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

Exhibit Case Studies

These case studies complement the article Inside the Process: Three Exhibit Development Case Studies, which appeared in the January/February 2014 issue of Dimensions magazine.

Innovation Labs in Indian Science Centers

To promote national competitiveness in the 21st century, the president of India declared the present decade (2010–20) as the “decade of innovation.” Taking the agenda forward, Indian science centers under the National Council of Science Museums (NCSM) have joined with the National Innovation Council in spearheading India’s innovation initiatives. NCSM science centers are now setting up Innovation Labs as essential components of their facilities to provide a platform for youth to engage in innovative and creative activities.

The first of such Innovation Labs was inaugurated in August 2013 at the Birla Industrial & Technological Museum in Kolkata by Sam Pitroda, advisor to the prime minister of India and chairman of the National Innovation Council.

Spread over a 2,500-square-foot (232-square-meter) area, the Innovation Lab has the following components: Hall of Fame (multimedia kiosks telling the stories of major inventors and their inventions in various fields); Innovation Resource Centre (providing online access to innovation-centric resources including grass-roots innovation databases); Activity Laboratory (providing facilities for carrying out innovative activities, experiments, and projects in a multidisciplinary set-up); Tech Lab (facilitating creative and innovative works in robotics and automation).

The lab is currently being used during weekends by its registered members from schools and undergraduate colleges. They either work on their own ideas or choose one from the idea bank created collaboratively by the members. Most projects in the lab relate to real life problems identified by the students themselves.

E. Islam, director, Birla Industrial & Technological Museum, Kolkata, India

Gently Enclosing an Exhibit Space with Low Walls

Montshire Museum of Science is a small science center in Norwich, Vermont. Our visitors enjoy the intimacy of our space—a warm environment that feels safe and welcoming. Our exhibits are arranged in an open floor plan, allowing visitors to glance across the exhibit hall to keep tabs on friends and family members who may be at other exhibits. Although such a layout allows visitors to see much of the exhibit hall in one glance, it can lead them to move quickly through exhibit clusters, without contemplating how different exhibit pieces within a cluster or exhibition relate to one another.

As part of our Dynamic Earth project, funded through NASA’s Competitive Program for Science Museums and Planetariums (CP4SMP+), we experimented with enclosing a small exhibit cluster about earth processes within a series of 48-inch (122-cm) walls. This configuration maintains the open view of our first floor exhibit hall but encourages visitors to move from one exhibit in the Dynamic Earth cluster to another, before leaving for a different exhibition or cluster. The arrangement has two entrances with visitors actively choosing to visit this exhibit area. The low walls allow visitors to visually peruse the exhibits in the cluster before entering.

Visitor evaluation data showed that the use of low exhibit walls was effective in encouraging prolonged engagement in the exhibit cluster. Prior to the use of such walls, visitors generally stopped at only two or three of the eight exhibits that make up this cluster. With the wall installation, the average visitor now uses five or more exhibits in the cluster.

We are pleasantly surprised at how well these low walls work. They gently enclose an exhibit space, encouraging prolonged engagement with the exhibits in that space, while maintaining the sense of an open floor plan that our visitors appreciate.

Greg DeFrancis, director of education, and Sherlock Terry, exhibits assistant, Montshire Museum of Science, Norwich, Vermont

Presenting Current Research in the Studio

At Pacific Science Center in Seattle, we have created a rapid-change, configurable space that features current health science research from the Pacific Northwest, one of the world’s top areas for biomedical research. Launched in 2012, the Studio was conceived as a way to integrate current science into a larger permanent installation, Professor Wellbody’s Academy of Health & Wellness. Each Studio exhibit is on display for six months and utilizes research artifacts, multimedia displays, and hands-on interactives while serving as a venue where local researchers can communicate their work directly to visitors.

Gyroscope, Inc., designed the reconfigurable space, and Group Delphi fabricated the exhibit. Metal pegs lock into cleats on the back of graphic mounts, artifact cases, and multimedia kiosks. The free-floating cases are also completely reconfigurable—they can hold graphics, touchscreens, or artifacts. The design is clean and flows into the larger exhibition. Because the Studio is highly mutable, exhibit turnover is only one week, with quick and easy installs and deinstalls reducing staff time. During the six-month display of the exhibit, research, development, and fabrication of the next exhibit takes place. The modular nature allows us to develop exhibits for a very attractive price point to new funding opportunities.

One of the challenges of creating exhibits on such a tight timeline is producing extensive hands-on interactives that are on par with the interactives in the immediate surrounding area. To compensate, the exhibit integrates regular, facilitated, face-to-face events through the Portal to the Public and staff-led programs. Portal to the Public trains scientists to communicate their scientific research in a museum setting. Following training, the scientists commit to participating in monthly events in the exhibit space, where they present their work in an accessible and engaging manner through a hands-on activity related to their research and linked to the exhibit content. Science center staff members facilitate hands-on learning activities in the Studio space daily through content-linked cart activities. The ease with which exhibits and programs can be integrated and changed out frequently allows Pacific Science Center to bring cutting-edge research to our visitors on a regular basis.

