Innovation Labs in Indian Science Centers

February 25th, 2014 by ExhibitFiles

This case study complements the article Inside the Process: Three Exhibit Development Case Studies, which appeared in the January/February 2014 issue of Dimensions magazine.

Case Study contributed by E. Islam, director, Birla Industrial & Technological Museum, Kolkata, India

To promote national competitiveness in the 21st century, the president of India declared the present decade (2010–20) as the “decade of innovation.” Taking the agenda forward, Indian science centers under the National Council of Science Museums (NCSM) have joined with the National Innovation Council in spearheading India’s innovation initiatives. NCSM science centers are now setting up Innovation Labs as essential components of their facilities to provide a platform for youth to engage in innovative and creative activities.

The first of such Innovation Labs was inaugurated in August 2013 at the Birla Industrial & Technological Museum in Kolkata by Sam Pitroda, advisor to the prime minister of India and chairman of the National Innovation Council.

Spread over a 2,500-square-foot (232-square-meter) area, the Innovation Lab has the following components: Hall of Fame (multimedia kiosks telling the stories of major inventors and their inventions in various fields); Innovation Resource Centre (providing online access to innovation-centric resources including grass-roots innovation databases); Activity Laboratory (providing facilities for carrying out innovative activities, experiments, and projects in a multidisciplinary set-up); Tech Lab (facilitating creative and innovative works in robotics and automation).

The lab is currently being used during weekends by its registered members from schools and undergraduate colleges. They either work on their own ideas or choose one from the idea bank created collaboratively by the members. Most projects in the lab relate to real life problems identified by the students themselves.

ExhibitSEED- Measuring an Exhibit’s Sustainability

June 28th, 2013 by ExhibitFiles

Kari Jensen, Senior Exhibit Developer, Oregon Museum of Science and Industry tells the story of a problem the team encountered and about how it influenced the team’s understanding of sustainable decision-making.

The Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI) and project partners were awarded a five-year grant entitled Sustainability: Promoting sustainable decision-making in informal education by the National Science Foundation (NSF) in 2009. Since then, the project team has developed and vetted tools including the Sustainable Decision-Making Tool and the Green Exhibit Checklist to help museum professionals create more sustainable exhibits that take into account social, environmental, and economic considerations. In 2012, was launched, and in the spring of 2013, five ExhibitSEED professional development workshops were held around the country to train exhibit developers, designers, and fabricators on developing more sustainable exhibits.

At the outset of OMSI’s NSF-funded project on sustainable decision-making, we intended to monitor an exhibit’s sustainability just like anything else—with a set of quantifiable indicators that we could measure at different points in the project to see if we were improving, and if so, by how much. In order to achieve this seemingly straightforward goal, we devised a set of indicators to measure and assess the sustainability of our exhibit development process over time. These indicators would measure social sustainability, economic sustainability, and environmental sustainability of the project.

We created an online survey to track our progress. All project team members logged in weekly to report on social indicators like “team learning” and “team satisfaction,” economic ones like “variance to budget,” and environmental ones—like “waste generated” and “greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from staff project-related travel.” The surveys were tedious, and felt like a waste of time. Counting every sheet of paper and tea bag that was recycled was time consuming and didn’t feel like one of the more impactful decisions that could be made on a project of this scale. Plus, figuring out how much staff paper use was accountable to this project specifically was a challenge when most of us were working on several projects simultaneously. Whether or not people rode their bikes to meetings or drove cars to meetings was interesting but we just didn’t have very many off-site meetings, so again the impact seemed minimal. Plus, it was increasingly apparent than many of the social considerations were not necessarily quantifiable or comparable to other measures—for example, how do you measure a missed opportunity for supporting underserved audiences, and what would that mean in budgetary terms?

Our team was beginning to understand that sustainability is a much more complex concept—and that these specific measurements were almost meaningless without explaining the context around each and every number. We realized that measuring sustainability is far more nuanced and complex than a standardized set of questions could possibly represent.

Sustainability itself is an ideal—it isn’t a destination that is possible to achieve, but rather a journey along which we try to make better, more well rounded decisions by intentionally widening our scope of decision-making criteria. We widen this scope to give a voice to the many valid considerations that should play a role in decision-making but often don’t– especially ones that may not be easily assessed by looking at an Excel spreadsheet. For example, how much stress and grief might one of our budget-driven choices cause staff members or exhibit repair staff down the line? How might purchasing exhibit pieces from the cheapest vendor in town inadvertently harm a woman or minority-owned business struggling to make ends meet? What part does ordering plywood from across the country play in transportation related carbon emissions?

So after a year or two of struggling to measure specific indicators, we realized that it is more valuable to pay attention to the actual discussions that feed into making decisions, rather than the particular outcome of decisions. We developed the “Sustainable Decision-making Tool” to help teams identify these many considerations. When using this tool, teams are forced to take a hard look at all of the visible and invisible impacts of their decisions. The goal of making a more-sustainable choice comes down to making the choice that maximizes positive benefits. Of course every choice has tradeoffs and this tool is also intended to give light to the real tradeoffs that are being made with every choice.

