The Science of Museums: Tapping the Social Sciences to Make Exhibits Fathomable and Fun

Article excerpt

Tapping the social sciences to make exhibits fathomable and fun

When the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History decided to update its 30-year-old Hall of Geology, Gems, and Minerals a decade ago, the curators accepted that its center piece would remain its famous necklace--the one sporting the 45.5-carat Hope diamond (left). The most viewed museum object in the world, it draws more than 5 million visitors annually.

The challenge to staff scientists lay in attracting visitors to the hall's many other exhibits, recalls Lynn D. Dierking of the Institute for Learning Innovation (ILI) in Annapolis, Md. The museum hired her firm to evaluate key facets of the renovation project.

Fortunately, Dierking notes, the curators' task turned out to be far less daunting than they had anticipated. Only 10 percent of the hall's visitors come solely to view the Hope diamond, ILI's surveys revealed. Moreover, 40 percent made Geology, Gems, and Minerals their first stop at the museum even though this exhibition is on the second floor, requiring a walk past the entry level's renowned dinosaur exhibit. She concludes, "We've got destination shoppers"--visitors clearly drawn to crystals, meteorites, and volcanoes.

Collectively, U.S. science and technology centers bring in more than 130 million visitors each year. And increasingly, their most successful exhibits owe as much to evaluation of visitor reactions as they do to ample budgets and careful planning, says Jeff Hayward, a 21-year veteran evaluator who directs People, Places & Design Research in Northampton, Mass.

Fifteen to 20 years ago, virtually no museums considered evaluations to be part of their exhibit-development process, says ILI director John H. Falk. Indeed, exhibit appraisals "were more curiosities than management tools until about 10 years ago," Hayward maintains.

Even today, though the need for evaluation is well accepted in the science-museum community, "there are still probably only a handful of institutions in the country that are religious about it, in the sense that they do it for all of their exhibitions and programs," Falk maintains.

One of the most conscientious institutions is the Adler Planetarium and Astronomical Museum in Chicago. Patty McNamara of Adler argues that creating a project without evaluation amounts to gambling with what are often huge budgets and also with the opportunity to communicate the intended message.

The most common type of visitor-evaluation study takes place early during the production of an exhibit. Typically, the designers craft a rough mock-up and put it on the museum floor for a few days or weeks. Trained observers then analyze how people interact with it.

This process can identify obstacles that might prevent a visitor from experiencing what the museum intends. Potential roadblocks can be as mundane as a knob that's hard to reach, instructions that are too complicated, or an interactive display that takes too long to respond. Yet, even an exhibit that operates flawlessly can possess subtle features that undermine its message, notes Sue Mien, one of two full-time evaluators at the Exploratorium in San Francisco. To find these problems, evaluators must talk to visitors and be alert for cues that the viewers are drawing inappropriate conclusions about what they see, hear, or feel.

Allen encountered one such conceptual booby trap late in the design of an exhibit depicting dynamic equilibrium. A feedback system, it employed a variable-strength electromagnet to suspend a metal sphere midair.

A light shone toward a sensor positioned behind the ball. Whenever the ball blocked the beam, the light sensor sent a signal to the electromagnet to cut its strength. As soon as it did, the ball would fall, permitting the light beam to fully illuminate the sensor. This triggered the device to boost the electromagnet's strength, pulling the ball back up. …