Friday, May 30, 2008

Museums From The Other Side Of The Pond: An Interview With Harry White

After serving for many years as the Director of Exhibits, Harry White is now the "Science Centre Consultant" at TechniQuest Science Center (also known as TQ) in Cardiff, Wales. I've had the pleasure of visiting Harry in Wales, and I've always been interested in the different take that our museum colleagues in the UK and Europe have on interactive exhibits and science centers (or "centres"!) I thought readers of the ExhibiTricks blog could benefit from Harry's responses to my interview questions:

What’s your academic background?

An electronics degree, a spell as a medical physicist followed by a Masters in Laser Anemometry and 12 years in a university engineering faculty sticking computers on anything that needed it, or often didn’t. Then 23 years in Techniquest. As you can see I’m still waiting for a proper job.

How/Why did you get started in Museums?
I was happily vegetating at the University when a memo came around about some unknown thing called a “Science Centre”. Like any academic faced with the prospect of work, I followed standard procedure and sent a student to the first meeting. She reported back that “They’re mad, you’d fit right in” and the rest is history.

Were you a “science geek” as a kid?
Yes I suppose I was, I have a wonderful aunt who taught mathematics and if you showed an interest in science she would send you expensive Christmas presents. So I was bribed into “geekdom”, but I’m eternally grateful to her for warping my young mind.

A friend and I used to make weedkiller explosives and try them out in the park, another opportunity for enrichment activity taken from our kids by the war on terror.

What new museum trends are you most excited about?
In 2004, I was lucky enough to be able to attend the Exploratorium’s APE workshops. I’m still processing some of that information, but something that resonated with me immediately was the concept of shifting authority to the visitor. It just seems like the next step, on-line we have Wikipedia, why not a WikiScienceCentre?

I took my first steps towards this in Bergen, Norway when I was consulting to create VILVITE in 2006/7. We planned and implemented a personalisation system so that the Visitors could “Do in the Science Centre what the Science Centre does best” ie: provide memorable experiences and then link those experiences on-line to the didactic content that is best done on-line.

In providing information about the exhibits that they had used, we structured it as FAQs and provided five for each exhibit ranging from the standard “Why does that ball stay in the air?” to the deliberately flippant “It’s a nice trick, but why should I care?” If the Visitor has another question they can post it and we will answer it. If the Visitor doesn’t like our answer, then they can post their own. We moderate it and acknowledge their contribution on line. Let’s hope that one day all our original text will be gone and replaced with something far better.

Tell us about your card deck of exhibit aphorisms.
In 1996, Techniquest started the UK’s first Masters course in Science Communication based in a Science Centre. It was a great success with students from all around the world, graduates were snapped up by most of the new UK science centres. I taught the Exhibits module, but after a year of PowerPointing them into submission, I felt that it just wasn’t appropriate to teach a degree about informal education, formally. Also, whenever I ran out of material for a session, just saying something deliberately controversial would start a debate that would fill the time and engage the students.

So I started collecting these quotations, jokes and provocations as aphorisms and put 52 of the best/most annoying onto a deck of cards. When the sessions flagged, I’d ask someone to pick a card, read it out and then the group would try and fathom what I was getting at. Most times a heated debate would ensue.

So you’d like some examples. There are over 200 so bear with me and I’ll pick some of the better ones. You may notice I’ve sneaked one in already in italics above.

The first is from Ken Gleason, at one time it was up on the wall in our workshop.

The Three Ways an Exhibit Must Work.
1. Attraction
If they don't use it, it can't achieve anything.

2. Function.
It must work, keep working and be safe.

3. Education.
What we're for, and why we're doing it. 1 & 2 lead here.

And from Ian Simmons
"The Survival of the Dullest"
Good exhibits are popular, get used and therefore break down.
Dull exhibits don't get used, and so don't break down.
Therefore all interactive exhibitions, without maintenance, eventually tend towards the dull.

Others are shorter and reflect bitter experience:

Sufficient ruggedisation of loose parts turns them into weapons.

For every hole or gap there is a corresponding human limb or appendage to get wedged in it.

Making easy exhibits is difficult.
Making easy exhibits difficult is easy.

Then some come in pairs:

Any component which is ideal, cheap and universally available will be discontinued by the time the exhibit that uses it is fully developed.

Any component that doesn't exist, so you have to devise it at great cost, will be in the next RS (McMaster Carr) catalogue.

Not all are about exhibits:

Nobody cares who the Director is.
(As you may imagine this was more forcefully put, the point being that however hard the administration works it’s the people on the front line that the Visitors meet and our job is to support them.)

“Give a visitor a fact and they know one thing,
Give them curiosity and they will learn endless things.”
Ian Russell

“Nobody flunked a Science Centre.”
Frank Oppenheimer

“The probability of somebody doing the absolutely inconceivable is never exactly zero.”
H. Richard Crane

“Visitors come to a Science Centre because it’s cheaper than the movies and less exhausting than the swimming pool.”
Gillian Thomas

You can know the science from a book,
You can know the engineering from experience,
But to find out what it makes people think you have to ask them.

