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History of the Museum of Science

(Left to right) Brad Washburn, Mrs. Harold Hodgkinson, Carlton Fuller, and Frederick Lovejoy with a model of Science Park, completed in 1951.

In 1830, six men interested in natural history established the Boston Society of Natural History, an organization through which they could pursue their common scientific interests. Devoted to collecting and studying natural history specimens, the society displayed its collections in numerous temporary facilities until 1864, when it opened the New England Museum of Natural History at the corner of Berkeley and Boylston Streets in Boston's Back Bay. That museum is now known worldwide as the Museum of Science.

After World War II, under the leadership of Bradford Washburn, the society sold the Berkeley Street building, changed its name to the Boston Museum of Science (later, dropping Boston from the name) and negotiated for a 99-year lease with the Metropolitan District Commission for land spanning the Charles River Basin, now known as Science Park. In 1948, the Museum designed and built the first traveling planetarium in New England to promote the development of a new Museum building. The cornerstone for the new Museum was laid at Science Park a year later, and a temporary building was erected to house the Museum's collections and staff.

Birthday party with Spooky the owl, 1961.

In 1951, the first wing of the new Museum officially opened, making the Museum the first to embrace all the sciences under one roof. Comprising 14,000 square feet of exhibit space, the new Museum's first wing was already much larger than the entire exhibits area of the old Berkeley building. That same year, one of the most endearing and memorable symbols of the Museum, "Spooky," the great horned owl, was given to the Museum as an owlet. Spooky lived to age 38, becoming the oldest known living member of his species.

During the next two decades, the Museum greatly expanded its exhibits and facilities. In 1956, the Museum was successful in campaigning for a Science Park MBTA station that now brings visitors to within 200 yards of the Museum. The Charles Hayden Planetarium, funded by major gifts from the Charles Hayden Foundation, opened in 1958.

Theater of Electricity, 1962.

By 1968, further building expansion was underway as ground was broken for the Museum's West Wing, which was completed in the early 1970s. The Elihu Thomson Theater of Electricity, which houses the 2 1/2 million volt Van de Graaff generator — the two-story tall high voltage electricity generator given to the Museum by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1956 — opened in 1980.

The Museum has remained on the cutting edge of science education by developing innovative and interactive exhibits and programs that both entertain and educate. The Mugar Omni Theater, opened in 1987, uses state-of-the-art film technology to project larger-than-life images onto a five-story high domed screen, creating a "you are there" experience for viewers. In 1988, the Museum added the Roger L. Nichols Gallery to house temporary and traveling exhibits.

The Museum's mission supports programs to attract the widest possible audience. Since 1993, accessibility for people with disabilities has dramatically improved in the Museum. All permanent additions to the Museum are pre-examined against accessibility criteria. American Sign Language interpreted programs are offered to all visitors on the second Saturday of every month, and in June 1996, the Planetarium added closed-captioning stations for visitors that are hearing-impaired.

Placing the T-rex head on display

In 1999, the Museum incorporated The Computer Museum, bringing its interactive exhibits to the Museum of Science and moving computing technology to the center of its own exhibits, programs and operations. In 2001, the Museum opened its Gordon Current Science & Technology Center, which offers breaking news stories to the public with interpretation by Museum staff and frequent presentations by the scientists and inventors involved.

In 2004, the Museum launched the National Center for Technological Literacy® (NCTL®). Its mission is to integrate engineering as a new discipline in schools nationwide and to inspire the next generation of engineers and innovators. NCTL offers educational products and programs for pre-K - 12 students and teachers, creates curricula, supports an online resource center, and engages in partnership and outreach with other institutions. Through the NCTL, the Museum supports national curricular reform and teacher development with the state-of-the-art Educator Resource Center in the Lyman Library, renovated in 2008.

Top image: Construction of the Charles Hayden Planetarium, 1952.

It's fun to find out

Those who watched Boston-area television throughout the 1980s might remember this commercial, created in 1977.

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The Museum campus is now entirely smoke free.

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The Museum of Science, Boston

  1 Science Park, Boston, MA 02114  phone: 617-723-2500   email: