Creating Engaging Exhibits, Science-Artworks, and Spaces
Copyright © 2006-Present, TechnoFrolics
This document shares some of our thoughts on educational exhibits, engaging science-artworks, and visitor-supportive spaces. It is particularly geared toward those new to the field, or those transforming their site’s exhibits from static pieces to more dynamic interactive elements. With our over 24 years creating high-tech dancing artworks and interactive educational exhibits, we have developed some strong opinions (though in some cases, we must admit, we had these opinions at the start…). We hope you will find the ideas useful as a springboard for your own brainstorming and designs.
Our comments have a slant toward science exhibit developers as the audience, but many also apply to children’s, art, and history museums, aquariums & zoos, visitor centers, casinos, malls, airports, nature centers, convention halls, trade show booths, etc.
Some of what we say may appear, indeed is, relatively obvious. However, even for those elements that are just common sense, we encounter many exhibits and spaces that seem to have been designed substantially ignoring them.
Remember that your visitors are (typically) human beings
They are not just disembodied minds. Too often, we find exhibits (apparently) designed to engage only the intellect, and set in a space where on a typical day the noise level is so high that even if one wanted to engage in a pure exercise of the mind, one likely couldn’t. (We refer here primarily to museum exhibits – commercial attractions often have the alternative skew of focusing overly on the senses, providing little to reflect upon.)
Ideally, an exhibit (or group of exhibits) should engage the full person. There are diverse ways to achieve this including through:
- Exciting ideas.
- Storytelling, drama, and other emotionally powerful experiences.
- Unique and/or immersive images, sounds, smells, tastes, and touch.
- Opportunities for visitors to design and make their own creations.
- Exhibits, activities, and environments that allow visitors to explore at their own pace.
- Collaborative, or competitive, social experiences.
- Personal attention.
- Fun, striking, and easy-to-share facts and experiences.
In terms of the interior architecture, again, a simple application of common sense goes a long way. If after just an hour or two, your visitors are exhausted and/or hyperactive, and need peace, quiet, and a nap (our personal feeling after visiting many science museums), that’s indication of a problem. To alleviate this situation, in addition to high-energy, mechanical object-filled halls, we encourage including spaces that are more like a quiet path through the woods, with fascinating items available to be discovered and discussed along the trail. In a similar spirit, we recommend having both awe-inspiring open spaces, and cozy nooks with cushions on which to sit or lie. We encourage both high-energy. densely-filled spaces (which are often noisy, and sometimes that is good), with quiet, uncluttered places for people to rest, relax, and talk at normal volume.
One litmus test of successful exhibits/spaces is whether, after experiencing them, the visitor is eager to return, encourage others to go, and/or to tell others about it. This test makes the reasonable assumption that visitors will want to repeat and share enjoyable or powerful experiences. And if exhibits/spaces pass this test, not only will visitors be happy but so will you, because attendance will be high.
Comments on interactivity
Different types of interactivity
There are several types of visitor interaction we would like to distinguish, because we believe it is important to be aware of different flavors in order think about what types fit best where. By no means is the list below presented either as complete, or as embodying “intrinsic, immutable” categories (as can be annoyingly contained in otherwise engaging self-help books). Rather, we are simply using the list as a convenient method to begin reflection.
(Note that some examples below are real exhibits, some slight modifications of such, and others created here simply to clarify the presented categories.)
Open-ended activities and exploration stations
- A high-speed digital video camera with associated capture/review device, and array of objects and materials, with which to explore kinematic movement in ultra slow motion.
- A high-end music keyboard/synthesizer.
- A 3D parts-forming quick prototyping machine with visitor-accessible computer interface.
In many ways, such items offer the greatest possibilities for learning and creativity, but obviously present enormous practical challenges regarding visitor accessibility (in terms of knowing what to do and how to do it), maintenance, cost, safety, offering positive feedback to visitors in a realistic time frame, etc.
Deep, transparent, and well-constrained educational/creative interactivity
- A vibrating string illuminated with a strobe light, where the visitor can control both the vibration frequency and strobe flash rate.
- A plane suspended in a wind tunnel with instruments showing lift and drag, where the visitor has continuously adjustable control over the wind tunnel’s air velocity.
