A View from Space

Topic: Earth & Space Sciences Subtopic: Other

Case Study

of an Exhibition

by Scott Pattison

Published on January 09, 2009, Modified on January 28, 2013

  • Description and goals

    A View from Space (VFS) is a 700 ft.² interactive, bilingual (Spanish and English) traveling exhibition that introduces visitors to NASA’s Earth Observing System satellites and fosters an appreciation for studying Earth from space. VFS targets children ages 5–12 and their families. It was developed in partnership with OMSI’s Small Museum Research Collaborative (SMRC), which brought the experiences and resources of four geographically and thematically diverse small museums to the project’s development and evaluation.

    Exhibit objectives:
    1. Introduce visitors to satellites and create the opportunity for visitors to explore the spatial relationship between Earth, satellites, and people.
    2. Engage visitors in the scientific process of interpreting and formulating questions about satellite data and imagery.
    3. Give visitors an appreciation for the importance of satellites and the EOS mission.

    To support these objectives, the exhibition is organized around a single Big Idea: “Satellites change the way we see the Earth.”

    A View from Space drew from OMSI’s earlier NASA-funded and NASA-certified, 2500 ft.² traveling exhibit, Eyes on Earth, which began its national tour in 2002. More information about Eyes on Earth is available at: http://www.OMSI.info/visit/earth/eyesonearth/

  • Development process and challenges

    The Small Museum Research Collaborative (SMRC)
    SMRC is a partnership between OMSI and small science centers from around the country. For this project, the partnership included the Bootheel Youth Museum in Malden, MO; KidZone Museum in Truckee, CA; Palouse Discovery Science Center in Pullman, WA; and ScienceWorks Hands-On Museum in Ashland, OR. SMRC works collaboratively to seek funding and develop traveling exhibitions that address the unique needs, priorities, and audiences of small museums. This was OMSI’s first exhibit project with these partners. We have since developed two other interactive traveling exhibitions with SMRC, building on lessons learned from the VFS process.

    During the VFS project, SMRC representatives met yearly at OMSI to review progress and give feedback. At the first meeting, the partners discussed educational focus and messages and brainstormed an initial list of exhibit ideas. At the next meeting, the group critiqued concept sketches and prototypes. Finally, partners met to review the exhibition during its first venue at OMSI, and after it had toured to all the SMRC sites. We solicited partner and advisor feedback during these meetings as part of a “professional critique” of the exhibition. This critique informed the remedial changes that were implemented during the exhibition shakedown at OMSI and the final remediation after the SMRC tour.

    Low-tech Exhibits for a High-tech Topic
    One significant challenge of this project was building a low-tech, low maintenance traveling exhibition for small museums about a high-tech topic—satellites and satellite imagery. Early on, the team decided to focus on interpreting satellite imagery and its applications for studying our planet, rather than satellite technology or remote sensing. Based on the SMRC partners’ limited resources for exhibit maintenance, we also planned to build the exhibit without computers and with minimal electronics or complex mechanics. The team, therefore, faced a formidable challenge: to create interactive, engaging, low-tech exhibits that explore satellite imagery and its applications.

    As is often the case, these limiting criteria actually lead to very creative results. The team drew from tried-and-true interactive formats and technologies to bring satellite imagery to life. We used a praxinoscope to show the changing seasons in North America as viewed by NASA’s Terra satellite (photo 1). The age-old Pepper’s Ghost illusion became a maintenance-free way to fade between true color and false color infrared satellite images of the same region (photo 2). At a “hurricane tracking station,” visitors use a magnetic puck and magnetic sensors embedded beneath a Plex-covered satellite image of the Caribbean to follow the path of Hurricane Charley as it headed towards Florida in 2004 (photo 3). By moving the puck around the map, visitors activate different audio clips that tell the story of how satellites tracked Charley’s course. At the end of the activity, visitors predict Charley’s landfall location by placing their puck along the US coastline.

    Creating a Bilingual Exhibit
    Creating an exhibition with both Spanish and English labels was a priority for the SMRC partners from the beginning. Developing a bilingual exhibit is a challenging, but rewarding, process, and the educational focus of this project added another level of difficulty. We contracted with a bilingual educator and translator to write the Spanish exhibit text and to advise us on cultural accessibility. On this project we did not begin the bilingual work until most of the exhibits were developed and exhibit labels were being drafted. Ideally, creating a bilingual, culturally accessible exhibit goes beyond translating text. Other OMSI and SMRC projects with longer timelines and more substantial resources have engaged in a more extensive process, considering the audiences of both languages throughout development.

