Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Exhibit Prototyping

This week's post is written by Peter Crabbe, Associate Director of Exhibits and Design for DuPage Children's Museum.  Peter will be sharing a series of posts for our readers this month about our Museum's prototyping process.  Leave a comment or ask a question as we look at this process together.

The exhibit prototyping process is one of the favorite parts of my job here at DuPage Children's Museum (DCM).  It's our opportunity to find out if what we have predicted on paper will actually work in practice or  to test out something that we are unsure will work.  Prototyping exhibits helps us to finalize their design to a point where we are confident that the final product is something that children will find interesting and fun, and meets the educational goals of the exhibit.

Children often surprise us, using the exhibit prototypes in unexpected ways.  This helps us to modify what we are doing to better meet their needs, which can mean tweaking what we intended, re-designing or even going in a completely different direction we hadn't intended!

We use the prototyping stage to answer questions about practical issues, such as how high off the ground to make something so children can easily reach it, how to engineer something and the best way to ensure that the exhibit is safe.  Finally, it is a chance for us to invite our visitors to participate in helping us create and improve the experiences at DCM.

How does the prototyping process work?  Once we have figured out what an exhibit is about and what type of exploration we want to encourage in children, we typically do a rough sketch or concept design.  Sometimes we can't answer all our questions, such as how interesting children will find the exhibit, if it will work technically or if people will know what to do with it without signage just from looking at a sketch or drawing; that's when we need to prototype.  Our fabricators will then build a rough prototype in our Museum fabrication shop.  The prototype is a temporary structure made quickly and inexpensively, and left unpainted.  However, any working or moving parts have to be fully functional.  Sometimes the prototypes have a distinctly Rube Goldberg look about them.

Stay tuned!  Find out about our visitor interactions with prototypes in a future post!

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