Doing Science: Researchers and Exhibition Staff Talk About Their Work.

Planning an Exhibit
In May 1998, the Hall of Biodiversity opened at the American Museum of Natural History. It covers approximately 11,000 square feet on the first floor of the Museum and joins the 33 other permanent exhibit halls that have been built over the course of the Museum's 129-year history. The Hall is devoted to the theme of biodiversity--what it is, why it is important, why it is threatened, and what this and future generations can do to preserve it. It contains more than 1,200 specimens, dozens of models, and a multitude of media displays, including 20 video monitors, 20 interactive computer stations, and assorted special effects. The centerpiece is a 2,000-square-foot diorama--one of the largest in the world--depicting the plant and animal life in a Central African Republic rain forest.

Designing and building the Hall was a four-year effort, requiring the participation of hundreds of people, from architects and designers, museum administrators and curators, to carpenters, electricians, model makers, and volunteers from the community.

To find out how such an enormous task was accomplished, we talked to a cross section of these people, beginning with Willard Whitson, former Associate Director and Senior Exhibition Developer in the Museum's Exhibition Department and the Museum's Project Manager for the Hall, and Melanie Ide, an architect who is the Project Director from the firm of Ralph Appelbaum Associates, which designed the Hall.

We asked Willard how he begins planning an exhibit, whether it is as ambitious as the Hall of Biodiversity or something considerably smaller.

"Step one is to think about what the parameters are: What is the topic? How much money is there to spend? How much space is there? How much time do we have before it opens, and how much of that time can we spend working on the project? What are our resources: What kind of help, materials, and equipment do we need and can we get?"

Each one of those questions leads to a series of other questions, and the answers are all important elements in the planning.

Developing the exhibit script is step two, and it grows out of many of the questions asked in step one, especially, "What is the topic, or the 'big idea'?" For example, Willard said the big idea of the Hall of Biodiversity is: The diversity of life is necessary for the survival of all living things; diversity is under threat primarily by human beings living in the environment, but things can be done and are being done to help." He added, "There it is in one sentence, even though it's a compound one!"

Melanie stressed the importance of knowing the audience and designing the exhibit to speak to that audience. That can be a complicated matter, however. "If the audience is going to be all different sorts of people, of different ages and levels of interest, the information should be layered in as many different levels as possible. It's a good idea to have at least three main levels of getting through the exhibit," she said. For example, some people want to go through very quickly and just get the general idea. Others want to spend more time in certain areas and explore things more deeply. Some people like to participate in interactive exhibits or activities related to the big idea. Some people know something about the subject; others have little or no information at all. Some visitors are young children, others are adults.

Willard also works with students of exhibit design at the Fashion Institute of Technology, a design school in New York City. At the end of each year there is an exhibit of student work for the whole school. The exhibit design students are in charge of the "theme" and "look" of the exhibit. "Groups of students present proposals for the exhibit design, and a panel reviews them to pick the best one. What usually happens, though, is that no single proposal wins. Instead, we end up finding that we like one basic concept best, but we like a piece from another proposal and maybe a few ideas from another one or two, and so on. Ultimately, the final concept represents a combination of the best ideas of many proposals," Willard said.

With the skeleton constructed, how do exhibition designers go about putting the flesh on the bones? Melanie approaches it this way: "Begin by outlining the information you want to communicate, listing all of the topics. Then assign each topic a level of importance. Decide which media technique will most effectively communicate each piece of information. For example, will this work best as a specimen exhibit or as a talk by a knowledgeable person? Should this be a video or a diorama? Could this be shown with photographs or drawings? Would sound or smell or touch be a good way to communicate this?"

The Script

Willard Whitson explained that the script is the central planning document of an exhibit. It is not a script in the sense of a play or film script, and few if any of the words in it will be seen, heard, or read by visitors to the exhibit. Nonetheless, it states what the exhibit is about and helps the exhibit planners decide how to tell the story of the exhibit.

"The script is a narrative description of the exhibit, a way of verbally stating the big idea of the exhibit," Willard said. "You should be able to state the big idea in one sentence, though it could be a complex sentence. Once you have that, you can begin developing the script.

"The script might begin something like this: This exhibit will be about this subject. It will occupy this number of square feet. It will cost this much money to put together. It will use a combination of live and mounted specimens, with photographs, video, hands-on exhibits, interactive computer stations, and so on, whatever media seem appropriate to tell the story.