Exhibits are about the phenomena, if the Visitor notices that the design is good, then it’s not good enough

The interactive content of an exhibit is inversely proportional to the area and expense of the graphic surrounding it

And so on, and on and on…………….

The idea of an Aphorism is to put some core truth in a memorably flippant way so that people who are “in the know” recognize it and those who don’t think about it. As an instructional tool this has a fatal flaw in that any one who “gets” it doesn’t need it and those that need it, don’t get it.

So I have started writing explanations of the Aphorisms to go with them. I use them a lot in consulting with other centres because they are memorable and anti-intuitive, a bit like good exhibits really.

A consultant is a person who borrows your watch and then charges to tell you the time.

Is there a “UK style” of museum exhibits? Is there a TQ “style”?
Short answer is that there used to be, but now I’m not so sure. Pre-millennium the centres were small but had individual identities. The Millennium boom happened so fast and didn’t involve many people who were in the business already and so the centres, with a few noble exceptions, tended to be made by Museum design companies who naturally had an eye on the deadlines and couldn’t take risks or learn from their mistakes. This bred a certain uniformity that upsets the professionally-obsessed science centre geek in me.

The scene is still shaking down and the centres that have survived are developing their own styles but it’s slow, most are expected to break-even operationally and so they don’t have the money to develop exhibits. Because they are all so big, their failures are very public. Techniquest had the great advantage of starting small and making our mistakes when nobody was looking.

Techniquest grew through three phases, each time building on what went before. When it opened in 1995, Techniquest’s third phase was the only purpose-built science centre in the UK and by far the largest. (See photo below.) I was acutely aware that we could go from “those nice people doing great things on a shoestring” to “the people that got all that money and produced a pile of rubbish”. Plus Cardiff has a tendency to underrate itself and it was important that what we did was obviously of quality. “You can’t tell kids ‘Hey!, Science is great, you can do it!, if you had to buy it in.” So I wanted TQ to look like it came from one mind, the design should be good but shouldn’t get in the way of the phenomena.

I love the homebuilt feel of the Exploratorium but that wouldn’t have done for Cardiff. There’s a thin line between “Hey!, I could do that!” which means that you have empowered your visitor and a bad response “Huh! I could have done that myself!” which means your visitor feels they have been fleeced. I deal with this by including what I call “Points of Contact” in exhibits so whilst the exhibit itself is a glossy professional product it might include an item from the kitchen at home, eg. the “Roll Uphill” double cone illusion exhibit uses two kitchen funnels back to back, which means that not only are they recognisable items but the spouts make a good handle.

Can you say a few words about BIG, and the BIG Fabricator's weeks?
BIG, the British Interactive Group, is an ironic name as it represents the individuals who work in the Hands-on business rather than ECSITE and ASTC who represent the big organisations those individuals work for. It’s not a trade union and it’s main activities are centred around the professional development of those working in the interactives field. A group of us, mainly Bhagwant Singh, set it up in the early 90’s when subscriptions to ECSITE were too much for the nascent centres that existed in the UK at that time.

The BIG Fabricators Event grew out of the Nuffield Interactive Science Project led by the remarkable Melanie Quin. These brought famous fabricators, Bernie Zubrowski, Ilan Chabay, Bill Walton and others over for a week to make exhibits assisted by Brits who would learn their trade from them.

BIG’s Fabricator’s week fulfils a similar but different need and allows exhibits people to get together and build a working prototype in a week on a shoestring. I’ve done quite a few and usually I get to try to realise an idea that has been in my mind for sometime. For me, it’s a chance to get around to what, professionally, I won’t ever get around to.

What is the role and relationship (if any) of ECSITE to ASTC?
ECSITE and ASTC work very closely together. Pele Persson was recently chair of ASTC, and Walter Stavelos, ex-ECSITE now works for ASTC. Global projects like IGLO require this close collaboration and so this brings in ASPAC, CASC, Red-Pop etc. as well.

To me it seems that ECSITE has a more diverse membership, perhaps because the US has more organisations like ACM, AAM etc., ASTC just seems, by comparison, more focused on science centres.

What differences do you see in different countries approach (especially in the UK and Europe) toward museums and museum exhibits?
Pele Persson said that “The difference between a science museum and a science centre is a line drawn in water.” Europe generally has more museums and a more collections-based approach but there are also many more science centres opening.

When we took Techniquest’s exhibits to Japan there was a great deal of focus on doing every exhibit thoroughly in turn but the visitors still enjoyed it just as much. Our exhibits worked well for Commquest in the townships of South Africa. In the UAE, the approach is more didactic and focussed on content but everywhere I’ve been, giving control to the Visitor has worked, just in slightly different ways. We’ve sold exhibits in more than 40 countries and no returns as yet.

