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Paul Voogt

The museum as a platform for public engagement with science

(Hors-série n° 1 — Conférences)
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L'Université d'Utrecht est l'une des pionnières de l'Open Science, un mouvement visant à rendre la science plus accessible et plus pertinente pour la société. L'un de ses fondements est l'engagement du public envers la science : impliquer la société dans la science et la science dans la société. Le Musée de l'Université d'Utrecht a été fondé en 1928 et a ouvert les portes de son actuelle implantation en 1996. Le musée présente le patrimoine de l'université et le relie aux recherches en cours. Le nombre de visiteurs du musée a augmenté rapidement au cours des deux dernières décennies, passant de 10.000 en 1996 à environ 75.000 aujourd'hui. Les familles avec des enfants âgés de 8 à 14 ans et les groupes scolaires avec des élèves du même âge constituent le public principal. Il s'agit d'un musée familial et non d'un musée pour enfants. En raison de la croissance rapide du nombre de visiteurs, mais aussi du nouvel objectif stratégique du musée en tant que plateforme d'engagement public, il a été décidé de reconstruire et de rénover l'ensemble du musée. La fermeture du musée est prévue en 2020 pour une réouverture en 2022. L’ambition est de devenir le premier musée de recherche des Pays-Bas. Non pas un musée de la science (qui présente les résultats de la recherche scientifique), mais un musée de la recherche qui implique le visiteur dans le processus scientifique. Le musée ne se contentera pas d'expliquer ce qu'est la méthode scientifique mais il permettra au public de l'appliquer et, ce faisant, de mieux comprendre la nature des « faits » scientifiques. L'objectif n'est pas de rendre le public plus confiant envers les institutions scientifiques mais d'en faire de meilleurs citoyens engagés dans un débat démocratique éclairé sur des questions scientifiques.

Mots-clés : musée de recherche, engagement du public, science citoyenne, sensibilisation


Utrecht University is one of the pioneers of Open Science. Open Science is a movement to make science more accessible and more relevant to society. One of its pillars is public engagement with science: to involve society in science and science in society. Utrecht University Museum was founded in 1928 and opened at its current location in 1996. The museum presents the university’s heritage and connects it with current research. The number of visitors to the museum has increased rapidly over the last two decades, from 10.000 in 1996 to around 75.000 now. The main target group are families with children aged 8 – 14 and school groups with pupils of the same age. It is a family museum, not a children’s museum. Due to of the rapid growth in visitor numbers, but also because of the new strategic goal as a platform for public engagement, it was decided to rebuild and refurbish the entire museum. The museum plans to close for renewal in 2020 and reopen again in 2022. The ambition is to become the first research museum of the Netherlands. Not a science museum, that presents the results of scientific research, but a research museum, that involves the visitor in the scientific process. The museum will not just explain what the scientific method is, but allow the public to perform the scientific method, and in so doing understand more about the nature of scientific « facts ». The goal is not to make them more trusting of scientific institutions, but better citizens of a democracy who can engage themselves in informed debate about scientific issues, going beyond sound bites.

Keywords : research museum, public engagement, citizen science, outreach

1Utrecht University Museum is about to undergo a complete redevelopment as a platform for public engagement with science. This paper will offer an impression of the current museum and of the new strategy, in a new building. It will conclude with sharing some of the challenges that we face.



3Utrecht University Museum is part of Utrecht University, a broad research university with 7 faculties. The university was founded in 1636. It currently has approximately 30.000 students, 6000 staff and 600 professors. Its Shanghai ranking is 49.


5Utrecht University Museum was founded in 1928. Its current location is the former botanical laboratory of the university, in the city centre. The backyard is the old botanical garden of the university, which was founded in the 17th century and came to this location in 1723. The permanent exhibitions of the museum reflect the history of science in Utrecht. The collections date back to the 18th century with a few 17th century highlights, like a Van Leeuwenhoek microscope. The total collection comprises about 200.000 objects, in all fields of science that are currently taught or have been taught in Utrecht. All collections of Utrecht University have been centralized in the museum’s storerooms, with a few exceptions in the medical faculty. The museum still collects present-day objects that reflect research and education in Utrecht.


