London. Hands down. No doubt about it.
I can say this because we visited the Liberty Science Center today, which is located sort of east-ish of Jersey City. We went with our friends Rob, Marcella and Genevieve and spent the better part of three hours there. Liberty Science is lauded as a great science museum for kids. (But come to think of it, isn’t that the case for all science museums?) I’d never been there, and it seemed like a good outing for a cold day. Current featured exhibits were on Mammoths and Mastodons, as well as one on Skyscrapers.
But here’s the thing: the London Science Museum has apparently ruined me for all others. Or at least for this one. Why? Why is it so much better than the Liberty Science Center? Well, first of all, the London Science Museum is in London and the Liberty Science Center is in New Jersey. And not even one of the ‘nicer’ areas of New Jersey, but a really ugly industrial area down by the waterfront. Second, the London Museum of Science is free. As in, we walked in and paid nothing, except for what we spent in the gift shop. (10 pounds, or about $16) Liberty Science? One adult and two kids was a whopping $50.75. We paid $12 extra to see the Woolly Mammoth exhibit, (not worth it) so without that it would have been $38.75. But the whole reason to go is to see the featured exhibits (or so they make you believe). And we paid $7 for parking. We carried our coats, avoiding an additional $6. And they have a gift shop too, of course. $10 more. So almost $70 as opposed to $16 in London. Now if Liberty Science had been the museum to end all museums, with interactive exhibits so exciting as to leave the kids breathless, well then maybe $70 would have been worth it. But it wasn’t. It was just ok. (And did I mention that it is in New Jersey?)
Finally, the exhibits. In the London Science Museum, as I think I mentioned when we were there, the exhibits are set up so as to lead you through the information in a chronological or step by step manner, instead of just putting everything in a big room and letting you wander around, having to read mountains of text to figure everything out. (Which is what happened today.) There was also lots of interactive stuff that made sense in London – cool things like answering questions about photos or designs and punching in your answer to see if your brain is predominantly masculine or feminine. Letting the computer take your picture and then seeing what your face would look like if you were the opposite sex. Letting another computer scan your thumb and then tell you what kind of design your thumbprint has, and how that relates to other people percentage-wise. And in the earth section, experiencing what it feels like to be in an earthquake, seeing how lava erupts and how the earth is always moving, even when we can’t see it.
The coolest thing today was a table with lots of foam shapes that you could arrange and photograph repeatedly as you moved them, thereby creating your own stop motion animation. I could have done that all day and skipped the rest. The other enjoyable thing was in the skyscraper exhibit, where the kids could get hooked up to a harness and walk across an I-beam of a skyscraper in progress, about 20 feet off the ground.
Other than that, the exhibits were often heavy handed and sometimes confusing. Three plastic cylinders of different sizes suspended in a tank of water. What do they mean? Good question. It took Rob and I a few minutes to figure out that the cylinders were supposed to represent different types of water – fresh water, salt water and …I forget the third – and their percentage of the total water on earth. Whew! That was confusing and obscure. And also at adult height, so if you were shorter than about 4.5 feet, you wouldn’t have been able to read the stickers attached to the outside of the tank which corresponded in color to the cylinders inside and had writing that said, ‘Fresh water 0.6%’ or something. A lot of the stuff was like that. Don’t even get me started on the diseases section, which told you fun things like how much deadly bacteria can be found on your kitchen counter and gave you the opportunity to record your own video clip detailing your experiences with std’s. Woo-hoo! Good times!
I hate to go on about how mediocre the museum was today, but everyone talks so much about ‘science’ (second only to math) and how much kids need to know about it and blah, blah, blah. Then why are the exhibits so dry and boring? Hey kids! Science is fun! Don’t you want to stand and read through 7 flip cards at each of 4 stations which tell you in scientific terms and great detail what sediment is and how it carries minerals from one place to the next? Neither do I. Don’t you want a video to preach to you for 15 minutes about how cell phones work, showing you a diagram of the signal going to the tower and then following its’ path to the recipient of your call? Me neither. Look, maybe this stuff could be fun – but remember those old instructional movies from the 50’s and 60’s where the narrator has this sort of monotone voice and by the end half the kids in the classroom watching would be in a deep sleep? Well these videos were modern day versions of that. Every now and then they’d get a kid to narrate. Hey, it’s a kid! It must be something other kids will like!
Oh, Liberty Science. Take a page from London. You can’t help where you are, but you can control the design of your exhibits. You know the hanging rows of lights in your lobby that flashed and changed color when someone danced or moved in a certain spot? That was cool. Of course, I have no idea why it happened, as there was no explanation at all. But sediment? Pages and pages of text that no one but the most overzealous parent or educator is going read and absolutely no child will remember.
There’s got to be a better way. And there is. But you’ll need to travel to London to see it.