Exhibit Design and Informal STEM Learning: Q&A with Paul Orselli

paul orselli headshot

March 21st, 2017

Paul Orselli is President and Chief Instigator at Paul Orselli Workshop. He writes extensively about museum exhibit design and development on his blog, ExhibiTricks. We recently interviewed him on the intersections of informal STEM learning, science communication, and museum exhibits. 

[CAISE] What role does/can exhibit design play in communicating science?

[PO] Good exhibit design can be both intuitive and intriguing.  Intuitive components invite people to jump in and start “messing around” with ideas while intriguing aspects of design let people think more conceptually about the “aha” behind the “wow” of exhibit elements. I think it’s important to acknowledge that museums and museum exhibits might be best for getting people excited to learn more about scientific topics and not to deliver deep content.

In a sense exhibits, primarily through affect, can lay the groundwork for what Matt Leighninger of Public Agenda calls “thick engagement” between science communicators and their audiences. How can exhibits also communicate the process and culture of science? Do you have any examples?

I honestly think the best way for museums (and their exhibits) to create opportunities for “thick engagement” always involves some live human interaction between the museum and its guests.  This can take many forms — facilitators on the floor, volunteers giving demos, scientists on the floor, etc. The key is using an exhibit as a conduit to foster direct, communication between people.  For example, the founding approach of Science North in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada is to have scientists on the museum floor, or an exhibition like “Race” offers facilitated conversations on difficult topics.

How are scientists working with museums and science centers to develop exhibits these days? How has the involvement of the scientific community with exhibit design changed in recent years?

I think both museums and scientists working with museums have come to realize the public’s expectation for deeper involvement in the overall process of exhibit development.  Visitors want to have a say in the topics and experiences that are delivered and not just be passive consumers. Similarly very didactic, text-heavy experiences are less interesting than more open-ended and immersive exhibit experiences to current science consumers.

It seems like there is a direct parallel here between this approach to exhibit development and the kind of mutual learning that the AAAS Center for Public Engagement with Science and Technology and others are calling for through engagement experiences that take into account the “breadth of perspectives, frames, and worldviews” of both audiences and communicators. What role and responsibility do exhibit developers play between scientists and the public in regards to exhibits?

I think it is important to give museum visitors a full sense of scientists and their work — namely there are some things that we feel fairly certain about, but also a number of things that we are not really sure about at all.  I have the sense that even folks who come to science-oriented museums feel that much of science is settled business. But even in a field like paleontology we are still making discoveries that help us to have a better understanding of life on Earth millions of years ago!

What challenges have you seen in incorporating cutting edge or emerging science into (semi-)permanent exhibits?

The challenge of keeping permanent exhibits fresh is leading to the development of more “hybrid” museum spaces.  That is, spaces that deliberately incorporate the flexibility of programs with the physical presence of exhibitions.  It is much easier to add a quick demo or programmatic talk on current events in science to a flexible exhibits space, than to expect a museum to quickly develop interactive exhibit components on current science news.


Can you give an example of where you have seen this hybrid approach work well with a current or emerging area of STEM?

Again, I think the best way to be nimble in presenting current science or science news inside exhibit galleries is through human-facilitated experiences.  Demos and presentations of course, but exhibitions that require human activation to function best like makerspaces and design labs are great for presenting emerging scientific topics. I’d like to see the model that AAAS uses of bringing practicing scientists and researchers into museums to engage with the public to become a more regular, integrated aspect of museum exhibit design practice, not just a special event, or only scientist “talking heads” in exhibit videos or graphics.

Are there specific science disciplines or topics in which exhibit design and development have made advances in recent years?

I think the broad notion of exhibit experiences that focus on the process of STEAM disciplines has led to the explosive interest in Maker Spaces and Design Labs where visitors can really USE science, technology, engineering, art, and mathematics to explore ideas (and make cool stuff!)

Given the shifting priorities and requirements of the funding community, what advice do you have for an organization seeking funding to develop an exhibit or exhibition?

I think the “hybrid” model I mentioned above is a very flexible and economical way to keep exhibit areas changing and fresh. I also think museums will need to come up with more innovative twists to traditional museum models (like MakerSpaces and hybrid programmatic models) to foster greater private funding since there is currently uncertainty in the governmental funding climate.

How do you see the role of exhibits in the larger STEM education ecosystem?

Not too sound too Pollyanna-ish, but the notion of helping people see science EVERYWHERE is a big role for museums and other free-choice learning venues.  I think movies, books, TV, pop culture, and museums can all form a funky tapestry of science engagement and education.

How can (and do) exhibit designers work with and learn from developers in these other sectors to weave this ‘funky tapestry’?

I think that many exhibits and exhibitions that have been considered “groundbreaking” deliberately drew from groups and people outside the tidy list of “usual suspects.”  Exhibitions like “Psychology” or “Race” that drew from the worlds of social science, not to mention the successful collaborations between exhibit developers and artists.  The best creative partners are the ones that continually push us in directions we might not otherwise have considered.

What role do you see for evaluation when designing exhibits? What kinds of research would be useful to exhibit designers? How can researchers and practitioners build mutually beneficial relationships?

From my perspective the best sort of research and evaluation on exhibition projects is the kind that provides concrete reporting on approaches that were successful as well as unsuccessful — on certain topics, with certain demographic groups, in certain situations.  Even with online resources and databases, it still is difficult to tease out specific, actionable ideas that can be used when starting the development of a new project.