Kua Patten – long-time employee of the world’s first science centre, the San Francisco Exploratorium – talks about inventing exhibits for science centres and determining what makes them good.
What was working at the Exploratorium like?
It was – and still is – an amazing place because of its diversity, which we deal with on a daily basis. The venue has a perfect team of scientists, educators, machining specialists, mechanics and artists, all working together to create a truly remarkable experience. This translates into success – in the case of the Exploratorium, exhibits available to all visitors.
What do science centres need artists for?
Artists and scientists have one thing in common – they are excellent observers, although, of course, their uses and end results of their observations are quite different. The founder of the Exploratorium, Frank Oppenheimer, made teams encompassing both artists and scientists, he liked the energy unleashed by such a combination. Looking at a work of art, scientist will see a phenomenon, while an artist will look at a scientific matter and will know how to show it in an exciting way.
Did you work on exhibits in such teams?
Yes. The teams were diverse, their members had knowledge and skills from various fields. We wanted to create exhibits that would be clear and understandable to all visitors, we wanted everybody to be able to learn something from them. Ideally, such an exhibit should also simultaneously offer an opportunity to discover something new and enable those who are more educated or well-versed in a given field to deepen their knowledge of a given phenomenon.
Science centres are visited by people with wildly diverging experiences and life stories, people from all walks of life. Among the visitors, you can find university professors, farmers, factory workers and white-collar employees. Of course, scientists are an important part of teams working on the exhibits, as they watch over the operation of the device from a scientific point of view; however, the problem is that scientists are usually able to share their knowledge with other scientists, but they are not quite as good at communicating with a lay person. That is why teamwork is very important in this regard.
Where do ideas for exhibits come from?
There are many sources. For example, somebody might say something like: “Let’s make an exhibition with white colour being a main theme.” This will prompt everybody to think about the theme, giving everybody an opportunity to share their thoughts, for example: “Today, during my commute to work, I noticed how the light bounces off the icy pavement. We could explore this phenomenon further.” Some artists and residents of the Exploratorium, who study the surrounding world, simply follow the voice of what comes to their minds, what they hear, what they experience, what they think is important and what they want to tell others about: “There is some potential to it and I want to talk about it.”
So, there’s an idea for an exhibit. What now?
The next step in the development process entails selecting ideas and allocating some time and resources to something that we call “rapid prototyping.” Grab a table, gather everything you need and start testing the idea. You can even set up shop on the exhibition floor and say: “Hi, I’m just starting to test an idea. Check it out and tell me what you think it is doing.” You can ask things like: “What do you think happened here?” Responses may vary: “To be honest, I don’t know what it’s all about” or “This and that happened.” In the next step you can say: “Let’s see what happens if we change it a bit and try doing this a different way.” By doing so, you develop your idea and see immediately whether the initial concept seems interesting to visitors. Such prototyping is important for the good of the exhibits. On the other hand, it enables the visitors to see that the science centre practices what it preaches. If we want people to make experiments at home and look for solutions to problems after visiting us, we need to show them how it’s really done and that we do it ourselves.
Is there any science in a noisy science centre?
Some people tend to say: “I don’t want to go to the science centre because I’ve never been good at science, I didn’t understand it and I always hated it.” Others say: “Sure, I learned science at school, but I found it boring. Why should I bother to visit a science centre now?” But science is not about only about knowledge – not at all. Science is about the process thanks to which we learn something. Science is something that happens to us every day, although we may not be aware of it. I believe that institutions such as the Copernicus Science Centre should identify themselves as places that help develop critical thinking skills, rather than places that show and demonstrate science. After all, it is about finding solutions to everyday problems, because it is also, in fact, a scientific process. You have an idea, you try it, you look at the result, check whether it works or not, and if not, you try something else. You also ask yourself “why?” Why did I succeed? Why I failed this time?
Do you mean that visitors should do their own observations?