ExhibitSEED workshop participantsAt the beginning of the project, our team oftentimes defaulted to making so-called sustainable decisions based on environmental or “green” considerations, but we tended to overlook some of the important social and economic ones. We found that after putting all of the considerations on the table with the Sustainable Decision-making Tool, we were automatically starting to bring up social, economic, and environmental aspects to every decision in every conversation we had, whether we used the tool or not. It became ingrained in our thinking. As a result of this new approach, we have made many choices that may seem to the untrained eye as less sustainable, but you may find that there were more net positive impacts of the decision than the alternatives.

We invite you to try out the tools and resources offered at, and challenge you to use the three pillars frame of social, economic, and environmental considerations with your project team. You may be surprised by how your project can be more sustainable!

Didn’t make one of the regional ExhibitSEED workshops? Please join us for a free pre-conference workshop at ASTC in Albuquerque (pre-registration is required)!

What is ExhibitSEED? is a place for exhibit and museum professionals to find resources for developing, designing, and building more sustainable exhibits. ExhibitSEED resources are based on a three pillars approach to sustainability that includes environmental, economic, and social considerations. The resources on this website were developed from an interactive science museum perspective, but we hope the information will be valuable to exhibit professionals specializing in all types of museums. The Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI) developed with input from local and national museum industry and design advisors.

What will I find at

Sustainable Practices: Practical tips for incorporating social, economic, and environmental considerations into each phase of exhibit development: Proposal Writing, Project Management, Content Research & Development, Design, Prototyping & Visitor Testing, Production, Evaluation, and End-life.

Decision Making Tool: An activity to use with your team, intended to inspire a well-rounded conversation that leads teams to decisions that consider all three (social, environmental, and economic) aspects of sustainability.

The Green Exhibit Checklist: a tool to evaluate the environmental sustainability of exhibits. It awards points in 5 key strategies for reducing the environmental impact of exhibit production, plus a sixth category for innovation.

Material Guide: an online guide that was created to help exhibit designers and builders choose materials that are better for the environment, for visitors and workers, and make economic sense.

Case Studies: Individual case studies of how museums are integrating the three pillars of sustainability into their operations.

Envisioning Sustainability: An activity designed to help teams explore the concept of sustainability.

Image information

Top: The Sustainable Decision-Making Tool is an activity that teams can do to inspire a well-rounded conversation that leads teams to decisions that consider all three (social, environmental, and economic) aspects of sustainability.

Bottom: ExhibitSEED workshop participants practice using the Green Exhibit Checklist to assess the environmental sustainability of an existing exhibit.

Bilingual Exhibits Research Initiative

August 17th, 2012 by ExhibitFiles

Nan Renner, Cecilia Garibay, Carlos Plaza, and Steven Yalowitz describe the Bilingual Exhibits Research Initiative, a National Science Foundation Pathways Exploratory Research Project

Does your institution create multilingual exhibits? Do you wonder about how multilingual exhibits may influence engagement and learning?

The Bilingual Exhibits Research Initiative (BERI), NSF DRL#1010666, strives to address professionals’ questions and build our collective knowledge related to:

• How informal science institutions create bilingual exhibits;
• How Spanish-speaking and bilingual visitors use bilingual exhibits; and
• How bilingual exhibits can support engagement with science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) among Latinos in the US.

Bilingual Exhibits—Professional Practices

The BERI team conducted interviews with professionals at 22 U.S. informal science education (ISE) institutions to document current bilingual exhibit practices.
This effort builds on a survey conducted by ASTC and the Exploratorium in 2011.Bilingual  study participants look at and point to a map within a bilingual  exhibit at the San Diego Natural History Museum. Photo shot with a  SenseCam worn by a study participant.

Research questions focus on staff knowledge, beliefs, and practices:
• Who is the audience for bilingual exhibits?
• What is the form and content of bilingual exhibits?
• What is the process for creating bilingual exhibits?
• How do visitors interact with bilingual exhibits?  (as observed and hypothesized)

Publication of these research results is in progress.

Many institutions believe that providing Spanish text increases engagement among Spanish-speakers, although we have very little information about how visitors actually use bilingual exhibits and the resulting benefits.

ISE professionals’ questions about audiences and bilingual exhibits have helped to shape the research agenda with visitors, e.g., Who uses bilingual exhibits, and how? Do bilingual exhibits create visual or mental overload? How much Spanish text is enough? Will bilingual exhibits encourage attendance?

Bilingual Exhibits—Visitor Uses and Benefits

Observations and interviews with Spanish-speaking visitors in social groups will document how visitors use exhibit resources and how they perceive the benefits of bilingual exhibits.

A  bilingual visitor group interacts with geology exhibits while  researchers record observations. Low resolution photo shot with a  SenseCam worn by a researcher.

