Be Here Now

Part of Exhibition: Mind

Topic: Other Subtopic: General

Case Study

of an Exhibit

by Diane Whitmore

Published on December 09, 2008

  • Description and goals

    How can a developer design a meditative space in a noisy environment like the Exploratorium? In this case study, I’ll expose the process and decision points that led to a surprisingly minimal acoustical treatment.

    At Be Here Now, an exhibit in the Exploratorium’s Mind area, visitors enter a nautilus-shaped structure made of Japanese shoji screens. For two minutes, they sit and observe the meanderings of their own thoughts. Visitors are instructed to focus on their own breathing, and track their distractions by pressing a hand-held button. A bell chimes and the total number of button presses is displayed. This exhibit can reveal the limits of one’s own attention span, as well as the non-linear and uncontrolled nature by which thoughts seem to pop into our minds.

    The Exploratorium is a vast, acoustically reflective space, filled with noisy exhibits and the sounds of delighted visitors. We have a sound-dampened area for exhibits on Listening, but the exhibit Be Here Now was to be placed in the Mind section; uncarpeted and under a 50-foot ceiling.

    Decision Point 1- Exhibit Priorities, and putting off the question of noise.

    Bill I knew our acoustic environment would offer a challenge for this exhibit idea, but felt we should prototype first, and engineer later. One method of making an exhibit is to keep things as loose as possible until one gathers visitor input. I subscribe to this method because our visitors are always surprising me. It makes sense to take advantage of visitor input early, so we can be responsive to their input. We can even take drastic turns if visitors behave unexpectedly. I believe in this method, because the intent and the use become more aligned, and the result feels like a more fully-realized exhibit.

    Bill and I needed to know if the activity was workable, interesting and surprising before bogging down with the noise problem. Mock-up opportunities were somewhat limited, due to the exhibit’s proposed size and need for electronic components, but we sallied forth.

    I mocked up a simple structure of shoji screens for staff and a few visitors to try. I held a stopwatch to time the activity, and gave them a counter. Staff members and visitors were generally enthusiastic. They found the activity interesting and challenging. Some were surprised at the number of distractions they had. Some got trapped in thought loops, wondering if thoughts about distractions were distractions. Several staff complained about ambient noise, and one was even bothered by the patterns he saw on the backs of his eyelids.

    We learned that our audience could indeed sit for two minutes, and decided the thought loops were not harmful to the purpose of the exhibit. We noted the noise complaints, and wondered about their numerical incidence and severity on the exhibit floor.

    Decision Point 2- Questioning the assumption of a noise problem, and affirming the core activity.

    After dragging a number of visitors into the shop, we decided we’d build a sturdy prototype for the museum floor. Shoji screens in a nautilus shape were beautiful, and seemed to create a quiet mood, so I designed the exhibit around that idea. The lack of parallel walls minimized sound reflection somewhat, and we could decide later if a roof or another type of structure would be required. We kept graphic and affordance elements as loose as possible, and we provided earmuffs, in case visitors wanted to use them.

    Our team researcher Joyce Ma, conducted a formative study of visitors to help us identify and respond to visitor experiences. While the numbers are small, we found that most visitors persisted with the activity successfully, in spite of the ambient noise.

    Of a total of 18, we asked 15 visitors what kind of distractions they experienced. Eight cited things outside the museum, while six cited things inside the museum, from concern about companions to noise distractions. While half of the 18 visitors interviewed couldn’t cite a trigger for their distractions, four cited noise.

    We learned that noise was a distraction for some visitors. We also learned that noise didn’t prevent them from using the exhibit successfully. In fact, 14 of the 18 visitors experienced positive emotions while in the exhibit. Of those 14, ten said they felt peaceful, calm or relaxed while inside. 11 out of 18 visitors saw the earphones we had placed, and all 11 used them.

    To be fair, four people felt frustrated by the experience. Two of these four had waited in line for it and were disappointed by the activity (non-activity). Considering that this exhibit is antithetical to the expectation of our visitors, I thought this was a pretty good start. We thought that getting our visitors to sit still for two whole minutes in our environment was going to be a challenge, but 15/18 completed the exercise. That was surprising to us.

    Decision Point 3: Bang for the buck responsiveness.

    What would it have taken to create a sound-dampened Be Here Now? We could have installed a roof, but at the cost of a modular, lightweight structure and a perhaps sense of light that made it beautiful. We could have rebuilt the structure with insulated walls, but the cost would be high, and the look would have suffered. Both would have cost time and money, which could have be used in the development of more exhibits for our collection.

    We decided to go for bang for the buck, and did only a little remediation on noise.
    - I ordered a white noise maker and installed it in the exhibit.
    - We made the earphones more visible and labeled them.
    - We placed the exhibit at the far reaches of the museum.

    We responded to visitor frustration with the activity (non-activity) by placing a graphic outside the exhibit that described the experience.

    The advantages of the visitor feedback method of iterative development are great. Perceived problems from a designers perspective are not always real problems for visitors. Evidence often points to a clear path, and calls into focus the core objectives of any exhibit. Disadvantages include expense and the time it takes to iterate faithfully.

    In the case of Be Here Now, the mission was to offer an awareness of the power of the ambulatory mind. I believe this was achieved without extensive sound abatement. We can’t travel the other road, so we won’t ever know if it was the best possible outcome.

  • Exhibit Opened: November 2007

  • Location: San Francisco, CA, United States

  • Estimated Cost: $10,000 to $50,000 (US)

Latest Comments (1)

Quiet an important idea

by Elaine heumann Gurian - December 12, 2008

I have often thought overall our interactive exhibits are too insistingly high energy and that more contemplative and intentionally quiet zones in the midst of that was a good idea.

Achieving that is technically difficult and, as shown here, surprises the visitor.

Congratulations for taking this on. It would be great if others who have tried contemplation zones in the midst of activity would chime in.

This world is too noisy and too stimulating for our children and learning to modulate even a little bit is a help. e—

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