Sure. Whenever possible. The main objective of science centres and museums is to provide visitors with a cognitive platform and a suitable environment, as well as to suggest some ideas. You can focus on a topic from the field of humanities and create a set of exhibits around it. If they are good, after leaving the Copernicus Science Centre, the visitors will for example think: “Maybe I should find out more before making a decision? I want to learn about what the other side is all about”, the next time they will stumble upon a political debate in TV or in the radio. This should be the main objective and guiding principle – developing people’s critical thinking skills, because they will want to learn more. They will say: “You give me your conclusions, I would like to know how you came to them. I have a different opinion and I want to see how it relates to yours.”
So, what you are saying is that a science centre should create the most real conditions for experimentation?
Sure. People want to try real experiments, they also need to know that sometimes they are just a bit dangerous. I noticed that science centre employees tend to be very conservative: “We cannot exhibit this, we can’t do this, it’s going to be dangerous.” Meanwhile, the Swiss Technorama Museum holds a whole series of physics-related exhibits, shown in the laboratories there, often toured by school trips. One such exhibit is a container with liquid nitrogen, which is available to all visitors. The museum staff only instruct people to wear gloves and goggles beforehand, and that’s all. In the United States, such a thing would be unthinkable. They also have a fire tornado at Technorama, have you ever seen something like that? It’s an exhibit presenting a tornado, which uses fire instead of water.
Yes, we have something like that at the Copernicus Science Centre.
Exactly! What is interesting, you could never find such an exhibit anywhere in the United States, because insurance companies would never agree to it. This is an interesting subject in itself – things that can be found in science centres in Europe banned in the United States, and vice versa – exhibits that we show freely in the United States that would never fly in Europe. In any case, I believe it is very important to give the opportunity to make an informed decision concerning each exhibit to the visitors.
What does a good exhibit mean?
We tried to verify this at the Exploratorium. We wanted to find out what features of a given exhibit make visitors stop and play with it for a longer time. We discovered that in a typical science centre, all exhibits are presented according to the “planned discovery” method – a path set out for visitors by designers. It goes like this: the visitor walks up to the exhibit and finds a piece of information: “Plug in the cable into receptacle A. Turn the control knob up to B. Press the button” and then, there’s a finale. In addition, every phenomenon that takes place in a given exhibit is also described in great detail. This is exactly what planned discovery is all about – the path and the result are carefully designed and developed. We started to change our approach and look for more open and multi-faceted solutions, without a predictable finale. It turned out to be a great success, since visitors devoted much more time to such exhibits, and they usually left them because someone yanked them away in order to show them something else.
Which exhibits are better – those for individual visitors or those created with groups in mind?
Our results show that it is best if three people can play with a given exhibit at the same time, since as it turns out, people start to understand the most during conversations. Even if someone is playing with an exhibit, which can only be used by one person, but stands together with their two friends, these people will start talking to each other: “Let’s try this!” followed by: “Oh, I didn’t do it that way, I did something else!” By doing so, at some point, they figure out the exact way it works. For us it was a really interesting discovery. As a result, we got rid of long descriptions and changed the appearance and shape of some exhibits in such a way that enabled more people to gather around, observe and somehow get involved, even in the case of exhibits which enabled only individual experimentation.
We also worked on our descriptions. How did it go at the Exploratorium?
When I started working at the Exploratorium, all the presented exhibits were accompanied by enormous descriptions. They sometimes even took the form of booklets, and the record long brochure was 10 pages or so, encompassing everything – the description of the production process, its operation, the science behind the exhibit and so on. At that time, it was commonly believed that people need thorough explanations. One day, one of the employees decided to do a quick experiment – he put a five-dollar banknote about halfway through the booklet with a short note “It’s your lucky day, it’s yours now.” Then he came back from time to time and checked whether the cash was still there. If I remember correctly, it remained untouched for almost a month – although I still suspect that it was taken by one of the employees, who was privy to the experiment.
Kua Patten – independent substantive consultant cooperating with the Copernicus Science Centre in developing concepts and building exhibits. For 20 years he worked at the Exploratorium, where he first repaired and maintained the exhibits, then created and built them, and finally led the team responsible for the process of creating and supplying the Exploratorium exhibits to science centres around the world.