Adapted from “Working Prototypes: Exhibit Design at the Exploratorium” Our Mission Statement The Exploratorium is a museum of science, art, and human perception founded in 1969 by physicist Frank Oppenheimer. The Exploratorium's mission is to create a culture of learning through innovative environments, programs, and tools that help people nurture their curiosity about the world around them. Exhibit Development Adapted from Working Prototypes: Exhibit Design at the Exploratorium, 1986 This checklist describes many of the considerations that we take into account when building a new exhibit (or modifying an old exhibit) at the Exploratorium. Overall Exhibit Design · The design of the exhibit suggests how it is to be used. · The power switch is operated by a clearly marked mat switch or a timed push button. · Adequate space and mounting surfaces are provided for explanatory graphics. · Speakers are tilted toward the visitor to localize sound from the exhibit. · Exhibit components and graphics are adequately lit, using backlit graphics for dark display areas. · Children can use the exhibit · The exhibit is accessible to people with wheelchairs or walking aids. · Lettering on exhibit graphics is large enough for people with impaired vision. · The exhibit is careful located and oriented in relation to other exhibits · Power and other utilities are available where the exhibit is located. Mechanical Design · The exhibit has a stable base and a low center of gravity. · One person should be able to move the exhibit, using a forklift if necessary. · All internal parts, circuits, labels, etc…are securely fastened. · To resist breakage, windows and mirrors are made of plastic or laminated safety glass wherever possible. · The exhibit is built with quality components and hardware to reduce spares inventory and repair time. · If possible, the exhibit uses hand cranks in place of reversing electric motors. · Knobs on pots have small radii or slip clutches to limit the force with which they can be turned. · Small loose parts, such as viewers, are attached with wire rope or braided cord leashes. Maintenance Accessibility · Wherever possible, subsystems can be removed for service · Adequate workspace is provided in exhibit enclosures. (Hinged panels with wire harnesses work well.) · Frequently replaced items such as lamps and tapes, are stored at the exhibit, accessible through a locked hinged door or sliding panel. · All service panels are secured with the minimum necessary hardware. (Flush mounted locks are best.) Long Term Maintenance · A complete checklist is drawn up for routine maintenance, with recommended intervals for checking levels, cleaning vents, lubrication, and so on. Checklist should include an easy way to keep maintenance records. · A trouble-shooting guide is prepared for exhibits where symptoms of failure are predictable. · Surfaces are all non-porous to resist wear and dirt. In the long run, plastic is usually cheaper than paint. We recommend you avoid using Plexiglas for horizontal surfaces, because it often gets badly scratched. In some ways, an exhibit resembles a play or a musical composition. A tension is built up by something in the exhibit that elicits curiosity, or an interesting task, or a lovely effect, then the tension is resolved as the result of an aesthetic or intellectual payoff. If either component is missing, either the creation of tension or its release, the exhibit is unsatisfactory. – Frank Oppenheimer Exhibit development at the Exploratorium involves a great deal of play, learning, discussion, experimentation, and tinkering. In Working Prototypes: Exhibit Design at the Exploratorium, we describe the development of three popular exhibits and discuss the exhibit development process at the Exploratorium. We also note some general guidelines that we try to follow when designing an exhibit. Basic Research-- just plain tinkering around with something for the fun of it--is an essential part of the exhibit development process. At the Exploratorium, approximately eighty percent of the cost of an exhibit is in the research and design and only twenty percent is in the final construction. Exhibits are designed and developed by people who are interested in the phenomenon to be displayed. If the exhibit builder doesn't enjoy the exhibit and want to show it to other people, the exhibit is less likely to be successful. Often the same people conceive of, design, and construct the exhibit. To some extent, all exhibits are collaborative: many people make suggestions and contribute ideas. We have found that it's important to involve a diverse group of people, including artists and teachers, as well as scientists and engineers. The first stage of exhibit design is the construction of a full-scale working prototype. Reactions to the prototype help the exhibit builder modify and improve the exhibit. The final version of the exhibit is often built around the material in the prototype. As a result, the nature and size of the exhibit are dictated by functional considerations and by the phenomena to be displayed. Exhibit builders are responsive to comments from visitors and staff, testing exhibits at many stages in their development and allowing reactions to shape the exhibit. At the same time, exhibit builders try to please themselves by building an exhibit that communicates their own excitement about a particular phenomenon. Exhibit builders pay attention to aesthetic nuances, noticing what is fun to do, what is beautiful, what is intriguing. Each exhibit has its own aesthetic--visual, tactile, or scientific. Generally, exhibit builders try not to restrict a visitor's choices. Rather than just providing one thing for a visitor to try, an exhibit may give a visitor a few options, allowing room for experimentation and play. Ideally, visitors should be able to see the inner working of an exhibit and make discoveries about how the exhibit works. Usually exhibits are built in a simple fashion to help visitors feel that they could, if they wanted, try the same thing at home. Most of our exhibits are set up on table tops, so