By 2021-2022, our current exhibition, Places of Invention, will complete its run in the Lemelson Hall of Invention, and we have already started working on our next exhibition. Tentatively titled Sporting Invention, it will explore how inventions and new technologies shape how various constituents—incuding elite athletes, weekend warriors, and fans—engage in sport. The exhibition will challenge visitors to think about some interesting and provocative questions. For example, who invents new sports technologies and how do those innovations come to market? Do new inventions, like high-tech swimsuits, push the boundaries of human performance or undermine the competitive traditions of a given sport? How do technologies, like prosthetic legs or oversized tennis rackets, allow more people to participate in sports? How do innovations, like advanced baseball statistics or instant replay, enhance fans' enjoyment of sports?
Designing a new exhibition always presents a challenge: in a limited space, how do you decide which themes, stories, objects, and media elements should be included? It can be tempting to assume the authority of the expert curator, and say, essentially “Here’s what visitors need to know.” But that approach can come across as didactic; it does not respect the knowledge, experiences, and preferences our visitors bring with them into the museum. So it’s crucially important for any designer—of an exhibition, a consumer product, or a digital app—to step outside themselves and adopt a human-centered approach. To that end, the Lemelson Center is adopting the IPOP framework to help visitors guide our early thinking about Sporting Invention.
What is IPOP?
IPOP is an acronym and model of experience preference developed by Andy Pekarik and his colleagues at the office for Smithsonian Organization and Audience Research (SOAR). By drawing on a database of more than 15,000 visitor surveys, interviews, and observations, Pekarik has determined that the preferences of Smithsonian visitors can be distilled into four major categories. In varying degrees, visitors are attracted to content featuring
- I: Ideas, e.g., concepts, definitions, facts, abstractions
- P: People, i.e., biographies, memoirs, social interactions, affective/emotional stories
- O: Objects, i.e., artifacts, aesthetics, craftsmanship, visual language
- P: Physical experiences, i.e., sensations that involve movement, touch, sound, smell
But IPOP is not just an observation about visitor preferences; it is also a blueprint for effective exhibition design. To create an engaging exhibition with broad appeal, the IPOP framework suggests that exhibition developers incorporate the four IPOP elements—ideas, people, objects, and physical experiences—in near equilibrium.
Applying IPOP to Sporting Invention
With these ideas in mind, the Sporting Invention team has been applying the IPOP framework to begin fleshing out what the exhibition might look like. Our challenge was to develop a deck of 48 cards—showing 12 ideas, 12 people, 12 objects, and 12 physical experiences—that might be included in Sporting Invention. While we still have big crowds during the summer busy season, we’ll ask visitors to sort the cards and tell us which ones they find appealing or relevant.
How did we come up with the 48 flash cards? First, our exhibition team brainstormed and filled our conference room whiteboard with a super-set of 20-25 potential exhibition elements in each of the four IPOP categories.
Then our intrepid colleague, Meg Maher, tracked down representative images for these concepts that would translate easily to a flash card. For example, in the People category, Meg found an image of Dr. James Robert Cade, a University of Florida physician who invented the familiar Gatorade sports drink to help athletes recover from dehydration. And in the Object category, Meg found an image of Arthur Ashe’s aluminum and fiberglass tennis racket; invented by Howard Head, the new racket was lighter and had a larger "sweet spot" than traditional wooden rackets.
Meg papered the Lemelson Center conference room with nearly 100 images. Each team member was asked to put a check mark next to his or her top 12 images in each of the four IPOP categories. After engaging in some spirited discussions, we reached consensus on the final set of 48 Sporting Invention flash cards to show visitors.
Here’s a sampling of our selections in each of the IPOP categories:
- I: Ideas: Invention and technology make sports safer; Inventions and technologies that remove human error in officiating are good for sports
- P: People: Frank Jobe, pioneer of “Tommy John” reconstructive elbow surgery; Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s NASCAR pit crew
- O: Objects: Breezer 1, the first mountain bike; the Spalding-Evenflo microfiber synthetic basketball (rejected by NBA players after 3 months in 2006)
- P: Physical experiences: allow visitors to touch different varieties of artificial turf; “You Make the Call” to test human eyes against the Hawk-Eye video officiating system
Beginning the week of Aug 20, the team will take a few sets of these flash cards onto the museum floor to engage visitors directly (“Hi! Would you like to help us develop our next exhibition?”). We’ll briefly describe Sporting Invention, show visitors the 48 IPOP flash cards, and ask them to sort the cards into two piles—their likes and dislikes. We'll then ask visitors to select the one card they believe is most important or relevant. After talking to a few dozen visitors, we should have a pretty good sense of which ideas, people, objects, and physical experiences will resonate in our future exhibit. If you’ll be in the museum during the next few weeks, please stop by and see us in front of the Lemelson Hall of Invention in 1West. Or leave us a comment below: considering IPOP, what kinds of ideas, people, objects, and physical experiences would you like to see in Sporting Invention?
- Bloom, Benjamin. “The Smithsonian’s IPOP Exhibition Framework: Lessons for a Human-Centered Content Approach,” DigitalGov, 8 December 2016, https://digital.gov/2016/12/08/the-smithsonians-ipop-exhibition-framework-lessons-for-a-human-centered-content-approach/
- Pekarik, Andrew J. “What is IPOP?” Smithsonian Organization and Audience Research, 6 August 2015, https://www.si.edu/Content/opanda/docs/IPOP/IPOP%20short%20description%20150806.pdf.
- Pekarik, Andrew J, J.B. Schreiber, N. Hanemann, K. Richmond, and B. Mogel. “IPOP: ATheory of Experience Preference,” Curator: The Museum Journal 57, no. 1 (2014): 5-27.