Archive for the 'About Exhibits' Category

ExhibitSEED- Measuring an Exhibit’s Sustainability

Friday, 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

Friday, 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.

Reflections on art in children’s and science museums

Friday, 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

Monday, 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

Thursday, 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

Monday, 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

Monday, 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

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.

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.

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.