Science in Museums: What makes a successful hands-on demonstration in the gallery?

by columnist Cira Brown
I’ve been doing the “Perceptual Form of the City” hands-on demo at the MIT Museum for almost a year now, and it’s my first experience in engaging with visitors in the museum directly.  The premise for the demo is as follows: I ask the visitors to draw a map of Boston and then ask them to consider why they chose certain features and compare it to other maps that I have on hand. I then relate patterns in their drawings to the research of MIT Professor Kevin A. Lynch and his book Images of the City (1960), which is a landmark text in urban planning. In the 1950’s, Professor Lynch asked both visitors and residents of Boston to draw the city, and found insights into what details make a city “work” and what doesn’t. I’m not going to go into details in hopes that you’ll swing by the MIT Museum one weekend and participate!
Recently, I’ve been reflecting on what makes this demonstration successful, especially since I’m in the midst of creating my own. I’ve adapted the way I engage with visitors since starting out at the museum last autumn, and here’s a list of things that I’ve found helps ensure success:
1. Have a short introduction: I started calling the activity a “City Mapping Challenge”, since it invoked a call to action and told visitors what it was about. I’ve also constructed a short “elevator pitch” that takes about 30 seconds, so visitors can decide whether to participate or not. More people participate than not when I give this short introduction, as it helps them know what to expect and what the time commitment will be.
2. Have a plan for apprehension: Almost all the visitors look at me with fear when I ask if they’ll draw a map of Boston for me. I turn this around by reassuring them that I’m not looking for accuracy, but instead I’m curious about what they find memorable about Boston. I emphasize that I find the drawings made by people who are only visiting the area are especially interesting. Similarly, for people who have lived in the area, I’ll say that I’m interested in what they find important and how they orient themselves in the city. If someone feels like the activity is too easy (“I know Boston very well!”), I’ll ask them to draw me the shape of the Boston Common & Gardens.
3. Encourage conversation:  One of the things that I like about this activity is that it’s very conversational. I ask almost every visitor where they’re from and how long they’ve been in the Boston area. If they aren’t local, I love to ask about their impression of Boston’s infrastructure. Many people from the United States and other parts of the world are horrified by Boston’s notoriously difficult roadways, but people from Europe (especially Western Europe) tend to think that Boston is quite easy to get around!  If people are local, I usually ask if there are specific natural or manmade landmarks that they use to orient themselves, and to compare their experience in Boston to other cities. Everyone has opinions on this topic, and I encourage them to think critically about what makes city features successful or unsuccessful.
4. Prepare for different ages: Though the MIT Museum isn’t geared for younger visitors, I usually have at least 20 children each time I do the demonstration. I have colored pencils out for the maps, and sometimes they’re content with coloring while their parents do the activity. Other times I like to ask the kids what they’ve done in Boston; they usually start out shy and say “I don’t know”, but with some prompting I’ve had kids who had to be dragged away by their parents because they kept wanting to talk! Kids are quite perceptive to their surroundings and I’ll ask them to draw me a map of how they got to the museum today instead of a map of Boston. Most kids, I’ve found, like this activity a lot. I usually say something like, “some people think we’re standing in Boston right now, not Cambridge – but I can tell you know your geography!” Even though the activity isn’t necessarily for children, they can still have a meaningful experience.
5. Have different types of nomenclature: Sometimes I use the phrase “perceptual form of the city” or “mental map” or simply “imagination”. I try to stay away from questions that are too open-ended, such as “how do you orient yourself?” and ask specific  “is there a building that you use to help find your way?”. This seems to encourage better, more thoughtful answers. If a visitor is unsure about something, we move on – this isn’t a pop quiz. Also, if a demo seems scripted, I find that visitors are less likely to engage.
6. Have something to do during downtime: When I first started out, I would stand at my activity table with my eyes darting back and forth between visitors, trying to make eye contact with someone and encourage them to come over. This ended up being awkward and sometimes invasive – I could tell that some people weren’t comfortable with me staring at them! Now, I have maps of my own that I’ve slowly been coloring in, and people get curious and come over — I’ve found it makes a difference when they make the decision, instead of being called over.
Finally, I think it’s important to have a wide definition of success for hands-on demonstrations. A museum visit isn’t a school lesson and we want to encourage people to be active learners during their experience. Sometimes people don’t even draw a map when they stop by my table, and we just talk about their their cities of origin. Sometimes the catharsis of talking about their frustrating experience traveling to the museum is enough. Sometimes people just want to complain about Boston. I’ve found that it doesn’t help to get too caught up in trying to tailor a perfect experience for everyone. Museum programming, just like the museum itself, doesn’t have a clearcut formula that works for everyone. As museum educators, I think our best strategy is to prepare for an wide range of visitors, with an array of experiences, and try to make each interaction unique and meaningful.

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