"In the beginning, we just plug in the details we know, and then, as we go along, we fill in the blanks and add flesh to the skeleton. A script is a constantly evolving document," Willard explained.

Deciding how the exhibit will be laid out in the space allowed comes next. Willard described a technique he uses early in the process. "We start off with bubble diagrams. These can be very informal, little more than doodles or sketches. Without thinking of actual layout, they just say, 'This information should come first, this should go here, this is related but less important.' The bubbles show how information is spatially related.

"Then we start moving bubbles around as we think about what things have to be in a certain place--for example, if we have a huge stuffed elephant, there may be only one place where it will fit. Or whether something is the hook, the dramatic thing that will grab the audience and should, therefore, come at the beginning. Or whether it is the climax and should come near the end of the story. Or whether it's a place where people can stop and rest and get some information at the same time as they're getting some time out--a small theater where videos would be shown, for example. Or whether something is absolutely vital so we have to be sure everyone sees it, or whether it is supplemental and could be off to the side."

Willard said that there are many ways to lay out an exhibit. "If you are telling a straightforward story, you might want to lay out the exhibit sequentially. If visitors need to know certain things before they can understand other things, you have to make sure first things come first."

One interesting layout he described resembles the spokes of a wheel. "You put your main focus in the center and then have other elements extend outward like rays or spokes. What visitors find on each path has similar weight and importance, so they can sort of pinball out from the center, following a particular path, and then bounce over to another. This works if you don't have to learn about things in a particular order," he explained. "Actually, any structure is fine as long as it serves the theme of exhibit."

Access for All

Museums and other public places are required by law to provide access to people with disabilities. Exhibit designers have to keep in mind that visitors may use wheelchairs or crutches to move through the exhibit. They may be visually impaired or unable to hear.

Rather than feeling limited by the legal requirements, Willard Whitson regards this as an opportunity to enhance the experience for all visitors, regardless of their abilities.

"There are so many strategies available to us. Sounds, smells, things to touch, hands-on materials, large-scale models of plants and insects, and more. It goes beyond having aisles wide enough for wheelchairs and places for people to sit down, though those are important too. Every bit of research I know says that when you design an exhibit to maximize the learning opportunities for people with disabilities, you also automatically maximize the learning opportunities for nondisabled visitors. What you are doing is enriching the experience, and everyone wins."

Willard recommends a tour through an existing exhibit space in a wheelchair, with a blindfold, and with earplugs, so that the planners can come as close as possible to the experience of a person with various disabilities. The information gained will be helpful in designing a new exhibit.

Both Melanie and Willard recommend doing a mock-up of the exhibit to see the layout in three dimensions. "You want to be able to look at it spatially so you can be sure it's not a deadly march through a boring space," Melanie advised. "There needs to be a focus and it needs to be a compelling one." For example, the rain forest diorama in the Hall of Biodiversity is a dramatic demonstration of a richly diverse habitat that is at risk.

Once there is a basic layout, it is necessary to analyze all the components. "Everything should have a reason for being in the exhibit, and for being where it is and how big it is," Willard said. "Everything should be in support of or relate to or be a reflection of that big idea. If it isn't, you must seriously ask yourself why it is in the exhibit. If it doesn't fit the big idea, then it doesn't belong in the exhibit."

Willard cautioned against throwing in everything but the kitchen sink. "That's hard, but you do have to be selective. At the Museum, curators choose those objects that best interpret the idea of the exhibit." The Hall of Biodiversity is a very rich exhibit, filled with sights and sounds and smells and things to think about, but as Melanie said, "It is not heavily loaded with detailed information, because the issues are really very complex. We have tried to give the basic message, some essential information, and some examples. The idea is to provoke the visitor to want to know more."

Decisions, Decisions

Melanie Ide said that the curators wanted to be sure that visitors to the Hall of Biodiversity would really be "grabbed" by the exhibit. The job of the designers was to figure out how to accomplish that.

"We decided that using the Museum's collections was a good way to show biodiversity, and that showing different habitats would make it real to people."

There was debate about whether to have nine dioramas, each representing a different biome, or just one diorama to focus on a single biome. "At one point we were going to have four dioramas, then two (a forest and a coral reef). In the end, a decision was made to have only one, but it would be a huge and very dramatic one, and it would put the spotlight on the biome where both diversity and the threat to it are greatest, the tropical rain forest," Melanie said.

"We then decided to use videos to cover the eight other biomes and to locate a resource center off the main track. It is designed to be a quiet place where people can spend more time getting more detailed information."

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