Amazing Feats of Aging

Topic: Life Sciences Subtopic: Human Body

Case Study

of an Exhibition

by Vicki Coats

Published on February 20, 2009, Modified on September 01, 2009

  • Description and goals

    Amazing Feats of Aging presents the biology of senescence to families and K–12 students through interactive exhibits and museum experiences. Senescence is perhaps the most complex and least understood biological process, yet it is also a universal experience marked by signs we all recognize. The exhibition explores three major themes: healthy aging, comparative aging across the animal kingdom, and aging of the brain.

    The introductory exhibits lay the groundwork for understanding the significance of senescence as a demographic, biological, and personal phenomenon. Visitors consider what aging means, weigh its impact now and in the future, and identify strategies for healthy aging. In exhibits about the aging of other species, visitors compare life spans, explore the physiological effects of aging on different animals, and discover what our study of other species reveals about healthy aging in humans. Each animal has its own story to tell about the aging process. Exhibits about the aging brain explore how a healthy brain is central to healthy aging. Visitors discover the changes that occur in the brain over time, distinguish between the effects of disease and healthy aging, and identify life choices that enrich and nurture the brain throughout life.

    The exhibition has the following goals:

    •To provide engaging experiences that draw visitors into the study of aging as a biological process,

    •To present scientific research on aging in ways designed to increase visitors’ biological literacy and encourage them to make personal choices that support healthy aging,

    •To promote intergenerational learning about aging and health by creating exhibits and educational materials that are family-friendly and based on national health goals,

    •To provide expression for visitors’ feelings and thoughts about aging, and

    •To challenge visitors to question ageism and other myths and stereotypes about aging.

  • Development process and challenges

    The project was initiated in May 1998 by an assessment of the exhibits in OMSI’s Life Science Hall. Visitors to the hall were surveyed on their interest in and questions about human biology and asked to rank six proposed topics. Human aging stood out as the highest ranked topic and drew nearly twice as many positive responses as any of the other choices.

    To learn more about visitors’ knowledge of and interest in aging, a more detailed front-end survey of 80 OMSI visitors and 20 high school students was completed later that year. Subjects were given a list of nine subtopics and asked to rank their top three choices. Your Aging Brain was the highest ranked topic and was of greatest interest to middle-aged and older adults. How Other Animals Age was second and tested highest among younger adults and children. How to Stay Healthy was third and of high interest to middle-aged and older adults. Visitors expressed high interest in learning about scientific or medical advances that enhance the aging process.

    We brainstormed exhibit ideas with local experts and five prototypes were designed, built, and tested with OMSI visitors. Three exhibits, Amazing Aging Animals, Longevity Parade, and Age Machine, were selected for production based on their demonstrated appeal to multiple age groups and were installed in the Life Science Hall in March 2000. We also created a conceptual design and floor plan with an additional nine exhibits. This initial work on the first permanent exhibits was the foundation of a strong proposal that was granted a Science Education Partnership Award (SEPA) in 2001 by the National Center for Research Resources (NCRR) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The project also benefited from this lengthy early development phase. The natural history and human experience of aging is a complex, multi-faceted, and challenging subject to condense and simplify into a series of interactive exhibits. These years of researching, discussing, experimenting, and just thinking about aging were invaluable to the exhibition.

    However, the project also faced several new directions and challenges. For the SEPA project, we proposed to build both a permanent and a traveling version of the exhibition, and we gained a new designer, new evaluators, and a new advisory group. While all our earlier work had focused on exhibits for OMSI visitors, the traveling exhibition had to be relevant and marketable to a national audience. These challenges eventually led to a completely new theme and design for the project.

    Our goal was a family-friendly exhibition with activities designed to foster intergenerational interaction. Further front-end research confirmed the strong interest of middle-aged and older adults in human aging and its limited relevance for younger visitors. For example, young teens viewed aging as a positive process that leads to driving a car (just the opposite from an elderly driver’s view!). To address this challenge we incorporated more content about animals, created exhibits specifically for preschool and school-age children, and included children in the evaluation process as much as possible. The summative evaluation suggests we had some success engaging younger visitors in ideas about aging.

    Our project team and advisory group were unusually collaborative, creative, and compatible. I should probably attribute most of this to good fortune, but the long development process allowed us to work with many different experts in the field and build good relationships. I also think it helped to have a small group of advisors for the final project. We had six external advisors—one or two for each major focus of the project—and our external evaluator.

    The project budget and timeline required that we design and build one exhibition and make the other a copy. Because of its greater constraints, the traveling version dictated the overall design, and we built this version first. We had a soft opening in OMSI’s Life Science Hall in May 2003 and spent the next year evaluating and remediating the first exhibition before sending it off on national tour in June 2004. The copy then replaced the traveling version at OMSI and remains in the Life Science Hall (as of February 2009).

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

    My favorite lesson learned was discovering that science centers may develop nearly identical analogous rather than homologous exhibits. After we had completed prototyping, I visited Boston’s Secrets of Aging exhibition and discovered an exhibit almost exactly the same as OMSI’s Longevity Parade. We knew Boston was working on an exhibition about aging, but there was no contact between the two project teams up to this point. We’ve all experienced sharing, borrowing, and outright copying of ideas in the ISE field, so I was delighted to find this example of analogous development: two remarkably similar exhibits may evolve independently while working toward the same goals.

    I was disappointed to discover that negative associations with aging are difficult to dispel. Over time, humans make impressive gains in knowledge, vocabulary, and life experience. I hoped to spark some appreciation for these gains by creating a quiz for visitors that demonstrated their greater knowledge over time. Despite our best efforts to make this message clear, visitors to the Amazing Lifelong Learning exhibit interpreted their success as a sign of being “very old” rather than very knowledgeable.

    Although all our visitor research confirmed strong interest in aging, especially among adults, many rental venues had concerns about marketing and drawing an audience to exhibition about aging. To address these concerns, Amazing Feats of Aging was designed around a colorful and playful “circus” theme and includes familiar and exotic animals from around the world. We developed engaging experiences for kids, adults, and families and tested them extensively at OMSI. In addition to our efforts, the tour was granted an extra boost from the MetLife Foundation. MetLife expressed a special interest in funding public education about human aging and granted OMSI an award for the national tour in 2005. Thanks to the MetLife award, we were able to offer the exhibition to 12 venues at half its normal rental fee, create new marketing materials for older visitors, and provide additional funding for special events at rental venues.

Latest Comments (2)

Enjoyed reading your case study

by Gretchen Jennings - March 10, 2009

I worked on the Secrets of Aging exhibition with MOS. Your account connects really well with my experiences. thanks for putting this up – it will be useful for folks to compare. Gretchen

We rented this exhibition and were very impressed

by Ryan Barber - March 15, 2009

We hosted this exhibition at the Virginia Museum of Natural History from May 24 to September 7, 2008, and we were very impressed with its depth of content. It was one of our most popular temporary exhibitions in recent years.

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