Try It! Lab

Topic: Other Subtopic: General

Case Study

of an Exhibition

by Dave Stroud

Published on February 22, 2010, Modified on August 08, 2011

  • Description and goals

    The Try It! Lab started as a supplemental exhibit to a small exhibition of about a dozen rented physical science exhibits in a too big space. I asked to move my team, including myself, into the space. It grew into something else…

    Description and goals of the physical space:
    Most people see the Try It! Lab as a physical science exhibition with a small exhibit shop in it. The shop is behind a transparent plastic wall that acts a giant set of safety goggles to protect guests while they look in.

    My conception of the space turns this upside down. The goal has become: The place where the most meaningful work in the museum happens, where the process of exhibit development is as important the content.

    To me, the Try It! Lab is a research space that contains a physical science exhibition. This exhibition provides the platform for the guest interactions we are studying. Existing exhibits can be modified or supplemented. Prototypical exhibits can be added and removed. Physical relationships between exhibits are altered on a regular basis. This exciting, dynamic space is where the exhibitions team does testing for future exhibitions.

    We have created a windowed workspace that allows the exhibition staff to observe guests firsthand as they interact with exhibits within a connected exhibition. The team can see what types of exhibits are most successful, (or unsuccessful,) and why. They can also exit the workspace directly into the gallery, and are encouraged to interact with guests. The information collected is used to refine the exhibits before final build and installation.

    The fact that guests can see the exhibition crew at work, and the exhibits in progress is an added benefit of the windows.

    My hope is that a kind of two-way learning takes place, with guests learning from the exhibits and exhibits staff learning from the guests.

    Finally, I wanted to be able to move or otherwise change the exhibits within the exhibition to a large degree with a minimal amount of effort. What we refer to as a high degree of modularity.

    Description and goals of learning in the space:
    Based on the idea that people learn what they want to learn, when they want to learn it, we have developed a “more questions than answers” pedagogy. We help people make connections and get them excited in an effort make the “when” happen more often. Many of the exhibits don’t really teach facts of the type that might appear on a quiz. Rather they are designed to try to get guests to play in way that reinforces science methodology. Ask questions, make predictions, make comparisons, make changes, start again. This is the same thing the exhibit developers are doing in the lab. We foster curiosity, and encourage acting on it.

    Summary of description and goals:
    The Try It! Lab is about exhibit developers and guests learning together, working together, playing together and noticing things along the way. Some exhibits do provide answers. Some provoke more and “better” questions. Hopefully all of them provide some connection to our world and how it works.

    The Try It! Lab is, in my opinion, very successful in accomplishing these goals, though more formal evaluation is necessary to back up the observations of my team and I. Traditional evaluation methods may be difficult to apply since the exhibition does not focus on the traditional “learning outcomes” paradigm. Much of what the exhibitions team has learned is through interpersonal interaction and connection with our guests. I would even say that some of what we have learned in the past six months has influenced our exhibit building on a fundamental level.

    Personally, I feel that I am transforming from an authority figure using exhibits to impart information, to more of an anthropologist studying how people make meaning from their experiences, and modifying the experiences that are presented to make them more accessible to guests.

  • Development process and challenges

    Our development process is largely summed up in the name Try It! Lab. If someone has a good idea or notices something, we want to try it. This also means that the goals and description above can and do change, because the Try It! Lab is a “living” changing space.

    Rapid, less-than-complete prototyping is encouraged. In the spirit of Frank Oppenheimer of the Exploratorium, developers are encouraged to get pieces on the floor long before they are completed, perhaps 30% finished. (perhaps 10% finished!) This lets the team see if an idea is even interesting to guests. In the past we have developed exhibits which were apparently interesting only to the developer. We can also see what parts of the exhibit leave guests in confusion. Several iterations of fast, inexpensive prototypes let us make our mistakes at low cost and reach the solution quickly. Watching guests through our transparent wall while doing other tasks we can simply observe, or as is often the case, decide to get out on the floor and find out what is not working. “Fail early to succeed sooner” is written on the wall of the shop area, and we thrive on getting feedback about what we can improve, then making and testing changes.

    Guest participation is high on our development process list. We see guests as part of the development team. We have survey forms, but the vast majority of useful feedback comes from observing guests directly as they play, and from interacting with them and noticing what needs to be improved. Guests often use exhibits in ways we did not intend. In response we sometimes try to get them to do what we intended, but lately find ourselves modifying the exhibit to implement this new activity.

    Many of the benefits of the Try It! Lab are also challenges, or give rise to challenges.

    Having a lot of ideas to potentially try is great, but makes it difficult to know what to select. Like all venues we have limited resources in terms of developers and money. We use guest interaction to guide the process as much as possible.

    Guests are interested in the process of exhibit development, and enjoy viewing us work, but exhibit developers must be confident and highly skilled. It could be unnerving to be watched otherwise. Some days there can be near constant interruption to work that needs to be completed. On the whole though I love working in this environment. I believe most of my team would prefer to stay in the Try It! Lab, rather than return to a remote location. The guests like the contact and the team gets fantastic insight.

    I have tried to build an element of unpredictability into the Try It! Lab so that guests will discover new things when they return. I have discovered that guests grow strongly attached to some exhibits rapidly and express sadness when these exhibits are not there when they return. The good news is most of these will eventually reappear in a finished form in another venue.