What can a parent do to encourage a child’s interest in science?
Do it in front of them, get them to join in and bribe them with scientific goodies. Stand up and testify- “I am a science geek!”

Are there fun MATH exhibits?
Yes, definitely some of the best exhibits are maths exhibits.
I did one called Gone Vest which was just a jacket with a very stretchy waistcoat (or vest) to go underneath it. Visitors just followed the cartoon instructions to take the waistcoat off whilst leaving the jacket on. It was really popular, but couldn’t get them to hang the coats up afterwards.

One day I will do the “Monte Carlo” methods for "Pi" exhibit which was in the 1984 Swiss Phenomena book. It’s just a 1 metre Perspex cylinder inside a 1 metre Perspex square column. You throw balls randomly into the assembly and number that fall in the circle divided by the number that fall in the square is Pi/4. The more balls you throw, the more accurate the estimation.

In 1991, the same team did a building called Polyédre which was a Octahedron with hinged corners that opened up into a cube-octahedron with open squares for some sides. The icing on that particular cake was the brass band that played on a hydraulic platform inside the structure.

Other topological puzzles like the halo puzzles in Puzzlequest are endlessly popular and have been copied all over the world.

Was there ever an exhibit you were sure would be a hit that never (or hasn’t yet) taken off?
Well, every one you start you think is going to be a hit, otherwise you wouldn’t start it.

Magnetic Needle, was a big sewing needle’s eye with north pole magnets arranged around it pointing inwards. Around this were threads with a north pole, a south pole, a non-magnetised iron end and a wooden end. I thought it would be interesting to explore the effects, but in the end no one really noticed even though the South pole was pulled out of their hands. We took it off the floor quite quickly and I’m sure my colleagues have moved it toward the skip (dumpster).

There’s an aphorism for that too, of course:
If you can’t stand seeing your exhibit in the skip, you’re in the wrong business.

What’s you favorite museum?
It changes all the time, it would be a bad thing to have just one favourite. The geek in me loves the National Motor Museum, the Robin Opie, Packaging Museum in Gloucester and the Pencil Museum in Cumbria. When I visit the states, I usually enthuse about a Children’s Museum, Acton, San Jose, Indianapolis. Play for its own sake and the breadth of their approach is so liberating.

I also like The ARC in York. After the Jorvik Viking Centre was a big success, the city council passed a bylaw saying that developers had to preserve the contents of building excavations
for archaeological evaluation. This ended up with the Developers having warehouses full of numbered boxes of soil, far more than all the archaeologists in the UK could ever sift through. So Dr. Andrew Jones aka "Jones the Bones" founded the Archeological Resource Centre where the public can sift through the boxes and call a resident archaeologist if they find something interesting. The Visitor is credited with the find and the work gets done.

And of course, the Exploratorium is the spiritual home of the Fabricator in me. The Science Museum of Minnesota and Science North take the lab aspect further than anyone else and then there’s Agents of Change at the OSC. I love them all, my long-suffering wife has to ask the travel agent for countries without a science centre just to get some peace.

As a professional I’m always impressed by novelty and I loved Tehnoannas Pagrabi
(The Technician’s Cellars) in Riga, Latvia. It’s run on a shoe-string by Alvis and Dace Balodi but has wonderful, unique exhibits. For example, a giant birdhouse on the fourth floor, you can sit on a perch and they take the floor away leaving only a steel net between you and the ground 40 feet below, they have knitted exhibits on the solar system and in one part of the loft they had a quite serious fire but thought it looked better afterwards so they lacquered the burnt beams and you can now walk through it.

What’s your favourite science-related experience? (Either as a child or an adult.)
Everytime I switch on something I’ve made and it still works.

In 1966 Professor Eric Laithwaite was invited to do the prestigious Royal Institution Children's Christmas Lectures. These have been given annually since 1852 by famous scientists including Faraday, Tyndall, Bragg etc.

In the first lecture Laithwaite, who developed the linear induction motor and maglev train, showed a large aluminium sphere about 5 feet in diameter and said that throughout the week’s lectures he would construct a levitating coil and make this ball float. The striking point to me being that he had never done this before and he was going to attempt it for the first time ever in front of an audience of 400+ children. This was real science being done for real.

What are the best and worst trends from US exhibit making that have informed your work in the UK?
The best trends that I’ve mentioned already are the APE work and the breadth of the Children’s Museum approach. The worst is a result of the larger market in the US, in that there tends to be a limited number of commercial firms who, in an entirely valid attempt to reduce risk for the customer and give value, tend to repeat what they have done before, so innovation is stifled in the interests of the client. In Europe, the converse happens, I get asked to help with content ideas and then the ideas are given to a design company to build instead of buying them from the original source who know all the subtleties of the exhibit.

To decline the verb to inspire: I am inspired, you copy me, they ripped us off.

Thanks again to Harry White for sharing his ideas and insights with the ExhibiTricks readers!

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