Research questions focus on social activity involving language (speaking and reading):

• How do individuals and groups engage with text in bilingual exhibits?
• What indicators of learning can be observed?
• How do patterns of engagement and learning correspond with exhibit features?
• How do visitors perceive the benefits of bilingual exhibits?

You can participate! Help create an online archive of bilingual exhibits by adding your reviews, case studies, and “bits”  to ExhibitFiles. Don’t forget to tag your post with “bilingual.”

Post a comment! What are your questions, concerns, and conundrums related to bilingual exhibits? What have you learned about creating bilingual exhibits? Are you engaged in cross cultural visitor studies in museums?

Bilingual visitor groups use both languages when reading and speaking. Photographic data from a SenseCam worm by a study participant shows a rock with an embedded fossil, multi-party touching, and pointing to English text (left) and Spanish text (right). In analysis, the research team will integrate data fro audio recordings, live observations, SenseCam images, and activity-in-context photographs.

Research sites include:

San Diego Natural History Museum, the Miami Science Museum, and two other ISE institutions chosen to represent diversity of content, geographic region, and Latino cultural groups. We began data collection in June 2012 and will complete in fall 2012. This Pathways research project will be completed in June 2013.

This exploratory research, funded by NSF’s Division of Research on Learning, will build knowledge about how informal science institutions create bilingual exhibits, how visitors use bilingual exhibits, and how bilingual exhibits may expand access to science learning for Latinos in U.S. science centers and museums.

Image information

Top: Bilingual  study participants look at and point to a map within a bilingual  exhibit at the San Diego Natural History Museum. Photo shot with a  SenseCam worn by a study participant.

Center: A bilingual visitor group interacts with geology exhibits while researchers record observations. Low resolution photo shot with a SenseCam worn by a researcher.

Bottom: Bilingual visitor groups use both languages when reading and speaking. Photographic data from a SenseCam worm by a study participant shows a rock with an embedded fossil, multi-party touching, and pointing to English text (left) and Spanish text (right). In analysis, the research team will integrate data fro audio recordings, live observations, SenseCam images, and activity-in-context photographs.

Creating ExhibitFiles – looking back, looking ahead

December 9th, 2011 by Wendy Pollock

As the National Science Foundation grant that supported development of ExhibitFiles comes to an end,  Kathleen McLean and I share some reflections.

Opening ExhibitFiles in April 2007 was like opening a public park. There was a vision and a setting—but until people began to arrive, this community website for the exhibition field was almost literally empty.

ExhibitFiles site architecture in March 2007We had projected that perhaps 100 people would join and contribute 30 exhibition case studies. Five years later, membership exceeds 2,000 and continues to grow, with 390+ case studies and reviews posted to date. Instead of the projected 1,000 visits a month, the site regularly exceeds 5,000.

When we received National Science Foundation funding to develop ExhibitFiles in January 2006 (with ASTC as grantee organization, Ideum as designer/software developer), we conceived of the site as part archive and part community. It would be a place to preserve and share experiences and build reflective exhibition practice. The site—including its architecture, software, user interface, and what we came to think of as its human system—was designed to be a work in progress.

We have been able to extend a three-year grant to cover six years of work, three rounds of evaluation, and two major redesigns. Although the NSF grant ends in December, program officers have come to speak of ExhibitFiles as part of the “infrastructure” that supports work in informal science education, and we are grateful that ASTC remains committed to maintaining the site.

As with many other design experiments, along the way there have been insights and unexpected delights as well as some dilemmas still unresolved. With the benefit of evaluation findings and critical review by friends of the site, we share here some observations and reflections on what might happen next.

We have delighted in watching ExhibitFiles grow into an international and interdisciplinary community of practitioners who join together for inspiration, knowledge building, and critique. Members come from 57 countries and a wide variety of museums, academic institutions, and other organizations. Evaluation tells us that while some members post case studies and reviews to raise their professional visibility, more altruistic motivations—like contributing to their professional community—are at least as common.

Discovery Room, National Museum of Natural History, Washington, DCMany case studies have been about science exhibitions, 26 of them NSF-funded, including classics like the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History’s Discovery Room in Washington, D.C. (Judith White), and more recent award-winners like the Huntington Botanical Garden’s Plants Are Up to Something in San Marino, California (Karina White). But over time, we have seen more posts about art galleries and offbeat museums like St. Louis’s City Museum (Jason Jay Stevens). The site provides us with both delightful and haunting glimpses of places near and far—from Austin, Minnesota’s Spam Museum (Dan Spock) to the Choeung Ek Genocide Museum near Phnom Penh, Cambodia (Mary Marcussen).

ExhibitFiles includes both thorough pieces by museum elders and first attempts at review by museum studies students on assignment. The sense of camaraderie, common purpose, devotion to the larger museum field, and sometimes even celebration is evident in contributions and comments. In addition, participants have told project evaluator Carey Tisdal why they value the site. “I love, love, love the case study forum,” said one participant. “That alone provides insight into design and exhibits that is invaluable to designers who don’t have large travel budgets. It is great for inspiration as well as critical reflection.”

