Eureka!

Topic: Other Subtopic: General

Case Study

of an Exhibition

by Wendy Pollock

Published on June 21, 2007, Modified on July 29, 2007

  • Description and goals

    Invention and innovation are themes of perennial interest among science centers and technology museums. This exhibition presented a dozen inventions, drawing on the classic American narrative of the small-scale inventor whose good idea leads to business success. It’s hard to believe now, but when Eureka opened in 1980, it was a pioneer in inviting visitors to interact directly with exhibits. The exhibition traveled for 5 years to 26 museums; the funders later donated it to OMSI.

    The 1,500-square foot exhibition featured the following inventions spanning 200 years: bifocal lenses, phonograph, telephone, zipper, steam engine lubricator, ice cream cone, safety razor, bakelite (the first thermosetting plastic), Xerography, light polarizing film, electronic music synthesizer, and surgical heart valve. In a later iteration, a woman was added to the previously all-male list: Mary Anderson, inventor of a window-washing device.

    Displays were clustered in 2 pavilions and 2 islands. One island illustrated telephone communications with booths 10 feet apart; another showed instant copier technique. The 2 hexagonal pavilions presented 5 subjects each; visitors walked both around and through them. Some of the components:
    • Samples of bifocals that visitors could look through
    • Working 33-rpm record on a revolving table with a pickup made of a paper cone and sewing needle
    • Working model of simple telecommunications device
    • Static display of fiber optics and explanation of what was then described as an “immanent technological leap in transmission technology”
    • Working large-scale model of a zipper, with clear plastic tab revealing how the teeth mesh (and a pair of shoes featuring one of the first zipper closings)
    • Bakelite products and raw material
    • Polarizing viewer with a variety of materials to view (e.g., a cellophane collage)
    • Mini-Moog music synthesizer, adjusted to allow visitors to play with some of the variables
    • Transparent working model of surgical heart valve (and collection of actual valves, including “state-of-the-art pig membrane valve”)
    • Duplicate of device used to prove “electro-photography” was possible

  • Development process and challenges

    During ASTC’s early years, when hands-on traveling exhibitions were scarce, a coincidence of interests made this exhibition possible. The U.S. Small Business Administration wanted a “celebration of American small business innovation” (the eventual subtitle of this exhibition); ASTC wanted the means to develop hands-on exhibitions for its members. Sheila Grinell, then head of ASTC’s Traveling Exhibition Service, exercised her entrepreneurial skills on behalf of ASTC’s members, and Eureka! was the result. The organization joined forces with Shab Levy and Jeff Kennedy, exhibit designers then at OMSI, who also did freelance work. The development team was very small, and the timeline was short. A standard template was established for each unit: hands-on demonstration of device or artifact(in some cases), patent drawing, picture of inventor, copy pointing out underlying principles and reasons for the invention’s success.

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

    Lessons I’ve retained range from the practical to larger scale:
    • Working with fluids: Use dyes tested under similar circumstances; drain before shipping, at least during the winter (the heart valve model cracked when it crossed the Rockies)
    • Working with sponsors: If you accept funding from an organization with a message to communicate, you will end up compromising—be sure the compromises are worth the result (when Reagan came into office, the SBA demanded that we add a sign with his photo and a message that seemed clearly political)
    • Making the familiar strange and the strange familiar: The giant zipper was the star of this show. It was big, wooden, simple—it showed something familiar in an unfamiliar light. This principle is not only at the heart of inquiry, it also informs some of the best exhibits.

  • Exhibition Opened: May 1980

  • Traveling Exhibition: Yes

  • Location: Washington, DC, United States

  • Estimated Cost: Less than $100,000 (US)

  • Size: 1000 to 3,000

  • Other funding source(s): U.S. Small Business Administration

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