3 Ways Science Can Shape Extraordinary Exhibitions

Members of the Roto team recently facilitated an in-depth workshop that included several experts in human development, psychology, and education as part of a new museum project. As we discussed learning styles, technology, and more, our conversation led to three overarching principles of design that transcend museum sectors and exhibit typologies. Strongly rooted in science, these principles reinforce critical experience values for all client projects in which our studios are collaborating.

The Value of Supersensory

The science of human development posits a theory of “multisensory integration,” in which multimodal sensory processing in the nervous system – the integration of visual, tactile, hearing, and other perceptions into a coherent whole -- aids learning and relating to the outside world, including with other humans. This makes sense, insofar as all animals evolved sensory apparatuses collectively in response to adaptive advantages in their environments. People, it turns out, are more “adapted” to engage with their surroundings when vision, touch, hearing and the rest are all working in concert. In the context of exhibit experiences, a deliberate balance of high and low sensory stimulation across more than primarily the visual domain will provide for a richer learning environment.

The Value of the Unexpected

Human brains are enticed by novelty and discovery. When our surrounding conditions remain flat and unchanging, our brains can enter a state of inward reflection that also encourages learning (we even learn as we sleep), but when those external stimuli begin to change, and especially when those stimuli are new or unexpected, our “arousal states” increase, blood flow rises, and all parts of our cognitive functions can be enhanced, including attention, response time and, memory. As stated by one of our experts, “you learn better when it is a surprise.”

When designing exhibits, we can greatly extend the experience of surprise by creating hidden “easter eggs” and offering windows and portals into smaller, “secret” spaces. (reference success of Meow Wolf?) But on a grander scale, we can enhance a sense of surprise and delight through contrast with predictability. On one hand, exhibits perform as visitors assume they will; we support their comfort zone and meet expectations—until something else happens instead. Whether at random or through discoverable patterns, we can deliberately offer outcomes decidedly different from the norm. Surprise is the gateway to boosted emotional response and memorability, whether through humor, poignancy, awe or what is often referred to as “wow factor.”

Technology is Not the Enemy of Play

Speaking more specifically of the family audience, we are often unpacking the role of “technology” within a museum experience otherwise governed by principals of multisensory exploration. Here the experts have very clear input: technology is not the enemy of play. We risk muddling our own sense of exhibit innovation when we apply the term “technology” to anything that exists in a digital domain, and then abhor it through the association with phones and tablets (the more common cultural reference). But software-controlled experiences can have decidedly tactile, physical, and phenomenological outputs (lights, sound, motion). Conversely, authentic, whole-body, human “analog” inputs (e.g. dancing) can create immersive results on a large digital canvas. Playful, exploratory experiences should harness the power of every tool available to exhibit designers, including digital tools, provided they are genuinely useful in achieving our design goals (and not “technology for technology’s sake”).

Three ways science can shape extraordinary exhibits