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

    The Try It! Lab simply encourages a different approach to mistakes. We expect them, even embrace them, and use them as a development tool. I feel inclined to say there have not been any mistakes since what others perceive as mistakes we define as part of our process, but…

    Expressing what the Try It! Lab is about to other internal departments has been an ongoing challenge. For instance:

    Other internal groups tend to focus on guests watching us – but the real benefit to the exhibition teams is looking out. Some signage was created to cover large portions of many of the window with the explanation that “kids can peek in under the sign.” That signage has been moved and repurposed.

    Also misunderstood has been the somewhat “raw” nature of the prototypes and the fact that they are research tools. As a prototype itself the Try It! Lab has a somewhat plain motif in comparison to some other venues on our property. This was consciously chosen to show that immersive experiences can be had by focusing on the exhibits themselves rather than fancy decorations. By limiting the “wow factor” of the décor we can be assured the success of the exhibits rests with the exhibits themselves. Our guest response bears this out. That being said, I am planning on more elaborate decorations this next year, because I have learned what I needed to know and now feel confident in letting this exhibition more closely match the aesthetic on the rest of property at this point.

    The nature of prototyping and limited space means some/many items make only a brief appearance. Once the data is collected the exhibit often is removed. As I mentioned earlier, guests become quickly attached to good ideas and miss the exhibits once they leave the floor. I need to do better job communicating to guests the nature of the research, and that their new favorites will appear elsewhere on property in the future.

    Most exhibitions I have been involved with focused mainly on the end product, did not include the audience in the process very much, and once they were built did not change very much, in spite of obvious shortcomings that were noticed once the exhibit was completed. But I will say that while I am pleased with the method we are developing in the Try It! Lab, it is a lot more work! And because we are in sort of a state of perpetual prototyping, it never really ends.

    Personally, I feel that I have developed from an authority figure using exhibits to impart information, to more of an anthropologist studying how people make meaning from their experiences, and modifying the experiences that are presented to make them more accessible to guests.

    Guests of the Try It! Lab often leave positive exit surveys. More importantly, many guests come to the museum specifically to visit the Try It! Lab. A large number of guests stay for over an hour playing with the twenty or so exhibits. Some have told me they became so absorbed they did not leave themselves enough time to see the rest of the museum. I consider this a real compliment since the Try It! Lab is located in a natural history museum and I consider dinosaurs to be stiff competition! (pun intended)

    I have always wanted to have my office right on a gallery floor. I wanted to be able to observe firsthand what types of exhibits were most successful, and perhaps refine or revise my definition of a successful exhibit or exhibition. I now have my wish, and it is sweet! In fact, I occasionally get accused of having too much fun. The exhibitions team does have a lot of fun. It is also a lot of work, and the team often goes home absolutely drained. But we all eagerly return, because we get to make a difference, nearly every single day.

    Wow! This got kind of long, but I feel like I have barely scratched the surface of what we are doing in the Try It! Lab. I did not even write about any individual exhibits, our upcoming ExNet show, or the prototyping process…

  • Exhibition Opened: August 2009

  • Exhibition Still Open!

  • Traveling Exhibition: No

  • Location: Lehi, UT, United States

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

  • Size: 1000 to 3,000 sq ft.

  • Other funding source(s): internal

Latest Comments (4)

Thanks Dave,

by Tom Nielsen - February 24, 2010

for taking time to describe the Try It! Lab in such detail. Your enthusiasm for the project is inspiring, and it sounds to me such a refreshing exception to the typical ‘big idea’ exhibit planning process that too often gets small results. And thanks for keeping alive the idea that museum staff should be learning from museum visitors constantly, as a natural part of their daily activities. I’d love to hear more about some of the individual exhibits making their way through the feedback loop, as well as an update in a year or two on how the Lab itself evolves over time through the same mighty method of successive approximation.

Thanks Dave,

by Tom Nielsen - February 24, 2010

for taking time to describe the Try It! Lab in such detail. Your enthusiasm for the project is inspiring, and it sounds to me such a refreshing exception to the typical ‘big idea’ exhibit planning process that too often gets small results. And thanks for keeping alive the idea that museum staff should be learning from museum visitors constantly, as a natural part of their daily activities. I’d love to hear more about some of the individual exhibits making their way through the feedback loop, as well as an update in a year or two on how the Lab itself evolves over time through the same mighty method of successive approximation.

Sure thing.

by Dave Stroud - February 25, 2010

I plan to follow up on this case study focusing on exhibits we currently have and are developing, and some of the “modifications” we have made to the Exploratorium exhibits we are renting as part of our ExNet partnership. (Easy Sam, nothing permanent…) I am also curious what will happen when we bring in a new set of exhibits and add more theme to the space this July. I feel confident there will be a reaction and I am curious to see what it is.

Sure thing.

by Dave Stroud - February 25, 2010

I plan to follow up on this case study focusing on exhibits we currently have and are developing, and some of the “modifications” we have made to the Exploratorium exhibits we are renting as part of our ExNet partnership. (Easy Sam, nothing permanent…) I am also curious what will happen when we bring in a new set of exhibits and add more theme to the space this July. I feel confident there will be a reaction and I am curious to see what it is.

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