Archive for July, 2011

Picturing conviviality

Friday, 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.

How not to reinvent the wheel

Thursday, July 28th, 2011 by Wendy Pollock

Shaby Levy's 1977 Directory of Exhibits at Science and Technology CentersThirty years ago, people who developed museum exhibits had a lot more trouble finding out about exhibits in other museums, and there was practically no critical review of each other’s work. (A 1977 Directory of Exhibits at Science and Technology Museums, compiled by Shab Levy of the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, was one answer to the problem, left.) There were frequent comments from funders and others that museums were too often reinventing the wheel (or, as our funder, the National Science Foundation, put it, not “building on prior work”). ExhibitFiles was conceived as a way to change that, taking advantage of what were then (when we were funded, in 2005) new possibilities for sharing content online.

In a session about “Improving Our Practice” at the Visitor Studies Association (VSA) meeting in Chicago this week, Carey Tisdal and I shared some of the history, the fast-changing context, and the remedial evaluation that has helped the site identify areas for improvement. You can find our slides on a VSA wiki site. The remedial evaluation report is posted on

Exhibitions designed to be mobile

Wednesday, July 20th, 2011 by Wendy Pollock

NAME Journal, Exhibitionist, Spring 2011 issueThe National Association for Museum Exhibition (NAME) is seeking articles for the Spring 2012 of its journal, Exhibitionist, about exhibitions designed to be mobile. This includes:

  • traveling exhibitions in the traditional sense – designed by an organization or consortium and sent on the road to a number of venues
  • museum-sponsored vans or buses that extend a museum’s reach in its community or state
  • “pop up” exhibitions- created by one or more designers or by visitors themselves – that appear in neighborhoods or other venues, not necessarily museums.

If you’re interested, send an abstract by August 1st to editor Gretchen Jennings. In 250 words maximum, briefly describe your article; how it relates to issue theme; your background/qualifications for writing the article. Abstracts will be vetted by our editorial advisory board, and you will be notified of acceptance or non/acceptance within several weeks.

For back issues of the journal, visit the NAME website.

Contact: Gretchen Jennings, Exhibitionist Editor, gretchenjennings[at]
Abstract deadline: August 1, 2011.

ExhibitFiles at the Visitor Studies Association conference

Tuesday, July 19th, 2011 by Wendy Pollock

Coming to Chicago next week for the Visitor Studies Association conference? Get an update about evaluation of ExhibitFiles during a session on Tuesday, July 26, 9:00-10:15 a.m., when Carey Tisdal and I will be talking about Knowledge, Identity, and Networks in the Informal Learning Community. There are many other sessions on the program which should also be useful to exhibit practitioners. Find out more here.

If you contributed to the ExhibitFiles evaluation by responding to a survey or agreeing to be interviewed about your perspective, we truly appreciate your help. You can find the report of the remedial evaluation on the InformalScience website. Carey will also post results of the summative evaluation that is now underway.

How to make exhibitions catalysts for group interaction

Tuesday, July 12th, 2011 by ExhibitFiles

Minda BorunIn this guest post, Minda Borun, long-time director of research and evaluation at Philadelphia’s Franklin Institute, draws on earlier reports about the NSF-funded Philadelphia/Camden Informal Science Education Collaborative (PISEC). While dating back more than 10 years, this work is as relevant as ever for those designing exhibitions that stimulate the conversations we know are an important part of learning.

Exhibits are catalysts for encouraging group interaction. People bring their personal histories to their encounters with exhibits, they talk with one another – and that is how learning happens. We know this intuitively – and over the years, we’ve also gathered considerable evidence about characteristics of exhibition design that support and encourage this outcome.

In 1992, the Philadelphia/Camden Informal Science Education Collaborative (PISEC) started working on the Family Science Learning Project (NSF/ESI #9355504) to systematically test and refine our understanding of the learning behavior of the visiting unit characteristic of most museums: the small group. We identified seven characteristics of exhibits that our observations and collective experience suggested were associated with what we called “family-friendly” exhibits.

  • Multi-Sided  - Family can cluster around the exhibit
  • Multi-User - Interaction allows for several sets of hands or bodies
  • Accessible - Comfortably used by children and adults
  • Multi-Outcome - Observation and interactions are sufficiently complex to foster group discussion
  • Multi-Modal - Appeals to different learning styles and levels of knowledge
  • Readable - Text is arranged in easily understood segments
  • Relevant - Provides cognitive links to visitors’ existing knowledge and experience

Mechanics Maze, one of the "family friendly" exhibits in Kid ScienceThese features apply to any small group, not just families. The model has also been found to apply to programs by substituting “comprehensible” for “readable.”

Each of the PISEC partner museums – The Franklin Institute, Academy of Natural Sciences, New Jersey State Aquarium (now called the New Jersey Academy for Aquatic Sciences), and Philadelphia Zoo – added a new component that embodied these characteristics to an existing exhibit. Our results were impressive: In each museum, we saw a measurable increase in active family learning. After the publication of the results of this study (Borun et al., 1998), the PISEC museums and others went on to use these “seven characteristics of family-friendly exhibits) in the creation of new exhibitions. At the Franklin Institute, for example, the seven characteristics guided design of Kid Science (above), an exhibition for families with children ages five to eight, which opened in 2001. Prototypes of the interactives were extensively tested to be certain that they appealed to this age group and communicated their messages – and that design reflected those characteristics we knew were likely to be catalysts for group interaction. In our summative evaluation, we found that Kid Science engaged families longer and more actively than any other exhibit in the museum.

Sea Cave exhibit at Lookout Cove, Bay Area Discovery MuseumOther museums – like the Bay Area Discovery Museum in Sausalito – have also applied these principles.  Justine Roberts wrote about one of these exhibitions in her ExhibitFiles case study of Lookout Cove (left).

The PISEC group has since gone on to extend our experimentation to programs, including museum/community partnerships for underserved families (reported in our latest publication, In Their Own Voices: Museums and Communities Changing Lives).

It is important for museums to be facilitators of family exchange and group learning, not obstacles. PISEC’s findings offer important insights and guidance for those designing new exhibits.

Find out more

  • Borun, M., Cleghorn, A., and Garfield, C. (1995). Family learning in museums: A bibliographic review. Curator, 38(4), 262–270.
  • Borun, M., Chambers, M., and Cleghorn, A. (1996). Families are learning in science museums. Curator, 39(2), 124–138.
  • Borun, M., Chambers, M., Dritsas, J., and Johnson, J. (1997). Enhancing family learning through exhibits. Curator, 40(4), 279–295.
  • Borun, M., & Dritsas, J. (1997). Developing family-friendly exhibits. Curator, 40(3), 178–196.
  • Borun, M., Dritsas, J., Johnson, J., Peter, N. E., Wagner, K., Fadigan, K., Jangaard, A., Stroup, E., and Wenger, A. (1998). Family learning in museums: The PISEC perspective. Washington D.C.: The Association of Science Technology Centers.
  • Borun, Minda. (2002). Object-Based Learning and Family Groups in Scott Paris (ed.) Perspectives on Object-Centered Learning in Museums, Lawrence Erlbaum, Associates, Mahwah, New Jersey
  • Borun, Minda, Barbara Martin Kelly, Lisa Jo Rudy, (2011). In Their Own Voices: Museums and Communities Changing Lives, Philadelphia, PA: The Franklin Institute.