that visitors can gather and use the exhibit together. This arrangement encourages visitors to watch other people use exhibits and promotes social interaction between visitors. Exhibits are often constructed of inexpensive materials, scrap, and found objects. As a result, an exhibit can be changed readily without much expense. Almost all of the Exploratorium's exhibits are built at the museum. This allows museum staff to interact with the exhibit builder and the exhibit and makes it easy to test the exhibit with visitors, a crucial stage in an exhibit's development. Of course, these are guidelines, not absolute rules. Though they describe our general approach to exhibit development, we could probably find successful Exploratorium exhibits that contradict each of them. In the end, we try to build exhibits that please our visitors and ourselves, to listen to comments, and always be willing to change. Oppenheimer on Exhibit Development Our treatment of perceptual phenomena makes for a basically humanistic atmosphere in the Exploratorium, and it has, at the same time, tied together an extremely wide range of natural and technical phenomena. We feel no compulsion to "cover the ground," nor are there narrow limits as to what is appropriate within this integrative rationale. We first try to decide what kind of effects or ideas are fundamental to an understanding of some aspect of science or nature. Then we sort out which effects are easier to understand if they are demonstrated rather than read about. Finally, we grope around for ways to effectively and captivatingly illustrate such effects. Outsiders who learn about what we are searching for will frequently help. Phil Morrison called from MIT to tell us of the exponential behavior of a bouncing ball; Luiz Alvarez sent us an article on a sequential array of long focal length lenses. Occasionally a staff member will read about some work in a journal or newspaper and contact the author. We gather a group of experts in linguistics, for example, or in visual perception. Invariably the group provides us with a great raft of ideas to work on. Since, as an ongoing process, we are expanding exhibit curricula and filling gaps in the ones we have, we have been able to afford the luxury of being responsive (albeit also selective) to the continual flow of ideas and of actual exhibit pieces that visiting scientists, teachers and artists bring to us. One of the more productive employees of the Exploratorium said to me some years ago that he felt confused because what he was doing much of the time in the machine shop was just playing around with no particular purpose. He didn't see why he should be paid for doing that, even though his playing around sometimes resulted in the birth of wonderful and instructive exhibits; exhibits whose major purpose or form was in no way conceived at the outset of the playing around. My brother, when he was a young man, said his teaching made him feel he was giving somebody their money's worth, whereas almost none of his research calculations had anything to do with anything. It seemed hard for him to justify his being paid for just doing research. Whether it is exhibit-building or research or sculpture, so much time is spent just playing around with no particular end in mind. One sort of mindlessly observes how something works or doesn't work, or what its features are, much as I did when, as a child, I use to go around the house with an empty milk bottle pouring a little bit of every chemical, every drug, every spice into the bottle to see what would happen. Of course, nothing happened. I ended up with a sticky gray-brown mess, which I threw out in disgust. But much research ends up with the same amorphous mess and is or should be thrown out only to then start playing around in some other way. But a research physicist gets paid for this waste of time, and so do the people who develop exhibits in the Exploratorium. Occasionally though, something incredibly wonderful happens. The way a place is, emerges from decisions made about many details. The general view is that an executive should not pay attention to all these details. I don't think that's the right way. It doesn't work when you are doing experiments and it doesn't work in art. A lot of museums are on the right track to start with. They have a picture of what they should be. Then there is pressure - it's rather like people who set up a symphony orchestra in order to play a certain kind of music, and when nobody comes to hear it, they change the repertoire. Composing Exhibits The section of the museum reserved for exhibits under development is near the machine shop, so that exhibit builders can watch visitors and see how they react to an exhibit and how they use or abuse it. This testing often reveals problems that the exhibit builder failed to anticipate. Oppenheimer often stressed the need for honesty in exhibit building. The exhibits really worked--they did not make use of gimmicks or tricks to enhance or improve on nature. Oppenheimer regarded this as an essential characteristic of the museum, an important part of the visitor's experience there: "In the Exploratorium, visitors achieve the satisfaction of individual discovery. We do not want people to leave with the implied feeling: 'isn't somebody else clever.' Our exhibits are honest and simple so that no one feels he or she must be on guard against being fooled or misled." "Art is not included just to make things pretty, although it often does so, but primarily because artists make different kinds of discoveries about nature than do physicists or biologists. They also rely on a different basis for decision-making while creating their exhibits. But both artists and scientists help us notice and appreciate things in nature that we had learned to ignore or have never been taught to see. Both art and science are needed to fully understand nature and its effects on people. The art in the Exploratorium is therefore blended with the science as part of the overall pedagogy." Frank Oppenheimer. Unlike some exhibit builders, who try to make their exhibits "fool proof," Oppenheimer believed in building exhibits that could be used in many different ways--rather than just to show the single effect that the exhibit builder had in mind. He felt that a visitor couldn't learn just by watching an exhibit behave the way it was supposed to behave. Instead, visitors should be able to make the exhibit misbehave; they should be able to use it in ways that the exhibit builder might not have anticipated. He wrote, "It is important to allow the variables in an exhibit to change enough so that the interesting effects disappear. One learns as much or more about an effect by its disappearance as by its appearance." Oppenheimer's views on exhibit building had much in common with attitudes that are commonly regarded as artistic, rather than scientific. He wrote, "In some ways, an exhibit resembles a play or a musical composition. A tension is built up by something in the exhibit that elicits curiosity, or an interesting task, or a lovely effect, then the tension is resolved as the result of an aesthetic or intellectual payoff. If either component is missing, either the creation of tension or its release, the exhibit is unsatisfactory." Quotes from Frank Oppenheimer The basic objective of science is to discover, understand and unify what's happening around us, whether in living things or inanimate things. Very often people talk about the scientific method, but I believe that the way of understanding in science has a great deal in common with the way of understanding anything. Yet there are a couple of very special things about science that are not part of its methodology really, but which are crucial to its progress. One of these is that if you are genuinely trying to understand what's going on around you there's no point fooling yourself, or for that matter, fooling any of your colleagues. Within the scientific community there is a tradition that anybody who fabricates data is completely ostracized. This tradition is one of the basic tenets of science and science had traditionally been one of the very special strongholds of that tenet. I wish it also applied to politicians and advertisers, so that they would ostracize people who willingly and deliberately fabricate data. One of the nice things that is true of the Exploratorium is that people trust it. We don't "rig" any of the exhibits; the exhibits do not show things artificially. The natural phenomena are there and the visitors can ask questions of the exhibits, and the exhibits can then answer these because they behave according to nature. Although the Exploratorium does not consciously glorify the achievements of people, it is impossible to come away without some sense of awe at the subtleties, complexities, and the almost unbelievable reliability of sensory information and processing. One also frequently comes away with a new awareness that causes one to stare, squint close one's eye, or cock one's head, in a word, to experience everyday phenomena. The Exploratorium is not designed to glorify anything. We have not built exhibits whose primary message is, "Wasn't somebody else clever," or hasn't someone done a great service to mankind and the American way of life." Nor do we tell people what they are supposed to get out of a particular exhibit or make them feel silly or stupid because they enjoyed it in a way that was perhaps not intended. In this sense the Exploratorium is a playful place, and people are aware that they are not being pushed around. The roots of science frequently lie in sight-seeing. In recent years much of high energy physics, especially bubble chamber analysis, has constituted little more than a very elaborate form of sight- seeing. The individual sights combine to form patterns, which constitute a simple form of understanding. The process continues beyond this stage as groups of seemingly disparate patterns then coalesce to form the patterns that provide the deepest insights about nature. We are exploring various forms of museum teaching and learning in the Exploratorium, but our effort would be worthwhile even if it did no more than provide some good sight-seeing. Sight-seeing always requires some amenities to make the sights accessible. If one is concerned with the interest and understanding of the general public then sight-seeing must not require, as it did with Marco Polo, an undue amount of heroism or expense. Many people who talk about the discovery method of teaching are really talking about arranging a lesson or an experiment so that students discover what they are supposed to discover. That is not an exploration. The whole tradition of exploration is being lost for entire generations. It is, therefore, more important than ever that museums assume the responsibility for providing the opportunities for exploration that are lacking for both city and suburban dwellers. It would be fine, indeed, if they would, but it will take a bit of doing to do so properly. If museums are too unstructured, too unmanageable, people get lost and simply want to get back to home base. On the other hand, if they are too rigid, too structured or too channeled, there are no possibilities for individual choice or discovery. Exploring, like doing basic research, is often fruitless. Nothing comes of it. But also like basic research, as distinct from applied or directed research, exploring enables one to divert attention from preconceived paths to pursue some intriguing lead: a fragrance, a sight or smell, an interesting street or cave, an open meadow encountered suddenly in the woods or a patch of flowers that leads one off the trail, or even a hole in the ground! Often it is precisely as a result of aimless exploration that one does become intensely directed and preoccupied. A museum that allows exploration does not have to be disorganized either physically or conceptually. It does, however, mean that the museum must contain a lot of which people can readily miss, so that discovery becomes something of a surprise, a triumph, not so much of personal achievement as of personal satisfaction. It is the kind of satisfaction that