Science Writers Take on the Challenge of Exhibit Design

Media Contact: Museum Communications Officer, Koshland Science Museum
Phone: 202-334-1201, Email: Museum Communications Officer

March 3 , 2005 - Washington, DC - As part of the annual National Association of Science Writers two-day workshop, a contingent of NASW members visited the museum to find out more about exhibit design and development. In a flurry of brainstorming, five groups of eight writers laid out their grand plans. The event was one of several seminars the museum has hosted for several groups. The goal: to educate journalists, policymakers, and laypersons about the science that informs the science policy analysis and recommendations generated by the Academy.

The NASW requested that the Koshland museum staff help its science writers gain some insight into how they might devise an innovative, interactive, exhibit that has policy implications—the museum’s specialty. Museum staff made the writers, in effect, honorary curators for the afternoon. The staff chose the target topics: alternative energy, the everglades, security, invasive species, and vaccine safety. And they gave the writers their charge: Develop an exhibition on their topic based on National Academies studies and their own science policy knowledge.

Geared toward age 13 and up, the exhibit was to incorporate authentic scientific data, visualizations, and interactive technologies. The writers had to identify a “take away” message for the public, sketch a rough floor plan, describe the visitor experience, propose a title for the exhibition, and provide examples of potential interactive displays and data visualizations that supported their exhibit’s major themes. Groups then presented their suggestions to the larger group for critique.

The group that crafted “Seeking security: How Safe?” envisioned a large, walk-through city diorama imbedded with information about the potential terrorist threats—everything from bioterrorism to dirty bombs to cyberterrorism—at, for example, government buildings, office buildings, a train station, and a multipurpose arena.

Reacting to the exhibit, one writer wondered about its intended message. “Is this supposed to scare me?” she asked. “People come to the exhibit with agendas,” noted museum director Patrice Legro. “We need to help direct the discussion.” Legro suggested that interested exhibit visitors be given the opportunity to continue a dialogue about national security via a listserv.

Titled “Species Invaders,” the invasive species group’s exhibit called for a garden at the museum’s entrance, filled with bugs, plants and small animals considered to be invaders. Visitors would be challenged with scenarios for solving particular invasive species problems, and forced to weigh pluses and minuses of different courses of action. The take-home message of the exhibit: Determining the appropriate policies and allocation of funds to address potentially damaging invaders is a complex business.

Summoning a courtroom metaphor for their exhibit, the vaccine safety group presented their idea, “Vaccines on Trial.” Modules would present evidence for and against the autism-vaccine link—the subject of a recent National Academies report—and ask patrons to vote “guilty” or “not guilty” at the end of their visit. One group member cautioned that “not proven” might be more appropriate than “not guilty” given that an openness to new evidence is a hallmark of the scientific enterprise.

For their exhibit “Rebuilding the Everglades,” group participants proposed illustrating how human influences like suburban sprawl could shrink the everglades and affect animal habitats, the chemical make-up of the everglades’ water and even the economics of the region—forcing, for example, fisherman to go farther out to sea to secure their catch. One module proposed: an “auditory booth” that first played natural sounds of the everglades such as birds chirping, before the recording slowly morphed into sounds of trucks barreling down the highway and children frolicking on suburban lawns. Museum deputy director Erika Shugart wondered if visitors might be suspicious of an exhibit that appears to advocate certain positions. One group member suggested presenting several restoration scenarios, and letting the visitor decide which is best.

The designers of “Mobility in a World Without Oil” chose to focus on the promise and caveats of a hydrogen economy. One portion of the exhibit would feature part of an actual car, displaying how the technology actually works. Weighing the pros and cons of alternative fuels would be a good opportunity to employ interactive, decision-making tools, suggested museum director Legro. Hoping to debunk the idea of stoic scientists and engineers filling their days with dull tasks, the group also suggested holding weekly teleconferences with dynamic physicists or chemists.

Legro lauded all of the proposals, saying they communicated an important message. “Science is an important part of decision-making,” she said. “It’s part of the social fabric.”