7Dr. Marta Lourenço performed a scan of the collections in 2016. She is a scientific collections and academic heritage researcher at the University of Lisbon and chair of ICOM-UMAC. She ranks the Utrecht collection among the most comprehensive and diverse in any university museum in Europe. Its unique character is its coherence: the collections have always been preserved in situ and in their context (Lourenço 2017).


Image 10000201000002E0000001F4F1349B39.png
Figure 1 –
An impression of the permanent exhibitions: the anatomical cabinet of Professor Bleuland, dating from the 18th century. Photo: Utrecht University Museum.


A family museum

10Utrecht University Museum is much more than a showroom of historical objects. It is a family museum, with many interactive presentations and hands-on experiences. In the Youth Lab, families can do their own experiments and discover more about their senses: touch, hearing, smell but also sight. The Youth Lab is a very popular part of the museum.

The museum’s target groups are families with children aged 8-14 and school-groups of the same age. Why this age group? Because the museum’s experience is that this age group is still open and curious enough to engage themselves with all different fields of sciences. Once they are over 14, most children already have fixed ideas about what they can and can't do and what they like and don't like. But at a younger age, they are not yet as prejudiced. The museum hopes to kindle the broad curiosity that they still possess at this age. It aims at family visits: children visiting with their parents or grandparents and at intergenerational exchange, which has been proven to enhance learning.


Image 10000201000002E6000001B07510645D.png
Figure 2 –
Zoetrope at the museum’s Youth Lab. Photo: Utrecht University Museum.


Students and staff of the university

14The main target group of the museum is the general public. Students and staff of the university also play an important role, not as the primary target group, but as contributors. They are engaged in the museum’s scientific outreach work.

All museum guides are students of Utrecht University. The museum recruits them in a rigorous selection procedure and trains them. Those who pass the selection and training process get a paid position on an on-call contract. The goal is to keep them attached for several years, during which the museum regularly monitors their performance. Because of their age, they connect very easily with the museum’s young visitors.

Academic staff are partners in the museum’s programs. Next to, or as part of the exhibitions, there is always some form of programming where they play a role, varying from short lectures to citizen science programs that can last for many months.


Image 10000201000008BC000002F2B8820EF3.png Figure 3 – Students and staff of Utrecht University engaged in science outreach work at the museum. Photo: Utrecht University Museum.


Reasons for redevelopment: visitor numbers and strategic shift

19There are basically two main reasons for the renovation and refurbishment of the museum. The first reason is the number of visitors. The museum was founded in 1928, but for a long time it attracted hardly any visitors from outside. From the time that it opened at its current location, visitor numbers grew rapidly. When it opened in 1996 it attracted 10.000 visitors per year and the ambition was to reach 25.000. The building was designed for this number of visitors. Now it has reached three times that number: 75.000, and is still growing. In the Netherlands this puts it in the bracket of medium-sized museums. The numbers are expected to grow further in the near future. The demographics of Utrecht and its environment are supportive: it is the most highly educated, fastest growing and youngest city of the Netherlands. The current design of the building is not able to absorb these numbers. The museum will stay at its current location, but enlarge the space.


21All the halls of the museum will be completely refurbished as well. All exhibitions will be new. The main reasons for the new exhibitions is a strategic shift: to become a platform for public engagement as part of the Open Science strategy of the university.

Utrecht University aims to make a difference outside the university walls, to have an impact on society. Utrecht University is one of the pioneers of Open Science, a movement to make science more accessible and more relevant to society. It starts from the conviction that scientific research can contribute to the solutions of complex problems in society and that it can do this even better when knowledge is shared with stakeholders. Not only at the end of the pipeline, when knowledge is applied, but also at the start, with the development of knowledge and ultimately even at the stage of setting the agenda for research.


24One of its pillars is Open Access: unlimited access to scientific publications and research data. Another important aspect is Public Engagement with science: to involve society in science and science in society. It is a two-way process with real interaction that is beneficial to both parties. It is beneficial for the public, who become more involved in science and are able to make better-informed choices. And it is beneficial to the researcher, who is challenged and gets new ideas and new perspectives.


