Beautiful Science: Ideas that Changed the World

Topic: History Subtopic: General

Case Study

of an Exhibition

by Karina White

Published on June 22, 2009, Modified on November 06, 2014

  • Description and goals

    “Beautiful Science” is a permanent, 2500sf library exhibition that aims to present highlights from the history of science in intriguing and accessible ways.

    Our primary goal:
    To make a (truly) engaging library exhibition, bringing the books & their ideas to life.

    Responding to a few commonly observed pitfalls in library exhibitions,
    1) books are de-contextualized in huge, alienating cases
    2) library & history exhibits very text heavy
    3) content is not focused or accessible to a general audience

    we came up with our core goals:
    1) to make the books and manuscripts the primary focus of the exhibition;
    2) to build exhibition cases that would not overwhelm the exhibit materials; and
    3) to use graphics, text, interactives, and multi-media to reinforce the books and the ideas contained in the books.

  • Development process and challenges

    I’d say the main challenges were:
    1) content – tackling “the history of science” as a topic was daunting. It was a challenge to focus the content and to resist the compulsion to touch on everything.
    2) exhibition objects (books!) – Displaying books in cases renders them as utterly un-booklike. Thinking about how to bring the books and the ideas contained within them to life was a big part of this exhibition.

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

    A few recommended strategies:

    Strategy #1: Choose a big idea that is intriguing & accessible to a general audience.
    Strategy #2: Choose specific stories to tell; don’t include everything.
    Strategy #3: Focus on the books (the real stuff) & how to bring ideas to life. Design interactive experiences that relate directly to your collections and help engage visitors with the ideas you hope to communicate.
    Strategy #4: Prototype – mock things up and test them with visitors and advisors.
    Strategy #5: Make it beautiful; privilege the visual. While design underlies almost everything mentioned, communicating clearly and effectively through wall graphics, labels, intimate cases, and immersive rooms was a primary area of effort in this project.

  • Exhibition Opened: November 2008

  • Exhibition Still Open!

  • Traveling Exhibition: No

  • Location: San Marino, None, United States

  • Estimated Cost: $500,000 to $1,000,000 (US)

  • Size: 1000 to 3,000 sq ft.

Latest Comments (1)

books make history feel real

by Erik Thogersen - July 04, 2009

I happened to visit the exhibition yesterday, and enjoyed it. The astronomy section in particular, to gave me a sense of how long ago the science was worked out, and what it must have been like try to understand the world without modern tools. To look at an arabic book, hundreds of years old, with recognizable diagrams in the margin was cool. The video of a geocentric and heliocentric solar system was a good addition to help visitors understand what the books authors were investigating.

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