    Two important aspects of the copy development were allowing sufficient time for an iterative translation process and reviewing the content and cultural accessibility of both languages. Though the project timeline was tight, we needed time for a dialogue between the writer and the translator. The first round of translation raised questions not only about definition and meaning but also age-appropriateness, accessibility, and message focus and clarity in both languages. Working iteratively with the translator to address these questions led to much clearer and more effective exhibit labels.

    Review of the text by a native Spanish speaker who was an expert in the science content also became a priority as the bilingual work progressed. We worked with NASA, our funding agency, to find a bilingual expert in satellite technology, remote sensing, and image interpretation. We also recruited native Spanish speakers from a variety of countries to review the graphic layouts. This process led us to change some vocabulary and phrases that were too country-specific.

    Building Sustainable Exhibits
    Building sustainable exhibits that were affordable and had a low environmental impact was another important goal of the project. We made cost-saving and green-conscious choices such as using standard legs for all units, using remnant laminates instead of buying new sheets, and using bamboo for table top surfaces. Based in part on this work, OMSI has drafted a set of criteria for rating the environmental sustainability of an interactive exhibition.

  • Lessons learned, mistakes we made (and what we did about them)

    Scaling Down an Exhibition
    VFS was originally conceived as a scaled-down version of OMSI’s Eyes on Earth (EOE) exhibition. One of the most important lessons learned from this project is that considerable development and design time are necessary to scale down a larger exhibition. This is especially true when the new exhibition is being created for different audiences and different venues. EOE is a medium-size traveling exhibit (2,500 ft.²) with several computer kiosks and complex electronic interactives. VFS (700 ft.²) targets small, rural museums with limited resources to set up and maintain complex exhibits. We had to rule out any high-tech or computer-based components that would be difficult for small museums to maintain and repair. This eliminated over half the components of EOE and necessitated substantial time for the development of new, low-tech exhibit activities.

    We also chose to revise the main educational messages to make VFS more accessible for a younger audience. Our front-end research, including a visitor survey and a brief review of literature, suggested that many elementary and middle school visitors have difficulty interpreting images of the Earth from space and understanding the spatial relationship between Earth and satellites. Without these basic understandings, tackling the more abstract concepts of remote sensing, the electromagnetic spectrum, and satellite technology, which were central to the EOE exhibition, seemed out of the question. In the end, we focused on introducing visitors to satellite images of our planet. We also provided space puzzles, toys, and a reading and drawing area for younger visitors and families.

    Partnerships and Collaboration
    Working with SMRC partners was also a significant learning experience. While our original focus was creating a traveling exhibition to meet the needs of small museums, it soon became clear that an equally important goal for the partners was to learn from OMSI’s exhibit development and project management experience. Among other things, the partners expressed interest in learning how OMSI works with advisors, develops an educational focus and approach, brainstorms and develops exhibit ideas, manages communication with large, national project teams, and problem solves design challenges.

    The experience also emphasized a basic tenet of collaboration: lack of shared understanding and expectations among project team members can lead to disappointment and misunderstanding. For example, after the initial SMRC brainstorming meeting, we sent the partners a revised list of exhibit ideas. Based on partner feedback, it was immediately clear that we had not sufficiently engaged them in the process of developing a seed idea to functional prototype and had failed to provide enough detail about how their input was incorporated. We also realized that we had not clearly communicated critical project budget and technology constraints. Many of the ideas that generated the most excitement at the initial brainstorm meeting had to be thrown out because they were simply too expensive or not technologically feasible. During the remainder of the project, we tried to be much more direct about project constraints and much more transparent about our process. As we continue to work with the SMRC partners, the shared set of expectations developed by the whole team have contributed to a richer and more productive collaboration.

    Although exhibits needed to be low-tech and low maintenance, we learned that these constraints should not limit the visual design presence or interactivity of the exhibition. For many small venues, a 700 ft.² exhibition is a major attractor and attendance driver. Traveling exhibitions for small museums need to have visual impact and a depth of interactivity that encourages repeat play and repeat visitation. In subsequent projects for this audience, our designers have found ways to increase the size and visual impact of graphic pieces without increasing the complexity of the exhibits or limiting the flexibility of the floor plan. We also have begun including a few computers and electronic components, particularly when these technologies allow for a level of interactivity that would not be possible otherwise.

    Formative and Remedial Evaluation
    Project evaluation was not extensive but was still highly informative. During the formative phase, we prototyped four exhibits. During remediation we conducted a “professional critique” with project partners and advisors and solicited feedback from museum educators working with visitors in the exhibition. Below are some of the lessons we learned from these activities, most of which were good reminders of commonly shared best practices in our field. Because of budget constraints, we were limited during remedial evaluation primarily to copy and graphic changes. The lessons described below reflect this focus.