- A science-artwork comprised of a transparent globe on bearings, with illuminated, fleck-filled fluid interior, where the visitor can freely spin the globe in either direction at any speed, creating entwined swirls and vortices.
Such exhibits and activities allow the visitor to control exhibit/artwork function/appearance/behavior in profound, but defined, ways, and where the control, and its effect, are clear. For science exhibits with a particular topic to convey, we feel such designs are often the best choice, presenting an achievable goal within most museum contexts, typically being very educational, and if well designed, quite beautiful.
- A virtual environment composed of multiple cameras, computer, and controlled lighting, where the visitor interacts with virtual “characters” projected on the walls or floor, and that respond in lifelike ways to the visitor trying to “touch” them.
- Musical stairs instrumented with infrared sensors that detect visitors’ passing, and create harmonious sounds based on a complex function of the multiple beam breakings.
- A robotic turtle (e.g., the Roomba® autonomous vacuum) that, whichever way visitors place it on the floor, maneuvers around obstacles and, when low on power, tries to reach its charging station.
Such exhibits and activities provide the visitor an “artificially intelligent” object, or environment, with which to interact. It is rarely possible for the visitor to discern the detailed functioning of what is going on “under the hood”; rather, the purpose of the installation is typically in the artistic, dramatic, or physical exercise/movement realm. This is not to say that the thoughtful visitor won’t try to figure out how the system works, nor that education won’t occur, but simply that much of the learning is likely to be in the realm of better understanding one’s social/environmental interactions and related feelings. In other words, the experience is more in the area of art than science (to the extent that making such a distinction is relevant or useful). (One notable exception is in the area of emergent behavior. In such exhibits, large numbers of autonomous elements, with potentially simple and visitor-understandable behavioral rules, can generate fascinating aggregate behaviors/patterns. This can be of great educational value in a direct math/science sense.)
Tree-structured (branching) information-archive, or action, interactivity
- An ATM. (We realize this is not typically a museum exhibit, but is functionally very similar to some that are, is a perfect example of the type of interaction we wish to highlight, and is a system with which everyone is familiar.)
- A touch screen exhibit where you choose first an animal, and then what feature (habitat, life span, etc.) you want to learn about, following which the visitor is presented with photos and explanatory text of relevance.
- Two columns of two buttons each, where the first chooses between one of two frequencies of an audio note, and the second between one of two volumes. (Such an exhibit would be much improved by having two continuously adjustable dials for the controls.)
While such exhibits can be useful in certain limited circumstances, they rarely provide the engagement level, educational outcome, or fun, of more deeply interactive displays. Furthermore, with the proliferation of the web and its natively information-rich, branching structure, it is not an exaggeration to say that if such branching is all the exhibit provides, it is no better (indeed likely worse) than the visitor just sitting at home at their computer… (One place we feel such branching does make sense, is when it is a needed first-pass visitor filter to select from various choices, following which there is an opportunity for deep interactivity.)
- A short video clip with no particular beginning or end, where instead of simply running it in a loop, an activation pushbutton is added. (The only good reason to do this is if the clip has audio and you are simply trying to reduce noise pollution and save your staff from going crazy when the museum is empty.)
- A lever which opens a curtain allowing the visitor to see a previously obscured scene. (If this truly adds a level of dramatic theater and mystery, that is great and worthwhile. However in many cases, such designs risk being merely annoying.)
- A visitor-triggered proximity sensor that initiates an audio clip saying “You are looking at a (fill in the blank).” (The information could be conveyed just as well, and with less noise pollution, by a simple printed sign.)
Here we refer to the situation where the exhibit essentially provides no interactivity, but the client or developer has heard “interactivity is good”, and so has simply “glued on” an interactive element after the fact.
How interactive, if at all, should an exhibit/experience be?
There is a fundamental tension between giving visitors more control, vs., as the producer/story-teller/educator, directing the experience.
Allowing visitors control is both fun for them and can encourage deep learning and creativity; however, if the exhibit is too open-ended, visitors that are too young, hurried, or inexperienced, may get little out of it. Furthermore, other visitors who are watching may be bored if the experience, not being directed, appears too chaotic. (The most extreme case of this is saying “Here is our universe in all its richness – enjoy!”)
