Top of the Sierra Interpretive Center

Topic: Physical Sciences

Case Study

of an Exhibition

by Dan Wodarcyk

Published on August 01, 2007, Modified on August 10, 2007

  • Description and goals

    The Top of the Sierra Interpretive Center (TOS) was developed with a goal to relate why the Mammoth Mountain area of the Eastern Sierra Nevada is significant geologically, culturally and recreationally. The working Big Idea was always :Experience the magic of the mountains and its influence on our lives. This is a 1500 square foot, interior visitor center, located in the gondola building at the top of Mammoth Mountain, at 11,053 feet in elevation. Visitors’ only access to the site is via a 10 minute gondola ride from the base of the mountain to the top. The TOS was one component of a significant remodel to the building, including the addition of a cafe. Mammoth Mountain Ski Area receives a tremendous amount of skier and mountain biker visits per year, and the ability to add features to every part of the mountain is important. Before opening, there was no other “holding” feature at the top, besides the amazing view and lure to ski or bike down. It’s worth noting that Mammoth offers a scenic gondola ride for those who will not be skiing or biking down.

    The exhibit experiences were broken down as follows:
    Introduction to the Top
    Mammoth Milestones (historical timeline)
    Mammoth Stomp (a seismic interactive experience)
    Action All Year (what to see and do year ‘round in Mammoth)
    Look Out (what you can see, spotting scopes along the windows pointing at key landmarks on the horizon)
    Mega Map (what you can’t see, a media interactive “launching” visitors from the top to key places, and times, within the Mammoth Mountain region)

  • Development process and challenges

    Mammoth Mountain Ski Area had developed a rough content outline prior to the RFP process. S2 had developed a number of exhibit concepts in response to the RFP, many of which “stuck” and made it through to the end. There was really nothing atypical about the exhibit development process. What was unique, however, was the site condition. Again, at 11,000+ feet, with harsh sun exposure, temperature fluctuation and rugged visitors, the S2/Mammoth team had to give extra thought to every material. Fortunately, the team at Mammoth had years of experience building environments for this climate and visitor type.

    The client also offered the challenge of designing the exhibits to be flexible enough to handle events, such as parties and receptions. Therefore, we kept the exhibits to the perimeter of the space, with the exception of Mega Map. These 2 media kiosks were designed to be removable, with all power and data living within floor outlets and unseen when not in use.

    The shape of the gallery was a 1/2 round rotunda, with the curved side made up of floor to ceiling windows to the south and west. The views are stunning and we did not want to compete, so the structures along the windows were minimal in profile.

    In terms of materials, we were quite aware that dinging and scratching due to ski poles, boots and boards would be common. Any wall mounted exhibits on the “solid” side of the gallery were built from typical plywood and hardwood materials. The more touchable structures were built in stainless steel, including the Mega Map kiosks and the Look Out spotting scope structures. All graphics had a heavy UV “floor guard” overlamination with encased edges. The exception for the graphics were the Action All Year panels, which were mounted on rotating cubes and fabricated using the I Zone embedded graphic process.

    By far the biggest challenge was installation. Due to the base building construction schedule, exhibit installation was delayed by a few weeks. We ended up installing in mid March of this year. Typically, with this location, that could have been a nightmare due to snowfall. Unfortunately for many Sierra Nevada ski resorts, this past winter was quite dry. Fortunately for the construction crew, it was a dry series of weeks with easy access to the top. Easy being via the gondola and via snow cat. All exhibit structures and tools had to be transported to the top via snow cat, a large tractor type machine used for trail grooming. There was limited availability of the snow cat crew, so we had to be flexible with their schedules and fortunately, they were very accommodating.

    Remembering you were at 11,00 feet was also important. The air is thin and can take a toll on the body. Lots of water and frequent breaks were critical. Surprisingly, the altitude had little effect on materials, oxidizing, delamination of graphics, etc. Not being a large building overall, it was not uncommon to have exhibit fabricators, carpet installers and electricians tripping over one another.

    From a content standpoint, due to the involvement of key stakeholders and advisors, overall approval of the main content outline and exhibit text was time consuming. Graphic design approvals and production went right down to the wire. Nothing really new there except that with Mega Map, the media interactive developed by our friends at Ideum, the delivery of this componet was delayed. In the end this turned out to be the richest experience in the center, and very popular among visitors.

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

    Like I said, we could not have been luckier in terms of weather. However, it was a challenging work environment and I would have scheduled 2 weeks total of exhibit install instead of one. I believe the stainless steel will hold up quite well and am anxious to see how the floor guard graphic laminate works over time. For the spotting scopes along the windows, we worked with the Mammoth staff to develop the best solution. After considering magnified scopes, we opted for non magnified scopes, welded on site to direct visitors eyes to specific points on the horizon. This made for a time consuming install but there was really no other way around it.

    For the Mega Map kiosks, we worked with Mammoth IT staff to spec the best cables (VGA and USB with extenders) to handle the hook up and disconnect due to parties and events. All computers were up to 75 feet away, in a separate closet from the kiosk. A fair distance but better in terms of keeping the equipment safe from the elements.

  • Exhibition Opened: June 2007

  • Exhibition Still Open!

  • Traveling Exhibition: No

  • Location: Mammoth Lakes, CA, United States

  • Estimated Cost: $100,000 to $500,000 (US)

  • Size: 1000 to 3,000

  • Website(s):

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