26The mission of the museum is linked to the university's mission. It aims at scientific literacy: « the ability to ask questions, based on curiosity about the world around us, search for answers and know how to appreciate them ». This definition was coined by the Dutch Association of Science Museums, the VSC. Teaching the public about the scientific method is crucially important, especially in this day and age of « alternative facts ». The museum is convinced that the current fact-free discourse will not be countered by providing even more facts, but by conveying insight into methods instead of facts. Explain what the scientific method is; that it is not about « the truth », but about putting « truths » to the test, with transparent and reproducible methods.


28The ambition is to become the first research museum of the Netherlands. Not a science museum that presents the results of scientific research, but a research museum that involves the visitor in the scientific process. The museum will not just explain what the scientific method is, but allow the public to perform the scientific method, and in doing so understand more about the nature of science.


Image 1000020100000798000002CAFFD9B240.pngFigure 4 – From a science museum towards a research museum. Photo: Utrecht University Museum.


Citizen science

31The whole museum will transform into a laboratory where (historical) objects, contemporary research and inquiry-based learning are interconnected. Citizen science labs will be central in this approach. In these labs, visitors participate hands-on in real scientific research. The common denominator is that both researchers and the public will benefit. The researcher receives data and input from a very diverse audience. The level of participation varies: from test subject, to research assistant, to citizen scientist. Utrecht University Museum experimented with all of these modalities: the visitor as test subject in Skull LAB, as research assistant in Archeo LAB and as citizen scientist in Fungi LAB. In each lab the dialogue between researcher and the public is vital. Our ambition is to strive to a next level of engagement where the public helps to set the agenda for research.


33The Skull LAB was a project in cooperation with a group at the medical faculty that designs facial reconstructions for people who lost part of their face or skull due to an accident or a disease. They need reference data of the build of skulls of healthy people of all ages. The museum invited them to set up a 3D photography unit on the museum floor and take pictures of the skulls of the visitors, as part of an exhibition on the subject.

34Next was an archeology lab. In this Archeo LAB, the visitors helped to sort out archeological finds and assemble shards in order to reconstruct pots and other objects, under the guidance of (amateur) archeologists. The period of time needed to process enormous amounts of archeological finds was considerably reduced by all the helping hands. That was very beneficial to the archeologists. At the same time the visitors learned a lot about archeology in a short span of time through actually working with the objects and handling them.


36The Fungi LAB was a cooperation with the Westerdijk Institute for fungal research. The institute has the largest collection of fungi in the world and is constantly looking for new species. The museum visitors could participate in fungal research by sending in a soil sample from their own garden, using a special kit that had been designed for this purpose that they could collect at the museum. These samples were analysed by the Westerdijk Institute. And if a new species of fungus was found, it was named after the person that sent it in. On a special website the locations of the samples were published, as well as the total number of species and the number of new species found.


Image 1000020100000846000004A6F80E54EB.pngFigure 5 – Screenshot of the project’s website and picture of Anne Sophie, pointing out the spot where she sampled the fungus named after her: the Talaromyces annesophiae. Photo: Utrecht University Museum.


Developing the new presentations

39At this moment, interactives for the new museum are being tested on the museum floor. The current museum is still open; the plan is to close for renovation next spring, April 2020. While the museum is still open, new ideas can be tested with the public, like the crowd simulation table. It was designed by the Game and Media Technology department of Utrecht University. It is a model of the inner city of Utrecht. Crowds are projected in the streets of the model. Then one can block one of the streets and observe what happens. What will be the most likely route of the crowd? This research is being used regularly by the city of Utrecht when preparing for big events.


41Just the other day the research group published an academic paper on the simulation table and its use in the context of our museum.


Image 10000201000004060000051215C4E20A.pngFigure 6 – Testing the crowd simulation table in the museum and publication. Photo: Utrecht University Museum.


