Museum Tour

Museum Tour

Some of the coolest virtual museums on the Internet

Visitors at the Science History Institute in Philadelphia. Credit: J. Fusco for Visit Philadelphia

Well, it’s 2022 and we’re still in a pandemic. Yikes!

Although many new virtual experiences have become popular as a result of the pandemic, virtual exhibits are not a new concept, and indeed, the Center for History of Physics here at the American Institute of Physics (AIP) has hosted the History of Science Web Exhibits since the 1990s. We were thrilled to hear that one of our AIP member societies, the American Association of Physicists in Medicine (AAPM), opened a virtual museum on the history of medical physics last year. 

This inspired me to dive deeper into our own offerings, AAPM’s new exhibits, and find more virtual exhibits at other sciencey cultural history institutions. Virtual exhibits often utilize digital collection items in a library or archive in coordination with a researched narrative to inform, entertain, and delight audiences on a specified topic.

Please let me be your tour guide on this trip of my own 10101010 explorations. Some of these came from recommendations from colleagues, some are from institutions AIP has a relationship with, and some of them were found through Internet rabbit holes. You’ll see that the formats vary widely; some are very sleek and modern-looking while others are more modest in form, but all of them have fascinating content. Most, but not all, are about history of science topics. Did I miss any of your favorites? Let us know in the comments below or tag us in a Tweet!

The Breast Challenge: American Association of Physicists in Medicine

Landing page: 

Featured exhibit: Mammography: Physics, Technology, and Clinical

The American Association of Physicists in Medicine’s new virtual museum is a fascinating collection of galleries (or exhibits) on the history of medical physics and on the history of AAPM as a society. At the time of writing, there are eleven galleries, though there are plans for more. The galleries are numbered and can be enjoyed in successive order, starting with 01: Roentgen: Discovery and Research, in which you can learn all about Wilhelm Roentgen’s initial discovery of x-rays. However, my favorite exhibit is 06: Mammography, which is all about how physicists grappled with the particular demands of x-raying breast tissue in the second half of the 20th century. On page four of the gallery:

“Following Roentgen’s discovery and research, radiography became a valuable and major method for examining and making medical diagnosis in most of the human body and organ system. However, two anatomical regions presented a challenge, the brain and the breast.”

No Breast Compression

Page 10 of the gallery. Caption reads: No compression was used. The relatively wide film latitude provided visualization throughout the breast. Credit: Perry Sprawls

Ship Ahoy! Center for History of Physics at the American Institute for Physics

Landing page: 

Featured exhibit: Voyages of the R/V Vema 

AIP’s Center for History of Physics currently hosts web 14 exhibits on a wide variety of history of physics-related topics. My top pick from our offerings is the newest: the Voyages of the R/V Vema exhibit, which integrates oral history interviews (transcript and audio), geographical mapping, images, videos, and historical and scientific data to highlight some of the most memorable events and discoveries that occurred aboard the Vema. Click on the maps’ pins to read oral history snippets that correlate to that place! 

Runners up for favorite exhibit: Sakharov: Soviet Physics, Nuclear Weapons & Human Rights

and Bright Idea: The First Lasers

A History of Magic: National Library of Medicine

Landing page: 

Favorite exhibit: Renaissance Science, Magic, and Medicine in Harry Potter’s World 

Female mandrake root drawing

Female mandrake root from Hortus Sanitatis (Garden of Health), published by Jakob Meydenbach. 1491.

Since I had the pleasure of visiting the incunabula room at the National Library of Medicine (NLM) in 2019 as part of a history of the book class with Professor and rare book specialist Stephen Greenburg, the National Library of Medicine will always have a special place in my library heart. During a class, he mentioned a physical exhibit that he was involved with at NLM detailing the connections between the concepts in Harry Potter books and the real-life Renaissance science inspiration behind them, and I was so happy to find that it is also a web exhibit! Renaissance Science, Magic, and Medicine in Harry Potter’s World is only one of NLM’s dozens of online exhibits, which include topics such as the history of lead poisoning in America, the yellow fever epidemic in 1793 in Philadelphia, African American surgeons, and the history of women physicians.

