Last summer I wrote a blog post about the 10% preliminary design phase of the Lemelson Center’s Places of Invention project and how exhibition development often mirrors the inventive process. In those early days of working with our exhibition design firm Roto we focused on the “Sketch It!” step, relying on their expertise to bring visual life to our highly researched, content-rich, but conceptually abstract topic. At the end of this official 10% design phase we had an exhibition floor plan, artistic renderings, and fun art direction boards for a concrete and colorful manifestation of our exhibition that we could share with project stakeholders and potential funders.
The “Create It!” step of the invention process next came into play. The second official phase of Smithsonian exhibition planning is called “35% conceptual design,” and for Places of Invention this phase began in October 2012 and runs through the end of March 2013. Now the Lemelson Center/NMAH-Roto team is collaborating to hone details of the design, including detailed floor plan, object layouts, graphics, typography, colors, lighting and acoustic-abatement needs, and specifications for mechanical interactives and multimedia. This is also the time for preliminary estimates for how much all of these elements are going to cost, which is where the proverbial rubber meets the road for decision making as we move forward.
During the 35% design period of any exhibition’s development, I believe it is very important to conduct formative evaluation, which Randi Korn & Associates (RK&A) defines as testing “interpretive ideas and components for their functionality and ability to communicate content.” This could be termed the “Test It!” invention step. Fortunately, the National Science Foundation grant for Places of Invention supports three stages of evaluation: front-end (which RK&A conducted in summer and fall 2011); formative (two phases during 2013); and summative (at the end of the project).
So, we brought Roto and RK&A together and came up with a plan to do a first round of formative evaluation prototyping at NMAH during late January. Although this is generally a slower time at the Museum, with fewer tourist traveling to the nation’s capital between the winter holidays and spring breaks, we had the advantage of two major events coinciding—President Barak Obama’s second inauguration and Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday—that attracted many thousands of visitors. We figured enough people would hang around afterwards to visit the famous local sites, including the Smithsonian museums on the Mall, to garner walk-in visitors willing to participate in our evaluation.
Over three days, January 23-25, staff from Lemelson Center, Roto, and RK&A collaborated to conduct formative testing. We mocked up two exhibition case studies—Hartford, CT, and Hollywood, CA— and also the “Interactive Map,” a participatory exhibit that asked visitors to share stories of their places of invention by writing comments to post on a U.S. map or by taping short videos on a laptop computer. The basic evaluation objectives were to explore general usability and understanding of intended exhibition messages. RK&A recruited walk-in adult visitors who were visiting alone or with children 10 years and older. RK&A then observed these visitor groups while they used the exhibition elements, including reading labels, looking at images, trying out interactives, and watching videos inside the case study areas and at the Map. Finally, RK&A interviewed the visitors and recorded data in handwritten notes. At the end of each day of prototyping, folks from the Lemelson, Roto, and RK&A teams gathered to discuss visitor feedback and interactions in order to “Tweak It!” for the next day. It was a fun, constructive, and exhausting process.
We recently received the final report from RK&A, which includes careful analysis of the visitor observations and interviews and very constructive recommendations. This document has already helped us focus on key changes and improvements to the exhibition (the “Tweak It!” stage) while also provided us with enough objective information to know we are headed in the right direction. So onward we go through the final weeks of conceptual design, and then we can look forward to the “65% design development” phase through fall 2013. Keep an eye out for more reports from me along the way!