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Science in Museums: Can Science Museums Crowdsource Exhibit Content

Posted by Phillippa Pitts on March 28, 2013 in Science in Museums |

by columnist Catherine Sigmond.

New York’s Intrepid Sea, Air, and Space Museum wants your photos for a new crowd-sourced exhibit on the Space Shuttle Enterprise.

The museum is creating a special exhibition entitled Space Shuttle Enterprise: A Pioneer to fill its halls after the real shuttle was badly damaged last fall during Superstorm Sandy. First unveiled in 1976, Enterprise was the first reusable spacecraft that launched as a rocket yet landed on a runway like an airplane. The exhibition will provide a brief history of this revolutionary vehicle as well as artifacts from the early age of space exploration, video clips and archival image, and will feature large crowd-sourced display of photographs from shuttle fans from around the world.

As Elaine Charnov, Vice President of Exhibitions, explains in an interview with Mashable, crowdsourcing provides the opportunity to harness people’s electricity and enthusiasm about the story of Enterprise’s arrival in New York City in July 2012, while adding an element to the exhibition that is truly citizen-generated.

Visitors can upload photos of their space shuttle moments to the museum’s website or post them to Instagram and Twitter, and even add their own captions. The museum will then choose the best pictures and the ones with the best captions to include in the exhibition and on the museum’s website until the real shuttle is repaired.

I’m always intrigued by crowd-sourced projects, and this initiative makes me wonder about other ways crowdsourcing could be utilized in designing exhibitions for science museums. Many museums are already running great educational initiatives for citizen science, like the Museum of Science’s Firefly Watch, which asks visitors to share their observations of fireflies in their backyard to help local scientists with their research.

But while the Intrepid Sea, Air, and Space Museum’s new display invites visitors to participate in the museum’s activities while invoking a sense of nostalgia about one of the museum’s feature objects, it doesn’t do much to facilitate audience participation in scientific activities. So is there a way for science museums to successfully incorporate visitor-generated content into their exhibitions spaces in a way that allows the visitor to both participate in an exhibition’s design and creation as well as contribute to important scientific research?

Unlike many art institutions that are revolutionizing the ways in which they curate exhibitions through crowd-sourcing (check out the visitor-curated exhibitions using the uCurate program at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, MA for example), science museums will likely struggle to incorporate user-generated content into exhibitions that are typically hands-on and experiment-based in nature.

Though it’s difficult to think of the forms that a crowd-sourced science exhibition might take, it’s certainly interesting to contemplate the ways in which science museums could take audience participation in science to the next level. What would a crowd-sourced science exhibition look like? Would it have to remain photography-based in nature, or are there ways of involving the crowd in designing traditional hands-on science exhibits?

The Intrepid Sea, Air, and Space Museum’s new crowd-sourced display certainly raises a lot of questions about the possibilities of involving visitors in designing science exhibitions.

As you brainstorm how (or if) crowdsourcing will play a role in the future of exhibition design in science museums, you can check out some of the photos that have been uploaded to the Intrepid’s website here.

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