We have also identified some areas where ExhibitFiles could be improved. As content builds beyond original expectations, findability becomes more important. We have added open tagging and a browse page. But search functionality is still not what we wish it would be, and evaluation suggests this contributes to a sense that the site is slowly getting bogged down.

People want places to discuss issues and listen in on important conversations. But we wonder whether the current format of ExhibitFiles will be sufficiently adaptable given how much has changed since early 2006. Back then, Facebook wasn’t in general use and Twitter was just on the horizon. It’s now so easy to start a blog or create an online presence that the role of centralized gathering places is an open question. What happens, then, to a devotion not only to my online profile but also to our common field?

What now?
Although the media landscape has changed in recent years, the need for shared experience, reflection, and inspiration has not. The fact that people continue to join ExhibitFiles—even though some may hesitate to disclose details of their own experience or venture a review—seems to us evidence of a continuing thirst for what communities at their best have to offer.

What might help ExhibitFiles remain of service to the exhibition community? Here are some things we hope the site and its community will accomplish in the coming months and years:

  • Welcome. Much of the richness of ExhibitFiles comes from its embrace of the whole museum exhibition community, not just science centers. Members of the site have recommended that ExhibitFiles be more explicit in its inclusion of all sectors of the museum field. We agree.
  • Remember. From the beginning, we hoped ExhibitFiles would be hospitable to both new discoveries and old traditions. As the site has evolved, however, current reviews and recently completed projects have tended to take center stage. But there is much wisdom in past experience. We want to see more reviews and case studies of older, classic exhibitions. One of Kathy’s first posts on ExhibitFiles quotes Canadian designer Bruce Mau: “Growth is only possible as a product of history. Without memory, innovation is mere novelty. History gives growth a direction.”
  • Take risks. Every exhibition is an opportunity to see the world in a different way and tempt people beyond their comfort zones. We want to see more criticism and deep reflection on ExhibitFiles—that’s what other members have told the evaluator, too. We wonder: What would have to happen to make ExhibitFiles more congenial for conversations that wake us up and shake us up?

We are grateful to NSF for taking a risk with this project and to our collaborators, the Ideum programming and design team led by Jim Spadaccini, and evaluators Randi Korn (front-end studies) and Carey Tisdal (remedial and summative studies). And we are grateful to our Core Contributors who were the first to venture into the new and empty public park—and to every one of you, for making it your own. We look forward to continuing our own participation—and to contributing our own pre-internet memories and provocations.

Wendy Pollock was director of research, publications, and exhibitions at ASTC until 2009 and principal investigator (PI) of the NSF grant that supported development of ExhibitFiles. Kathleen McLean, principal of the museum consulting firm Independent Exhibitions, was co-PI. Wendy now lives in Evanston, Illinois, mostly working these days with urban and community forestry projects.

This look back at the creation of ExhibitFiles also appears in the January/February issue of ASTC Dimensions. A report on the evaluation just completed by Carey Tisdal will also be shared here in early 2012.

To learn more about ExhibitFiles or for assistance in posting a case study or review, contact Wendy Hancock (

Reflections on art in children’s and science museums

November 25th, 2011 by ExhibitFiles

Children's Museum of New Hampshire

Justine Roberts, executive director of the Children’s Museum of New Hampshire in Dover, looked back at several case studies and reviews as she reflected on the many roles professional art can play in science and children’s museums.

At the Children’s Museum of New Hampshire (left) we are home to the largest art gallery in Dover, right inside our museum. Gallery 6 changes three to four times a year and features regional 2D and 3D artists. It is literally the heart of the physical museum and also its conceptual center. So we think a great deal about the different ways art functions in other children’s and science museums, and how we want to use art in our space.

As the following examples — drawn in part from case studies and reviews on ExhibitFiles — show, the role and use of art in and by non-art museums is hugely variable:

• Glenn A. Walsh, in his case study about art in the original Buhl Planetarium and Institute of Popular Science, Pittsburgh, talks about how the Buhl traditionally used art to “help explain science topics to the general public.” Artworks clarify and communicate ideas to the audience.

• Museums like the Exploratorium use art also to inspire curiosity, wonder, and awe. In this sense, as Paul Orselli puts it in his Bit about the Smart Art installation in the American Museum of Natural History’s Brain exhibition (right), art helps science museum visitors experience the way something works.

• But take the Chihuly installation at the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis. Although it is clearly there to inspire, it is not there to teach about glass, color, luminosity, or structure. What it does is establish the museum as an environment with built in affordances, provocations, and opportunities for exploration. In this case, the art is not an element in the space but of-a-piece with the visitor experience.

• I understand the art program is similarly integrated throughout the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh. What feels innovative to me in Pittsburgh is how art helps make the museum welcoming to adults — communicating that this is their place, too.

