Science Storms


of an Exhibition

by Beverly Serrell

Published on April 07, 2010, Modified on May 29, 2011

  • Description:

    My friend Nancy and I went to the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago to see Science Storms last week, but when we got there it was so crowded (spring break) we turned around and left. We came back a week later and found a much smaller crowd waiting to get in at 9:30 AM when it opened. Two and a half hours later we staggered out—exhausted and needing lunch—without seeing everything.

    Despite the catchy title, online at MSI’s website the information says:
    Science Storms reveals the science behind seven natural phenomena—lightning, fire, tornados, avalanches, tsunamis, sunlight and atoms in motion. Investigate the basic scientific principles behind nature’s power as you try more than 50 amazing experiments that take two floors and 26,000 square feet to contain … barely.

    There’s visceral and primal appeal in the first five dangerous “storm” topics found in many of the large, iconic exhibits, such as the tornado and Tesla coil. The “storms” theme overshadows many of the other exhibits with topics that are more subtle or tangential, such as projectiles, antique scientific equipment, color mixing, and light waves. The title is clearly selected more for marketing purposes than as a conceptual tool to understand and unify the messages of the exhibition.

    There is one main entrance, which simplifies and aids orientation, and you can see much of what’s in the 26,000-square-foot space from there—the avalanche disk, the blue hot air balloons, the giant prisms, the tornado. The lighting, colors, and two-story magnitude are exciting and inviting. They’ve got the “WOW” factor nailed. My photo does not do it justice.

    More orientation is offered through large graphics on pillars that repeat the major topics, and there are floor plans that identify the general areas on each floor. We had a comfortable sense of where we were at all times.

    The interpretive and instructional graphics on the sloping panels and huge computer screens are attractive, legible, and well-written. I often found myself reading all of the chunks effortlessly. There’s not too much text.

    There were a couple of places to sit down and watch a large overhead video screen and listen to speakers embedded in the seating—a great way to deal with the problem of noise bleed.

    In the two and one-half hours we were there we stopped at about 36 exhibits. Favorite experiences included:
    —watching the mesmerizing avalanche disk
    —playing with the granular and friction interactives
    —seeing a real tsunami buoy
    —admiring the old science equipment
    —understanding more about light waves—virtually riding the waves
    —playing with the virtual chemistry on the periodic table interactive
    —manipulating the ferrofluids
    These were engaging because they were surprising, clear, reinforcing, or inspiring. The reinforcing part of encountering the same topics expressed in different forms or activities was particularly enjoyable (I now love granules).

    I don’t know if it was intentional or not, but some of the interactives were too high and too heavy for young children to use, which was fine because the concepts were over their heads, too. We noticed lots of adults and teens who were enjoying the exhibits on their own; it wasn’t just for kids at all.

    The big video screens with stories about scientists who studied avalanches, lightning, light waves, tsunamis, etc., were scripted to support the effective message of “I love my science.” The researchers gushed about their fascination and excitement as visuals supported the content.

    I’ve seen tornado and hot air balloons at other science centers, but these were bigger and more impressive from a distance. The close-up experience at the tornado was not one of immersion as suggested by MSI promotional ads: you could not step inside it. The explainer demonstrated for us instead.

    Broken stuff. The amount of technology in this exhibition to maintain is obviously a challenge. Out of the 36 we stopped at, seven were not working. Some things had signs to alert you. Some had maintenance guys trying to keep visitors away while they made repairs. In a few cases there were no signs, so we were left wondering if the exhibit wasn’t doing anything because we were doing something wrong (not good for inspiring visitors’ feelings of competence).

    The basketball player was obviously appealing to many younger visitors and sports fans, and the video about the perfect parabola was very well made. But there was a disjunct between what Derrick Rose was saying about the basketball’s angle and speed on the screen and what was happening to the little tennis balls that my calculations launched across the hall. Very frustrating.

    Unrelated-to-the-theme stuff. Did the section about atoms really have to be there? It’s just not in the same mindset with the rest (even though I really enjoyed the periodic table). The giant “atomic structure” computer was difficult to use and was basically one big layered label. Foucault’s pendulum didn’t seem to fit in the avalanche area. I know that MSI said that the pendulum and the parabola exhibits were related to the avalanche theme because they were under the heading of the subtheme of “motion”—but by doing that they completely opened up the topic to include way more. So where was the earthquake section?

    A couple of times we had to wait in line to use an exhibit, and it wasn’t an overly crowded day. A couple of times we got interrupted by children reaching across or pushing part of the interactive we were engaged in—children who were too young to get the concept but wanted to grab control.

    When we left it was with a slight feeling of defeat or incompetence. We hadn’t done everything. We would have liked to at least seen all of the exhibits so that we’d have a thorough sense of what’s there to plan a return visit or recommend parts to other people. But there was just too much. The initial feelings of being delighted and intrigued were dulled by fatigue.

    Overall, however, we really liked it. It’s quite spectacular. We gave it a B+. Nancy said she’d have graded it higher if we’d left 45 minutes sooner. I would have graded it higher if it had had more conceptual integrity.

Latest Comments (1)


by Beverly Serrell - May 26, 2011

Congratulations to Science Storms for winning the AAM exhibition award this year (May 2011). Congratulations to ALL the people who worked on it—from its original conception to completion.

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