Many early museums of science, e.g., the Ashmolean Museum (1683) at Oxford, the first public museum in the Western world, originated from gifts of private collections. At first most exhibits consisted of classified and labeled geological or biological specimens. Later exhibition techniques have emphasized the grouping of specimens to illustrate origins, associations, and interrelationships. Exhibition devices include habitat groups, restorations, murals, dioramas, models, and key installations in feature exhibits. The illustration of abstract ideas in biology, e.g., evolution and heredity, was extended to physics and chemistry, long neglected in science museums. A pioneer in showing the principles of mechanics, light, heat, and sound was the Buffalo Museum of Natural Science.
The modern science museum has a threefold function—exhibition of collections, sponsoring of research, and education. Many museums provide cataloged reserve collections for students and undertake research and the publication of results; some participate in expeditions for research or for enlarging collections. Provisions for adult education include guided tours, lectures, and classes; museums cooperate with schools by providing loan exhibitions, special exhibits and tours for children, and story hours. A growing trend has been the use of computer terminals and "hands-on" models to enhance the learning experience. Many museums now also attempt to educate the public in the principles of ecology and wildlife and resource conservation.