This is an extended version of an article that appeared in the January/February 2012 issue of Dimensions magazine.
We map our audience’s attitudes, knowledge base, and expectations—not in order to meet those expectations, but rather to overcome them, to surprise our visitors, and to create the aha! of the Heureka experience. More than designing objects, we design the actions and interactions of the audience. This is closer to dramaturgy than playwriting. As on a stage, we direct the spotlights to bring up details that will illuminate parts of the whole and wake up the curiosity of the visitor. The visitors will always have the leading roles in this play; leaving their personal trace in the exhibition will make it their story.
Mikko Myllykoski, experience director, Heureka, the Finnish Science Centre, Vantaa
At the heart of our exhibits are stories that connect visitors to nature in personally meaningful ways. We are place based, meaning all stories begin and end in the Adirondack region. Within this larger story, we search for surprising solutions that whisper to visitors, “Come here—let me show you something cool,” then move them to explore, and leave them ready to be amazed by the wild places right outside our doors. To achieve this, we create multiple levels of entry and connection for visitors by weaving stories, poetry, meanings, and ideas into vibrant sensory experiences designed in an original voice that feels different every time visitors encounter it.
Stephanie Ratcliffe, executive director, The Wild Center, Tupper Lake, New York
Our educational goal is to create curious, confident, and collaborative learners who are empowered to use science in shaping a better future. We strive to attain this goal through both our onsite and traveling exhibitions, by designing and constructing exhibits that are: (1) inviting and fun—to invoke curiosity, (2) fully interactive and open-ended—to inspire confidence, (3) engaging for multiple individuals—to promote collaboration, and (4) scientifically accurate and relevant—to empower individuals to value and apply science to improve environmental, societal, and economic sustainability.
Tim Scott, director of exhibits, Sciencenter, Ithaca, New York
We are using RFID identification and server technology to:
• Enhance the experience: Visitors feel, “I am a part of this experience and I can add my opinions to it.”
• Extend the experience: Visitors continue the learning process at home or in school.
• Share the experience: Visitors have the opportunity to express themselves and be heard in the science center and outside on social media.
Bjørn Winther Johansen, CEO, INSPIRIA Science Center, Grålum, Norway
Our exhibits are generally small-scale with transactive qualities, enabling both the exhibits and their users to change in unexpected ways. We try to make exhibits accessible to everyone regardless of their economic status, schooling, ethnicity, age, physiology, home language, or personal history. For that reason, we base our exhibits on fundamental human experiences, such as moving air or gravity. We put people’s learning in their own hands. Exhibits are materials-rich, and offer multiple outcomes depending on a visitor’s chosen investigation. Exhibit activities reside in comfortable, semi-private spaces that encourage focus and conversation. Materials, staff, and exhibit environment all work together to support visitor learning.
Betsy Adamson, exhibits and operations director, Explora, Albuquerque, New Mexico
We encourage an interest in and curiosity about the physical and natural worlds by giving visitors the opportunity to become engaged with real objects and real phenomena. We value direct experiences, particularly those involving a kinesthetic connection to a phenomenon, the ability to observe a live creature, or an experience that allows a visitor to make a connection to the world outside. Our most successful exhibits are less about imparting information and more about creating opportunities for rich and memorable interactions and conversations.
Bob Raiselis, exhibits director, Montshire Museum of Science, Norwich, Vermont
Our vision for our exhibitions centers not on the exhibits, but rather on those who use them. We provide experiences that encourage visitors to freely frame their own questions and to organize the exhibitions in their own ways. The act of organizing sometimes prompts a personalized understanding and encourages further inquiry. Our exhibitions succeed when they help our visitors understand their world better, or even when visitors simply have fun in a place filled with scripted bits of scientific wonder. And what of the phenomena themselves? Most must be seen, touched, heard, or even smelled to be understood. Otherwise, why would we need exhibits at all?
Wolfgang Guthardt, director, Phaeno, Wolfsburg, Germany
When we design an exhibition, we ask ourselves: Is each exhibit authentic? Interactive? Explorative? Transparent? Can a variety of visitors access the content in different ways over multiple experiences? We value creativity and authenticity. We develop our exhibitions in-house because this creative collaboration inspires our staff, volunteers, and board, and infuses our entire organization with ingenuity. Our exhibitions engage visitors with natural phenomena, making science more perceptible and intriguing. To facilitate accurate observations of those phenomena by visitors, we provide genuine materials rather than models and we make evident the inner workings of all of our exhibits.
Karen Miel, director of research and innovation, CuriOdyssey, San Mateo, California
Our exhibitions have their starting point in the technology and design of the real world and include industrial machinery both in full and model scale. The approach in the exhibitions is holistic, creating wholeness and context and engaging all the senses. This concerns the exhibits themselves, the setting, the stage design, and the “spaces in between.” The reality-based concept of our exhibitions creates an inspirational learning environment that helps children and adults to put pieces of complicated processes together and explore the technology and science behind them.
Olle Nordberg, director, Teknikens Hus, Luleå, Sweden
When developing new exhibitions, we always take the following principles into account:
• The content should be about science and technology in the broad sense.
• The main goal is education, but we also want visitors to have fun.
• Interactivity is important. We aim for a mix of different types of interactivity (from bodies-on to brains-on) and the use of different senses.
• We offer the visitor a unique experience, but with links to daily life.
• Visitors should be challenged, but should always leave with a positive feeling about themselves.
Patricia Verheyden, experience director, Technopolis, the Flemish Science Centre, Mechelen, Belgium
Three core beliefs guide our exhibitions. First, the visitor perspective informs all phases of our projects. In addition to front end, remedial, and summative evaluation, our extensive prototyping process allows us to mock up, evaluate, and revise all of our interactive ideas through an iterative process. Second, design truly matters. We believe an exhibition is more than a set of interactives. Our approach integrates individual exhibit components into a larger, designed, immersive experience. Finally, we question, change, or abandon ideas throughout the entire process to ensure that the final exhibition successfully meets our goals.
Rita Mukherjee Hoffstadt, assistant director of traveling exhibits and special projects, the Franklin Institute, Philadelphia
Two central themes provide the foundation for our exhibition philosophy: (1) Exhibits are most effective when they present science in a multidisciplinary context of everyday human experience, and (2) Visitors learn about science by doing science. We believe that exhibits should:
• Inspire visitors’ curiosity, encourage their sense of play, and reward their participation with understanding.
• Make objects “come alive” and help visitors build connections between those objects and associated ideas, issues, and phenomena.
• Allow for modification to accommodate new discoveries and perspectives.
• Involve visitors informally but directly in the experimental process of science.
• Engage visitors in considering relevant issues and ethical questions related to science.
Joe Imholte, program director, special exhibits & exhibit services, Science Museum of Minnesota, St. Paul
Image courtesy Heureka