Thursday, October 15, 2009

Turn Your Museum Inside Out

By Maria Mortati, Sr. Exhibit Developer

VH1's True Hollywood Story (THS), CSI, and Make Magazine all point to one thing: people have an innate fascination with what's behind the curtain. Some different than others, but no less passionate.

What we often suggest to our clients is that this desire is an excellent motivator for engagement. Instead of exclusively focusing on a highly digested message or veneer, make room for letting people see the nuts and bolts of your operation. Or make that your entire experience if you can. 

Often we think of an exhibit as the culmination of ideas and the period to the sentence of investigation.  So how might we turn this on its head and include them in the investigation? 

Truth be told, I'm the first person to admit falling in love with an exhibit idea and running away with it. The challenge is how to leave enough room for someone I don't know to contribute to the overall solution or experience. That aspect in exhibit development craft is becoming accepted, but moving beyond the individual exhibit to the entire environment is a bigger leap– for lots of practical reason$.

There are other places which do this in a manner of ways- the Brookfield Zoo's Hammill Family Play Zoo lets children play director, vet, etc for a day. Their web site makes our point well:
"Children need to touch, explore, build, and do. The Play Zoo lets them touch animals, build habitats, paint murals, examine animal X-rays, plant gardens, dress up as a bird, discover insects, and more. The primary goal is to foster feelings of love and caring toward nature by doing, rather than communicating scientific concepts or facts. Brookfield Zoo wants kids to feel connected with nature and have fun doing it!"

The power of involvement in a shared discovery process vs. simply being "told" is huge, and its manifestation can run from open labs & storage, to public programs, or exhibit programs where the visitor is a key component of the outcome.

One strategy is to find ways to make the work you are doing simply visible. I would argue that the impact on the visitor of role modeling is a powerful tool not to be easily overlooked. Thousands of people get exposed to possibilities beyond the museum's topic-du-jour when they see us at work.

From an operational perspective, making our work transparent has other benefits. I used to work in the machine shop at the Exploratorium. Working with loud equipment has its own challenges, working with loud equipment inside a museum where there were thousands of visitors mulling around added a level of complexity to my day. 

It also created an inescapable awareness of who I was working for. That atmosphere has an amazing ability to focus on our true objective.

Image courtesy of Creative Commons/Flickr/rubbergloverlover

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