Science Museum Takes Brains-On Approach

By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 18, 2003; Page C01

The National Academy of Sciences plans to open a science museum in Washington next spring that will showcase research sponsored by the academy and dissect important policy and ethical questions facing scientists, it announced yesterday.

The 6,000-square-foot facility -- small compared with Washington's other museums -- will be at Sixth and E streets NW, a block from the National Building Museum.

Daniel E. Koshland Jr., a biochemist, veteran of the Manhattan Project and former editor in chief of Science magazine, gave the academy $25 million in memory of his wife. Marian Koshland, a noted immunologist who did groundbreaking work on a cholera vaccine and the behavior of antibodies, died in 1997.

"We wanted to explain science a little more. We wanted to show how science works, the science behind the headlines," said Koshland, 83, a professor at University of California, Berkeley, and an heir to the Levi Strauss fortune. During World War II, Koshland worked at the University of Chicago and the laboratories at Oak Ridge, Tenn., as a chemist trying to purify plutonium. The work of Koshland and others led to the development of three nuclear bombs, including the ones dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

In the last decade science museums have become enormous draws around the country. Most of them are packed with bells and whistles, as well as computer-generated interactive exhibits, to appeal to the school-age visitor. "Museums are very tangible. They provide a place for people to enter and experience," said Patrice Legro, director of the new museum.

The Marian Koshland Science Museum is deliberately trying a different formula.

The museum will be organized around a series of oversize panels and interactive displays. The material will be based on reports of the scientists, engineers and health professionals who work for private research groups under the National Academy. The academy gets about 80 percent of its funds from the federal government; each year groups associated with it publish more than 200 studies on topics such as nutritional guidelines, the Human Genome Project, nuclear waste, medical errors and science, and health and education issues.

The topics, the planners hope, will be timely. "The currency of what we are trying to show is the hook," Legro said.

The organizers have planned a permanent exhibition on general science and two changing displays. The latter will focus on climate change, specifically the global warming phenomenon, and on DNA sequencing, examining the SARS outbreak, crop improvement and criminal forensics.

"We are aiming our content at the non-scientist adult. We recognize our content is complex," Legro said.

The museum is being planned by the Bowman Design Group, a firm based in Signal Hill, Calif. It created the Museum of Flying in Santa Monica and the Children's Museum of Tampa. It also ran events for the National Football League and soccer's World Cup.

Koshland thinks a boutique museum for science will attract those who want more answers. "We are looking at what is the basic science you need to understand, and then you read the newspaper and decide your position," he said.