Secrets of Aging

Topic: Life Sciences Subtopic: Human Body

Case Study

of an Exhibition

by Christine Reich

Published on November 16, 2007

  • Description and goals

    Secrets of Aging explored what social science and biological research tells us about aging. There were four sections in this exhibit: Body, Mind, Society, and Longevity. The Body section provided information on how different parts of the body, such as the heart, bones, and eyes change as you age, and the things we can do that influence how we age.
    The Mind section provided information on the aging of a specific part of the body, the brain. Society explored how culture, history, and social networks affect the way we age. Longevity addressed research in the area of extending life span, where scientists are looking for ways to extend the maximum life span of humans and other living organisms.

  • Development process and challenges

    This exhibition was created by a national team of museum professionals who were highly skilled and highly creative. This created for rich discussions where different thoughts, ideas and approaches to museum education were shared and formed. This also created some tensions as communication was difficult and it was often hard for everyone to get on the same page when working from such a distance.

    The topic of aging was also a struggle, as it was hard to create interactive exhibits on this topic. Aging is also a very sensitive topic, and we really struggled with ways for the exhibition to become a safe place for visitors to explore not only the content, but also their emotions related to that content.

    Overall, the process (including the tensions) led to a sensitive yet fun, emotional yet content-rich exhibition, and the ability for visitors to enter into the content at many different levels. For me personally, the content of this exhibition truly impacted my life, and is something I draw upon continuously when thinking about my own aging process and that of my family.

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

    The topic of the exhibition (aging) and the target audience (older adults) made this exhibition a perfect candidate for pushing the envelope with regards to the universal design of science museum exhibitions. We hired an access consultant to work with us on the team (Sarah Smith, an amazingly creative and patient woman who is a teacher, naturalist, musician, sailor, and blind), and we also pulled together an older adult advisory committee who periodically reviewed our exhibit designs. The final exhibition included audio labels and visual images that reinforced the text and multisensory interactives that enabled visitors to engage with the exhibition using all of their senses.

    Throughout the exhibit development process, we continually brought in older adults to review our designs. Working with them, we learned that many of our assumptions about older adults as learners were wrong. Here are some of the key findings from that evaluation work (for more information, read the Journal of Museum Education article Minda Borun and I wrote that summarized our findings):
    • Older adults will use interactives. Many of us thought older adults may not want to use interactive exhibits, and that was not true! The content of the exhibit and whether it related to their everyday lives (and not the level of activity) seemed to determine whether older adults reported enjoying an exhibit experience.
    • Designing accessible labels is more than just using a large print size. Labels that are accessible to older adults also need to be high contrast, have adequate lighting and be placed at a level that makes them easy to read when wearing bifocals (lower down or on a slanted surface is preferred).
    • Organization and exhibit layout is important. Older adults want advanced organizers that help them to know what content they can find in different areas of the exhibition and also want “uncluttered” pathways that allow them to easily negotiate from one end of the exhibition to another.
    • Seating matters, a lot. Older adults want lots of seating. They want stools at interactives and benches with backs and arms where they can rest between exhibit interactions.

    These lessons impacted not only the Secrets of Aging exhibit, but also the design of multiple exhibitions created by the Museum of Science since the time the exhibit opened (in 2000), including Making Models and Star Wars: Where Science Meets Imagination.

  • Exhibition Opened: April 2000

  • Traveling Exhibition: Yes

  • Location: Boston, MA

  • Estimated Cost: $1,000,000 to $3,000,000 (US)

  • Size: 5,000 to 10,000

  • NSF Funding: Yes, Grant No. ESI-9814955

Latest Comments (2)

Exhibition Accessibility and the Senior Visitor

by Wendy Pollock - November 17, 2007

Christine and Minda share more lessons in their article, “Exhibition Accessibility and the Senior Visitor,” in the Winter 2001 issue of the Journal of Museum Education (Vol 26, No 1). The entire issue, guest edited by Gretchen Jennings, is on the theme Museums and the Aging Revolution. This work also helped inform ASTC’s Accessible Museum Practices project, also supported by NSF: <http://www.astc.org/resource/access&gt;

Advisory committee of researchers

by Gretchen Jennings - June 03, 2008

This exhibition was also unusual in the degree to which it involved psychologists, gerontologists, sociologists and other researchers working on the cutting edge of research into aging. As someone who worked on the exhibition, it was amazing to be able to meet with scientists studying the aging brain and body, as well as to talk with researchers engaged in massive longitudinal studies of aging that had been going since the middle of the 20th century. I agree with Christine that working on the exhibition was a life-changing experience on which I continue to draw.

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