    1. Make audio segments short
    When writing text for exhibit labels, we generally try to be as brief as possible. When we started writing the audio script for the “Tracking Hurricanes” exhibit (photo 3), however, we guessed that visitors might tolerate more audio than printed text. Observations during remedial evaluation indicated that, at least in this context, that was not the case. For the final script, we limited each audio segment to less than 20 seconds.

    2. Find a balance between too little and too much information
    For the majority of exhibits, we tried to keep text at a minimum and let the satellite images speak for themselves. For bilingual exhibitions, this is especially important, since the addition of Spanish more than doubles the overall size of the text on each graphic panel. However, in some cases, feedback from partner museums and floor educators indicated that we raised visitor questions without providing sufficient answers. One good example is the “Image Gallery” (photo 4). The original exhibit included only photo credits and a 5–10 word title for each satellite image. During remediation, we added 2–3 sentences for each image to provide background, answer visitor questions, and orient visitors to major image features.

    3. Use graphics and exhibit design to orient visitors
    The “Satellite Vision” activity (photo 2) uses a low-tech format (specifically, a Pepper’s Ghost illusion) to let visitors overlay and compare satellite images. Although the few visitors that figured out how to use the activity seemed to enjoy it, most would pass by the exhibit without looking inside the view boxes. During remediation, we added explicit text (“Look in the box!”) and a small frame around the view box window to direct visitors.

    4. Image labels can be more effective than image captions
    The back of the “Satellite Vision” exhibit features three satellite images highlighting important applications of Earth observing satellites: monitoring forest fires, mapping the extent of natural disasters, and tracking agriculture around the world (photo 5). Initially, we struggled to write short, concise captions that would both identify the major features of the satellite images and provide enough background information for context. The exhibit designer eventually suggested that we try image labels (small chunks of text tied to specific image features) instead of a single caption. This made all the difference and led to a much cleaner, more understandable graphic panel.

    5. Expect visitors to be extremely literal
    This exhibit was a good reminder of why we prototype: you can never completely predict what visitors are going to do with a new interface. “How High Are the Satellites” (photo 6) is an air-powered ball graph activity where visitors compare the relative altitudes of an airplane, a weather balloon, the International Space Station, and a near Earth orbiting satellite. The final column in the bar graph represents the height of a geosynchronous satellite, which orbits over 50 times farther from the surface of the Earth than a near Earth satellite. Because this height is impossible to show on the graph relative to the heights of the other objects, we covered the top of the tube with a small graphic panel. Our hope was that visitors would watch the ball disappear behind the graphic panel and then read about how high the ball would actually have to rise to depict the relative height of the geosynchronous satellite (over 12 stories). During remediation, I watched visitor after visitor peer around the sides of the graphic trying to figure out where the ball had gone. Many of the visitors commented how silly it was that we had covered the location of the ball with a graphic panel. Clearly, our message was not being effectively communicated. For the final version, we enclosed the top of the tube completely with a box, making it impossible for the visitors to see the ball, and used the text to explicitly address the visitors’ question: “where did the ball go?”

  • Exhibition Opened: September 2006

  • Exhibition Still Open!

  • Traveling Exhibition: Yes

  • Location: Portland, None, United States

  • Estimated Cost: $100,000 to $500,000 (US)

  • Size: Less than 1,000 sq ft.

  • Other funding source(s): NASA #NNG05GN13G

Latest Comments (3)

excellent case study

by Kathleen Mclean - January 10, 2009

Hi Scott, Thanks for being so thoughtful and descriptive in your case study. I learned several things that I can apply to my own work. Thanks. K

problems into opportunities

by Tisha Carper long - January 13, 2009

Thanks for this very thorough assessment of your team’s process. I’m struck by how effective you were at taking “constraints” like low-tech, size, need for bilinguality (bravo for that in particular) and turn them into opportunities for quality. I’d love to hear more about how these lessons were brought into subsequent exhibitions. Hats off to OMSI for spreading the “wealth” to smaller, rural museums! — Tisha

useful case study

by Dave Stroud - February 18, 2010

I too can apply the information you have presented.

I am particularly struck by the insight that “scaling down” an exhibition may not be as straight forward as it sounds. This sounds like it became a somewhat different, but highly related exhibition. I will keep this in mind as the idea of “creating a traveler based on one of our current exhibits” comes up occasionally.

As a dedicated fan of prototyping, it is interesting to learn about the prototyping employed to reach your solutions. I would like to know even more details about your approach to this process.

The right amount of information, use of images, and brevity even if the medium seems interesting are key concepts for any exhibition.

I can relate to the issue of having the most exciting ideas not be feasible, and then attempting to manage the expectations of stakeholders. I appreciate your sharing of how your team worked through this. I expect this issue to be a part of every project I am involved in no matter what the budget or other resources.

Thanks!

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