This isn’t just about science centers and children’s museums. Take Systema Metropolis and Who Am I? (both reviewed on ExhibitFiles) from two different London museums. These projects both use art to invite participation — to invite the visitor to organize and sort information.

• As Lynda Kelly explains it, Systema Metropolis, part of a contemporary art exhibition at London’s Natural History Museum, combined art with graphics and other materials to create a layered exhibit that provoked and engaged visitors in the process of scientific inquiry – the “artistic process of enabling visitors to make their own meaning” (and did you know the London History Museum has a contemporary art program?!).

Identity Dolls in Who Am I? at London's Science MuseumWho Am I?, at London’s Science Museum, was similar but went another step and, in the lobby, installed a collection of Identity Dolls (left) made by community members. Art was not just about helping communicate complex ideas. The audience made their own art about the issues in the exhibit — they used art-making to organize their thoughts and express what they knew.

The Children’s Museum of New Hampshire’s Gallery 6 serves a combination of these roles. It provides inspiration to visitors, and helps establish the museum as a creative and interdisciplinary space. It also attracts adults who browse the work and often initiate conversations with their kids in a way we don’t see in other exhibits. The gallery also adds a dimension to our aesthetics that are not standard for a children’s museum. We show professional art in all it’s complexity and interest.

Just as importantly Gallery 6 establishes a visual link between visitors’ playful self-expression and that of professionals. You can see Gallery 6 from our studio space (pictured above), and children’s artwork is hung so that you can see it from the gallery. We are intentionally layering together what visitors do and what professional creatives in our community do. For us, integrating art into the museum is part of positioning the museum as a meeting place for ideas and people. We haven’t yet done a project like the Identity Dolls but it would be in keeping with how we understand the role of art in our work.

So . . . art and science are historical cousins but the story doesn’t end there. The dynamic is as complex, variable, and evolving as the field as a whole.

Visits to the museums of the five ‘stans

October 31st, 2011 by ExhibitFiles

Christine Reich, director of research and evaluation at the Museum of Science, Boston, visited Central Asia a few weeks ago. (She appears, right, with a docent at a museum in Tajikistan). In this post, she shares observations and reflections about museums she encountered there.

Imagine you work for a museum in one of the most powerful republics in the world. Then one day, seemingly overnight, the republic dissolves. How would your museum respond? This very scenario occurred 20 years ago with the disbanding of the Soviet Union. I recently had the opportunity to visit the five ‘stans of Central Asia (Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan) and experienced firsthand how this disruptive event influenced the museums in these five nations.

Founded in 1991, the ‘stans are relatively young. Similar to young adults at the age of 20, these nations are in the process of forming their identities, which are built upon yet distinct from that of their parent nation— the Soviet Union. This identity-shaping is reflected in the countries’ national museums, which often seek to connect these newly formed countries to glorious empires of the past. In Tajikistan, a museum emphasizes the region’s historic connections to the empires of Persia and Alexander the Great, while in Uzbekistan the museums highlight the territory’s past as the birthplace of the great conqueror Tamerlane.

Statue of the former President of TurkmenistanWhile the ‘stans are similar in their status as young nations, their political climates are quite different, and this difference is evident in the content of their museums. Nowhere is this better exemplified than through a comparison of the museums in Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan. Over the past 20 years, Turkmenistan has been a dictatorship that is ruled by a cult of personality. Images of the immediate past and current president are ubiquitous. Multiple museums are home to galleries filled with pictures of the current president as he engages in all kinds of activities: riding a bike, steering a yacht, teaching children how to use computers, wearing traditional clothing, cooking outdoors, and my personal favorite—fixing someone’s teeth (he used to be a dentist). These pictures were the same in each museum, and like the omnipresent images of the president that existed in all cities and towns, the presidential portraits in these museums always left me with the distinct feeling I was being watched.

Unlike Turkmenistan where the government has been relatively stable (albeit authoritarian) since the time the nation was formed, Kyrgyzstan’s recent history has been rife with conflict and instability. April 2010 marked the occurrence of a revolution that both ousted an unjust dictator and initiated a violent, inter-ethnic conflict. Kyrgyzstan’s Historical Museum did not shy away from this struggle, but rather embraced it. Amidst the Soviet-era bronze sculptures that portrayed the glories of the Bolshevik revolution, the Historical Museum mounted a new exhibition that depicts the events of the April 2010 revolution. Images in this exhibition did not glorify the revolution, nor did they denounce it. They were human images of loss and struggle, depicting the pain that comes from losing someone you love as well as the joy that emanates from knowing that freedom may be close at hand. This Sunday, October 30th, the existing, interim President in Kyrgyzstan did not run for re-election and the country held open elections. This was a first within the five ‘stans. Due to this exhibition, I found myself watching the election closely, wishing peace and stability for a country that is now near and dear to my heart.