Runner up favorite exhibit: AIDS, Posters, and Stories of Public Health

Bird’s the Word: Linda Hall Library

The Nidologist

The Nidologist. Published by Henry Reed Taylor in Alameda, California. February 1897.

Landing page: 

Favorite exhibit: Drawn from Nature: Art, Science, and the Study of Birds 

Our friends at Linda Hall Library in Kansas City, Missouri have web exhibits covering a wide variety of history of science topics, including some history of physics and physics-adjacent exhibits. However, as an animal-lover, I was drawn to the one about birds. Drawn from Nature: Art, Science, and the Study of Birdsexplores the roles that artists, scientists, and amateur bird watchers have played in identifying, cataloging, and popularizing the study of North American birds from the 18th century to today.” Do you know the difference between an oölogist and a nidologist? Find out on the third page of the exhibit! There is also some interesting book-history-nerd-type information about field guides. 

I appreciated the beautiful digital scans of items from Linda Hall’s collections within the exhibit.



Explore Sound: Acoustical Society of America

Landing page: 

Favorite exhibit: Weddell seal

Although this is not marketed as an exhibit, I couldn’t resist including the Acoustical Society of America’s (ASA) Explore Sound page. What does ice breaking sound like? Mosquito wings? The spotted sea trout? A rocket launch? Each sound is accompanied by a narrative description, blog post, or scientific paper with deeper information about the sound. There are also Mystery Sounds that you can guess and then read about, which are quite fun. My favorite sound is the underwater call of a Weddell seal, which frankly sounds extraterrestrial. 

Explore Sound page screenshot

A screenshot of the Explore Sound page. Sounds can be heard here.

How Strong is Your Hoisery? With Science History Institute

Landing page: 

Favorite exhibit: Nylon: From Labs to Legs

The Science History Institute in Philadelphia has a fabulous offering of virtual exhibits featuring items from their digital collections. From the exhibits website: “Encounter the science of synthetic stretch textiles and the hidden histories behind decay. Meet the mechanochemists who pioneered the ‘science of crush,’ play around with midcentury chemistry sets, or get to know ‘real’ alchemists and learn the truth behind the myths.”

Being a bit of a fashionista, my favorite exhibit had to be Nylon: From Labs to Legs, and I especially enjoyed this very 1950s video of a stockings strength test.

The American Eugenics Movement: Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory

Landing page: 

Featured exhibit: Social Origins of Eugenics 

Cold Spring Harbor was the home of the Eugenics Record Office, and thus the center of American eugenics research from 1910-1940. Funded by a grant from the National Institute of Health, Cold Spring Harbor now hosts an eye-opening image archive and associated virtual exhibits all about the American eugenics movement. The archive primarily uses materials from the Eugenics Record Office, as well as contributions from other archives across the U.S. The exhibits do not necessarily need to be enjoyed in order, but I would recommend doing so. From the landing page, the first box on the left brings the viewer to the image archive. The virtual exhibits start underneath with Social Origins. From the first page of Social Origins: “When many people first learn about eugenics, they wonder how intelligent people, including highly educated scientists, could have believed so many seemingly bizarre ideas.”

American Eugenics Movement

Screenshot of the Image Archive on the American Eugenics Movement landing page.

What Was Home Economics? With Cornell University Library

Landing page: 

Featured exhibit: What Was Home Economics? 

Margaret McClanahan

“The career path of Margaret McClanahan, a 1916 graduate, reflects the varied and diverse career paths of many home economics graduates.” From the Types of Careers page of the exhibit.

Cornell University Library maintains over 50 virtual exhibits on a variety of humanities topics ranging from electronic music to surrealism and magic. My colleague, Dr. Joanna Behrman, tipped me off about the What Was Home Economics? exhibit, and its uniqueness as one of the very few organized histories on the topic of home economics. I would particularly point out the “Practice Apartments” part of the exhibit.

From the introduction to the exhibit:

“So often home economics has been cast as a ‘conspiracy to keep women in the kitchen,’ an interpretation that has overlooked its impressive and diverse contributions. New scholarship in American women's history suggests that home economics was a progressive field that brought science to the farm home and women into higher education and leadership positions in public education, academia, government and industry.”

Hope you have enjoyed your museum tour! If you want a guide to even more virtual exhibits, here is Oregon State University’s wonderful History of Science LibGuide.

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