About

Creating Engaging Exhibits, Science-Artworks, and Spaces

Copyright © 2006-Present, TechnoFrolics

Introduction

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.)

 

The exhibits

Ideally, an exhibit (or group of exhibits) should engage the full person.  There are diverse ways to achieve this including through:

 

The space

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

Examples include:

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

Examples include:

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.

Magical/life-like interactivity

Examples include:

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

Examples include:

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.)

Pointless interactivity

Examples include:

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:

Guiding suggestions

What to avoid

Conclusion

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...):