As I visited the museums of the ‘stans, my first reaction was to dismiss many of their practices as they were antithetical to my own personal view of museums as democratic institutions. Over time, I became less judgmental and eventually came to the understanding that it is difficult for a museum to serve as a democratic institution when it does not exist within a democracy. Despite the (at times overt) political agenda of many of the museums, all the museums I visited had powerful stories to tell. Each provided insights into the political climate of the nations, the future aspirations of the people, and the history with which they chose to identify. Slowly, I realized that similar to our own museums, these museums were both shapers of and shaped by the societal context in which they exist.

Thus, I began to wonder, if someone from the ‘stans visited the United States tomorrow, what would he or she see in our museums? What national identity do we portray in the objects we choose to exhibit, and in the historical stories we choose to tell (or not tell)? What do our museums betray about our political climate? I leave these questions for you to ponder.

Talking back

September 15th, 2011 by ExhibitFiles

Co-created content and community participation are now part of the standard vocabulary of museum exhibits — in theory if not always in practice. Running into Janet Kamien the other day was a reminder that at one time it was a brave step for a museum to invite visitors not just to comment, but to talk back — to assert that their voices had a place alongside the curators’. At the Boston Children’s Museum from 1972 to 1986 and the Field Museum from 1986 to 1996, Janet helped pioneer the approach.  In this post, she looks back at what was to become “a temperature-taking device, a venting mechanism, a dialogue enhancer, and an integral part of the exhibition content.”

The Boston Children’s Museum was probably not the first museum to engage in organized methods of direct visitor feedback, but we were surely in the game early.

It was an obvious step. We believed in being “client centered,” so finding out what the client needed, wanted, or thought about our museum was important to us. This was in the late 1960s and early’70s. Visitor research, as we now understand it, barely existed.

In our beginning use of “talk-backs,” as we called them, we simply cut to the chase and asked people what they thought about the Children’s Museum. We posted many of these comments, both good and bad, and the suggestions for improvements or new exhibits and programs for other visitors to see.

We eventually began to incorporate talk-backs into specific exhibitions. One of the first of these was for a project called Lito the Shoeshine Boy. This 1974 exhibition was based on a photo-documentary-style children’s book about a day in the life of a poor, abandoned street boy in Guatemala. A maze-like space, stage-set-style rooms and large black-and-white photos and text from the book suggested the environments and activities of Lito’s everyday life, as he made it more or less on his own, with little adult help and no schooling.

Visitors were asked to consider this story and write to us about it on notepaper that could be tacked up on a bulletin board. And write they did, about their sorrow for this boy, with thanks for telling his story, or appalled that we were telling such a sad story in a “fun” place. There were also political opinions about how the Litos of the world had been created—one writer blamed the United Fruit Company and included a snide suggestion about our possible connection to those scoundrels!

Our motives may have been a bit disingenuous. We knew that this exhibition would raise a few eyebrows, and we wanted feedback about this risk from our visitors. We suspected that visitors who opposed our installation for whatever reason would feel a bit more forgiving of us if offered the chance to tell us so in public. We also thought that visitors who were emotionally touched by the exhibition would be grateful for a place to reveal their feelings.

Thus was born the notion of the talk-back as a Boston Children’s Museum device that might do three things:

  • inform us, the producers, if our products were found to be useful and enjoyable to the people for whom we had produced them;
  • provide a place for people to vent strongly felt emotions or opinions that the exhibition may have evoked;
  • mitigate controversy evoked by some of our possibly risky undertakings by providing a public forum for naysayers to “tell us off.”

Subsequent experiments would bear out the utility of all three of these suppositions and eventually add two others:

  • provide a medium for visitors to talk to each other;
  • provide a way for visitors to become part of the exhibit by continually adding to its content.

If ever an exhibition cried out for the use of talk-backs for all these purposes, it was the 1986 Endings: An Exhibit about Death and Loss. We designed three talk-backs for the 5,000-square-foot space. (As developer of this exhibition, I should have known to have made it four… but more about that later.)

The first component asked visitors if they had been named for anyone. We expected a light response, mostly citing grandparents, aunts, and uncles. The response was light, but surprisingly featured many examples of children named for soldiers—kin and friends—lost in the Vietnam War. This was fascinating both to us and our visitors.

The second component asked for opinions about the afterlife. After describing a variety of beliefs (unattached to a specific religion), including the notion that there is none, visitors were asked, “What do you and your family believe?” Two of my personal favorites were, “My family believes in heaven, but I’m not so sure,” and “Our soils (sic) fly up to heaven,” complete with an illustration thereof.

The third component should have been two: It asked visitors to tell us what they thought of the exhibition or to share an experience they had had with death. I think some visitors were confused by this double question, though most chose to answer one or the other. Visitors answering the first question were all over the map, often responding to other people’s postings. Some thought it brilliant, others that it was inappropriate for a children’s museum, or that we should read our New Testaments—then we’d know that there was no such thing as death! Some younger visitors wanted to tell us that they thought the material was OK for them (9- or 10-year olds), but they feared it was inappropriate for “younger” visitors.

