Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Using Observations to Modify Exhibits

In a second post about our Museum's prototyping process, Peter Crabbe, Associate Director of Exhibits and Design, shares how we use observation during prototype experiences at DCM.

After creating a prototype we temporarily install the exhibit on the Museum floor to see what kinds of interactions our visitors will have.  Trained observers, who act as our eyes and ears, write a detailed description of what happens at the prototype as children play with it.  The observers are often Museum volunteers.  The volunteer observers are extremely important to us because, unlike the exhibit developer, designer, or fabricators, who are very close to and vested in the project, they tend to observe more impartially.  Even with the best of intentions, the people working closely designing and developing the project will be more inclined to see only what they want to see.

After a few observations, we collect all the field notes and look to see what the children and families have been doing with the prototype.  We will often see something similar written in almost all the field notes: if such a trend emerges, it prompts us to modify the prototype and then observe again to see if modification improves the exhibit.  For example, we are currently observing a prototype for a new version of our Roller Coaster exhibit because we want children to find it physically easy to use in joining the pipes together and we want it to encourage a more free form type of ramp and tube building in the space provided for this experience.  I have visions of the children making large curvilinear tube ramps wrapped around columns like a spiraling amusement park ride or configuring tubes in which balls build momentum going down a steep run only to go back up again before making their final descent to the exit.  From reading the field notes, however, it is clear that we need to cut some shorter tubes and observe the prototype again to see if it is easier for younger as well as older children to use.

Building exhibits is expensive.  Prototyping is a way to ensure that an exhibit not only looks engaging, but also meets its educational goal, is intrinsically interesting and fun for children, and makes clear to people what the exhibit is inviting them to do.

We keep records of the field notes and the prototyping summary so that they can be useful for the future.  Our hope is that the body of work will be a basis for future Museum staff who will one day develop other exhibits at DCM.

If you want to see the final product, stay tuned!  In a future post we'll share how we determined the design changes and show you the final product, our new and improved Roller Coaster exhibit.

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