Psychology Exhibition

Topic: Life Sciences Subtopic: Other

Case Study

of an Exhibition

by Gretchen Jennings

Published on May 03, 2007, Modified on November 05, 2014

  • Description and goals

    By Gretchen Jennings

    The Psychology Exhibition was created as the major public education initiative of the American Psychological Association (APA) in celebration of its centennial in 1992. The Ontario Science Centre in Toronto was selected by APA as its partner in the development, design, and fabrication of the exhibition and its traveling versions. Although the exhibition’s development began over 20 years ago it is still cited as a model by the profession. It won an award for excellence in exhibitions from AAM in 1993. More recently, it was one of 12 exhibitions selected by peers in to be featured as a « noteworthy science exhibition » in “Are We There Yet ? Conversations about Best Practices in Science Exhibition Development,” edited by Kathleen McLean and Catherine McEver (2004). Not a year goes by that I am not contacted by someone for information about one of its components such as the Discovery Area or PlaySpace.

    For all of these reasons, and because it was developed before exhibitions had their own websites, this case study may be a bit longer than many on Exhibit Files, serving as a kind of historical documentation. In fact, Exhibit Files is providing the Psychology Exhibition with its first-ever home on the web.

    Goals :
    Content: To introduce a broad, general science museum audience to concepts, tools, methods, and results of 100 years of psychological research – to demystify psychology.
    Format: To devise a staffed, participatory, aesthetically pleasing, engaging, low-tech format that offers visitors diverse experiences and to test the feasibility of using the format in a traveling exhibition.

    The exhibition was designed to engage a multigenerational audience, and evaluation results as well as reports from the various host sites indicate that this goal was met.

  • Development process and challenges

    Multiple Versions
    - Mindworks opened at OSC in 1991, and is still on display as of this writing in 2007.
    In 1992 a traveling version opened at the Smithsonian as Psychology: Understanding Ourselves, Understanding Each Other and began its 4 year national tour through ASTC. It is on display at the Arizona Science Center.
    — A smaller traveling version, "Psychology, It’s More than You Think!” was widely traveled by ASTC and is now housed at the Archives of the History of American Psychology in Akron, OH.

    Demystifying psychology
    The term “psychology” is often associated primarily with therapy and mental heath concerns. While this is an important aspect of the discipline, it is not the whole story. Psychology researchers use the scientific method to examine a broad range of human life and behavior.

    Our “sound-bite” main idea came to be: “Psychologists study the things that people do every day.” People think, remember, forget, have feelings, communicate, cooperate, disagree, plan for the future, grow up, etc. These are the things that interest research psychologists. And we found, first through front end studies, and then as we prototyped various components, that people are interested in these everyday processes themselves.

    We chose robust and reliable research on common human experiences. This meant that a component based on this research would by and large call forth a similar response from most visitors. Most of the exhibits followed this paradigm:

    Activity: The visitor is asked to do an activity that calls forth a psychological effect. A good example is “Personal Space,” where two visitors are asked to step on carpet circles that are increasingly close to each other. In the closest space, unless the two visitors are closely related to one other, they tend to pull away from each other, feeling some infringement on their personal space.
    Reflection: This is so automatic that people are hardly aware of why they have done it. But the experience is very powerful. The label copy asks what is happening, and why. Often visitors laugh uncomfortably. Some walk away at this point.
    Reading: Many visitors are motivated by this experience to read. Brief label text helps the visitor understand the phenomenon of personal space, and why psychologists are interested in it.

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

    After the first version of the exhibition opened at OSC in March 1991 we spent many hours observing and talking with visitors. Based on what we learned we rewrote and simplified text and made several components more visitor-friendly. We were able to do this because OSC was fabricating a traveling version of the exhibition, and the changes were incorporated into this second iteration. OSC and APA did a great deal of prototyping during exhibition development; the components needing revision were by and large the ones we had not had time to test. This reinforces the value of any prototyping that can be done before an exhibition opens to the public. We were lucky that we had a “second chance” with the traveling exhibition.

    Accessibility issues
    Once the traveling version opened at the Smithsonian in May 1992 we realized that the exhibition was not as accessible as it could be since our videos were not captioned. With funding from APA and ASTC we retro-fitted all videos with open captioning, an expensive and time consuming process. It is definitely easier and cheaper to do captioning as you are developing video!

    A staffed exhibition
    An important format goal of this project was to create a staffed exhibition that would also travel. The two enclosed spaces, PlaySpace and The Discovery/Browsing Area, required staffing in order to be open to the public. Museums that booked the exhibition had to agree contractually to this minimum level of staffing. APA provided a wide range of support for this staffing requirement by bringing the PlaySpace manager at each site to train at The Children’s Museum, and by sending staff to each site to train gallery staff and volunteers. We learned that providing this kind of staffed support is expensive, but it did provide rich and substantive experiences for visitors. The issue is how to balance the costs with the compellingly positive results.

  • Exhibition Opened: March 1991

  • Exhibition Still Open!

  • Traveling Exhibition: Yes

  • Location: Phoenix, AZ, United States

  • Estimated Cost: Over $3,000,000 (US)

  • NSF Funding: Yes, Grant No. ESI # 8550582

  • Other funding source(s): W.T. Grant Foundation; Sloan Foundation

Latest Comments (1)

Groundbreaking Exhibition

by Diana Issidorides - May 19, 2007

The Psychology Exhibition (Mindworks; Understanding Ourselves, Understanding Each Other) was the first attempt ever to translate complex psychology concepts into an interactive museum experience. The notorious black box was transformed into a transparent structure at last, for all to engage in and explore. It set the standard against which all exhibitions on psychology and the mind are measured. But for me, the most important contribution of the Psychology Exhibition lies in its groundbreaking, anti-reductionist approach to exhibiting science in museum: science is much more than the demonstration or illustration of a set of natural phenomena and their fundamental properties.

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