Answers to the second question were sometimes poignant, sometimes funny, and sometimes so personal they weren’t posted, but placed in the box we provided. Many of these were written by adults. Many were very long and heartfelt. One often had the sense that some of these visitors had been looking for a way to tell someone about their feelings for a very long time. In many ways, the content provided by our visitors was just as engaging as the exhibition itself.

Talk-back boards were used with equal effect and poignancy in an exhibition called Families, about the love and commitment of members of nontraditional families to each other. Here again, we, and our visitors, heard how grateful kids felt that their own particular type of family had been recognized, although some adults took issue with the appropriateness of the presentation of a homosexual couple in a children’s museum.

In the mid-1980s, Michael Spock and I took our love of this device with us to the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. One of its first uses there was to help us and our visitors focus on an old, miniature diorama called “Morning Star,” in the Native American Hall. In it, a young woman was being sacrificed by a group of men. Label copy explained that this was an annual event meant to please the gods. Though the diorama had sat un-remarked upon for 30 years or more, a white feminist visitor was so outraged by it that she wrote a scathing letter to us. We consulted a Pawnee eldress, and she too wrote a letter explaining that this really did happen, that they weren’t proud of it, but that there was no reason not to talk about it. These two letters were posted in a talk-back, in which other visitors could state their opinions. Should we get rid of this exhibit, we asked, or keep it? In the meantime, staff research revealed many flaws in both the presentation and the label copy. Based on visitor commentary over a long period, we decided to keep the diorama and correct it. It became a less lurid presentation and more accurate—for instance, the whole village had participated, not just a group of overexcited-looking men.

Other talk-backs were used, especially in Life Over Time, the Field Museum’s large exhibition about evolution and the history of life on Earth. These talk-backs addressed some sticky issues that would be seen by some to have religious implications. One asked (in the context of the Urey-Miller experiment* of the 1950s and a book of creation stories from all over the world) what visitors thought about how life began on Earth. Responses to this ranged from “kill all abortion doctors” to “Darwin is God” to “evolution is a glove on the hand of God.” None of these, of course, addressed the question we asked, but all made it clear that visitors of every persuasion were eager to state their opinions and show what side they were on or, like the last, that they could see both sides.

One important lesson learned at the Field Museum was in Animal Kingdom. An early talk-back in that conservation-minded exhibition asked, “What can you do to help the environment?” and provided some prompts, such as recycling, or saving gas or electricity. To this, visitors replied with observations like “Charlie loves Sally” and a variety of four-letter words. Why? Because they knew they were being set up. We weren’t really asking them what they thought, we just wanted them to parrot something back to us, and they refused. We took it out.

Now, a few words about technique. Readers will have noticed that every example uses paper and pencil and not computers. The biggest innovation seems to be that of the Post-it. (And how glad I am of it—no more worrying about little ones with thumbtacks or pushpins!) Though computers were considered at the Field Museum, we eventually decided in each case to stick to the old technique. There are a couple of reasons. One is that it is much easier (and easier for more people at one time) to scan the comments of others or to add their own. Another reason is that people can place their comments in relationship to others or to graphics that are supporting an idea.

This is not to say that the variety of uses of computers and video kiosks for feedback in many institutions doesn’t work fine. In addition to having innate appeal for some visitors, computers also offer the institution a simple way to keep all the comments, instead of having shoeboxes of “stickies” floating around. But it is also important to remember that no matter how consistently or scientifically talk-backs are collected, they are no replacement for actual visitor research, and that collecting talk-backs will not yield a reliable database for analysis.

At the Field Museum, we also experimented with the use of a “comment book” at the end of Daniel’s Story, a traveling exhibition about the Holocaust. This is a perfectly good way to allow for visitor feedback. But even using paper and pencil, it shares some of the aspects of computer feedback, in that only one person can use it at a time, and it’s more difficult for other visitors to review what others have written or to respond in a direct way to the comments of others.

It is for these reasons that the single question “talk-back” seems to me to be the most useful format. It becomes a temperature-taking device, a venting mechanism, a dialogue enhancer, and an integral part of the exhibition content. All in all, talk-backs, by their very participatory nature, help to turn every exhibit they are in to one of dynamic daily change and thereby change the tenor of each installation for the better.

* In this stunning experiment, the combination of water, hydrogen, methane, ammonia, and an electrical spark yielded the creation of three life-essential amino acids in a week’s time, suggesting that life on Earth could have begun through a happy, but accidental combination of common materials.

Janet is now an independent museum consultant and member of the Museum Group. This post was adapted from articles that appeared in the Journal of Museum Education, Volume 28, Number 3 (Fall 2003), and in Visitor Voices in Museum Exhibitions, edited by Kathleen McLean and Wendy Pollock (ASTC 2007).

