The Tech Virtual Test Zone

Topic: Technology

Case Study

of an Exhibition

by Nina Simon

Published on June 26, 2008

  • Description and goals

    The Tech Virtual Test Zone is the physical proving ground for The Tech Museum’s new exhibit development process (detailed below in the process section). The specific goals for the exhibition were:
    —to create an exhibition of 5-10 interactive exhibits in 5 months start to finish
    —to solely produce exhibits that were initiated by non-staff members in a virtual design community that existed online

    The exhibition theme is “technology in art, film, and music,” and the exhibits all relate to that theme in some way, though the theme was secondary to the process. In the exhibition, there are two threads of labels—a primary set about the exhibits and what they teach, and a secondary set about the stories of the individual virtual exhibit designers and the process.

    You can read about each of the exhibits in the attached file, Exhibits_Overview.

  • Development process and challenges

    The process works as follows: content expert/curator distributes an exhibition theme, related topics of interest, and criteria for valued exhibits on that theme to an online community of volunteer exhibit designers. These designers, who range from creative amateurs to content experts to museum professionals (no particular hierarchy!), use a website to propose exhibits in text and join exhibit teams. They are given space in a virtual workshop in the 3D virtual world of Second Life to design a virtual prototype of their exhibit. Working with staff (1.5 paid, 3 volunteer), they develop their concept from ephemeral (“I want to do something about MIDI”) to specific (a 3D interactive piece that at least evokes the essential visitor experience).

    We selected the best virtual exhibits for creation in the real museum on a rolling basis so we could start building as soon as possible. While the physical exhibit space is billed as a “prototype” space, we went for a high level of finish for three reasons:
    1. The final space would not be staffed.
    2. We didn’t want people to dismiss the virtual process as creating an inferior product. The goal was for the virtual process to “fall away” in the final result.
    3. The Tech’s fabricators are amazingly talented perfectionists.

    In the end, we invited all of the virtual exhibit designers to San Jose for the real exhibit opening, a tour of the shop, and a variety of community events to support and acknowledge their awesome contributions and to glean lessons for the next round.

    There were many challenges inherent in this process. First, we were developing the exhibit process and the community with this exhibition as the pilot, so the two separate projects—build an exhibit design community and build an exhibit—were uncomfortably linked and the extreme timeline on the exhibit required some unpleasant expediency on the community side. We had to get right down to business. Overall, the schedule was:
    Nov 2007 – design web platform and virtual workshop, develop exhibit design classes
    Dec 2007 – open platforms, advertise to build communities
    Jan, Feb 2008 – community building, offer exhibit workshops, support virtual exhibit design
    Mar 2008 – select winning virtual exhibits and begin translating them to real life
    May 2008 – complete physical exhibits

    Relatedly, when the priorities shifted on one side of the process (e.g. exec decides on a new set of criteria for inclusion), it severely impacted our credibility with the community. We dealt with this by being extremely open communicators and portraying ourselves as (legitimately) subject to forces we could not control but ultimately champions of the community and their interests.

    Challenge #2: we did not have a content curator on staff to steer the exhibition content. This meant that it fell to me, and I was also serving as the community manager. It’s not easy to be both a cheerleader/guide and the ultimate arbitrator of quality. The extent to which the exhibits do not clearly meet the theme reflects my bias towards quality experiential, social exhibits over exhibits that meet curriculum standards.

    Challenge #3: we moved very quickly with a small team. To me, this was more of a positive than a negative; we made bad decisions quickly with a small mutually responsible group. There are no exhibit developers at The Tech. With each selected exhibit, I would take the virtual design to our designer, engineering and fabrication teams and we would spend about 3 hours total deciding how to translate virtual to real before moving into production. This was somewhat stressful to those who felt safer in a more deliberate team process. Everyone was looking for someone to review their work, but it came down to very few people (again, in my mind, a good thing). We overlapped but because of the short time frame, we didn’t bump heads too frequently—rather than turf wars we were just trying to divide the work intelligently. The fabrication crunch time was somewhat intense—about 3 weeks working weekends and nights with everyone pitching in.

    We were concerned that we were not communicating well enough with the virtual designers about the physical translation of their exhibits and that they might be surprised by the outcome. I tried to talk to each virtual designer at least weekly and share photos in process, keep them apprised of changes, ask them for content recommendations, but we did not involve them in engineering and design meetings about their real exhibits. In about half of the exhibits, the virtual designer was a more significant member of the team, creating content or providing expertise for the final exhibit. In the end, everyone loved their exhibits and the experience of being involved.

    This exhibition is not a one-off but a pilot for future exhibit development at The Tech. In May, when we moved into heavy production of this exhibit in real life, the curator of the next exhibition started working in the virtual community to design exhibits for a winter exhibition.

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

    Well, there are lots of these, and you can find ten of them on the Museum 2.0 blog (along with comments from some of the virtual designers): http://museumtwo.blogspot.com/2008/06/community-exhibit-development-lessons.html

    In general, we learned that we could design quality exhibits (along the standards of the institution as a whole) with a community of creative amateurs in an efficient way. We couldn’t have moved so quickly with an exhibit development team instead of a community, and we couldn’t have produced exhibits so flexibly without a fabulous in-house fabrication team.

    This is just one (fairly ambitious) experiment in the world of visitor co-created exhibit design. I hope there are many other experiments that join its ranks—and surpass its successes—in the near future.

  • Exhibition Opened: June 2007

  • Exhibition Still Open!

  • Traveling Exhibition: No

  • Location: San Jose, None, United States

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

  • Size: 1000 to 3,000 sq ft.

  • Other funding source(s): The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, the Dave and Lucile Packard Foundation

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