Science in a Box

The Exhibit Design and Production team at the Science Museum of Minnesota stuffs a lot of science and history into handy little packages

Behind the Scenes at the Science Museum
A member of the exhibit production and design team assembles an exhibit in the basement workshop of the Science Museum of Minnesota. photo courtesy of shelly campbell, science museum of minnesota.

If you wanted to teach your friends how a tornado forms, you could sit them down and explain about mesocyclones and localized low-pressure regions; or you could take them to the Science Museum of Minnesota and let them make one.

“We’re translators of scientific and history content into experiences,” says Joanne Jones-Rizzi, director of community engagement at the Science Museum of Minnesota. “We’re synthesizing and translating information into something visitors can explore.”

The process of creating an exhibit such as the Science Museum’s RACE: Are we so different? is exacting and technical. Yet there’s no how-to guide to steer the process from rough draft to reality.

Aaron Heidgerken-Greene has developed exhibit prototypes at the Science Museum for about six years. Though he didn’t work on RACE (he started his job shortly after the exhibit was finished), he walked me through the process that all exhibits undergo.

Each exhibit begins with a concept. “Sometimes we have an idea and we can get a grant to develop it from the [National Science Foundation] or NASA or something,” says Heidgerken-Greene, “and sometimes we get hired to build a certain exhibit.”

For example, Jones-Rizzi says it was the American Anthropological Association who approached the Science Museum to develop RACE as part of a larger public education project. “The main goal of the project was to communicate to the public that we all share a common ancestry,” Jones-Rizzi says.

The next step is to hone the broad goal. The designers of RACE worked with a local community advisory board and a group of anthropological advisors who studied language, sociology, and biology. After these conversations, they chose three areas to focus on: history, biology, and the contemporary lived experience of race.

The exhibit prototypers’ job is to turn these concepts into things. Ideally, things that people can play with. “You have to sort of pull out concepts and ways that people can experience ideas.” Jones-Rizzi says. For RACE, she says they “wanted to provide ways to say this is not fun, this is complicated.”

The history section of RACE illustrates the painful side of its subject by allowing visitors to hold historic artifacts such as shackles that held American slaves and calipers of the kind used to measure physical features of German Jews.

For the ‘biology’ section of the exhibit, they built two “who’s talking” games with photographs of women (the other game features men) and a button. When you press the button, a voice speaks and you have to match the voice to photos.

At the prototype stage, the exhibits are towers of raw plywood and exposed circuitry; their instructions are hand-written notes that will be rewritten many times as ideas evolve. At this stage, “we’re still trying to figure out how the pieces fit together,” says Heidgerken-Greene.

When a prototype is finished, it is put on the museum floor. Professional evaluators try the exhibits and, more importantly, watch visitors interact with them. The prototype is then sent back to the basement shop, either to be re-built as a finished product or refined and returned to the floor as a prototype. Exhibits can get stuck in this loop for a long time, depending on deadlines and how much grant money the museum has for the project.

When it is ready, drafters design every detail of the finished product (Heidgerken-Greene calls it “Figuring out how to fit it all in a box”), and exhibit builders put it together.

On the day I visit the Science Museum, they are testing several prototypes for an upcoming exhibit on pseudoscience and quackery. One is an Orgone Energy Accumulator, a large plywood box, and Heidgerken-Greene invites me to take part in the exhibit design process by sitting in it.

A laminated placard asks if I can feel the Orgone (a kind of magical-energy that was proposed in the 1930s). I don’t understand, I say, it’s just a box. Heidgerken-Greene explains: “And someone made a lot of money selling them.”

It’s a perfect little lesson in quackery, fraud, and how efficiently plywood can communicate a complicated idea.

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