Mark Voit: Designing the Hubble Exhibition
Mark Voit, Ph.D., is an assistant astronomer and education technology scientist at the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore, Maryland. Voit was a content specialist on the project team for Hubble Space Telescope: New Views of the Universe, a traveling exhibition developed jointly by STScI and the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES). Two versions of the exhibition — one totaling 5,000 square feet and the other, 2,000 square feet — began their tours in 2000, when this profile was written.
I guess I've always been interested in science. I can remember receiving and enjoying astronomy books from my next-door neighbor as a young boy. By the time I was in first grade, back in 1967, I was already a big fan of the space program and eagerly anticipated the first Moon landings. My grandfather also indulged my interest in science by regularly taking me to visit the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, near where I grew up. I completed my doctorate in astrophysics at the University of Colorado in Boulder in 1990, came to Baltimore as a Johns Hopkins University Hubble Fellow in 1993, and have been at STScI since 1995.
Taking the Hubble on Tour: A Team Effort
Hubble Space Telescope: New Views of the Universe examines the history, technology, science, and operation of our most famous orbiting telescope. The exhibition reflects the work of three different teams. SITES managed the project, STScI was responsible for the content, and Lee H. Skolnick Architecture + Design Partnership of New York City, handled the exhibition design.
I came on board after planning was already under way. As project scientist, I was involved in all aspects of content development, including conceptual design, drafting of preliminary text, photo selection, development of illustrations and other graphical content, and video and interactive production. STScI project manager Trish Pengra and her assistant, Carole Rest, were also closely associated with content development, in addition to their responsibilities for locating artifacts and pictures, negotiating with our sponsors (NASA and Lockheed-Martin), and overseeing STScI's work on image and video production.
The Skolnick designers were hired to give physical form to our ideas and to clarify and sharpen the messages we wanted to convey. We began our interaction with them with a period of immersion, during which I essentially gave them a crash course in astronomy. We developed an excellent working relationship that enabled us to cooperate very closely on the actual design of the exhibit.
Although we did not partner with any science centers in creating the exhibition, our advisory board did include experts from the Maryland Science Center in Baltimore, the Adler Planetarium in Chicago, and the National Science Teachers Association. In addition, staff members at the Adler assisted with the development of our interactives by prototyping them and testing them with some of their visitors.
The results of those field tests were enormously helpful. Visitors' reactions to our prototypes in Chicago underscored the need for real-world feedback. I think a scientist's natural inclination is to present material that is intellectually challenging and cutting edge — that's the stuff we find most interesting, and we want to share our excitement about it with others. We need to recognize, however, that some visitors approach this material with little or no background. I was afraid people would be put off by interactives I thought were "too easy", but the testing at the planetarium revealed that these exhibits were often our most successful.
The Challenges and Rewards of Exhibition Design
The biggest challenge for me was to narrow and focus the content of the exhibition, providing enough background to explain Hubble's contributions while keeping the discussion terse enough so we could present a variety of pictures and interactives. At the beginning of the process, 5,000 square feet sounded like a lot of space. However, we ended up including only a fraction of the content I had originally prepared. Anything that did not clearly support the central themes had to go.
To sum up, I realized that there were many more aspects to designing an exhibition than I had previously perceived. Scientists, architects, graphic designers, video producers, and managers all saw the project from very different points of view. It was very rewarding to see museum professionals in action. Things went most smoothly when team members took the time to understand each other's point of view before offering criticism. A little respect goes a long way.