Meteorite Close-Up: An electron microprobe excites the atoms on the surfaces of meteorite samples revealing their mineral composition. © AMNH\\D. Ebel

To the public, museums are mysterious, magical places. Science, history, and context are carefully preserved and displayed—though the guy-wires are carefully hidden so as to not disturb the experience of the visitor. The work that goes into constructing the fancy dioramas and exhibits, the science that helps construct the scenes that we view as visitors has been kept behind closed doors. Techniques and researchers have traditionally been relegated to placards, which has the predictable effect of separating science from the experience of the visitor.

Recently, the American Museum of Natural History in New York City began hosting “Tweetups” that function as a vehicle to change this experience. The events are advertised via social media channels, and the participants, selected from a pool of registrants, are invited to experience the museum after-hours and to go behind closed doors and see the inner workings of the public experience. Participants get a chance to see how exhibits are constructed as in the case of the Dinosaur Tweetup, talk to scientists, and get a sense for how the museum is involved in doing science. For while it is true that the museum is business—an entertainer—it is also a place of serious study.

Picturing Science: Museum Scientists and Imaging Technologies, a recent exhibit that was the subject of AMNH’s last Tweetup, presents assorted objects of study through the literal lens of the technologies used to study them. The result is an intimate look at science as it unfolds—visitors are invited to participate in the construction of the final display by viewing the details that scientists use to construct public presentations.

X-rays can help researchers understand the condition of artifacts, including Tibetan deity figures, to determine their condition and how they were constructed. © AMNH\\J. Levinson and K. Knauer

Consider, for example, the typical visitor’s experience with a Tibetan figure. The statue would likely sit behind a glass enclosure, spectacularly displayed—something to be admired. It might inspire an imaginative guess as to use and meaning. If the visitor elected to read the accompanying notation, which might be nothing more than the name of the item, the construction material, and approximate age, she would have the information selected for her consumption.

But how was this information selected? If a use is ascribed, how was that determined? In Picturing Science, visitors get a chance to see how scientists reach these types of conclusions. Our Tibetan figure may have been x-rayed, which tells researchers how the item was made and what state its currently in—information that is vital for the continued viewing pleasure of the public. In the case of the bronze figure shown on the right, scientists were able to learn that the hollow body is composed of sheet metal and the hands and feet are solid cast. It’s a bit like peeking behind the curtain.

Picturing Science adds a degree of transparency to the scientific process that can increase the perception of science as accessible. The series of photographs selected by curator Mark Siddall captures the passion and enthusiasm scientists have for their subjects and strikes a very personal chord with visitors who can certainly appreciate the degrees of detail that are revealed to them—even without Denton Ebel, associate curator in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, standing by to invite them to hold a piece of the solar system and explain the means by which we’re learning about our solar system.

As discussions about science communication unfold online, events like these remind us that science—and art and history—have the potential to offer a real experience. As science writers consider how to share science and shape the experience of the reader, museums can play an important role by inviting visitors to participate in the dialogues that surrounding public information.

Picturing Science: Museum Scientists and Imaging Technologies will be on view through June 24, 2012.

To view photos of the Tweetup, visit the AiP Facebook page.