Creating informal learning environments

In the field of exhibition design, the quality of User Experience makes the difference between success and failure. Unlike products or services with clunky interactions that we may grumble about but continue to use, a museum exhibit that is inaccessible is simply an expensive rock.

Want to explain plate tectonics to a 12-year old in a way that might inspire a budding geologist? Or convey the intricacies of the circulatory system to a kindergarten-age doctor-to-be? Your communication goals and audience have been identified, now comes the hard part—creating a fertile environment where learning can happen. When designing exhibits for museums or science centers, exhibition designers consider interaction, experience, interface and, critically, environment.

Museum visitors are on their feet, distracted by their surroundings and often curious to get on to the next thing. Unlike the individual who has chosen to read a magazine article or browse a website, a visitor hasn’t made a commitment to the experience or decided to engage in the content. Exhibits must entice and engage visitors, quickly, in spaces that facilitate that engagement.

A few mildly frustrating museum visits and several positive discussions with colleagues led me to consider how we construct the settings in which learning happens. Part of this is about thoughtful design, but much of it is about creating an appropriate space and then getting out of the way. These are my suggestions:

Provide resting places.

A well-placed bench allows parents to rest and watch while children explore or participate at their own pace. A seat is a space for wound-up kids to settle for a minute or for adult visitors to consider what comes next. Many museums forget (or engineer out) this simple yet fundamental factor in a visitor’s experience.

Allow for collaboration.

This exhibit can be controlled by one, or more than one, visitor. (California Science Center, “Creative World”)

Provide exhibits or activities that don’t require multiple users, but accommodate more than one user. Consider ways to provide multiple users with an enhanced experience. Most visitors to science museums come in school groups or with family members, and they often move in bunches throughout the space.

Don’t frontload information.

Deliver the main message and pique curiosity. Let visitors opt in. Good exhibits provide opportunities for discovery and reward the explorer (or motivated learner) with something extra. Answer questions when they are most likely to be asked and provide interesting chunks of information at the time a visitor is most likely to wonder and say, “Cool!” Conversely, if you give it to them all at once their eyes glaze over and you’ve lost them.

Recognize there are different types of learners

Or, at the very least, recognize that there are different ways that people like to learn. Successful exhibits use a variety of techniques to communicate messages and engage visitors. These could involve various senses (environmental audio, choreographed lighting, even aroma stations) or offer different points of access to the same information (colorful graphics, hands-on interactives, theatrics, media pieces, or full body-immersives).

Let them get their hands dirty.

Provide a space and materials for exhibit related projects. This can be docent-led or not. Enhance learning by pairing an exhibit with materials and challenges that allow for creativity, invention, or even innovation. This could be a simple cart, with changing activities that can be restocked or rolled into the gallery when appropriate. If a subject excites a visitor, get them involved.

Limit text and avoid the urge to be comprehensive.

This is tougher than it sounds for the subject matter experts involved in creating the exhibit. Visitors, particularly young visitors, need to know this isn’t school. So, don’t teach and don’t test. As a general rule, if it is fun or compelling, a game or a challenge, they will engage on their own. A visitor who gains an interest in a subject will explore and learn more beyond the walls of the museum. A visitor bombarded with too much information or made to feel stupid has been turned-off to the subject.

Design interactions with a low barrier to entry.

The interaction seems obvious; you should turn the knob and look inside. (Chabot Space and Science Center, “Destination Universe”)

Handles should look like handles. Cranks should look like they turn. Don’t make visitors waste their energy figuring out how the exhibit works before they even get to the content. Your design may be clever, it may be beautiful, but if the interaction isn’t obvious you have succeeded in hand-crafting visitor frustration. Sometimes we miss the mark and create an exhibit that is compelling, but not immediately intuitive. These exhibits inspire “creative misuse.” Instead of visitors connecting with the content, they spin the wheel, bang the handle or jump on the sensor. They may have fun, but a learning opportunity is lost and often an expensive exhibit is wasted.

What else should we consider when designing informal learning environments? This conversation is ongoing, behind the scenes at science museums and exhibition design studios. It continues on blogs, in classrooms and at conferences. As an exhibit developer working to answer this question, I’ve been humbled to discover that the best way to find out what works is to grab some kids and bring them to a museum.

All images courtesy of West Office Exhibition Design.

You’ll find discussions about designing informal learning environments here:

Cheryl Downes McCoy

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