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Follow up to an Open Letter

Photo and project posted to Make Projects by Sean Michael Ragan

By Mark Walhimer
Bangkok, Thailand

On Monday I posted an Open Letter about the creating an online database of Science Center exhibits.  The more I think about the issue the more I realize that there is already an existing model; Maker Projects.  I continue to believe the future of Science Centers is creating a Maker Faire like attitude.  Maker Projects is an online listing of projects, the projects are submitted to Make Magazine and the editors select the projects to post.  One thought would be to create a partnership with Make Magazine for the data base, it could be a win-win.

When we were working on the opening of Discovery Science Center in Santa Ana, California we visited approximately 15 other Science Centers to get ideas for the types of exhibits that we would like to include.  We then planned on contracting with a design firm to design the exhibits.  Most design firms charge 20% of the exhibits budget to design the exhibits.  After talking to several Directors of other recently opened Science Centers we realized that using the approach of hiring a design firm and paying 20% was no guarantee of success.  In fact many of the recently opened Centers had higher failure rates of exhibits with exhibition design firm exhibits than centers that bought “off the shelf exhibits” (exhibits built by other science centers).  We also realized that although our team visited 15 Science Centers most visitors don’t, so having the same exhibits as other Science Centers didn’t really matter.  Using a formula of 1/3 exhibits purchased from other science centers, 1/3 purchased from other science centers and modified and 1/3 unique to the science center.  We opened Discovery Science Center in 1998 at less than half the cost of other science centers and a much higher success rate.

I purpose that Make Magazine create a database of exhibit ideas edited by a group of science center experts.  The database will then be accessible to science teachers, museum professionals and hackers everywhere.  WIth an online freely accessible database, everyone can develop, design, build exhibits.  There will be a learning curve, but by opening up the entire process everyone wins.  With approximately 450 Science Centers world wide all can contribute and use the ideas from the database.

Why don’t we have standards in Science Centers?

In my opinion it is fear.  Although science centers say that we are trying to “demystify science”, we also believe that science is too complex for the general public and only certain people can really understand.  In 1997 Joe Ansel lead a session at ASTC called “Who’s Idea is it anyway” as far as I know the field of Science Centers has not moved forward on this issue one bit.  Thanks to Jim Spadaccini of Ideum we now have Exhibit Files as a data base to review exhibits.  But, as far as I know there is no freely accessible data base for exhibit ideas.  How is this possible?  In scientific research, you do your research, gather your information, write your bibliography (crediting your sources) and publish your research.  With the science community model, others can then build on your research and there is a trail of crediting your sources along the way.  Why doesn’t the Science Center community work in the same fashion?  Joe Ansel recommended this in 1997 and as far as I know there has been no movement in this area.

I know of several sources that are working towards the end of a freely shared data base

* Nina Simon of Museum 2.0
* Cheap Exhibit Ideas by Paul Orselli
* Exploratorium Cookbooks

But none of the sources offer a  Wikipedia style data base of exhibit ideas.

On Monday I posted an Open Letter about the creating an online database of Science Center exhibits.  The more I think about the issue the more I realize that there is already an existing model; Maker Projects.  I continue to believe the future of Science Centers is creating a Maker Faire like attitude.  Maker Projects is an online listing of projects, the projects are submitted to Make Magazine and the editors select the projects to post.  One thought would be to create a partnership with Make Magazine for the data base, it could be a win-win.

About Mark Walhimer

Mark is Managing Partner of Museum Planning, LLC, a museum planning and exhibition project management firm of interactive educational environments for Science Centers, Children's Museums and Natural History Museums. You can reach Mark at mark@walhimer.com.

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