Topic: Other Subtopic: General

Case Study

of an Exhibition

by Justine Roberts

Published on March 27, 2010, Modified on May 21, 2010

  • Description and goals

    SKYLINE is a 2,500 square-foot exhibit designed to engage families in social learning. The activity in the exhibit is free-form construction using pre-drilled wooden struts and triangular braces, real nuts and bolts, and pieces of fabric with lined holes through which they can be attached to visitor-made structures. Families build structures that are as big – often bigger – than they are, and engage in documentation activities that facilitate storytelling and encourage reflection. The exhibit was developed as part of the Partnership of Playful Learners, a multi-year grant funded by NSF, and co-written by Gyroscope and CCM, to investigate strategies for engaging adults as active participants in their children’s informal STEM learning experiences, and create a research platform that could contribute new understandings of family learning to the field. Documenting one’s own activity, reflection on the learning process, using design to create roles for adults, designing for families, and using graphics to model behavior were all strategies explored in this one exhibit.

  • Development process and challenges

    The core team for this project consisted of Gyroscope working on concept development, design, project management and planning, as well as a number of CCM staff working in some overlapping roles. The sharing of some responsibilities required close collaboration among team members. The fabrication budget was split – between exhibits and changes to the building. This is standard for us, but we were aiming for tight integration between exhibits and architecture. The more integrated things are the more complex the project is bound to be.

    SKYLINE was based on an NSF grant that brought together a number of ideas including developing and testing approaches for increasing caregiver involvement in children’s informal science learning, and developing ways to document children’s learning and make it more visible both to adults and to children. The ways design can be used to affect visitors’ behavior in an exhibit setting is exciting and challenging – we all know that people act differently in different types of spaces but using design to create a space that elicits and supports specific playful learning behaviors from adults and children, and specific types of learning outcomes, was a pretty big idea.

    This exhibit was originally conceived as part of Gyroscope’s master plan for CCM and had the benefit of being developed within a comprehensive framework. We had articulated exhibit design principals to guide us in general, and a clear sense of the strategic goals and leadership opportunities for the Museum. So final development and design of this exhibit was able to build on that base of understanding.

    One example of this was the idea of connecting visitors’ activity within the museum to the surrounding environment. This was part a larger strategy for giving visitors’ activity added meaning and allowing them to see themselves as agents of change in the larger world. In the case of Skyline this meant encouraging visitors to make parallels between the built environment outside, and their building activities inside. We removed a wall to reveal a stunning view of the Chicago skyline as it arcs South along the shore of Lake Michigan and organized activities to relate to the view. A series of Eye Spy riddles posted at the floor-to-ceiling windows further supported visitors in making these connections.

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

    There were a number of elements in the exhibit that were risks, and which paid off. For instance, a series of large graphics on the walls are intended to scaffold adult visitors by mirroring the conversations they may be having with their children, and by modeling interactions. These “exemplars” make use of photographs of real visitors in the exhibit, and quotes in English and Spanish. It was complicated to create these – the timing was critical and getting the tone just right was very tough. They have turned out to be incredibly effective. They allow the museum to offer help without lecturing or being didactic, they literally reflect the museum community, and they make good use of peer-to-peer learning.

    Another was to incorporate the hand of the visitor in the gallery. We wanted Skyline to reflect visitors, literally by using their images, words and projects, and to be co-created by the audience. To achieve this we designed a series of sculptural clouds that visitors painted in a museum program, and which were then installed as hanging art from the ceiling. We also added display space for small-scale visitor constructions in front of a large mural of the Chicago skyline. Visitors can choose to add their skyscraper to this evolving display and see it become part of downtown Chicago. This keeps the gallery constantly changing, and new visitors can be inspired by what others have done.

    Initially Skyline was conceived as much as a research platform for new learning research, as a public exhibition. The goal was integrated development of these – both identified as deliverables in the grant. In the end, research had less of a physical presence than we had anticipated. The exhibit includes two areas where live video and audio can be recorded, and lockable space that researchers can use as a temporary home base if needed. CCM also created a Museum Research Committee to review proposals, monitor human subject issues, and interface with researchers.

    The team debated the centrality of STEM learning in the visitor experience, ways to ensure both girls and boys, and moms and dads, would find the activity accessible and interesting, the importance of keeping families together, and the types of outcomes that could be expected. There were different ways the exhibit could be focused. In the end, some of the ideas for props that were more design oriented and less about structure were edited out. But those decisions did not influence our core ideas about designing an environment that facilitates adult engagement and which helps make children’s learning visible within their play.

Latest Comments (2)

Looks like fun!

by Dave Stroud - March 28, 2010

I like this exhibition. The pictures reveal the interaction of family members. The fact that guests can change the exhibition, leaving a trace of themselves behind is particularly appealing to me. It seems like a great platform for connecting guests to their environment once they leave the exhibition.

Very cool too is that there is research space available "close to the action.

It is interesting to note that this exhibition casts the guests as architects , and that the architectual element was so large in the creation of the space. I personal enjoy, and strive for that type of parallel.

Thanks for sharing this!

Dave Stroud

Love it!

by Ji hui Lim - July 27, 2010

Thanks for sharing this exhibit! I especially like the concept of the “evolving skyscraper”.

As with any constructive exhibits, I’m very curious as to how destructive visitors have been these 3 years. Boil it down to cultural difference, but we’ve even lost fist-sized wooden blocks from our exhibits every now and again. Makes me very sad.

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