The humble appeal of smart, quirky, and beautiful little exhibits

August 8th, 2011 by Wendy Pollock

Daniel Burnham, celebrated for his outsize impact on the shape of modern Chicago, famously said, “Make no little plans.” But sometimes, in museums, there’s a place for little plans – for cosy nooks and modest materials, for exhibits that may be small in scale, but outsize in appeal, with an  eye for the quirky and beautiful, and with lots of heart. Often it seems that those that cost less than large-scale, hardened exhibitions meant to travel and last for years, have a kind of humble appeal. Maybe it’s because they seem to allow more space for give-and-take, for human error and modest change, for meeting on level ground.

A number of ExhibitFiles posts have celebrated the delightfully simple and small. This seems like a good day to remember some of them.Take, for example, Nina Simon’s post about the “decaying dice of Ricky Jay” at LA’s Museum of Jurassic Technology. Nothing but dice and labels, dramatically lit. The exhibit “drops a tiny question mark like a monkey wrench into assumptions we make every day,” she says. “It takes the basic concept of chance and turns it into a beautiful challenge to think—an open question instead of a closed experience.”

Paul Orselli wrote about toasters – that’s right, an exhibit about toasters at St. Louis’s City Museum, where a volunteer armed with a loaf of bread offered to make visitors a slice of toast. Dan Spock added a comment: “I liked the simplicity of the conception and design and the use of real toasting and the delicious toasty aromas.”

Beth Redmond-Jones wrote about an installation at the Battery Maritime Building in New York (right) that turned the building, with its pipes and pillars, “into a giant musical instrument.”

Kathy Krafft wrote about a low-budget in-house exhibition the Sciencenter in Ithaca made, with inspiration from a book of puzzles available from the public library.

Dave Stroud wrote about the Try It! Lab, a prototyping space at Utah’s Thanksgiving Point Institute where visitors and developers interact and “the ‘wow factor’ of the décor” is limited.

And how about Tom Nielsen’s beautiful essay about soap bubbles? What could be simpler, or more beautiful?

Setting the stage for conviviality

August 1st, 2011 by Wendy Pollock

Chicago Botanic GardenIn an essay called “Convivial Cities,” Lisa Peattie wrote that “Conviviality can take place with few props. . . But it must have some sort of material base–the right-shaped corner, the piece of vacant land and a couple of rakes–and it must have the rules that permit it. Conviviality cannot be coerced, but it can be encouraged by the right rules, the right props, and the right places and spaces.” These two images (seating at the Chicago Botanic Garden, right, and below, the Hull-House Museum‘s urban farm) suggest ways museums can be staging grounds for conviviality, not only in planning exhibitions, but in arranging other spaces where people can come together and feel connected and revitalized.

Last week, the Hull-House Museum’s director, Lisa Yun Lee, spoke at the closing session of the Visitor Studies Association meeting in Chicago about her vision for museums. She critiqued the economic impact argument that’s often made these days– that museums are important as economic engines and generators of local revenue and jobs. While this is certainly valid, museums contribute much more, she said, including fostering conviviality and offering “an opportunity to unleash our visitors’ radical imaginations about what might have been and might be.”

It seems a modest beginning, a corner and a couple of rakes. But even with limited resources, there are things we can do to make a real difference.

Contribute your images and stories about convivial museums and exhibitions through the ExhibitFiles Facebook page or by posting a Bit. More

Picturing conviviality

July 29th, 2011 by Wendy Pollock

Image by Darcie Fohrman: National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.Is your museum convivial? Have you visited a museum where you’ve felt particularly energized and alive? We invite you to share images and stories—and to join Kathleen McLean and me during the ASTC Annual Conference to celebrate museums that cultivate this essential quality of vibrant public places.

In our recent book, The Convivial Museum, we suggest that these are key dimensions of conviviality: a welcoming spirit, orientation to the community, comfort, opportunities for social engagement, and places for healing and renewal. The book focuses on physical features of museums—like approaches, entryways, seating, lounges, and nooks—because although they are often overlooked, they have profound effects on the quality of a museum experience. For more, check out the discussion Nina Simon hosted on her blog earlier this year.

Comfortable seating at the Denver Art Museum's Hamilton BuildingUse the Bits feature of ExhibitFiles to submit your image, video, or story of a convivial museum experience, and be included in a dynamic discussion of successes and failures, obstacles and opportunities. Be sure to identify the image and include a comment about the convivial quality of the place, how you (or others) are working to make it more convivial, or a question or challenge it represents.

Log in and post a Bit; or share your image and story on Facebook (or email me). The conference session is on Monday, October 17, in Baltimore,10:45 a.m.- 12:00 noon.

About the images: Darcie Forhman’s photograph of visitors to Washington, D.C.’s National Gallery of Art (above) is in a section of The Convivial Museum about ambience. Erik Thogersen’s photograph of comfortable seating (left) is from his review of a new building at the Denver Art Museum. Another example is the Center for Creative Connections, which Kathleen McLean profiles in her case study.