The building, as old as it is, is actually new construction, having itself been built on the site of an earlier 4th century walled area and church. Its interior courtyards are crossed by historic foundations (which also can’t be disturbed).
The museum was started in 1953 to foster democratic knowledge and to circulate scientific and technological culture. Visitors are greeted at the entrance to the exhibit area, for example, by this 184-kW steam-powered generator that powered 1,800 looms in a silk factory from 1895 to 1954. This is a huge, impressive machine, with a 5-m-diameter flywheel. But it is literally stuffed into the space it occupies, and visitors must view it in sections through openings in the walls on 3 sides.
The museum is undergoing a gradual transformation to bring its science and technology collections into closer connection with the interests of its visitors. In contrast with Technorama (previous blog entry), which changed its name and simply removed its historical, non-interactive collections, this museum plans to keep its collections and use them for accomplishing its dual goals of: 1) connecting its visitors with their scientific and technological heritage while 2) inspiring them for the future.
To help accomplish this second task, the museum has set up 16 interactive laboratories (i.Labs), each with its own space, where school groups or visitors can sign up for hour-long programs. I sat in on a robotics lab, where 4 boys (ages 8-10) and parents sat with an explainer, learning the basics of robotics through a pre-built Lego Mindstorm unit. The explainer was captivating and held the boys’ attention for a full 30 minutes of discussion before starting to add sensors and program the device on his laptop based on the requests of the particpants.
i.Lab topics include energy, ceramics, copperworking, genetics, and many others. These hands-on experiences give visitors the opportunity to taste many different subjects. What is particularly interesting is that the explainers who teach these sessions use an inquiry approach, often starting by asking visitors what questions they have about the topic and then building a custom program around those questions. This means that explainers must be well-trained because they must respond to a wide variety of questions to avoid delivering a scripted demonstration or activity.
These i.Lab sessions are sprinkled periodically throughout the day, and all are not offered each day. Each i.Lab has its own space, however, so that materials and equipment can be left available for next time.
The museum has also mounted an exhibition of many varied items from its collections with the stories of how they were used by people. This photo shows a plow, and other objects range from an early sewing machine to an early car to a beautifully tooled cash register made by National Cash Register.
There are other wonderful stories that this museum can tell about its collections and some are being told. For example, in one basement room, a nail-making machine here has a label that tells about how a beginning blacksmith would take 2 minutes to make a nail, while a highly experienced blacksmith could make 2-3 in the same amount of time. The machine here changed the face of both blacksmithing and construction forever, however, by making uniform nails at a rate of 250 per minute. Unfortunately, these types of stories are relatively rare, and many of the objects have no labels. In a number of other cases, the low or glaring lighting makes it difficult to read labels that are present. There is a huge potential to bring some amazing objects to life for visitors.
The museum places considerable emphasis on Leonardo da Vinci, who is officially part of the museum’s name. One long exhibition space has many models of Leonardo’s machines, ranging from a pile driver to a helicopter to a printing press to various war machines. I particularly liked the model of a double catapult (see photo) which, according to Leonardo’s plan, was to have been built with bows measuring 50 meters in length (!) and would be capable of hurling 20 kg stones great distances. There is an i.Lab for visitors to experiment with copies of several da Vinci machines, as well.
In addition to the main building, there are three additional exhibition venues.
1) a building devoted to rail transport, with a number of locomotives on display;
2) a building with maritime and air transport exhibits, including a full-sized square-rigged ship and an Italian 2-man torpedo (see photo for a look at this ride-‘em-cowboy device)…
3) #506 – a post-WW-II submarine that was decommission- ed in 2000 and brought to the museum with great community interest in August 2005. Curiously, it was dedicated at the museum on December 7th of that year, the anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Unfortunately, the sub also doubles as a full-size exhibit on albedo. Because it sits outside and is black, the sub gets too hot on sunny days for visitors to go inside.
From an educational standpoint, the education staff is working hard to make the collections more intellectually relevant and accessible. In particular, the staff has been at the forefront of transnational collaborations to improve the educational impact of school visits to museums. A major European Union research project, known as SMEC, has produced valuable publications, exemplars of museum programs for visiting school groups, and general experiences that all museums can gain from.
The staff runs literally into a wall at every turn, because of the challenging long and narrow spaces that this masonry monastery building provides. and there are still many holdover objects, such as many religious frescoes that have been removed from their original location, preserved, and displayed in the museum. From the standpoint of curb-appeal, the entrance to the museum is almost invisible because it is small and set back in a side wall of a broad courtyard off a side street. Visitors have virtually no convenient parking These characteristics probably contribute to the annual visitation rate per square meter of exhibit space that is about 20% that of many interactive science centers. However, recent changes have significantly increased attendance in recent years, and the success of the i.Lab program is certainly worth watching as a model for deeper engagement of youth at museums in general.