of an Exhibition

by Beverly Serrell

Published on January 31, 2010, Modified on September 08, 2010

  • Description:

    Review of YOU! at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. Opened fall of 2009. Permanent exhibition.

    My friend Nancy and I went to see the YOU! exhibition on Jan. 21, 2010. MSI admission is free in January, so we figured it would be a good deal. Still had to pay $16 to park.

    YOU! is 15,000 square feet. $21 million. 4 years in the planning. How does this compare with Denver Museum of Nature and Science’s Expedition Health? I wondered because I’d worked on that one with Jeff Kennedy Associates.

    (Check out MSI’s website for the YOU! exhibit video. You’ll see many of the same exhibits I’ve discussed and photographed here with my iPhone.)

    We walked into the balcony space off the elevator. There was no orientation information at all. You just got dumped into the exhibition in the middle. I guess it was the middle only because the parts at the end of the balcony were about being old and The Future. We started there.

    Overall, there was no theme, coherence, context, or big ideas. Just information, technology, “interactivity,” and “PLEASE PARDON OUR APPEARANCE” (code for “broken exhibit”). The graphics and colors were attractive, readable, not overwhelming for the most part.

    One of the broken exhibits was a “human hamster wheel” that was used extensively in MSI’s ad campaign when the exhibition first opened in October 2009. It broke soon after (from kids puking in it, I heard), and it’s still down.

    Nice layout. Bounded by the balcony floor plan.
    At 15,000 square feet, YOU! is big, but you can mostly see where you are because of the open balcony layout, which makes it actually seem smaller. I don’t know how many exhibit elements there were. We stopped at about 25 and spent a little over an hour. It was the only exhibition we came to see, and we were not in a hurry.

    There were several things I liked that I had not seen before:

    - A backlit 3-part panel that let you make a list of things to do before you die. This was in the Future section. 100 Things To Do had 100 suggestions that you could drag and drop onto your own “goals” sheet, after making your own file with your age on it. Supposedly the exhibit kept a tally on the selections and age groups, but obviously people were really being silly. For example, a thing to do was “play soccer,” and it was listed as “most popular” choice of 94-year-olds. I selected “have children” among my five choices. You could insert your exhibit Sci-pass card to record your goals and go to the MSI website to get a printout from home. The slide-drop technology worked well. There were no directions, and it was fairly transparent to me but not to my friend Nancy, who is less exhibit-computer savvy than me (and I’m no whiz).

    - We sat down to play the Forum group discussion that was empty except for us. It was a little slow (lots of talking heads), but the program was interesting and contained real issues. I came away suspicious of the conclusions because it said that 85% of the users voted for “yes” and 15% said “no” for our discussion session. But it was just me and Nancy playing the game, so it should have said 50-50.

    The stools had sensors in them so you couldn’t play three screens at once!

    - Gunther’s body works were there: a male torso, a female torso, the central circulatory system, the basic nerves, and the digestive tract (my personal favorite). And a huge Exploded Man with all the parts, which reminded me of a diagram of a dissembled VW in an old repair manual.

    The small labels that accompanied these specimens did not identify them as real bodies or give credit to the maker. Hmmm, why not?

    - I’d read about but never experienced a vision tracker. I watched a video and then saw it again with an orange circle that indicated where my eyes had been focused on the screen. Very cool. It didn’t work for Nancy – because she had contact lenses? I tried to play it a second time, and the computer said it couldn’t calibrate my eyes either. Strange.

    There were a couple of things I’d seen before that I was glad to see again:

    - Like we had at Denver, there was Mind Ball. Always a popular exercise. Fun to do and fun to watch. There was a crowd around it. And Vein Viewer. Although in both cases at MSI, I thought the Denver interpretive labels were much better because they were more integrated with the context and experience of the exhibit, not just a panel hung on the wall.

    - MSI’s fetal development specimens are nicely reinstalled in a special dark room. It is a fabulous, never-to-be-duplicated collection. The Real Thing. People of all ages moved slowly and thoroughly through the displays, gawking and talking. The movie at the end is a glossily animated version of the story, nothing real.

    - I had to hug one of the exhibits! They saved and reinstalled a couple of the wonderful old body slices. I remember these from the Blue Stairway days. They were old when I first saw them in 1965. One of my all-time favorite exhibits.

    - I recognized one central piece as a Scott Snibbe installation. Cameras and your movements translated onto a big screen. Very beautiful and engaging. Apparently there are several scenarios – including a tai chi lesson, a hip-hop lesson and an open-ended do-it-yourself time (in photo).

