Sunday, November 4, 2012

An Interview with Robin Meisner

Meet Museum Exhibits Director Robin Meisner, who guided the exhibits team in creating ThinkSpace.

Describe your background and your role at the Museum.
I first came to the Museum in 1998 as an AmeriCorps member and was on the Head Start team.  When I finished my AmeriCorps year, I was hired to be the Museum’s science developer in charge of school-age science programs, exhibits and community outreach through the Learning Club team.

After four years, I went to London to graduate school for a PhD in Education Research. I studied and filmed three exhibits at Providence Children’s Museum, three at the Exploratorium in San Francisco and three at the Science Museum in London to see how exhibits encouraged children’s play in different types of museums. After I graduated, I was director of programs at the MIT Museum and then came back here as director of exhibits.

Robin with a Learning Club, during her first stint at the Museum!

How does the Museum choose exhibit topics?
We’re working toward an assessment of all of the Museum’s exhibits, of the range of activities they offer in terms of play value, types of exploration and different disciplines – humanities, social sciences, sciences, arts – so we can make sure we have a nice balance. We’re also thinking about maintenance issues. In the future, this assessment will help inform what exhibits we take out and what we put in next.

With ThinkSpace, we knew the space in the Museum that needed some attention, and the exhibits team was very excited about shape. It’s something the Museum has had an exhibit about almost since opening and is relevant for our audience.  We wanted to take it beyond the basics of shapes to spatial thinking, which encompasses a much broader look at the world around us.

Robin, Janice (Museum director) and Valerie (Graphic Designer) in conversation about ThinkSpace graphics.

What’s unique about ThinkSpace?
It’s a challenging physical space – long and narrow and as much a hallway as an exhibit. It was a really interesting design challenge to transform that space into all of the purposes it has.

In terms of process, this is the first time we systematically prototyped almost all of our exhibit components by building cheap, quick mock-ups.  For example, we made a shadow booth out of cardboard and silhouettes of thick paper taped to skewers. During our first prototyping session, we tested three activities – we gave visitors some prompts and watched to see what happened.

We discovered one of them wasn’t going to work and that was very valuable for us. It was something the kids really enjoyed doing but not something we thought was sustainable in the exhibit, so it might become a program. We learned that our shadow box was too big and kids wanted to climb inside it, so the one in the exhibit will be much narrower. We learned that kids are really intrigued by the activity but that we need to manage how many objects we give them at once.

Exhibit Designer Chris prepares the shadow booth for prototyping.
Our prototypers observed kids, then interviewed them about what they liked, how much fun they had, if they’d want to do it again.  We also asked if they had ideas of how to make the activities better and got some interesting suggestions! Often kids liked that it was challenging – that it was hard but they were able to figure it out.  It gave us confidence that giving kids something difficult was something they were excited about.
Another activity prototype – creating kaleidoscopic designs.

What are you most looking forward to in ThinkSpace?
I’m really interested to see how our visitors use the space.  We’re designing an exhibit that is targeted at ages 4 and up but among the components for the big kids will be, at a low level, activities designed purposefully for very young children.  I’m curious to see whether little kids and big kids know which activities are meant for them and if it will make the space work for families that have both older and younger kids in a way that some other exhibits might be more challenging.

Kids test out the soma cube prototype.
I have my favorite activities.  I’m very excited about the mazes because they’re challenging and kids and adults loved testing them. I love dominoes and I’m eager to see how they’ll help kids think about spatial relations.  For dominoes, spacing makes a huge difference in whether the chain will work and also its speed.  I’m excited to see what kids create and what sort of challenges they make for themselves.

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