What are interactive exhibits for? How is the science museum and science centre sector thinking about exhibits and exhibitions in 2017?
BIG is a skills-sharing network for individuals involved in the communication of science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects. It’s been around for 21-25 years in some form and initially involved a core group of exhibit fabricators. In more recent times, the community has diversified to include university STEM engagement staff and more performers than exhibit developers.
At this year’s conference, hosted by the excellent Centre for Life in Newcastle, I wanted to discuss what has changed in the way we think about exhibits in the last 10 years, and what we have learned about the way people interact with exhibitions and exhibits. What is ‘in fashion’ and ‘out of fashion’ and why?
I put together a panel of three speakers with experience in the field; Andy Lloyd, Head of Special Projects at the Centre for Life, Bethan Ross, a Senior Audience Researcher and Advocate for the Science Museum group and exhibit fabricator; Ken Boyd from FifeX.
How are interactive exhibits chosen?
To start Bethan told us a little about the aims and objectives of the exhibits in the Wonderlab Bradford project. Wonderlab is the evolution of the old ‘Launch Pad’ at the Science Museum which has itself had a few iterations and can trace its lineage back to the first ‘hands-on’ museum space the ‘Children’s Gallery’ opened in 1931.
Wonderlab in Bradford specifically looks at science related to broadcast media technology, such as sound and light. The driver is to encourage and promote curiosity and questioning; to assist discovery by providing visitors with real physical phenomena that they can manipulate and investigate. i.e. ‘teaching’ scientific skills and habits of mind rather than specific scientific content. Wonderlab in London however, set within the broad context of the collections of the Science Museum London, could never hope to reflect the science of the whole collection. Instead, exhibits were chosen for a range of other criteria around visitor engagement and enjoyment, memorability and efficacy in achieving their learning objectives.
Andy then talked about the changes at Life since 2010. In 2011 they opened a gallery upstairs for under 7’s, designed to stimulate creative play. In 2012 “Curiosity” set out to stimulate specific behaviours and thought-processes through interactive exhibits, rather than deliver information. In 2015 they opened “Experiment Zone”, a family laboratory that boosts people’s sense of identification with science through an authentic lab experience and last year they opened “Brain Zone”, bringing visitors into active neuroscience, psychology and anthropology research. Andy talked about the move to social engagement and personal factors like self-confidence and identity. We all discussed how exhibits can be organised into those imparting information in an ‘active learning’, to those offering an experience or skills (such as experimentation).
At this point, we had a discussion about ‘Science Capital’ – particularly in relation to ‘Experiment Zone’. One of the underlying research findings of the work on Science Capital by King’s College London and the Science Museum in the Enterprising Science project is that although many children were interested in science, those without what has been termed ‘high science capital’ just didn’t see themselves as future scientists. Experiment Zone offers an opportunity for children to dress in lab coats and work on experiments with family members, parents often record this experience in photos which are shared with family and friends with pride and comments relating to possible future identity. This is where exhibits and exhibitions in Science Centres diverge from those in Museums, Heritage Sites and other types of Visitor Centre.
Are interactive exhibits a good way to deliver content?
In the museum and heritage sector, I am a strong advocate for interactive exhibits. I’m a believer in the power of active learning to engage minds and hands-on activities to vary the pace of a visitor’s experience.
But in a Science Centre, Andy is sceptical about exhibits delivering information. He feels that exhibits can lead to a lot of learning, but this comes from the process of interacting with the exhibit and with other people not the discovery of new information. Bethan advises exhibition teams on both interactive-led and object-led galleries and so was able to talk about the different roles of an interactive. Interactives in object-rich galleries are helping with the interpretation of the object or story, whereas interactives in interactive-only spaces are more about the experience itself.
Best practice and new approaches
Something I noticed at the Wonderlab in London was the use of named artists on some exhibits. I asked Bethan about the thinking behind these and we discussed the advantages of working with artists to achieve something different and a new perspective. They also specifically worked with local artists to help connect to the local area and local audience.
At Wonderlab, they added illustrations and also prototyped these as well as the textual instructions. It helped to bring people into the gallery (representation) and also assisted in parental scaffolding – allowing them to talk less about the procedural and more about the science.
Bethan mentioned that staff interactions often come out as a key point in summative evaluation. Wonderlab London is permanently staffed, Bradford might not always be. The role explainers play in a gallery is something SMG are looking at. Visitors like a bit of reassurance and to know they can ask for help if I need it. Ther are practical and safety reasons and many visitors appreciate the personal contact. Research shows that families/parents see explainers as scientists or science role-models of a relatable age for their children, which again feeds into thinking about raising Science Captial.
The biggest takeaway for me from this conversation was that there is so much more conversation still to be had. It felt like there was a real appetite for it at the BIG Event and I hope we can see more sessions at future Events on different aspects. There may also be potential for a re-boot of the fabricators’ group within BIG and some way of sharing best practice in this area in the current context.
NOTE: This blog post is an attempt to round up the discussion at a session I chaired at the BIG Event in July 2017. As we didn’t record the session or have a dedicated note-taker, I offer unreserved apologies to anybody who feels misrepresented in this post, or that the session is misrepresented.