Have you ever had that feeling as a museum visitor where you walk right past an exhibit without regard, or otherwise find it hard to connect to? You’re not alone – we can relate to that feeling when an exhibit isn’t as rich, as “sticky”, or as provocative as we know it could be. At NYSCI, the particular puzzle we face is: “how can we inspire visitors to think and ask questions – while also keeping the traffic flowing?”
How can we begin to chart a course toward a future for science museums in which we maintain our honored status as trusted sources of educational information, while also enhancing visitors’ learning potential through participation and social interaction? How can the exhibitions we create invite viewers to understand and apply the core concepts across STEM disciplines, while also encouraging them to engage with the exhibits to make meaningful contributions to the museum floor? These are the questions we must ask ourselves as museum exhibit designers.
To formulate answers to these questions, NYSCI is hosting a three-day thought leadership conference on May 29 – 31 aptly titled Rethinking Authority and Visitor Agency (Without Breaking Your Museum). The conference brings together leaders, innovators, and critical thinkers from the fields of exhibit design & development, the learning sciences and community engagement, and is made possible by a grant from the National Science Foundation’s Advancing Informal STEM Learning program for the project Reconceiving Exhibit Design for Public Engagement with Science. Participants will review current work and in-depth design scenarios in order to develop new methods of building inclusivity and agency within museum exhibits.
During the event and any associated pre- and post-conference activities, participants will work together to develop new ideas for exhibition design that achieve the following three goals:
1. Integrate visitors’ related questions, concerns and perspectives into the exhibit experience.
2. Engage visitors as contributors to the exhibit experience in ways that make their contributions visible and consequential.
3. Plan for and incorporate the operational demands of busy science centers and their audiences when designing museum exhibitions.
This discussion is particularly important to us at NYSCI as we continue our long-term effort to infuse Design, Make, Play into all of our exhibition spaces. Design, Make, Play is our overarching approach to designing creative STEM learning experiences, including exhibits, workshops, digital resources and curriculum. It emphasizes the importance of provoking personal engagement and curiosity, and cultivating agency and voice among all learners. It pushes us to create experiences that have an impact on not only what people know, but how they think, and their awareness of their own thinking and their own capacity as STEM learners and doers.
Like some of our colleagues, NYSCI has already made major investments in innovative exhibitions that seek to support these goals, particularly our 9,000-square-foot Design Lab and the immersive digital exhibition Connected Worlds. However, also like our colleagues, we are deeply aware that not every exhibition in any science center can have the dwell time, or require the facilitation and material resources, that these exhibitions require. Consequently, we want to work with our colleagues to craft new conceptual approaches and new design solutions that can provoke similarly rich, visitor-driven, and ambitious STEM learning experiences, while also producing exhibits that can function reliably for large number of visitors with little or no facilitation.
We recognize many of our colleagues are already doing outstanding work in this field. This conference will solidify recent efforts in public engagement with science, by reorganizing museums to become sites for visitor participation and contribution through institutions’ local communities, and by increasing the amount of design-based programming at museums.
With this conference, we intend to strengthen industry connections and build a common language among teams at science centers that are invested in creating socially-rich learning experiences but maintain a commitment to scientific rigor. Development efforts that result from this conference will aspire to advance our understanding of how to engage diverse publics with the most urgent, challenging STEM topics of the day.
As part of the preparation for this conference, attendees are creating videos or ‘zines where they take a look at a favorite exhibit, program, or museum experience and consider:
– How inclusive is the experience?
– How does it welcome people?
– How does it build agency?
– How is it inclusive, how is it exclusionary?
– If they were involved in making it, what was the process to get there?
Stay tuned for more information and updates as the conference progresses!
– The NYSCI Team