    Too much text; pseudointeractives
    There were lots of things that had too much text, and pseudointeractivity to get you to expose yourself to more text to read, e.g., push a button, lift a label, use a computer screen. What is interactive about pushing a button that lights up a fake piece of pizza and a label in a dark box?

    MSI also had a face-aging station, but I didn’t think it was as effective as Denver’s. This one also took a long time to do it, which created long lines of waiting visitors. MSI had two stations back to back.

    YOU! had a voice-aging exhibit, but it was not very convincing or clear.

    There was a video exhibit of laughing faces that were motion sensitive. If you stood still, the people didn’t laugh. You moved, and they laughed. So what was that supposed to mean? I found out later that this was another Scott Snibbe exhibit. It was supposed to inspire infectious laughter. After I thought about it more, I was really disappointed with the disconnect between the exhibit’s objective and my experience. I felt no connection with the faces or their emotions. A connection would be based on my having empathy for the person in the video, but in this case, it was a diverse bunch of strangers with no back story.

    No more Giant Heart to walk through (boo-hoo). Just a bar to hold onto that read your heart rate and made a giant flat screen video of a heart beating in time with yours. Denver’s heart rate exhibits were more engaging.

    After I got home I used my Sci-pass to see what information showed up on the MSI website. My list from 100 Things to Do was there, but it was in a generic typeface, totally lacking the fun graphics of the original exhibit.

    All in all, Nancy and I gave YOU! a “C.”

Latest Comments (8)

oops, spelling mistake

by Beverly Serrell - February 02, 2010

3rd paragraph: I mean Jeff Kennedy Associates. Sorry.

Thanks for your honesty!

by Nina Simon - February 02, 2010

Thanks for writing such an honest review. I hope it will inspire more people to write about what they do and don’t get out of exhibits they visit… I love the graphic treatment on the “100 Things to Do” exhibit – neat idea. Still skeptical of the “save it and review on the web” concept, though. I think we’re ready for something more continuous with people’s online experiences than sending you to a personal webpage.

Response to Review

by Patricia Ward - February 08, 2010

As Project Director for YOU! The Experience, I feel it’s important to respond to the review posted by Beverly Serrell. The goal of this posting is not to present an overview of YOU! The Experience or its objectives, but rather to respond to several statements in the review article; some of which are factually incorrect and others which reflect either the author’s bias or the superficiality of the conclusions.

To clarify specific points from Serrell’s article:

YOU! The Experience is located on the Museum’s north balcony; a U-shaped space that has 3 access points due to the configuration of the >100 year-old building. The 8 areas that comprise the exhibit are designed to be explored in any order. The 2 key entry points (used by the majority of guests) have entry panels that serve to orient guests and set the stage for what’s to come. Each area has its own theme, identified by a “signpost” graphic panel and unified by a concise color scheme; for example, the “Your Future” area mentioned in the review article. The author apparently came into the exhibit through the 3rd and lesser-used entry point and did not see the entry panels.

The plastinated specimens are indeed from Gunther von Hagens’ Institute for Plastination (IfP) and are presented in 9 display cases integrated throughout the exhibition. The author wondered why the plastinates are not identified as originating from von Hagens. In fact they are—on 2 graphic panels placed at either end of the overall collection. We chose not to incorporate the IfP or von Hagens’ information within each display case as the exhibition is not about Gunther von Hagens or Body Worlds. The exhibition is about personal health and wellbeing; your body, your mind, your choices, your environment and medicine. Museum volunteers are frequently stationed in the YOU! exhibition near the plastinates to answer questions. Through their feedback, we have discovered that many people do not realize the specimens are real and we plan to include labels that make this clear to all of our guests.

The Hamster Wheel (part of the area “Your Movement”) was indeed closed down for a period of time, due to a faulty bearing, not as the author stated to “kids puking in the wheel.”

The author complained of “pseudointeractivity and too much text.” In this 15,000 square foot exhibition with nearly 50 interactive experiences, there is ONE set of lift panels that interpret research data on the subject of happiness, grounding an obviously challenging area of study in academic research. There isn’t a single computer screen in the entire exhibit that is used to “get people to read more text.” Other statements reflect a superficiality of both observation and conclusion. For example a “push a button to look into a black box” refers to a series of view ports that illustrate the vast changes in portion size of 5 different common food items; comparing 35 years ago to today. Pushing the button illuminates the model inside the view port—representing the food item’s typical portion size from 1975. A brief moment later, the image of today’s portion size is superimposed, using a “pepper’s ghost” lighting trick—a comparison that doesn’t fail to catch people’s attention.

