The Discovery Room

Topic: Other Subtopic: General

Case Study

of an Exhibition

by Judith White

Published on August 16, 2007

  • Description and goals

    The first Discovery Room opened in 1974 in a spacious light-filled corner room next to the exhibit halls in the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History. The Room was the first place in a museum devoted to collections, where visitors were allowed to touch sample objects, such as skulls, fossils, plants, and cultural artifacts.
    The first objects that visitors encountered on entering the Discovery Room were “stumpers” – large, mysterious objects to arouse people’s curiosity a (a fossil mammoth molar, a giant geologic concretion, etc.) housed in and on top of open display cases. Laminated cards posed questions, then offered answers/explanations and frequently referenced other objects in the Room.
    Smaller objects were housed in sturdy wooden boxes known as “discovery boxes.” There were about 30 of these stored on shelves with a library-like checkout counter. Titles revealed the contents: “Fossils,” “Mollusks,” “Touch a Sound,” “Look Inside a Shell” and many others. Visitors were invited to select a title and take a box to a table to explore its contents. The discovery boxes were the heart of the Room, each being a kind of mini-exhibit, with interpretive materials and observation aids.
    The Room offered many places for people to sit: tables with chairs and informal seating on a carpeted platform. Interesting plants grew in natural sunlight in window boxes nearby. There were hooks for coats, encouraging winter visitors to stay a while. And there were books available for reference.
    The goal of the Discovery Room project was, in the words of Caryl Marsh its founder, to create “a thought-provoking, aesthetically pleasing place for visitors of all ages. It would be a place to study and contemplate beautiful natural things, a place that enhanced one’s understanding and appreciation of the wonders of the natural world.”

  • Development process and challenges

    This first Discovery Room started as an experiment. Caryl Marsh, a psychologist, working for the office of the Smithsonian’s Secretary, was interested in offering the public a chance to “sample” the Museum’s collections, in a way that traditional glass-cased exhibits did not allow. Caryl applied for, and was awarded, a grant from the National Science Foundation to try out her idea. She also intended to study visitors’ responses to the experiences the Room would offer. Caryl felt that visitor study should be an important part of the project.

    I joined Caryl in 1972 after funding was granted, and worked to put together the Room. I had come from The Children’s’ Museum in Boston, which had been transformed by Michael Spock in the 60’s into a groundbreaking, hands-on interactive museum, so the idea of allowing people to gently handle and examine objects and artifacts seemed quite natural and logical. No big deal! To me, it just made sense. So, I was surprised when I began working at the Museum of Natural History, and soon got a visit from a worried conservator. His name was Walter Angst! He told me he had great concerns about the Discovery Room project because he felt that it would promote mishandling and disrespect of the objects in the Museum’s collection. Angst thought the Room would teach visitors the wrong lessons!

    Angst made a strong case, and I kept his advice in mind. We realized that it would be important to make the Room a place that would encourage respect for the objects, and promote thoughtful and careful examination. It should be a place that visitors would feel privileged to enter, like a visit behind-the-scenes to the Museums great collections. To that end Caryl and I planned to make the Room a calm space: muted colors, carpet on the floors, a spot to hang up coats, plenty of places to sit, and a limited number of visitors. Our message was: sit down and stay a while and enjoy a leisurely look at the things in the room.

    We also wanted to offer a behind-the-scenes feeling. So we put the large sturdy objects—the stumpers—on shelf-like containers modeled on cases in the Museum’s inner-sanctum stacks. Smaller objects were placed into wooden boxes that curators used to hold botanical specimens. These boxes evolved into the discovery boxes. They proved to be an ideal way to house the small and/or delicate objects. I initially had some concern that the small objects—small fossils, bones, minerals, etc—might become damaged or wander away with visitors. (Something I would hate to report back to Walter Angst.) So, the insides of the boxes were made to cushion, and each specimen was displayed in a separate compartment, so that when returned, a staff member could see at a glance that all was well. The discovery boxes, it turned out, also offered something special for the visitor: a chance to possess and be responsible for a part of the Museum for a short time. It was the visitor’s box: he/she was its own curator for the duration of its loan in the Room.

    For reasons too complicated to explain in this short piece, the Discovery Room project did not proceed as the original NSF proposal had envisioned. In fact, it was cut short by a year or more, and Caryl’s careful plans for evaluation and visitor study had to be jettisoned. I found myself with the job (with the great support of Eugene Behlen of the Museum’s office of exhibits) of having to pull together prototype exhibits and boxes and quickly create a space—albeit ad hoc— that could be opened to the public. We hired Sheila Mutchler to organize and train volunteers to staff the Room. And in March of 1974 (this date may not be exact) The Discovery Room—an experiment— was launched.

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

    The Room was immediately popular. The first weekend we had so many visitors that we began a ticket system. Again it was an ad hoc solution, but seemed to work.
    Soon after, there was a demand—from somewhere—to allow school groups into the Room. Sheila and I thought it was not a good idea. The Room was designed with a range of ages in mind—not for a group of children. The Discovery Room held a variety of objects that worked well with a variety of visitors. With a school group, we predicted, there would be demand for many samples of the same object; and the school group dynamics would not be conducive to study-at-your-own-pace exploration, which the Room promoted. But eventually, we agreed to let in school groups and see what happened. There were problems: some children had difficulty settling down; an object went missing. So, Sheila developed a slightly different protocol for handling school groups, including the advice to teachers that children who did not really want to visit the Room should be allowed to go elsewhere in the museum.

