Social Issues & Science Museums

January 1st, 2016

This Knowledge Base article was written collaboratively with contributions from Kris Morrissey, Carlyn Buckler and Effrosyni Nomikou. This article was migrated from a previous version of the Knowledge Base. The date stamp does not reflect the original publication date.


As a field, science museums and other ISE forums are exploring and defining their place in society as institutions that have the resources and the mandate to engage with their communities in addressing social problems. For example, the 2010 report Learning Science in Informal Environments called on museums to actively advance the ability of citizens to “understand the implications of our actions on the world and the potential to change those actions in light of scientific evidence” (Bell, LewensteinShouse, & Feder, 2009). The National Science Foundation’s Strategic vision calls on the field to “Build the capacity of the nation’s citizenry for addressing societal challenges,” and the Association of Science and Technology Centers encourages ISE institutions to “create new platforms where citizens and organizations work together to support evidence-based decision making about the global challenges facing our planet” (ASTC, 2013). The sector has increasingly begun to reflect on what constitutes equitable practice, and to explore ways to achieve it (e.g. Feinstein & Meshoulam 2014; Morissey et al. 2014)  

Morrissey, et al., 2014 gives several examples of the ways museums are engaging with their communities to address critical and enduring social problems. In this article, social problems are defined as conditions that are harmful to a significant number of individuals or groups, complex, enduring and interconnected with habits and policies of society. Despite the there is widespread ambiguity and inconsistency in the language museums and other ISE organizations use to refer to social issues such as equity, inclusion, cultural competence, social justice, community outreach, and social mobility.

Incluseum is an initiative that collects and promotes resources and and examples which foreground critical discourse, community building, and collaborative practice related to inclusion in  museums.

Findings from Research and Evaluation 

A recent synthesis of the ways museums are addressing social problems and the impact of that work suggests that there are a number of areas that museums are addressing but museums are not addressing many of the most significant and complex issues that rank high in the interests of the public.

Despite efforts to open up and diversify their practice, patterns of inequitable practice persist. For example, Dawson researched how people from low-income, minority ethnic groups perceive and experience exclusion in science museum settings (2014).



Bain, B.G., Jornsey, J., Bongiorno, R., & Jeffries, C. (2012). Promoting pro-environmental action in climate change deniers. Nature Climate Change, 2, 600–603.

Bell, P., Lewenstein, B., Shouse, A. W., & Feder, M. A. (Eds.) (2009). Learning Science in Informal Environments: People, Places, and Pursuits. Washington, DC: National Academies  Press. Retrieved

Dawson, E. (2014), “Not Designed for Us”: How Science Museums and Science Centers Socially Exclude Low-Income, Minority Ethnic Groups. Sci. Ed., 98: 981–1008. doi: 10.1002/sce.21133

Feinstein, N. W. and Meshoulam, D. (2014), Science for what public? Addressing equity in American science museums and science centers. J. Res. Sci. Teach., 51: 368–394. doi: 10.1002/tea.21130

Morrissey, K., Petrie, K., Canning, K., Windleharth, T., & Montano, P. (2014). Museums & Social Issues: A Research Synthesis of an Emerging Trend. Retrieved from