Star Wars: Where Science Meets Imagination

Topic: Technology

Case Study

of an Exhibition

by Ed Rodley

Published on March 07, 2008, Modified on May 23, 2017

  • Description and goals

    The Museum of Science, Boston, in collaboration with Lucasfilm, Ltd. created a national traveling exhibition on science and technology themes depicted in the Star Wars movies. The exhibition builds upon the popular attraction of the Star Wars movies to engage visitors in an exploration of current day science and technological developments that could some day make turn fictions into reality.

    This project uses a very widely known body of movie fantasy to get visitors to examine a number of specific future possibilities, even if they may seem like impossibilities today. The exhibit is organized around technological challenges that are depicted in the Star Wars movies. Visitors will examine the solutions to those challenges as presented in the Star Wars universe, using models, movie clips, and immersive experiences. Hands-on interactive exhibits allow visitors to explore scientific phenomena of the real-life 21st century that could lead to a real-life technological solution to the challenge posed. Visitors engage in an engineering design activity that involves designing, building, and testing a prototype component connected with each challenge. Graphics, artifacts, and interactive video components will bring visitors up to date on the latest real-life research efforts related to each specific technological challenge. For each challenge, then, the components will be designed and grouped to engage visitors in the “what,” “how,” and “why” questions that form the core of the curriculum to build the technological literacy of the public.

  • Development process and challenges

    Development process
    Star Wars was a very big experiment for us. After years of producing science exhibitions, we had arrived at a place in our institutional thinking where technological illiteracy was replacing scientific illiteracy as our focus. But technology carries a lot of baggage that science doesn’t. The Second Law of Thermodynamics doesn’t change depending on who you are, but what is the best car or house or clothing does. Technology exhibitions have a whole different set of expectations and issues around them that we had to navigate.

    Our plan was to frame the whole experience as challenges that related the Star Wars universe to real world technologies in a way that wouldn’t seem foreign to the audience, “How would you design something like Luke’s Landspeeder or R2-D2?” We felt these would visitor would deconstruct what those fantasy technologies were, what they did, and why they might want them. We therefore had to construct contexts in which visitors could engage in these skills in a way that seems natural and relevant to them. We organized the exhibition around solving two fairly basic needs in an advanced technological society – getting around, and getting along with (more and more) intelligent machines.

    The theme areas were been chosen because;
    • they are relevant to a broad audience;
    • are well represented in all six Star Wars films;
    • have real-world technology analogues;
    • and can allow us to address all our goals and messages.

    Knowing what we wanted and why we wanted it made it easy not to get lost in peripheral subjects, and helped keep the gallery from filling up with costumes and lighsabers and other cool stuff.

    Engineering Design Labs
    Probably the most daunting challenge was figuring out if and how we could get visitors to engage in a simplified engineering design cycle in a completed unfacilitated setting. These Engineering Design Labs were to be the heart of the exhibition and the capstone experience of each theme area, so they had to work and work well. The notion of forcing visitors to begin at the beginning of a process and move from Step 1 to Step 2 to Step 3, etc…, and then hopefully go back to the beginning and try it again ran counter to our exhibit design philosophy, which emphasized non-linear, free exploration. It took some time rearrange my thinking to come to grips with the needs of exhibit.

    We spent huge amounts of time prototyping not just the components themselves, but the relationship of the individual pieces to one another in the gallery, how they laid out as a group, and small changes in the relationship of the components had large impacts on how far visitors got in the process. This was eye-opening for me, because most of the formative evaluation I’d been involved with in past exhibits had all happened at the component level and completely ignored the larger context of a group of components.

    Another challenge of developing the Engineering Design Labs was figuring out the appropriate time on task. For a typical freestanding interactive in other exhibits at the Museum that might run anywhere from 1-5 minutes. For these exhibits, where each built on the previous one, the time on task was harder to determine and the total was far beyond any other exhibit I’ve worked on. Interactions of 20-30 minutes were not unusual, and at least once the evaluators stopped tracking visitors after about forty minutes, because they had their daily quota of x number of visitors to observe, and they had to move on.