The Future Forum does not in fact have “sensors in the stools.” It is designed to tally votes through a series of questions throughout the activity, none of which require yes/no answers, so it’s unclear what the author was thinking from her remarks. As part of a remedial evaluation study, we discovered that all participants in the evaluation found the activity enjoyable and useful and would not change the length. Due to the statistical tallying and nested decisions inherent in the activity, visitors aren’t allowed to join in once the program has started. Instead, they are encouraged to join the next session in a few minutes.

We’re glad the author enjoyed 100 Things to Do. The idea of inviting visitors to think about their personal goals and to make selections proved to be immensely popular, even during early paper-based prototyping. We’ve observed families working together, very young children insisting that their parents read all the goals to them so they can make their own selections, and conversations among visitors during the activity. In the end, the goal of the exhibit is to inspire visitors to push the boundaries of their potential, not only inside the museum, but also at home and for a lifetime.

We’re also glad the author appreciated the display of prenatal development specimens. Accompanying this display are two other experiences; one is the small theater media piece, Fantastic Journey, a seven-minute computer-generated animation that immerses guests in the story of human prenatal development from conception to birth. The author commented “nothing real there.” The media piece is not “real” in the sense of actual intrauterine cinematography, but it illustrates real biological processes, spanning the scale of the microscopic beginnings to birth. The third piece in this gallery, Make Room For Baby was not mentioned, but has proven to be enormously impactful for our guests. This exhibit visually illustrates the effects of the developing fetus on the mother’s body. To present a perspective on prenatal development not often seen, guests control the progress of gestation, triggering a series of animations along with quotes from pregnant women.

While we anticipated Make Room for Baby would resonate most strongly with our adult female audience, we have also found that males, as well as younger visitors are remarkably impacted by it. A young girl (about 8 years old) was overheard by a staff member to say to her mother that she wanted to talk about what she’d seen on the way home in the car, while an adult male teacher who attended an educator’s open house was very impressed with the piece; making a point of telling us that he felt that while boys and men would perhaps be a bit nervous to approach it at first, he believed it was a great experience and felt that others would find it very powerful.

The author felt no personal connection with the faces in Laugh Garden. This piece was designed as a social experience— guests engage with each other as well as move vigorously to get the faces to laugh harder. And that is precisely what happens. Groups of kids and families are frequently observed laughing together and interacting with each other as they experience Laugh Garden. We could have taken a very literal approach and presented information about laughter’s positive effect on health, but here and in many other places throughout YOU!, we chose not to do so.

The Giant Heart is actually not (as stated in the review) a “giant flat screen video” and the off-hand mention of the >13 ft heart beating in time with your own heart rate is curious as this feature, and the fact that guests can control views of the heart, from the exterior to various interior views have made a huge impact on our audiences. The Giant Heart is actually a 3-dimensional sculpture made of a perforated material that allows for views of both the exterior and the interior, projected from both the front and the rear of the structure. Highly realistic CG animation (produced by XVIVO; creator of some of the most highly regarded medical and biological animation) presents authentic views of the heart and various aspects of its function. Accompanying the heart are two multi-user interactive table experiences that explore the biology of blood and the heart as a metaphorical symbol of love and attachment. Once again, our aim here was to move beyond traditional didactic methods to shed light on the multilayered structure, function and nature of the heart, while connecting to each visitor’s pulse.

While we expected children to enjoy making the Giant Heart beat with in time with their own, we’ve been surprised by the way adults have also been drawn to this opportunity—and have drawn conclusions from it. During installation, construction workers frequently took breaks from their work to check their pulse on the Giant Heart. Similarly, during a meeting with the press, a reporter who was winded from climbing MSI’s stairs noted his racing heartbeat and began musing on the importance of exercise. After opening day, a cardiologist spent 40 minutes at the Giant Heart talking with the facilitator and checking out the interactives, which he then pronounced “amazing". Other users have been overheard pointing out which valve they or their family members have had replaced or urging one another to get their cholesterol checked. In short, the Giant Heart serves as a de facto personal health assessment tool that people enjoy using.

As hoped, the two accompanying media tables (What’s In Your Blood? and The Chemistry Between Us) serve as informative, experiential complements to the Giant Heart. Children in the Museum’s target age range (ages 8-14) are enthusiastic about the tables and readily express biological processes they’ve observed in their own words—e.g. “Red blood cells carry oxygen to the body!” or “Platelets fix holes in your skin.”—to Museum floor staff. Equally important the tables’ playful non-linear interactivity sparks conversations among visitors as they collectively guide the action in the virtual worlds at their fingertips.

