Behind the Scenes

Topic: Life Sciences Subtopic: Other

Case Study

of an Exhibition

by Katherine Whitney

Published on October 17, 2012

  • Description and goals

    Behind the Scenes is a cluster of exhibits at the Lindsay Wildlife Museum in Walnut Creek, CA. The exhibits highlight the work of the museum’s wildlife hospital, which treats and rehabilitates wild animals.

    The Lindsay Wildlife Museum’s hospital is the oldest wildlife rehabilitation center in the country, and one of the largest, treating more than 5,000 injured animals a year. It is part of the Lindsay Wildlife Museum, whose mission is to connect people with wildlife and inspire responsibility and respect toward wild habitats.

    Most of the hospital’s animal patients are injured when they come in contact with the human world. They are run over by cars, caught by cats, poisoned by rat traps, strangled by shrub netting. Their stories become an important piece of the Lindsay’s mission, which is to increase awareness of the challenges facing local wildlife and to show people how to help our animal neighbors. But how to give visitors first-hand exposure to those animal stories? Is it possible to get a good look at what actually goes on in the hospital? The busy working hospital—full of injured convalescing animals, wildlife veterinarians, and myriad volunteers who help with everything from meal prep to laundry—is by necessity off limits to the public.

  • Development process and challenges

    Museum director Loren Behr assembled a team of free-lance exhibit developers and designers. His central vision for this exhibit cluster was a fully functioning animal treatment room where hospital staff could perform medical procedures before a live audience of museum visitors. This obviously presented many challenges, among them:
    o Being sure that the presentation before a live audience had no ill effect on the wild animals or the professionals performing the procedure;
    o Conforming to federal and state laws which highly regulate the interface between the public and rehabilitating wild animals;
    o Considering the sensitivities of hospital staff toward performing medical procedures before a live audience;
    o Training and coordinating staff to execute the live programming;
    o Communicating that the work done at the hospital is highly specialized and should not be done by nonprofessionals at home; (This was a particular concern of state and federal agencies.)
    o Figuring out a way to shut down the presentation if something unpredictable happened during a procedure;
    o Figuring out how to interpret a potentially complex medical procedure for a wide range of visitors, from families with small children to wildlife enthusiasts;
    o Creating a treatment room that would be visually interesting to visitors when there was not a procedure happening;
    o Creating permanent exhibits about the hospital that augment the live procedure.

    The solution was an enclosed room (doors close during presentations) with a wall of one-way glass windows looking into an actual hospital treatment room. During presentations the spectator side is darkened and visitors sit on carpeted bleachers. They can see into the treatment room, but the hospital staff (and the injured animals) cannot see out. (This fulfills the requirements of the state and federal agencies which forbid animals to see the assembled visitors.) The presentation begins with a short film that orients visitors to the hospital and shows them different spaces “behind the scenes,” like the kitchen, the exam room, the operating room, etc. Then an interpretive staff person introduces that day’s procedure—which might be removing sutures from a garter snake, pulling a metal rod from an eagle’s healed wing, or feeding dozens of orphaned baby birds. The hospital staff enter the treatment room with the live animal and the interpretive staff narrates throughout the procedure, and answers questions afterwards. The hospital presentations are scheduled and posted at the entrance to the museum, so visitors can plan their visit accordingly. There are one to two presentations daily, depending on day and time of year.

    In terms of the aforementioned challenges, we were very fortunate that the professional staff at the hospital had long championed public education, even before the idea of this exhibit was hatched over 15 years ago. So they have been very supportive of the program. Some training was necessary because this program combined staff from two separate departments with very different agendas. Hospital staff is focused on healing animals, and museum/visitor interpretation staff promotes education. Teams from both departments have learned to work together very well, explaining complex procedures in simple and understandable terms. In case of an unexpected outcome during a medical procedure, the emergency protocol is to dim the lights in the treatment room, which also helps to calm many animals, and brighten them on the public side, thus turning the one-way window into a mirror from the observation side. So far, this concern has not been realized; few, if any, presentations have been altered or cancelled due to unpredictable situations.)

    During non-presentation times, visitors can engage in hands-on exhibits that describe the steps the hospital takes with each animal patient. These steps include identification of the animal species, diagnosis of the injury, treatment, rehabilitation, and release. To make the treatment room more visually interesting during non-procedure times, it is enhanced with visually interesting artifacts like a working lab with microscope slide views projected on a monitor, and various other equipment and tools. Visitors can also sit on the bleachers and watch the “behind the scenes” film, which runs on a continuous loop.

    In determining a target age for the Wildlife Hospital Behind the Scenes exhibits, the exhibit team chose children aged 7-9, though the primary audience at the museum is younger children with their parents. We made this decision based on the complexity of the content, and with the awareness that most of the other exhibit areas in the museum were targeted to this younger audience. Anecdotal evidence finds that the exhibits are accessible and attractive to a wide range of visitors, well beyond the target age of 7-9 years old. (We are still awaiting the results of formal summative evaluation.) Parents and younger children engage with virtually all the interactives exhibit, especially the feed-the-animal computer interactive, the microscope interactive and the wall of x-rays of injured animals. Adults read aloud the case studies of injured animals, the patient screen—which tells what kind of animals are currently in the hospital—and the captions explaining the x-rays to pre-literate children.

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

    o We originally envisioned the program as a conversation between the museum interpreter (on the visitor side of the glass) and the vet performing the procedure in the treatment room. However, the vet and hospital staff want to focus on what they’re doing and not do so much talking. As a result, the museum interpretive staff has had to learn a lot more about each animal patient and about the hospital. Although this is a lot of work for the interpretive staff, everyone agrees that this is a positive development long term.
    o Sometimes the room fills up, and visitors aren’t able to get in to see the program. (The program has been one of the museum’s most popular features.) A possible solution is to broadcast the program on a video monitor outside. (The monitor is part of an exhibit about how rehabilitated animals are released from the hospital, and currently broadcasts footage of hospital staff releasing rehabilitated wildlife.) There are technical and financial hurdles to this fix, including the state and federal agency requirement that the monitor be staffed by an interpreter.
    o The low, stair-step bleacher seating (required by the city’s building code) has been problematic for elderly visitors or anyone who has difficulty standing up throughout the presentation. The height of the top bleacher was increased, and portable box stools were introduced that make it easier to stand from a seated position. However, many older visitors would prefer a chair of normal height with a back.
    o Theater space is limited and presentations fill quickly. There is no room for strollers, which have to be left outside, which leaves some visitors disgruntled.
    o Toddlers can be loud and disruptive during presentations, which last 15-20 minutes in a confined dark room. Museum staff added a small bin of stuffed animals which help engage the youngest visitors.
    o Visitors have had trouble operating the microscope interactive—one of the exhibits that can be used during non-presentation times. They don’t realize that in order to see the microscope slide through the viewer, they have to push then hold a button. A new instruction label has helped, though younger, non-reading visitors still require help from adults who read the label and then explain. We anticipated that there might be confusion with this one, and we should have prototyped this interactive with visitors.

  • Exhibition Opened: October 2011

  • Exhibition Still Open!

  • Traveling Exhibition: No

  • Location: Walnut Creek, CA, United States

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

  • Size: Less than 1,000 sq ft.

  • Other funding source(s): IMLS grant plus contributions from individuals and foundations

  • Website(s):

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