invariably leads me to tell someone about the experience. There is one piece of oft-repeated advice to which we have not paid the slightest attention. Over and over again, I have been lectured at by exhibit designers with the statement, "You have to decide who your audience will be." We recognize that it is essential that neither I nor the staff are bored by our exhibits, that we learn something as we make them and that we enjoy showing them to people, especially our friends and colleagues, over and over again.... As far as we can determine, there is no age limit, no training limit, nor any cultural limit to the range of people who use and enjoy the place. Preschool groups and old-folks-home groups come and come back. Mentally or sensory retarded groups repeatedly come and special classes for gifted students use the place as the basis for a variety of projects. Ours is one of the few formal institutions that attracts teenagers. There are two things misleading about the statement, "You have to decide who your audience is." In the first place, it is possible to make many, if not most, of the exhibits so that they can each individually be appreciated and enjoyed on a variety of levels. Secondly, it is ridiculous to think that every visitor should be able be appreciate or enjoy every exhibit in the museum. Not only should one not expect a visitor to become absorbed in very many exhibits, the atmosphere of the museum must be adjusted in such a way that people are relaxed about missing or not understanding something. ...a museum can be a hock shop and a Gumps window at the same time. If people feel they understand the world around them, or, probably, even if they have the conviction that they could understand it if they wanted to, then and only then are they also able to feel that they can make a difference through their decisions and activities. Without this connection people usually live with the sense of being eternally pushed around by alien events and forces. I believe that the Exploratorium does help create or renew this conviction for very many people and that, especially for young people, it builds a desire to understand. I sense also that this is happening when I hear adult visitors tell me, "I wish that science had been taught this way when I was a kid... What they are telling me is that now, after a life-long rejection of the subject, they could in fact have understood it. The conveying to our visitors a sense that they can understand the things that are going on around them may be one of the more important things we do. This sense can then so readily extend to all aspects of people's lives. The intellectual apathy that I am told now exists among young people may have come about because these youths have never been convincingly taught the wonder of understanding or learned that when one does understand, then each person, as an individual or as a member of a group, can feel that they can make a difference. The Exploratorium architects wanted to build offices with low partitions that formed little work cubby holes with shelves for plants. They took me to see offices like that which they thought were very good. Everyone was working away in their cubby holes. Suddenly I shouted something out loud and everybody popped up out of their holes. I said to the architect, "See what would happen? I wouldn't be able to shout." He replied that such a place teaches people to talk softly. Well, I don't want to be taught - or to teach anyone - to talk softly. They said something else about stopping the children from running about inside the museum. Well, why should we stop children from running? I had a difficult time convincing the architects that they weren't really doing any harm. They hardly ever ran into anybody, but they appeared to be a little bit out of control and it worried the architects to see children behaving naturally. I think it's quite wonderful that we don't mind losing some control. Art & Science There are many common bonds between science and art. They both begin with noticing and recording patterns - spatial patterns, patterns in time, patterns of process and behavior. They both elaborate, reformulate, and ultimately link together patterns, in nature and meaning, which initially appeared as unrelated. Both art and science are involved with order-disorder transitions and the creation of tension and the relief of tension. Both endeavors are deeply rooted in culture and heritage; both expand our awareness and sensitivity to what is happening in nature, and in ourselves. The commonalties have not been made use of in teaching and learning. But I now know that they can be linked because, at the Exploratorium in San Francisco, we have managed to let people look at parts of nature through the eyes of both the physicist and the artist. There has not even been the need to announce this piece is physics, or "that piece is art." The works of artists and the didactic demonstrations of scientists and engineers combine to do more than show the sights. They alter, each in a characteristic mode, the way in which individuals perceive both their past and future experiences, and they make people aware of aspects of their surroundings that they have either learned to ignore or never been shown how to see. In growing up one even ignores what people's faces are like, but by seeing paintings of people's faces you begin to look at them again, and I think that the same thing is true of science. You look at the sky and you see the stars, and it is just an amorphous mass; but suddenly somebody talks to you about it and you see that some stars move with respect to other stars. There are many examples of things that one just does not notice until either they are brought before one because one begins to understand them. They both change in this way, the way one looks at oneself and the rest of the world, and I think this is one of the reasons that science, as it has been taught, is so unattractive to many people, because it has not succeeded in changing the way they look at themselves.
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