    Soon after the Discovery Room opened, I left the Museum because my job developing the Room had been completed. None of the visitor study and evaluation that Caryl Marsh had originally envisioned, and wrote about in her NSF grant, was ever done. Instead, the Museum continued to keep the Room going in its original form, one I always considered a bit ad hoc. I don’t think the Museum ever anticipated the popularity and the long tenure of the Room. I don’t think anyone really took it seriously. I have often thought that one of the reasons that discovery rooms have been labeled as places for children was the informal appearance of the first one, a result of the ad hoc prototype design. The boxes, for example, were all hand-made as prototypes with cardboard lids and then quickly strengthened with wooden ones for the opening. Much of the label information in the Room was made using with my own set of hand-cut Helvetica rubber eraser stamps (reminiscent of The Children’s Museum). And we hung the coat rack low (“appropriate for children” said a newspaper article) only because both the installing carpenter and I each had a short reach. So, maybe people found the unassuming look of the Room kid-like. But, of course, in the early 70s, the Discovery Room was one of the few places in that traditional museum that did not seem staid and imposing. Kids liked the Room!

    After working on the Discovery Room I became head of Education at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo where I had the opportunity of creating some additional discovery rooms: Zoolab, Birdlab and Herplab. There the Education staff and I were able to spend more time and thought on the discovery room concept and observe visitor use over time. Among other things, we learned, as Caryl Marsh had originally envisioned, that such rooms work best not for children, but for “visitors of all ages.”

  • Exhibition Opened: Spring 1974

  • Traveling Exhibition: No

  • Location: Washington, DC, None, United States

  • Estimated Cost: Less than $100,000 (US)

  • Other funding source(s): National Museum of Natural History

Latest Comments (9)

Hooray for The Discovery Room!

by Paul Orselli - August 17, 2007

One of my early museum jobs was in a “staid” Natural History Museum and the “Discovery Room movement” influenced by the work of The Smithsonian and The Royal Ontario Museum (amongst others) helped shake the dust off the Natural History part of the museum world.

Thanks very much for sharing some important history!

Hooray for interactive!

by Beth Kelley - August 20, 2007

I agree that the “Discovery Room” concept is a)something that hasn’t been explored enough in exhibit creation, and b)something that has been declared only appropriate for Children’s Museums, and neither of those should be the case. I hope to see more Discovery Rooms in the future.

Interesting reading on an early Discovery Room

by Claire Baddeley - August 25, 2007

It was thought provoking to read about the first Discovery Room opened at the Smithsonianin in 1974. There are a number of Discovery Rooms in Australian museums (particularly at state museum level) but they were not developed until the early 1980s. The concept for ‘Discovery Rooms’ in Australian museums differs slightly from those in US museums; in Australian museum ‘Discovery Centres’ you can bring in live specimens, such as insects and lizards, for identification, in addition to seeing aspects of the collection, hands-on items, reading books in a research library and downloading information about the museum’s collections from computers. These spaces in museums are designed for access to and provision of information about the museum’s collections, but the hands-on exhibits also encourage discovery learning. Interesting to compare and contrast the differences between Discovery Rooms museums in the USA and Australia.

Thanks for the memories!

by Gretchen Jennings - September 13, 2007

Judy, thanks for your thoughtful recap of the development of the Discovery Room at NMNH. As you know the Discovery and Browsing Area of the Psychology Exhibition, with Caryl Marsh as Project Director, was a direct descendant of your early project. I’m hoping to write this up for ExhibitFiles, and your account provides the historical context. Gretchen

Finally evaluated

by Andrew Pekarik - September 15, 2007

Hello Judy, How interesting to learn of how this room originated. It went through some revisions not long ago and the staff asked for an evaluation. The final report is at, under Current Reports (April 2007). It beloved by both adults and kids, and clearly promotes learning behaviors. It must be very satisfying to do an exhibit that turns into a movement!

Judith White

by Judith White - September 15, 2007

Hello Andrew. Thanks for the reference to the SI April 2007 DR study. I look forward to reading it. A glance at the study’s introduction, however, indicates that the present DR differs in objectives and audience focus from the original. One example: the first sentence of the introduction suggests it is a place for “children.”

great resource thanks!

by Karen Knutson - March 05, 2008

hey y’all. i was looking for a good study of learning in discovery rooms, or designing discovery rooms for learning. Came across a reference in informalscience for j. white. came over here and found this with the opanda report! Cool. The system works! If anyone else out there knows of good recent reports on this topic please let me know. Thanks

Discover Room Studies

by Kirsten Ellenbogen - March 24, 2008

Hey Karen, You should definitely talk to Fred Stein at the Exploratorium. He did a literature review on Discovery Rooms years ago that was quite useful. (Not sure if it was published.)

Earlier discovery room example?

by Daniel Spock - March 27, 2008

My dad, Mike Spock, has always claimed that the pioneering discovery room dates back to the late ’60’s at the Bell Museum of Natural History on the University of Minnesota campus in Minneapolis. (The museum is named for an ancestor of current AAM president Ford Bell.) The room is still there in more or less the same configuration it has been in since it was created.

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