Glass-boxing science: Laboratory work on display in museums

Author:Wylie, Caitlin, EN-Engineering and SocietyUniversity of Virginia ORCID icon

Museum displays tend to black-box science, by displaying scientific facts without explanations of how those facts were made. A recent trend in exhibit design upends this omission by putting scientists to work in glass-walled laboratories, just a window away from visitors. How is science being conceived, portrayed, and performed in glass-walled laboratories? Interviews and participant observation in several “fishbowl” paleontology laboratories reveal that glass walls alter lab workers’ typical tasks and behavior. Despite glass-walled labs’ incomplete and edited enactment of scientific work, displaying an active workplace challenges visitors’ assumptions that science is passive and that museums are home only to facts and dead things. Thus, glass-walled labs do not destroy the black box that obscures scientific practice for non-scientists. Instead, they exemplify a glass box, a kind of black box that contains a performance of scientific work. Glass-boxing describes a common way in which museums present scientific practice—i.e., by making it observable but incompletely so—by inviting the public to construct a rich understanding of science as human work.

Source Citation:

Wylie, C.D. (2020). Glass-boxing science: Laboratory work on display in museums. Science, Technology, and Human Values, 45(4), 618-635.

University of Virginia
Published Date:
December 21, 2020