Communication

Review

of an Exhibition

by Robin White Owen

Published on January 05, 2008, Modified on April 23, 2012

  • Description:

    When LSC was planning the Communication exhibition for its new space, I was part of a focus group that met for several days to brainstorm ideas. It’s a really big subject and I was very curious to see how the exhibit turned out, especially after The New York Times published a luke warm review of many exhibits, scolding LSC for encouraging visitors to get involved in issues, learn more, take action.

    Who cares what the Times says? Judging by the visitors who were there, the new LSC has taken the right approach. Communication, the exhibition, is really interactive, well designed, informative, clear and comprehensive. Starting with a reference to 40,000 year old cave paintings, and ending with blogs and text messages, it covers a lot of territory, and provides a very engaging overview of the history of human communication.

    DESCRIPTION
    At the entrance you come upon a long, floor to ceiling “cave” wall where you can make an ‘imprint’ of your hand. It’s a beautiful, poetic nod to the earliest form of human expression, and it’s fun even if you don’t get the reference. My cel phone picture isn’t a fair representation.

    ZONE ONE: LANGUAGE
    This whole area is devoted to the biology of communication – how our brains work to make communication possible. Little kids can investigate the mechanical interactives placed just at their height, on how we learn to speak, gesture and hear.

    For taller and older people there are other clever mechanical interactives about How you Speak and How you Hear. There’s also a computer interactive, What Does the Brain Do With The Words You Hear, which slices through the brain to show you which parts are involved in hearing, speaking, signing and seeing. One of the highlights of this zone is Language Karaoke, where visitors appear on a large video screen “conversing” in a foreign language.

    Other components in this area tackle sign language, theories on the development of language, and body language. You can learn to sign some basic phrases like “I love you” from Deborah, a virtual teacher who is patient and I watched several upper elementary kids earnestly practicing with her.

    Two upper elementary age kids were also using the How Did Language Start? interactive when I got there. They were determined to go through all 8 theories, as much for the fun of collecting them as to understand everything. When it was my turn I found the navigation user friendly, the encapsulated descriptions clear and the theory summaries good. Of course I was surprised to see that the theory I thought had the most going for it was not the most popular theory with other visitors.

    The large screen interactive Body and Language appeals to all ages. I watched as several people played with it, clearly delighted by exploring the implicated meanings of facial expressions, clothing, and tone of voice. I bet some of what they learned carries over into their daily lives. ZONE TWO: WRITING
    The next section of the exhibition is about writing – its history and diversity – and offers a range of activities about Braille, codes, rebuses, etc. At the Writing Tools table, I had an “aha!” moment when I realized that writing developed differently in China, the Fertile Crescent and other regions because people had different technologies available to them – reed and ink, versus clay tablets and carving tools, for example. I’d never thought about that before.

    The dramatic climax of this section is the large virtual Graffiti wall, mobbed with ecstatic young taggers and patient parents. Kids use a spray can (actually a light sword) to “spray paint” the wall. Basically it’s a large scale drawing application. Once they’re satisfied with their work, the image is automatically saved to a nearby kiosk to be displayed and archived. This is a tame experience of graffiti of course, but still a refreshing surprise for kids weary of too much science center edification.

    ZONE THREE: DIGITAL COMMUNICATION
    The final zone of the exhibition covers digital media content and the technology behind it. In the first part, the emphasis is on how technology has made it possible to blur the distinctions between producers and consumers of media.

    Two activities demonstrate what this means. Make Your Point provides three terminals where visitors can seize their “chance to be a Media Producer” and comment on current events. Everyday the program software goes out to the web and downloads pictures from the top stories in the news, so the activity stays fresh and relevant. I saw upper elementary age kids pouring over the images in the database that they wanted to write about. I watched parents and children working on this patiently together. All the participants were proud to see their work displayed on the big screen. Observers can use a trackball station to search and select the archived stories they want to see on the screen.

    The second activity, Citizen Media, is a blogging opportunity. Emphasizing to visitors that each of them “has a voice,” people are encouraged to sit at one of two kiosks and choose one of three topics to comment on – Nature, Music, Politics. LSC made the initial post on each blog and visitors have carried on from there. Some posts are thoughtful, some are inane but none were obscene and several had been made earlier on the day I was there. I wondered how many of the people who participated in these activities already blogged or were otherwise engaged in putting their own content on the web, and how many had never done it before.

    The next area, Raise Your Media IQ promotes the all-important subject of media literacy. Visitors can sit down for a few moments in a mini-theater and watch a video about the perils of hidden commercial messages aimed at young children, and the bias in news coverage, for example. But the video was not engaging and viewers left quickly. An upgrade is apparently in production.

    Once into the last part – on how digital technology works – the interest level spikes up again. At a series of high and low tech interactives, you can learn about what pixels are, how digital audio, radio signals, cel phones and lots of other things work. I loved Network Odyssey about cel phones. Usually this subject bores me, but with clear instructions and great graphics, the info in this interactive really stayed with me.

    On the way out of the exhibit you can stop at the Bubble Screen to compare the popularity of current methods of communication – landline phones, mobile phones, email, IM and text messaging, and sharing photos – among different age groups. Enter in your preferences and see your very own bubble up there to compare with everyone else’s. The expected generational trends are right there: teenagers send a lot more photos from their phones than their parents do and older people use landlines a lot more than their kids do.

    From just about every standpoint Communication succeeds. It presents a wide variety of engaging experiences for learning about the history of human communication. It looks great. It illustrates the multifaceted nature of scientific endeavors. It encourages people to make connections between the past and present, between the science they learn about and the science they encounter in every day life. It asks them to think about how technology influences communication. Also, at least in the Digital Media section, it offers a forum for visitors to share their comments with each other and the Science Center.

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