it and how discussion is needed to determine how we want the science to develop and be used (or not used) as a society. The discussion covered how CRISPR allows us to more and more easily make changes to human genes, which means we could treat serious genetic diseases, such as Huntington’s and cystic fibrosis, but also raises the possibility of making lasting changes to what physical characteristics are considered normal in humans, such as strength and height. Because the tool is so versatile, Charo and Scheufele both described how different applications will have different levels of acceptability and require different regulations, and the public will be key to helping determine what those levels of acceptability and regulations are.

Highlighting how Wisconsin is often at the center of cutting-edge science research and of conversations on how to make the research accessible to people outside of scientific researchers, both Charo and Scheufele recently served on the National Academies of Sciences Committee that wrote a report on the state of gene editing for humans and how we need more public conversations on the science. Charo served as co-chair and Scheufele served as the science communication expert. UW-Madison also houses some of the top biology research labs in the U.S., which conduct much of the work on gene and cell editing research.

The fundraiser provided an opportunity for people to engage with the researchers on these questions, something the museum hopes to continue and at a larger scale as it develops into a permanent fixture. But it also showcased how the history of science in Wisconsin is constantly developing because of Wisconsin’s place at the forefront of research. The Wisconsin Museum of Science would be a record of stories of the state’s science and discoveries, but because of the pace of research in the state, that includes stories of now and of the future. As captured by the Wisconsin Idea, that also means these stories are part of making the research matter beyond the lab.

The museum in its current location has already begun scaling up the exhibits, and Murphy said that since February 2017, they have seen a huge amount of growth. School groups regularly come in on field trips, and tourists often visit despite the somewhat inconspicuous location after having found the museum online. Different colored lights fill the hallways, which, because the museum is located in what used to be a floor of a school, are filled with lockers, now covered with bright murals. The exhibits are a mixture of history, modern science, art, and interactive displays. The newest exhibit follows Norman and Wilma Erway, who ran a glass-blowing shop out of the basement of their family home in Oregon and supplied UW with custom glass for chemistry and laboratories for decades. Norm Erway, the head of the operation, had also worked on the Manhattan Project, so the exhibit includes documents from his time on that research. Another exhibit focuses on lasers, from the extreme (brain surgery) to what we take for granted (bar code scanner) with plenty of opportunities to interact with the lasers, safely. There are several other exhibits including an art installation that follows the work of physicist Robert Wood, who developed infra-red and ultra-violet photography, but also studied the way senses interact or overlap – for example, by seeing how different sound waves create different shapes as they move through sand, combining the visual and auditory. According to Murphy, the glow-in-the-dark black light installations in this exhibit are a field trip favorite. The museum also has pop-up exhibits it loans to libraries and community centers, such as the Monona and Milton Libraries and the Boys’ and Girls’ Club of Dane County. These include exhibits on women in the space program (in which you can make constellations out of fiber optics or decide how you’d pack a suitcase for a trip to Mars), urban farming, and how a lot of discoveries in Wisconsin seemed to have started with a cow (such as realizing dairy cows were missing something from their diet, which lead to the discovery of vitamins).

Altogether the current location of the museum provides what director of advancement Zack Robbins describes as “proof of concept,” one the board and directors are ready to now fully expand on. Both Murphy and Robbins have studied the paths that other museums took as they developed, and the range of experiences is large: from the Science Museum of Minnesota in the Twin Cities, which moved five times over 90 years as it grew from a few installations to a 600-employee institution, to the Michigan Science Center, which grew relatively quickly from 2012 to now out of the ashes of the Detroit Science Center. The Wisconsin Science Museum is also emerging at an interesting time for museums, when the ideas of what constitutes the role of museums are changing. Pop-ups, such as those the Science Museum already runs, are now a normal part of a museum’s role, to bring exhibits directly to different communities. Combining art and science is also becoming more common with the Science Gallery movement, which the Wisconsin Science Museum is already expanding into with its art installations. The Museum was also a site for Gallery Night in Madison on October 6, 2017. The newest avenue the Wisconsin Science Museum is moving down is incorporating online and game experiences. Filament Games, the Madison-based video game development company, recently started collaborating with the Wisconsin Science Museum to plan gaming and VR science experiences for the Museum.

Overall, the Wisconsin Science Museum is at a stage where it is already reaching members of the community and growing in new ways to build on that relationship and create more opportunities to engage with science. At this early stage, the Museum especially is interested in working with anyone in the community who has ideas, suggestions, or opportunities for fundraising and development as it works towards its goal of becoming a permanent place for Wisconsinites and visitors to experience and share science and stories. If you are interested in being involved or you know someone in the community who think would be a good resource for the museum, the directors ask that you contact them at info@wisconsinsciencemuseum.org or by phone at (608) 216-5496. You can also check out the museum at 211 N. Carroll, Madison, WI on the 6th floor of the MATC building, or visit its website to learn more about current exhibits and the museum goals at https://wisconsinsciencemuseum.org.

This piece was written by Emily L. Howell, a graduate student at the Nelson Institute and the Life Science Communications program at the University of WI – Madison. 

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homegrown discoveries.

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