Spirals of evolution and dissolution: analysis of the virtualization of interactive science centers and science museums in Latin America and its challenges to digital inclusion and local development

Marcelo Sabbatini, Brazil , Betania Maciel, Brazil

In this turn of century, the museum as a social institution is being subjected to major transformations in its conception and functions. A process of virtualization is taking place in  many of its aspects, such as in documentation, preservation, exhibition, research and education; to such an extent that the museum is presently fast reaching a status of an open, socially shared and participatory virtual entity.

However, when considered under a global view. this process is taking place in unequal ways, due to differences in national and regional realities. Research conducted by one of the authors in 2002 has made this clear, by identifying substantive gaps in the field of virtualization of scientific museology  between the countries with a longer tradition and experience in this area (mainly in Europe and in North America), and developing countries, such as in Latin America. At that time, these later countries were facing greater difficulties in reaching the transformation potential of truly interactive museum websites, according to Piacente’s classical typology.

Thus, the aim of the present work was to investigate, exactly a decade later, how and in what degree interactive science centers and science museums in Latin American countries have been able to incorporate the promises opened up by the Web 2.0, including integration with on-line social media, curatorship of content creation, and developing and sharing open resources. By means of an heuristic analysis, based on the identification of functionalities and tools available in websites of Brazilian, Argentinian, Colombian and other countries’  science museums, we aimed to evaluate how the digital versions of these institutions have evolved from an “electronic brochure” model,  as a mere transmitter of institutional information in hypertext format, to a more dialogical and participatory model, thus substituting a traditional one, characterized by museum authority and its role as privileged guardian of knowledge.

As a justification, we believe that the free and participatory virtual museum’s features can contribute to digital inclusion and local development processes, specifically within the scope of public communication of science and technology (PCST). In this manner, the common scenario of Latin America countries, with its general absence of a widespread scientific culture, a high educational deficit and high levels of social inequality, poses great challenges to the sustainable development of their economies and is of great importance for the success of virtual museums. A hidden, but fundamental factor is the need of first closing their digital divides, which should go beyond the basic abilities to access information and communication technologies, i.e., by being enabled also to use of IT and Internet to learn more and to complement formal education by means of visits to museum websites and social network presence.

Closely related to these aspects, there is a clearly identified need to expose the general public, especially the most vulnerable strata of their societies, to the debate and controversies surrounding science and technology related subjects, in the framework of emporwement and respect to the traditional culture of local communities.

The authors propose that this  “social” interactive and participatory approach to the creation of a new generation of virtual museums, characterized by adequate levels of appropriation of technological, informational and communicational by visitors, is the one which is going to make science museums succeed (or not) in promoting a critical conscience about scientific and technological progress and its impacts on daily life. Fundamental to this approach is addressing the transformation of the audience into active agents and builders of itheir own knowledge, and providing a “voice” to traditionally excluded individuals and groups. Social change through education, awareness and knowledge might have, in this way, a greater chance to occur.