The Science of Aliens


of an Exhibition

by Andrea Bandelli

Published on May 13, 2007

  • Description:

    I saw this traveling exhibition at the Museum of Science in Miami. The exhibition is produced by the production company of Science Museum in London “The Science of…”.
    When I entered the first room in the exhibition I was a little confused. In the displays on the wall there was a mix of science fiction objects – books, replicas and puppets about Frankenstein, Dracula and robots. True, a big replica of the monster from the movie “Aliens” was there to greet the visitors – but so were two explainers warning families that the first room of the exhibition might be too scary for children, and that they could use a separate entrance to go directly to the third room.
    The first two rooms were quite traditional – glass cases on the wall with objects and comprehensive labels to describe them.
    Video projections on the wall were displaying short clips from science fiction movies connected with the objects.
    I guess these first two rooms were meant to give an overview of “aliens” as a common theme in science fiction, and the fascination with weird life forms.
    The third room was a dramatic change in design and presentation. In a rather dark environment, large tables and sculpture-like displays presented interesting examples of extreme life forms, from fascinating creatures that live in deep abyss to extremely efficient organisms that survive in the most difficult environments. On long tables there were cool examples of organisms that survive without oxygen for example, or in ice, acid, fire etc. My problem with many of these tables can be seen in pictures 5-6-7: the bad lighting projected a long dark shadow on the tables and the labels. I was almost alone in the exhibition, so the shadows weren’t a problem for other visitors. Still, quite surprising to see such basic design flaws. In the same room there were also some exhibits on space exploration, with quiz-based tabletop activities on our solar system and outer space.
    The next area in the exhibition was about possible planets where life could have developed. A short video clip presented some short interviews with scientists that developed scenarios of life in outer space. In the same room, long text panels described in more detail two of these scenarios, and stylish stands provided comprehensive technical information about all sorts of life forms that inhabit the two planets, “Bluemoon” and “Aurelia”.
    A few steps later it became clear why that information was necessary. On two long tables a computer and projection system created an interesting multiuser interactive experience, like a large touch screen that simulated life on Bluemoon and Aurelia. By touching the table on any creature a pop-up window would open describing the characteristics of that creature, how it behaves and interacts with the other creatures and the environment etc. The interface is brilliant: I’ve seen several installations of this kind, and I always find it so much natural than any touch screen or screen based interfaces.
    Finally, the last part of the exhibition is about communicating with aliens. I found really interesting to see on display the various messages that were sent to space in different NASA missions. We really assume aliens are extremely intelligent and smart in order to decipher those cryptic information! But it’s also interesting to see how “western” is the information we sent up there.
    The lights were quite bad here too, and this time they were almost at eye level resulting in being light blinded quite a few times just by walking around this area.
    The last exhibit was a big projection screen with three computer stations were one could compose a message to send to space, and the screen displays all the messages that the visitors write.
    The computers have a simple interface with a trackball to select among a fixed number of words that can be assembled to create the short message. A camera is supposed to take a picture of the visitor, but the dark environment and the fact that the camera is pointed very low makes it impossible to take a decent photo.
    I sent my message too, before leaving…

Latest Comments (3)

Aspects of comfort

by Wendy Pollock - May 13, 2007

It sounds as if inattention to lighting almost overwhelmed the compelling experiences this exhibition offered. I’m reminded of what the Excellent Judges Framework calls “aspects of comfort” — including lighting and factors like ergonomic fit and orientation devices. The Framework can be a useful reference point for conversation about what makes for a good exhibition. It’s available at

Install problems?

by Bryan Kennedy - May 14, 2007

I wonder if the poor lighting is the result of this specific install of this show or if it is the result of the design of the exhibit. I’ve seen exhibits in multiple locations installed with remarkably different lighting.


by Diana Issidorides - May 18, 2007

“You ignored the most important part of design: to understand your users.”
Donald Norman [professor emeritus of cognitive science UCSD]

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