Honoring Leonardo da Vinci

The Carnegie Science Center in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, is breathing new life into some of Leonardo da Vinci’s greatest ideas in honor of the 500th anniversary of his death (it is believed that da Vinci died of a stroke on May 2, 1519). The Science Center is offering special, themed activities the weekend of May 3-5, in addition to hosting the ongoing Da Vinci: The Exhibition, on display now through September 2. The exhibition, created by Atlanta-based Imagine Exhibitions, Inc., includes 65 life-size inventions, more than 20 replicas of da Vinci’s art, and many displays through which visitors can experience his discoveries in art, engineering, hydraulics, music, light, flight, and more. 

“It’s serendipitous that we have the exhibition on the anniversary of his death,” said Dennis Bateman, senior director of Exhibits & Experience at the Science Center. “We’re treating it like a celebration of his life,” he added. The Science Center’s special events that weekend will include:

  • Create Your Ideal City, in which visitors, use recycled materials to add structural elements that solve real-world, civic-design challenges to a “crowd-sourced” cityscape.
  • Comparative Anatomy, in which visitors observe a frog dissection to examine how da Vinci studied anatomy and learn how he hid his research to escape punishment from religious leaders.
  • Stars Over the Renaissance, in which visitors to the Science Center’s Buhl Planetarium can experience the night sky that da Vinci would have seen and studied.

One of the Science Center’s main goals for this exhibit, the second in its Scaife Exhibit Gallery since the opening of its PPG Science Pavilion, is “to bring in more diverse audiences that don’t typically go to see Science Center exhibits.” Besides physics, da Vinci—the original Renaissance man—was interested in art, design, history, and writing. The Science Center wants to attract fans of these disciplines. “We want to bring those people in and showcase the intersection of art and science.”

The Science Center designed tabletop interactives to enhance the show that Imagine Exhibitions produced. “We wanted to build on the show that Imagine Exhibitions put together,” Bateman said. “It’s a great show and already has interactive elements with hands-on pieces; visitors get to manipulate some of da Vinci’s inventions, such as the gears and the pulleys, the basic phenomenon. We know that visitors want to interact in different ways,” he added. “What we wanted to add were open-ended explorations,” in which visitors can try out different concepts.

For example, for visitors who enjoy learning about da Vinci’s gears, the Science Center added a table with wooden gears and pegs on a pegboard so that visitors can design their own machine and experiment with how gears work when different sizes and numbers are combined.

Another activity features a wind table where visitors can make a paper helicopter and test da Vinci’s assumptions about flight. “They can see what areas da Vinci was right about flight—and what concepts weren’t ever going to work for him,” explained Bateman.

Visitors can do crayon rubbings of the Mona Lisa, life drawings with posable figures, code writing by writing notes on a blackboard while looking in a mirror, solve mathematical puzzles, and even arrange facial features on the Mona Lisa, sort of like a Mister Potato Head on paper. “We want to let people try their hand at both his science and his art,” said Bateman.

The 12 members of the Exhibits & Experience and the Visitor Engagement teams worked full time on the nine interactive table top experiences in the months leading up to the exhibition. The 14,000 square-foot exhibition was made possible by contributions from five funders: the EQT Foundation, Agora Cyber Charter School, Citizens Bank, Renewal by Andersen, and Sundance Vacations.

People get so deeply involved in their interactions at the stations that bottlenecks sometimes form. “Sometimes it’s a bit of a traffic flow problem, but that’s a good problem to solve,” said Bateman.