Thursday, April 2, 2009

How to Build a Science Museum Exhibit, The Short Guide

Sometimes, you get to do exactly what you want to do, and if it doesn't later involve an apology or a fine, well, then you're in the zone, my friend. When I was exhibits director of the local science museum (grandly named Museum of Scientific Discovery) from 1986 to 1994, I even got paid to learn a great deal and have a ball doing it.
Small museums are limited either by a narrow focus or a lack of a style; however, we were in what I thought was the perfect position of having growth potential up to a regional level (and did expand from 10,000 square feet of public space to 32,000 on three floors). I saw an opportunity to develop a style, a "brand," under the radar of the amateur management.

I had a lot to learn about science, but had enough background in building, cabinetmaking, graphics and art to get going right away. Also I saw a great opportunity to recycle components and be radically creative in bringing new exhibits out at what turned out to be the lowest cost nationally (average individual exhibit, $1400; ours: under $100). An exhibition is a group of exhibits with a common theme. The first one I picked was called "Pennsylvania Science," because that allowed almost anything, and I surmised that visitors are most interested in (1) themselves, and (2) curious stuff they already understand the context of. Transportation technology is a subtheme I used several times, because PennDOT was two blocks away and a great resource, and PA has had some notable achievements in this area.

The beginning step is just being open to serendipity; forcing an exhibit out of your beleagured brain just to round out an exhibition theme never worked very well. Two things happened around the same time which inspired the third component of "PA Science." On the loading dock in the basment of the downtown complex we were situated in (where I went to scrounge), I found a welded aluminum display case base, formed at a 135 degree angle. Too good to pass up.
Then (here's the serendipity!), I was in the mayor's office for something, and saw a mid-19th century map of the Susquehanna River bottom at Harrisburg, the only such chart ever made, I later found out. The river bends here at about 135 degrees. You see where I'm going.

I thought that an interactive model of the river with flowing water, showing river and land transportation as well as accurate geographic countours and elevations, would appeal to all ages and be rather original, too. Another piece of the puzzle was already there: a while earlier, I had gone with a pilot friend to York Haven to scarf up some special solid foam material (Ethafoam), used in nosecones and wingtips, as the manufacturer was closing. We were going to use it in our working model airplane (like all planes, that exhibit turned out to be a maintenance challenge -- they ripped the propeller off the first day). I had just enough of the Ethafoam left to glue down and sculpt to make the river bottom, islands and the east and west shores. How to make a hard surface over it that would look realistic and survive water flowing over it? I had gone to R.C. Cook Co. when I worked in trade show exhibits to buy auto body supplies and paint, so I knew about chopped fiberglas, which is what they use to repair Corvettes. Mixed up and troweled on, that was the required surface. Sign-painters' enamel in the appropriate colors was brushed on, the towns and creeks were hand lettered in white, and the whole was covered with clear catalyzed vinyl (sort of like varnish on steroids). Trucks, cars, barges and boats were carved out of wood, model railroad gravel was glued down for road surfaces, bridges built, and a removable Dock Street Dam was made to demonstrate how the low water level without the dam impeded transportation by exposing the rocks (it had been there so long locals had forgotten what the true water level was like; this was the "aha" moment you most want with an interactive exhibit).
The water flowed in from an opening in the "north" end and emptied into one at the other; a submersible pump in my grandfather's metal bushel basket full of water hidden underneath the base moved the river along. Panels in the base opened up to show fossils and buried artifacts in the strata below ol' Harrisburg.

Before building it out, an idea has to be exhibitable, maintainable, educational and above all, safe. Slime and germs built up more quickly than I thought they would, so weekly scrubbing and water change was bolstered by bromine tablets in the water tub (you don't want chlorine in an enclosed space!).

I forgot to say where the germ of this idea really came from. Once on a junior high school field trip to the Smithsonian, I became so engrossed in a huge diorama representing the Korean War that the group boarded the buses and left without me. I had also seen the map of lights at the visitor center of Gettysburg Battlefield, and those two astonishing creations made me think, someday I'm going to make one of these. It's very satisfying to do exactly what you want to do.

1 comment:

  1. I would never leave you can "lollygag" with me anytime ;-)