A new exhibit comes into life by trial and error. We create dozens of versions, test them and observe visitors and their reactions. Sometimes it takes a month to complete the work on one exhibit – says Paweł Wójcik, who invents and designs exhibits for the Copernicus Science Centre.
Paweł Wójcik: We remain in the same subject matter, namely general physics. There are 40 new exhibits, such as Chaotic Pendulum, Striding Spring or Soap Mirror. We selected those old exhibits which visitors liked the most and which were the most beneficial to them. We tried to make them even more interesting. We want to make the exhibits more portable. We are also improving those that show a phenomenon but have sometimes caused problems in operation.
Let’s take the exhibit whose operation is based on an electric bell and a vacuum pump. When the air is pumped out, the bell sound is no longer audible. This is because the sound does not propagate in a vacuum. In the first version of the exhibit, we used an ordinary bell – like one used at a door to a flat. But it kept breaking all the time because these bells are designed for an infrequent use of up to several times a day. But our exhibits must work eight hours a day without interruption. There are no bells on the market that would suit our needs, so we had to develop our own drive mechanism.
When we had created the proper ringing mechanism and we assembled the exhibit, it turned out during tests that a rattling sound could be heard after the air is pumped out. It was the sound of a hammer hitting the bell carrying on the housing. So, we decided to put the whole thing on springs, so that the transmission of sound from the bell to the housing was as small as possible. It took us a month to complete the work.
We wanted it to offer visitors more possibilities. For example, we had an exhibit equipped with wheels. In one of them, the mass was spread out in the middle whereas in another – outside. They are run down the tracks using metal pipes sloping downwards. It turns out that one wheel is slower and the other is faster. This is fun for 15 seconds only, though. We started to wonder how to keep people engaged with the exhibits for a longer period so that they can learn more. So, we made two identical wheels with weights that you can set however you want to check how this influences the movement of the objects. Previously, you had to answer the question which wheel would go further and now you have an open question: “What will happen?"
The exhibits in the science centre should adapt to how people want to use them and what they enable them to see. It is often only when people start to use them at an exhibition that it turns out that they can show much more than we had originally assumed. These side effects are sometimes worth taking advantage of and we try to do so.
By trial and error. You come up with an interesting phenomenon which you want to show and then you figure out the way to illustrate it the best. When we create the first version of the exhibit, we test it and eliminate technical problems.
In Poland, this is still a very new field and there are no designers of scientific exhibits in here. There are not many in the world, either. There are companies that mass-produce exhibits as well as craftsmen who spend more time creating a single piece. In the Copernicus Science Centre, we have been doing this for only five years, but we want to specialise in it. That is why we started cooperation with a group of more experienced people who had been working in this industry for several decades.
We invited Kua Patten, who was the head of the workshop at the Exploratorium in San Francisco, the world’s first science centre founded by Frank Oppenheimer in 1969, to work on the next edition of the New World in Movement gallery. The Exploratorium makes the best exhibits in the world because its team has been working by trial and error for years now by creating dozens of versions of exhibits and watching visitors and their reactions. We’re trying to do the same. When we become specialised, we can make exhibits for other science centres. As was the case with the doorbell. Since now we know where the rattling sound comes from, it will be much easier for us to make another such exhibit and it will not take us a month to do so.
The interview was published in the Gazeta Wyborcza newspaper on March 6, 2016.
Paweł Wójcik – physicist and creator of scientific exhibits in Copernicus Science Centre.
* The New On the Move exhibition is now part of the Experimental Zone, opened in April 2018.