The Science of Spying

Case Study

of an Exhibition

by Stephen Foulger

Published on September 03, 2007, Modified on September 11, 2007

  • Museum: The Science of...

  • People who worked on this: Anna Faherty, Dee Halligan, Fiona Romeo, James Rudoni

  • My role: I am the Content Director at The Science of..., leading the teams developing the messages, communication and exhibit content across exhibitions and other media for all our projects. I work closely with colleagues in creative and project development as well as marketing, PR and sponsorship.

  • Description and goals

    THE SCIENCE OF… tackles some of the big questions in science through touring exhibitions and other initiatives, launching a new project every year. Our aim is to make science and technology relevant and accessible to wide audiences worldwide. We are a joint venture between the Science Museum, London, and investors Fleming Media.

    THE SCIENCE OF SPYING is a 700 sq m (7,500 sq feet) touring exhibition that invites visitors to see whether they can make it as a spy and looks at who is spying on whom in the 21st century, and how they are doing it. Visitors play a central, active role in a compelling spy story throughout the exhibition. They experience this story through a mixture of hands-on activities, immersive experiences and future ‘products’. There are over 70 points of interaction in the exhibition.

    Visitors explore basic spy skills and later engage with some of the current technology that can be used to enhance these skills. Through these areas they will begin to find out about a shadowy organisation called OSTECK. Next, on their secret mission inside OSTECK HQ, visitors experience the discomfort of being spied upon and may consider how they feel personally about privacy and who they trust. They will be given a sneak preview of possible future worlds, through the products that individuals and spies may use. Finally they foil OSTECK’s evil plot before escaping to qualify as Spymaker agents.

    The Science of Spying launched in February 2007 at the Science Museum, London with a US duplicate opening at The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis on 16 March 2007.

    The Science of… develop exhibition projects to achieve the following goals:
    • Engage visitors with and explain some of the latest science and technology
    • Present science stories that are relevant now and will remain relevant over the 5 year touring lifetime of the exhibition
    • Provide a unique visitor experience
    • Have a strong appeal to a family audience and also encourage school and adult visitors
    • Be media & sponsor friendly
    • Appeal to the international touring market
    • Delivered on time and to budget

  • Development process and challenges


    The Science of… acts as commissioning producer, working with a variety of creative and technical companies, agencies and individuals. Scientists and other content experts are consulted extensively during development. We also undertake audience evaluation throughout the process, from concepts and storyboarding through to exhibit prototypes.

    From initial ideas through to opening usually takes around 15 months. The first three months are a pre-production period in which we set up the project and its parameters for the development proper.


    In our pre-production period, usually about 3 months we identify possible subject areas. Out of this process we selected Spying as best able to meet the goals outlined above.
    We also began to sketch out approaches or storylines to the Science of Spying. These included :
    • Spy training
    • Spy mission
    • Training a spy avatar
    We decided not to fix on an approach at this stage but included all these as options in the design brief issued later.

    During this pre-production period we also established an appropriate team.


    After the team joined we undertook some more content development and sketched out a project plan, enabling us to issue a design brief for lead designers. We saw pitches from 4 design agencies. Following appointment, we worked with the selected company to develop the concept further and we appointed graphic designers a couple of months later. The graphic designers took a significant role in the art direction and developing the way the storyline was delivered.


    In parallel with the design process, we explored and developed the storyline. We organised workshops with a variety of creatives, including theatre producers and a festival organiser. This took us some way with our ‘become a spy’ storyline to the point where we could work with a writer to establish a fictional story to form the background to the various exhibits we were developing.

    Our approach to the story was that is should be optional you can go through the exhibition and have a great time without engaging with the narrative if you wish. For those visitors who do enjoy narrative, the story is slowly revealed as they move through the exhibition engaging with more and more exhibits. Finally our graphic designers commissioned a comic artist to illustrate the storyline at key points within the exhibition.


    We worked with various experts throughout development from conceptual stages through exhibit development to text checking. Experts included former MI6, CIA, GCHQ operatives, security experts and government advisors, engineers, scientists, futurologists, ex-hackers, privacy advocates and academics.


    We employed an audience research company with extensive Museum experience to undertake visitor research. Of course the process required a fair amount of input from the project team to be effective. At the start of the process we developed 6 personas. We carried out an audience panel once per month for a year and more than a dozen evaluation sessions in the Science Museum galleries.

    Post opening we carried out surveys focussed on whether visitors understood the exhibition and to establish satisfaction ratings. The results were generally very positive although we did make one or two changes as a result (see below).


    The Science of… develop overall messages and learning outcomes for our exhibitions as a whole and for individual exhibits. Exhibit briefs are audited to ensure a mix of learning styles and ‘intelligences’ (based on Howard Gardener’s system) and to ensure that there are strong motivations for visitors to engage.


    The Science of… use a variety of approaches when it comes to commissioning exhibits. In some areas of the Science of Spying we developed very specific briefs for exhibits. In other areas we issued quite open briefs for competitive creative pitches so we could get more creative input and chose the best approach. In one particular area – the Future lab, featuring spy products of the future we put out an open call for responses on the web. This generated some great ideas which we then commissioned as models.


    During development we had been keen to issue visitors ‘something’ with their ticket which took them through the exhibition. In the end we settled on a magnetic strip Spy ID card. At four points in the exhibition visitors can scan this card and a computer system records their performance. At the end of the exhibition visitors are able to purchase a version of the card with their picture on it and a record of how they did.

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

    The Science of Spying has been extremely successful, both in the US and the UK and The Science of… is now developing the ‘Science of Survival – its 2050, how will you survive?’ This exhibition explores responses to climate change and possibilities for sustainable living, again with a compelling narrative. We have been able to apply various lessons from the Science of Spying which are discussed below.

    During the Science of Spying we appointed a lead design agency, but we found that as commissioners, we wanted to have an ongoing and relatively detailed level of input on the developing concept. We also brought in creative input from a range of external individuals and agencies. To achieve this more effectively on our next project, the Science of Survival, we have commissioned 3D designers initially just for the structures and space planning. We can then add to their scope during development or give more extensive roles to other creative agencies or disciplines such as graphic designers and interaction designers.

    We also found that if we establish a storyline earlier on, we can have more fun with it and their are more possibilities for expressing it in different media.

    The tracked element of the exhibition has proved so successful we are building it in from the very beginning of our next project. This will enable us to use it more extensively and connect it with an online experience.

    The storyline in the Science of Spying was planned to be optional – you did not need to ‘get it’ to have a good time. However in summative evaluation we found that many visitors realised there was something going on which they do not ‘get’ and they found this confusing and sometimes frustrating. Post opening we have introduced an introductory video, an exhibition guide and briefed the exhibition staff to make the story more explicit.

    Post opening we also added an online Spy certificate download to further extend the experience beyond the exhibition visit. We will be exploiting more such opportunities with the Science of Survival, with the possibilities of creating online communities.

  • Exhibition Opened: February 2007

  • Exhibition Still Open!

  • Traveling Exhibition: Yes

  • Size: 5,000 to 10,000

  • Website(s):

Log in to post a response.