On the other hand, if you remove interactivity and make the entire experience like a tightly-scripted movie – a form which allows for very powerful storytelling - the visitor becomes relatively passive and you risk reduction in learning and creativity.
Examples that highlight this tension:
- For an exhibit on violin music, is it better to hang a violin and bow for visitors to use, or have three pushbuttons that select professionally-played violin pieces, or have both, or have something in between?
- TechnoFrolics Dancing Trees choreographed iron dust piece has user interface options both of pushbuttons that select pre-created dances set to music, and alternatively, a 16 channel x-y-z proximity-sensing pad that allows visitors to directly control the movements of the iron dust through their hand motions. The issue is that the button selections provide for much richer audience experience, while the proximity sensing pad provides a single user more creative freedom. (In this particular case, we either provide just the buttons, or have both as options.)
- Do implement a concept in the simplest possible way, subject to sacrificing neither elegance nor content/message. As Albert Einstein said, "Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler."
- Do strive, for educationally-focused science exhibits, to have the visitor’s interaction be deep and seamlessly connected to the phenomena in question.
- Do offer many access points to address the diverse sophistication level of visitors. A single entry point will be too complex for some and too simple for others. Likewise, offer a wide range of experiences/exhibits/environments, because different visitors enjoy different topics and activities and learn in different ways.
- Do provide a quiet, calm space where visitors can reflect, absorb the information you provide, and explore their own thoughts and feelings.
- Do offer unique experiences that are not available to visitors at home, school, or work.
- Do make your exhibits “wonderful” in the sense that they evoke wonder in your visitors; tickle their curiosity to explore how something works.
- Do include in your mix creations that are welcoming and whimsical - give science, technology, and other complex subjects a friendly face; remember to engage the emotions as well as the minds of your visitors.
- Do, for science-artworks, give equal attention to the art and to the science; shortchange neither.
- Do encourage visitors to interact with each other.
What to avoid
- Don’t make exhibits that are overly complicated or overly didactic. The goal of an exhibit is not to convey lots of “facts”, but rather, to provide a memorable experience and the desire to learn more. With average visitor dwell time only a few tens of seconds, teaching specific material in the academic classroom sense is, in the vast majority of cases, quite impossible.
Furthermore, with the rise of the Internet and dozens of sites covering in detail every possible topic under the sun, if an exhibit is no more than an “information station”, it has little value or engaging power – particularly to the younger generation for whom Google and the web are an integral part of their daily life.
- Don’t implement interactivity or technology just for its own sake; rather, interactivity/technology should be used only when it truly adds something to the experience. For example:
- Don’t use a button to activate a process that could just as well be running continuously.
- Don’t use multimedia to present what could be done just as well with static signage.
- Don’t use complex, expensive, virtual reality-style sensing system to implement simple functionality just as easily achieved with touch screen, button, or other such actuator.
- Don’t overwhelm visitors with many superficial exhibits - instead, provide fewer exhibits with greater depth. Similarly, don’t create site and sound sensory overwhelm.
- Don’t let complex technology get in the way of visitor’s appreciation of the phenomena you actually wish to convey.
- Don’t use audio with an exhibit unless it is truly needed. “Noise pollution”, both in terms of adjacent exhibits competing for attention, and general background sound level, is a serious problem in many spaces. (If you do need audio, parabolic sound domes and other directional devices, or headphones, can help.)
We hope you have found these musings of interest and relevance. For more information, or to discuss your particular issues and project, do not hesitate to contact us.
Additionally, we would like to offer (shamelessly plugging TechnoFrolics' work...):
- As a good example of equally balancing art and science– our choreographed “Dancing Trees” iron dust piece. "Whatever your expectations... nothing can quite prepare you for the ticklish charm and wacky inventiveness of this performance piece.…" Boston Globe Magazine
- As a good example of providing rich interactivity that highlights the subject matter, not the enabling technology – our “Spin Browser” video explorer. Please be sure, in particular, to read our Features and Advantages paper that addresses interactivity issues and includes many supporting client quotes. “The technology never interferes with the visitors’ exploration but only enhances it.” Jerry R. Schubel, Ph.D., President Emeritus, New England Aquarium
- Regarding science-art, two documents written by our founder and director David Durlach: