Opening Up Museums

| January 31, 2013

I really enjoy Nina Simon’s blog, and her recent talk is especially exciting: Museum 2.0: Opening Up Museums: My TEDxSantaCruz Talk.

With an upcoming year-long exhibition highlighting the 125-year history of Teachers College, EdLab designers are focused on eliciting “audience” participation in our exhibition environment – three floors of Russell Hall (nearly 30,000 sq. ft.!).

I like how Simon frames the issue of participation around the challenge of making it meaningful – because it’s all too easy to create meaningless activities. But at the same time, she suggests, the hooks for engagement have to be simple enough that people are willing to try something new.

That’s tough to do!

I find that easy and interesting are often at odds. For example, our current goal is to use Twitter as a tool of engagement. But what do you ask people to contribute? 160 characters is already technically simple for folks with a Twitter account, but what kind of content should we elicit?

Photo of a library event by Diana Diroy

For me, solving this issue for a particular content is the essence of an exhibition design process – a process that should result in a unique and engaging solution that serves as a great foundation for learning.

One strategy is to aim to make the results of small contributions cumulative – either in a way that creates one large result, or as a mosaic showcasing individual contributions. Another is to make them personal (perhaps identity-oriented is a similar but useful way to think of this).

Another strategy is to offer an extrinsic reward – to offer a prize, for example. But this seems to be less genuine, or at least less likely to relate to learning. On the other hand, this could be a hook that engages a contributor to do more.

Giant Firefly by AMNH

One recent example of a bad interactive solution that comes to mind is from the recent Creatures of Light exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History (sorry guys). While the exhibit had some nice elements, I was disappointed by the gigantic firefly (six feet long?) that hung from the ceiling and glowed at the press of a button (working from memory here) at the entrance of the show. What did this accomplish?

I assume it was supposed to echo the bioluminescence theme of the exhibit, but for my 3-year-old it really just raised the question, “Are fireflies really that big?” I’m not saying that elements need to work for everyone, but really: aren’t there dozens of more exciting ways to show off the mechanisms of science while creating a stronger foundation for learning? (Wouldn’t a six foot magnifying glass aimed at a life-size firefly been many times more awesome? Aren’t there ways to use lighting to better effect?)

Using a traditional exhibition toolbox (scale, lighting, drama, etc.) alongside newer technologies is a big challenge. I’m excited to see what we can come up with here at Teachers College!