44But of course, the historical collections will also be presented in the new museum, even more than now. The museum strives for presentations that connect the past, present and future of research at Utrecht University. Like Johanna Westerdijk, who started the fungal research at Utrecht University 100 years ago and her present-day successor Corné Pieterse. The museum shows that it is not by chance that Utrecht is outstanding in particular fields of research, but that it often has a long history.

Even the enlarged museum will be able to show only a few thousand objects in the context of the stories that are being told. But there is an urge to also use the rest. And show the multitude of particular collections. This could be done with installations built from objects and designed by artists.

The museum will not be able to get all research groups of the university into the museum. Their work is often confined to laboratories with very specific conditions that will never be able to travel. The museum intends to overcome that problem by making live video connections with labs elsewhere on the campus.


48The museum will close for refurbishment in 2020 and hopes to reopen again in 2022. The building will be closed for two years. How does it keep in touch with the public in the meantime? First by going to the schools that normally would visit the museum. In-school programs have been developed for some time already and it is bearing fruit; more and more schools participate in the program. The museum travels to the school with real objects. And – being Dutch – the bicycle is the mode of transport, a cargo-bike in this case. Apart from schools, there is outreach to other public places, like libraries and theaters in the city.

museum also participates in events like the National Science Weekend, by bringing the programs to outside locations.



51The new approach of Utrecht University Museum comes with challenges. Running a citizen science lab is a labor-intensive process. How to find research that fits the format? What does it take from both sides: the researcher and the museum? How to keep the participants informed? Utrecht University Museum is gathering experience on all of these issues and sharing them. Citizen science projects are not new for museums. But often these projects are isolated events and restricted to a limited number of scientific fields (psychology, biology). The ambition of Utrecht University Museum is to include all fields of science and to offer this form of engagement permanently, throughout the year. And to build on the experiences to break new barriers and eventually engage communities in setting the research agenda.


53Choosing families as a target group is a challenge in itself, because the content needs to be interesting and enriching for all generations. The aim is not to be a children's museum, but a family museum. It means developing multi-layered exhibits and interactives and it means choosing a design that is appealing to all generations.

The unique selling point is the interaction with the audience. The new museum will no longer put all its efforts and money in costly temporary exhibitions. Programming is key: research activities, citizen science projects, interaction with scientists. These programs can be updated much quicker and easier than a big exhibition. But it also means a turnaround in the way of working: exhibition makers will become programmers. And many more members of staff on the floor are needed than the museum has now.

Each day the public can choose from a list of activities. If you just want to roam around, there will be more than enough to see, but the museum entices you to be active. Which means that it is not a museum for everybody. It will attract people who are curious about the world around them. Those who seek a thrill, an experience like in a fun-fair, which you can undergo passively, will not be attracted by the museum’s offer. They will go to another museum in Utrecht that offers a roller coaster ride. So, within the target group of families a specific kind of family is targeted, mostly with a high education and an active attitude. And, as experience shows, those for whom museum-visits are part of their lifestyle.


57This brings us to one of the biggest challenges of this time: how to reach a more diverse audience? Although (science) museums in the Netherlands have been striving for more diverse publics for decades now, the success rate is limited. It is not a matter of better marketing, but a matter of strategy. To be successful, the focus should not be limited to the public, but also to personnel and partners. The experience of Utrecht University Museum has shown that the threshold to come to the city centre and visit the museum remains high. More can be expected from reaching out to these audiences in their own communities. That is why the museum invests in outreach to schools, libraries and other public places during closure. If this approach proves to be successful, it will be continued after its reopening. 




Hürst Wolfgang & Geraerts Roland, 2019 : « Augmented and Virtual Reality Interfaces for Crowd Simulation Software-A Position Statement for Research on Use-Case-Dependent Interaction », IEEE Virtual Humans and Crowds for Immersive Environments (VHCIE), p. 1-3. Available on: https://www.researchgate.net.


Lourenço Marta C., 2017: Utrecht Universiteit museum’s collections and heritage: brief.

To cite this article

Paul Voogt, «The museum as a platform for public engagement with science», Les Cahiers de muséologie [En ligne], Conférences, Hors-série n° 1, 19-30 URL : https://popups.uliege.be/2406-7202/index.php?id=639.