A few unsolicited comments from guests:
“…knocked one out of the park with the new You! exhibit. Very, very well done and as an educator, native of the Chicago area, parent (and grandparent), and medical visualizer, I commend the tremendous effort. The beauty and tastefulness is extraordinary, and as a kid who grew up in the museum (my favorite), this is the brightest and best."

Two gentlemen approached a facilitator to ask about the “giant, walk-through heart.” The facilitator explained that it had been replaced with the new interactive heart. The facilitator showed them all the cool things it could do. Later the guests came back to the facilitator to say “this new heart is my favorite heart.”

YOU! The Experience, benefited greatly from extensive front end and formative research conducted throughout the project. We worked with advisory committees of more than 30 respected experts, educators and community leaders, a youth advisory group of 10-14 year-olds, focus groups and conducted in-depth prototyping of many of the exhibition’s components with museum visitors, to provide a solid grounding and mechanism for ongoing feedback. While we have not completed summative evaluation as yet, we have amassed considerable feedback from museum members, educators and the general public through a combination of surveys, feedback from floorstaff working in the space and anecdotal remarks and emailed comments from museum guests. The overwhelming majority of guests, whether from the general public or our school audiences have been extraordinarily enthusiastic about YOU! The Experience. Guests have commented frequently how comfortable they feel in the space, the very high degree of interactivity, the uniqueness of the experiences and from our educator’s audiences, how valuable it is as a teaching tool. We look forward to sharing the results of summative evaluation with the community in the coming months. We consider YOU! to be an ongoing, organic exhibition in which we continue to seek and act upon constructive feedback as well as provide updates on content and experience delivery in years to come.

We applaud Denver’s new health exhibition and wish them much success. We are also very pleased with the outcome of YOU! for MSI’s audiences. YOU! acknowledges that everything in our lives shapes our health—from our biology and personal behavior to our environment and our medical care. Living well and enhancing our personal wellbeing requires reaching further into ourselves, and recognizing that we each make our own unique pathway toward living better. Our goal was to create meaningful, memorable experiences that appeal to and resonate with a very wide variety of visitors and across age groups; a goal that our guests say has been realized even beyond our expectations.

Another note of appreciation

by Daniel Spock - February 09, 2010

I saw the exhibit too, but over the holidays when, I suspect, it was alot more crowded. Still, my sense of the experience squares with Beverley’s to a great degree. I didn’t find the layout to be very unsettling, probably because I was unsettled by the crowds primarily. I can say that I observed a very high level of positive visitor engagement with much of the exhibit, it was proportionately far more busy than the rest of the museum. I wasn’t sure how the exhibit was supposed to hang together conceptually, but there were many fascinating nuggets so it felt more like a buffet than a five course meal. The relatively low-key public health part got my attention, probably because it was too difficult for my daughter and I to get to many of the most appealing interactive elements which caused us to squeeze into some of the lower traffic areas. I found the comparison of food portions and calories over time illustrated through the Pepper’s ghost technique a compelling way to talk about the rise in obesity, along with the map that showed how obesity rates correlate not only to poverty, but also to which neighborhoods in Chicago have better supermarket access (poor neighborhoods have lousy access, rely on convenience stores and fast food.) These factoids were the biggest take-aways for the afternoon. I also encountered some broken stuff, which took things down a notch in my eyes. I thought a B grade might be attainable, but the maintenance dragged it down a notch in my estimation.

Great to see critical dialogue on exhibits

by Scott Snibbe - February 10, 2010

First off, I’d like a disclaimer that I’m the President of Snibbe Interactive who made some of the immersive and social networking applications in YOU! So I’m not entirely unbiased. It’s wonderful to see critical dialogue about exhibits and this is the perfect place to have these kind of discussions.

I found some of Beverly’s comments right on, while others reflect what I believe is a generational or even dispositional difference between what highly-educated adults in the science museum industry enjoy as an exhibit, and what today’s kids and families enjoy. I’d just like to gently address a couple of interesting points.

