Cells to Self

Topic: Life Sciences Subtopic: Cells

Case Study

of an Exhibition

by Denise King

Published on November 21, 2019, Modified on November 21, 2019

  • Description and goals

    The Exploratorium presents Cells to Self, a new 2,500 square-foot exhibition. How do the trillions of cells in your body work together to create a human self? How are you shaped by the genes you’re born with, and by your environment?

    Through more than 20 new experiences, this collection reveals the wondrous variety of human cells, and the amazing things they’re doing in your body. See live heart cells beating in time with your own pulse, or find out which bacteria are living on your skin. Through living tissues, microscopes, and digital models, you’ll discover how cells move and communicate. And consider how genetic and environmental forces create your uniquely human self.

  • Development process and challenges

    We divided the project into two phases. As a working theme for the first phase we focused on two ideas: we are made of cells and cells do cool stuff. At the end of the first phase, we produced graphics, exhibition elements, a color scheme, and did a full phase one install. The exhibition area was open to the public through all phases of this project, and all prototypes were tested in the space. We used prototyping extensively throughout the project, and not just for exhibits. We prototyped live demonstrations and the exhibition look and feel. For the second phase we added the themes of genetics and microbiome.
    The exhibition look and feel changed a lot from the first phase to the second phase and final install. We gave ourselves the space and time to not get it right the first time. The end result is an exhibition we are extremely proud of.

    Content research for this exhibition was daunting, especially for staff without degrees in biology. We supported each other by sharing info on a project Basecamp site. Ideas became crowd sourced and good ones rose to the top. Developers then began prototyping early and continually until the final design and fabrication phase.

    It is hard to make interactive exhibits with living cells in them. We had to choose where to spend our time and effort. Many of the exhibits do not have living organisms, and we used models in novel ways.

    Incorporating artists works into our exhibitions is an Exploratorium value. Artists bring a lens through which we can explore science content, and artworks offer different entry points for visitors. Much effort and budget was put toward discovering and procuring artists’s works that are now part of the exhibit collection.

    The exhibition was funded from a mosaic of sources, each complementary to the overall exhibition goals. This was a challenge for project leadership as well as our grant managers, but the consistency of the vision kept it all aligned.

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

    Our floor space was limited, and was very much a thoroughfare that visitors breezed through. We focused on quality over quantity with our exhibits and exhibition design, and we successfully turned a hallway into an eddy that holds visitors. Some of the individual exhibits had holding times of up to 10 minutes during formative evaluation.

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