Story 02: Education of a Dropout

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Sidebar: What's Inside?

Written by Mike Spock

Kids are noisily climbing down a worn ladder into a telephone manhole, the centerpiece of our first new exhibit, What's Inside?

Inspired by a long, boring car trip, the exhibition theme comes from the ten-year-old daughter of the director of a small upstate New York museum. As we developed her idea, this hands-on experiment opens such everyday objects as a baseball, toaster, chambered nautilus, live gladiolas, a drop of pond water, an Indian burial (we didn't know any better in those days, but we soon would learn) and what it looked like inside your mother when you were inside her. We expected the exhibit might last six months—if we were lucky and if we were willing to make an extravagant investment in its maintenance.

Interactive exhibits of the day, like the gears and pistons in New York, are all turned on by a push-button and always do the same thing. There is no chance, as Frank Oppenheimer of the Exploratorium later points out, to explore the revealing edge where a phenomenon starts and stops happening. So there is virtually no precedent for, and a lot of doubts about, this non-directive, open-ended approach. After all, kids are unfocused and even destructive. They are already doing their damnedest to jimmy our old exhibit cases. Everything will be reduced to rubble, and what isn't broken will walk.

Not only did What's Inside? work, but it lasts five years. The only thing that breaks is the nautilus shell, which I smash with my head as I stand up underneath it during installation. And the intense activity of the kids gives us plenty of feedback about which messages are getting through and which are not. Parents, on the other hand, look slightly stunned—yet pleased. There is no doubt we have stumbled onto something.

"I was looking for a topic that would move us away from displays in exhibit cases (the visitor experience at that time). I was interested in eliciting visible audience behavior that would indicate what was happening for the visitor. So, the purpose of doing interactive exhibits, for me, was in eliciting feedback as much as it was exciting kids about something.

One component of the exhibit that worked very well involved fresh gladiolas placed on a table every day. Pieces of paper with parts of the gladiola drawn on it were also put on the table. Children could pull the flowers apart and tape them down on the matching spaces so that they had to observe how each part was different and where it belonged.

...That exhibit was just wildly successful. It fully changed our thinking and I think everybody else's. From that point on, we got bolder about trying things."

Next: Sidebar: The Nines Tables