The digital publication of the Association of Science and Technology Centers (ASTC)

Dwell on This

By Anthony (Bud) Rock

A collective mass of youthful exuberance pulses through our science centers and museums on any given day. As I visit our ASTC-member institutions around the world, I find it extremely rewarding to watch all that energy being transformed into focused, intense contemplation of specific topics or experiences.

I have always been fascinated by the concept of “dwell time” in our science centers and museums. Dwell time usually refers simply to the period of time visitors spend in an exhibition or at a specific exhibit or activity. This time period can be extended in ways that are not entirely productive, of course. Activities may be difficult to execute, exhibits challenging to understand. But our experience tells us that these conditions are just as likely to reduce dwell time because they do not successfully engage inquisitive minds. So I like to think of the concept of dwell time a bit more broadly, as something I might call “cognitive dwell time”: the period of time that a visitor remains truly mentally engaged with an experience.

I thought about this cognitive dimension to dwell time during a recent visit to Very Eric Carle:
A Very Hungry, Quiet, Lonely, Clumsy, Busy Exhibit
at the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh. This exhibition brings to life several well-known children’s books, including The Very Hungry Caterpillar, with various stimulating learning activities. But I was taken by a very basic aspect of the exhibition designed to encourage parents and children to revisit the books, beautifully blending the contemplative experience of reading with all the other high-energy activities. In this case, the “dwell time” could be defined as the period of time that the young visitor remains “captured” by the excitement and the mental imagery evoked—and retained—in reading, discussing, and reliving the story through the extended exhibition experiences.

How do we determine how long young minds dwell productively on our museum experiences? More and more, we invite our visitors to continue their experiences on our webpages, through our digital media offerings, and in after-hours activities, further fueling interests that may have been ignited by a museum visit. When a visitor works through an activity or views an artifact just long enough to generate a unique sensation or create a vivid mental image, the timer begins on “cognitive dwell time” and can continue well after attention has turned to other experiences. That’s the real measure. Think about it for a moment . . .

Anthony (Bud) Rock is ASTC’s president and CEO.

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