Sunday, October 17, 2010

A Challenge to Find the Next Great Exhibit Idea

The Crowd by Sreejith K 

The Museum of Science in Boston recently issued a challenge, in partnership with InnoCentive, to "create the next great science and technology exhibit."

Paul Fontaine, the Vice President of Education at the Museum, was kind enough to answer a few questions for me about the challenge.  As background,  Paul works with the staff and volunteer educator team who develop exhibits, offer programs, create interactive media, write curriculum, and teach in venues throughout the Museum, and throughout New England.  He studied Biology, with a concentration in Marine Science, and received a BA from Boston University.

Why did you choose to partner with InnoCentive?
We've teamed up with InnoCentive, a company that encourages "challenge-based innovation", to cast as wide a net as possible to hear about what people would like to see in the next large-scale science and technology exhibition.  There’s been a lot of interest recently in wiki-style, open source platforms for a number of activities, so we thought we’d try this experiment with InnoCentive to solicit exhibit ideas.  We don't know what we'll hear from the challenge solvers, but I'm sure there will be original ideas that surprise us.

What’s the project time frame for the MOS Exhibit Challenge?
The timeline of the challenge is pretty compressed.  It was posted on September 27th and remains active for 30 days, until October 27th.  After that, we’ll review the submissions and select the one we like best within several weeks.
What makes this process significantly different from convening focus groups or doing formative evaluation with visitors?
As I see it, the primary difference between this and traditional focus groups/formative evaluation is that the latter are generally reactive (i.e. "look at this list of 10 possible shows and tell us which you find most appealing"), while the experiment we're doing is more proactive, encouraging open collaboration.  That is, there's no wrong idea, we're creating an environment where any idea can get heard and considered. 

How much will you actually use visitor-input in your final decision making process?  For example, if the program shows an interest for an exhibition on cannibalism or Lady Gaga, what then?
The selection of the idea(s) that get the award(s) will be based not only on originality (cannibalism and Lady Gaga are certainly original ideas), but heavily on education goals and opportunities to introduce visitors to STEM topics and activities. It's likely there are some really interesting themes out there that no one in the museum community has thought of to date that might be an excellent bridge between our visitors and our mission...but since we never searched for that idea, we never found it.  Hopefully this process will bring some of those ideas into our creative universe.

Which MOS department(s) are spearheading this program?
This project is being led by staff from our Education Division. 

Will the final exhibit be only a traveling exhibition or will there be a permanent version?
Our intent is to get creative ideas for a traveling exhibit.  While there are a number of creative and original traveling exhibits available to museums from other museums, the pump continually needs to be primed – particularly for large-scale exhibits. 

What determined the size (square footage) of the exhibition project?  Will there be smaller versions for smaller museums?
Creating smaller versions for smaller museums is a terrific idea – we hadn’t considered that in our proposal.  Many larger museums these days are facing a situation where more and more we need to rely on non-museum sources for the large-scale exhibits we feature.  That’s often a win-win situation, but it does feel like museums could be contributing more to this product pipeline.  That’s what led us to experiment with soliciting ideas for a large-scale exhibition that could travel to a number of museums.

In the current climate, are traveling exhibitions still economically and environmentally sustainable?
Yes, very much so.   Although the square footage that museums dedicate to their traveling exhibition products is often modest, they are huge drivers of attendance.  Few things other than a time-limited traveling exhibition will drive attendance during a specific window of time.  They also keep museum members engaged with the institution, and that’s a huge factor in membership renewals.  With regards to environmental sustainability, if the exhibit is created in a manner such that uses sustainable practices and designed so it can be efficiently traveled using the least amount of energy we can meet the goal of stimulating an interest in science while minimizing our carbon footprint as much as possible.

Thanks again to Paul Fontaine for taking the time to answer these questions for ExhibiTricks readers.If you hurry, you can submit your own ideas for The Museum of Science's exhibit challenge by clicking over to the InnoCentive website and entering before October 27th!

What do you think about this approach for soliciting exhibit concepts and ideas?  Let us know in the "Comments" section below.

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