The development of the Studio has been funded by grants from the Institute of Museum and Library Services and the Science Education Partnership Award (SEPA) Program, sponsored by the (U.S.) National Institutes of Health.

Mary Olson, current science project manager, Pacific Science Center, Seattle

Engineering a Valuable Exhibit Design Partnership

Set in State College, a rural town with a large university, Discovery Space of Central Pennsylvania learned early on the power of engaging undergraduate students in mutually beneficial ways. We opened in 2011 with a handful of part-time staff that did not include an exhibit designer. With an exhibit gallery of only 2,500 square feet (232 square meters), it quickly became apparent that it was important to make regular changes to keep a fresh feeling in the small space. Doing this with limited staff and budget is an enormous challenge.

The future was unclear until a professor of mechanical engineering from Pennsylvania State University stopped by with a bright idea: Allow one section of his class to apply their newly acquired engineering skills to  designing hands-on exhibits, with Discovery Space as a customer. Five semesters later, this partnership is only getting stronger. The museum staff is getting better at clearly communicating needs, and the professor and students have learned what exhibits work well in our space. Students visit the museum early in the semester to understand our needs and mission and to learn from the successes or failures of past exhibits. Museum staff members work hand-in-hand with the professor and the students during the design process, until finally, students bring their projects to the museum for evaluation and to be tested by visitors.

This partnership has been invaluable to both the museum and the students. It provides Discovery Space with fresh exhibits at no cost to us, other than our time. University students gain real-life experience in satisfying the needs and wants of a real client and take pride in potentially inspiring a new generation of engineers and scientists. If you have a college or university nearby, capitalize on the available resources in a way which enhances their students’ learning, and everyone wins!

Michele Crowl, director of education, Discovery Space of Central Pennsylvania, State College, and John Lamancusa, professor of mechanical engineering, Pennsylvania State University, State College

Interdisciplinary Collaboration at the Ontario Science Centre

The Ontario Science Centre, Toronto, uses internal teams of researchers, designers, and fabricators to develop exhibitions. This diverse group works closely together from day one, allowing inspiration and synergy of concepts and techniques, and providing a platform for the continual shaping and modulating of the project by the project leaders. In the case of The AstraZeneca Human Edge, a new 10,000-square-foot (929-square-meter) permanent exhibition, this has allowed for the development of a nuanced exhibition about athleticism and the human body. This exhibition is focused on passionate people who are driven to reach seemingly impossible goals and who push their bodies to the limit. It is often through these outliers that we learn new things about how the human body works.

One example of this interdisciplinary strength can be seen in our immersive audio theater exhibit about free diving. Compelling stories of free divers reaching new limits of human endurance (beginning with the history of the famous Ama pearl divers of Japan), combined with our increasing knowledge about respiration and incredible breath-holding records (over 21 minutes!), provided inspiration for both content researchers and designers. From the outside, the immersive theater is reminiscent of a large diving bell. Upon entering, the conical shape recreates the sensation of being deep under the ocean, looking up at the dim watery light far above. Complete with dampened sounds and an audio track that invites you to imagine that you are free-diving deep under the water, this exhibit is a powerful example of the experiences that can be created by a closely knit team of researchers, designers, and fabricators.

Mary Jane Conboy, director of science content and design, Ontario Science Centre, Toronto

Encouraging Personal Story Sharing

In the Earth and Sky gallery at TELUS Spark, Calgary, Alberta, Canada, you will find an erosion table exhibit. Here visitors can manipulate a microenvironment of melamin plastic sand, polyethylene beads, and rocks. You can carve a canyon or create a forked river and then observe how water interacts with these materials to create new landscapes.

If you were to watch someone playing at this exhibit you’d probably notice different indicators of success as visitors engage in iterative play, make and test predictions, and draw analogies to the world outside the gallery.

As a facilitator at TELUS Spark, I’ve noticed that when this exhibit is facilitated, something really exciting happens: People will begin to share their stories. There are entire other exhibits whose intent is to foster conversation and encourage personal story sharing, but when the erosion table is facilitated, this type of interaction is almost always the outcome.

People will talk about the rivers they grew up near, the floods that affected them, and their memories of carving rivers in melting snow in their back alleys. I find these interactions so exciting because sharing something about yourself is scary, and involves taking a risk, and this exhibit encourages that. When visitors do take this risk, they can make connections with each other, share their experiences, and draw parallels between their stories and what they are observing in the exhibit.

This doesn’t often happen by itself, though. This is where the role of a facilitator comes in. If a facilitator is able to share something special or personal about themselves, then visitors are more likely to share their own stories and continue that conversation. This conversation will keep going, because when someone’s hands are occupied, they’ll talk to you. And it is easy to be occupied at the erosion table.

Meghan Durieux, facilitator, TELUS Spark, Calgary, Alberta, Canada

About the image: Students work at the Innovation Lab at the Birla Industrial & Technological Museum in Kolkata, India.

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