Seeker Spotlight: Museum of Science, Boston

Posted by Connie French on Oct 1, 2010 10:13:07 AM

We recently announced that the Museum of Science, Boston, had posted a Challenge looking for new ideas for their next large-scale exhibit.  Within 3 days of posting, the Challenge already has over 100 active Solvers.  We asked Paul Fontaine, Vice President for Education for the Museum of Science, Boston, to talk to us a bit about this Challenge.

Hi Paul.  Thanks for talking to us about your Challenge.

The Museum of Science, Boston, was conceived in 1830 to collect, study and display natural specimens. Today the museum is ranked as one of the best science centers in America. Can you tell us a bit about the evolution of the museum and what you see as the role of science museums in the future of education?

The Museum can trace its evolution through three distinct eras. First, it began as a classic natural history museum and contained a large number of artifacts and natural science collections that were displayed in static, yet lovely, displays. That era spanned from 1830 to approximately 1950, when the museum physically moved to a new location in Boston and became the Museum of Science. Our second era began then, when we became one of the first museums in the world to put all of the sciences under one roof. During this time the concept of interactive exhibits became popular, a concept we employed to great success, which evolved in our institution to include a range of experiences where visitors could practice science thinking skills. Our current era as a science and technology center started in 2000 and began with the exciting concept of introducing visitors to the human-made world through experiences where they could practice the engineering design process. This is our current work - finding ways to ignite imaginations through explorations of both the natural and human-made worlds.

Can you tell us how you normally decide what topic to showcase in a new exhibit, and why you chose to seek the ideas of InnoCentive Solvers this time?

Developing a new exhibit is exciting, fun and challenging work. The Museum of Science has a team of talented and creative educators and content developers who research and suggest topics for new exhibits. Sometimes we collaborate with an outside partner to share the creative development, yet often it is an entirely internal team of folks working on project development. We felt that it was an important time for the Museum to experiment with open-source innovation and wiki-style contributions to our intellectual endeavors. The topics that the Museum of Science can convey through an exhibit are boundless - and we know that there are original and perspective-shifting ideas out there. The challenge was finding a way to tap into those ideas and our partnership with InnoCentive allows us to do that.

What kinds of exhibits have been most successful with Museum visitors? Are there specific characteristics of these exhibits that have made them more successful than others?

Sometimes we're surprised at what exhibits interest and excite our visitors. There are generally three attributes that contribute to the success of an exhibit. First, what we call the "wow factor" - something that captures their imagination and holds their attention. Second, it is always helpful when an exhibit contains objects or experiences that they simply can't experience anywhere else. Third, creating an environment that encourages a positive social experience among the visitors makes a big plus.

What should our Solvers know about your Audience?

Nearly three-quarters of our visitors to the Museum of Science come as a group that includes children, so any project we undertake must appeal to the core family audience. However, it's surprising how many adults visit without bringing children - nearly 20% of our visitors fall into that category. During the summer season we have quite a few international visitors that are in Boston who visit the institution as well. When you put that all together it means that there really isn't such a thing as a "typical Museum of Science visitor". Our visitors span every age cohort, as well as come from near and far.

Once you have selected the winning submission, what’s the process and timeline for turning it into an actual exhibition?

People are surprised to learn that it's often a number of years between the time we identify an exhibit theme and the time we open up a completed project to the public. Once the winning selection is identified we'll refine any aspects of the educational goals or themes that we need to in order to better meet the Museum's needs. Once a final concept is agreed upon, our content developers and graphic designers will create an exhibit packet that contains sufficient background and visuals to enable our fundraisers to secure funding for the actual building of the exhibit. Once funding is identified, we will spend ample time prototyping exhibit components to ensure usability and accessibility for our visitors of all abilities. The exhibit's final design will be crafted by our technical and exhibit designers, and the look and feel of the experience will be supported by our graphic design. Then the final components will be fabricated either in the Museum or by an external fabrication firm. All of these steps are integrated with the development of any augmenting programs, a marketing plan, and a plan to tour the exhibition after it's premier at the Museum of Science. It's quite a choreographed process...yet when it's done right the final product that is created is beautiful, accessible, and robust enough for years of wear and tear.

Thanks Paul - we think our Solvers will be very excited about this Challenge.

Thank you.

For more information about the Museum's past and current exhibits, click here.

Topics: Challenges, Seekers

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