    Reality vs fantasy
    The exhibition had a very large, and very complicated set of advisory bodies attached to it. The exhibition was produced for the Science Museum Exhibit Collaborative, so it had a number of approvals to go through for the Collaborative. Lucasfilm had to approve anything mentioning Star Wars. We had a scientific advisory committee who vetted our real world content. It could have been a nighmare, but in the end, an interesting dynamic took place. In our meetings with Lucasfilm, they would inevitably find the real world content we were developing more interesting than the Star Wars content, and they would agitate for us to make it more science-oriented, and more “real.” Our scientific advisors would provide exactly the opposite advice and exhort us to not shortchange the Star Wars content, since they felt it was essential that visitors’ interest in the fantasy be maintained, so they would be more receptive.

    As we got deeper and deeper into the development process, it became hard to maintain that parity. Particularly later in the formative evaluation phase, when components started getting cut, maintaining that balance became harder. In the end, I decided that as long as both groups of advisors felt the exhibit was skewed we were doing OK. When either group felt it was “just right” I knew that we had gone too far one way or the other.

    The exhibition that is traveling now is largely a result of the Museum’s commitment to extensive prototyping, which is an expensive and time-consuming process. When I look back at the initial list of ideas for interactives we tested versus the ones that survived prototyping, I am very thankful for that commitment. The more I do it, the more it reminds me that nobody is smart enough or experienced enough to know 100% of the time what is going to work and what ain’t. If you want to know, you’d better test it, otherwise you’re just gambling.

    When the exhibition was just a piece of paper, it had six technology themes. These we quickly whittled down to three, transport, habitations, and robots. As we started building and testing prototypes, some of them would work and some would fail. Among those that failed were several components in the habitation cluster. As we got further into the testing cycle, it became clear we weren’t going to be able to come up with a workable Engineering Design Lab for the habitation area, which was supposed to be the culminating experience for that whole area. So what to do? Go with what we had? Keep trying and hope for the best? Ditch the whole thing? In the end, we took the non-interactive pieces of the area and reconfigured them as freestanding pieces that compared a Star Wars environment with an analogous real world environment and let go of the interactives that weren’t working. That kind of change is never easy to make, but without the evaluation data, it would’ve been even harder.

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

    Universal design
    Having access advisors involved in the entire exhibit development process, from concept to execution, was very important to us, and played a major role in shaping the exhibition and making it more universally designed, rather than just compliant with Federal regulations. It also meant that we had to commit to a more open development and design process than we generally had, and that caused friction throughout the process. The kind of informal back and forth you can have with people in the same office, is impossible to have with outside consultants, no matter how dedicated. Things need to be written down, decisions recorded and reported, and a lot more time needs to be devoted to communicating.

    Multimedia tour
    The Multimedia Tour was an ambitious test in its own right. We partnered with Antenna Audio to develop a PDA-based tour that would allow visitors to access deeper levels of content about the exhibition, and bookmark content that interested them and retrieve it later on the Web. Antenna had created a number of PDA-based tours, notably one for the Tate Modern in London that had a separate sign language tour as well as a tour in English, so we added an ASL tour to our list of features to test.

    In the end, the tour we created was very popular with visitors who took it, and was very popular with deaf visitors who had traditionally felt that Museum offered little for them. On the whole though, our pickup rate was quite low, and the number of visitors who used the bookmarking feature was low. The two mistakes I think we made were taking too long to finalize a contract with the vendor and not doing a good enough job differentiating the content that was accessible via the PDA. The contract negotiations cut into what had been our development time. The lack of differentiation made it hard for visitors to know what they’d get when they’d bookmark something and why they should bother checking. If I could go back and fix something, that would be high on my list.

  • Exhibition Opened: October 2005

  • Exhibition Still Open!

  • Traveling Exhibition: Yes

  • Location: Boston, MA, United States

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

  • Size: Over 10,000 sq ft.

  • NSF Funding: Yes, Grant No. DRL-0307875

  • Website(s):

Log in to post a response.