First off, about the exhibition just dumping you into it and that there are two asymmetrical ways to enter the exhibit. I read this as a critique of the exhibit not having a clear beginning, middle, and end. I’d like to push back on this critique and suggest that this type of non-linear, immediately immersive experience is just what kids and even twenty- or thirty-somethings expect from media today. The exhibit was designed to work in any order, allowing a visitor to pick and choose both which exhibits they focus on, and in what order. What could be more appropriate that this for an exhibit entitled YOU than to give the visitor a high level of personal control. If you look at how children and adults gather information today, non-linearly, online, and socially with friends, this approach makes even more sense. Patty’s comment, for example, about Laugh Garden highlights this – Laugh Garden is an exhibit designed to be BETTER with more than one person, provoking contagious laughter, rather than the traditional exhibit that only accommodates one person at a time, or even breaks or give nonsense results for many visitors. Another way to look at the narrative flow is to see how television programs now begin typically in media res – diving right into the action – to suit contemporary minds.

Having worked closely with Kurt Haunfelner and Patty, I can say that I don’t think I’ve ever seen an exhibit where the team went to such a huge effort to work and re-work the content, theming, message and spatial/social aspects to suit their audiences, including completely re-working or scrapping exhibits when necessary. They were especially mindful of making experiences that will work with the enormous crowds at the museum.

I recently took two full days to spend on the floor of YOU! The Experience and with a few small exceptions, it seems an enormous success. I saw thousands of kids completely engaged, having social fun (sometimes with literally 20-100 kids having a meaningful experience at once with an exhibit), and learning a lot. I’d encourage anyone coming for a professional view to spend the whole day there, or even two, to really see how the audiences respond to the various exhibits.

Since I got into this business I’ve found one of the challenges is mediating the tastes of adult science educators/administrators with the everyday families and kids who come to visit museums and I applaud Patty and the team for a job well done, with, of course, a few exceptions. For example, Beverly’s comment about more ways to share online is a good one and I hope to see MSI moving further in that direction with exhibit revisions and future exhibits, especially with integrating into the existing social networks that kids are using, such as Facebook.

I applaud Beverly for starting this interesting discussion.

Strong Response Better Than No Response ...

by Paul Orselli - February 10, 2010

Not having seen the YOU! exhibition yet, I’d say the strong responses/comments people have posted certainly make we want to experience it for myself.

One question for Scott, could you please expand on what you mean by “… literally 20-100 kids having a meaningful experience at once with an exhibit”?

Multiple perspectives

by Wendy Pollock - February 10, 2010

It would be great if those involved in development of YOU would post case studies (of the whole exhibition, of components). There can be multiple accounts. Meanwhile, I really appreciate the spirited exchange!

Just visited YOU! today!

by Jason jay Stevens - February 11, 2010

I just toured You! today, part of the time with a MOSI staff member, and partially on my own. It’s a refreshing departure from typical human body/health exhibits, and a welcome recontexturalization of some old stand-by’s. Today was a relatively quiet day at the Museum, but engagement seemed pretty good in this exhibition (especially the heart).
Admittedly, this space has always been a difficult place for an exhibition, but I think I understand why MoSI tries so hard to utilize it (and one of those reasons is not lack of space!).
That being said, I really appreciated the fetus display being given its own chamber. Powerful place.
It’s impressive that the Museum has acquired some VonHagen “originals”; they are truly educational pieces quite unlike anything else. And the old body slices…I love those, too…from the days before VonHagen. Nice to see them out of the stairwell!
I tend to skip by computer interactives, and I’ll never be surprised by negative reviews, but the “Create an Ad” is clever—especially because it’s in a health exhibition. It’s indicative of the exhibition’s “ranginess,” but the human body/self is a rangy topic, by nature. And I, for one, do not always need evident big ideas (sometimes I do, but human body and health exhibits I “get” without needing pathways, narratives, and overbearing themes).
The Garden of Laughter is cute. As the reviewer indicates, it doesn’t have much in the way of educational value, or deep interactive experience, but it’s the sort of thing I’d like to see more of in museums: simple, unique, open-ended. Oh, and laughter.
I wish I could have witnessed some surgical training on the rubber man. By the sound of it, that’s pretty amazing. That represents the other end of the spectrum that I’d like to see more of in museums: profound, genuine, professionally-guided group activities with special technologies. Where else can you go for that if not museums?
By the way, I was also told by somebody on the inside that the hamster wheel was making kids puke. Alas, I tried, but I just got overheated.
The marketing material for You! alludes a lot to the body/mind/spirit triad, and only when I compare the exhibition to some expectations I had from that am I disappointed. The notion of exhibits dealing with matters of spirit made my imagination get a little ahead of my visit.
But overall, a thumbs up! for being a refreshing alternative to the norm.

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