“How to Start a Science Center” or 10 Steps to Designing a Science Center

Mark WalhimerExhibition Design, Starting A Museum 9 Comments

“How to start a Science Center”.  Designing a Science Center can be divided into ten steps that include; project objectives, exhibition design, coordination with building architecture, fabrication and installation.  Exhibition design is visually communicating casework, lighting and equipment the creates the visitor experience while considering aesthetic and functional perimeters.

A project the scale of a science center requires a group of stakeholders.  The group should include the founder, a money person, a scientist, a politician, an artist, a designer and a community leader.  Find a person to represent each, a person who can raise money, a scientist, an active politician who can make things happen, an artist, a designer, and a  community representative (PTA leader, Superintendent of Schools or a real estate developer are all great)

10 Steps:

  1. Project Objectives – Maybe the toughest part of all.  Why are you building the science center?  What is the visitor experience?  What are the visitor outcomes? “World Class”, “Clean, Modern Aesthetic”, “Fun and Interactive” – really don’t tell you much at all. I often think that we each have a movie playing in our head’s when descriptions such as “Fun and Interactive” are used, one person’s “movie” is different from another’s.  The trick is to get all the stakeholders with the same movie.   The best method I have found is a research trip with all of the stakeholders.  Schedule a long weekend, for the 4-8 people that comprise the “core” team and go see at least 3-4 Science Centers.  Ask lots of questions and view different exhibits at the same time.  Document your findings from the trip.
  2. Critical Mass – Sometimes the best way to start a project is to gather a group of smart, creative people with a pot of coffee, some good food and talk.  Talk for a couple of hours, “if you could create any type of Science Center, what would that place be?”, create quick concepts and take lots of notes.  Set up a meeting to review the ideas.  Type up the meeting notes and review the notes before the next meeting.  At the next meeting narrow your conversation to three or four concepts for the Science Center.  Work to create an “Umbrella concept”,  an idea that provides a superset or grouping of concepts that all fall under a single common category.   An umbrella concept is the central and coordinating concept that will represent a number of smaller, separate concepts.  Try to be relaxed and have fun.  This is the most important work you will create in the whole process.  A few examples, Exploratorium -“An ongoing exploration of science, art, and human perception”, Discovery Science Center – “Science Southern California Style”, “The Tech Museum of Innovation” (the name says it all), The Museum of Science and Industry – Coal Mine, Silver Streak, Farm Tech, U-505 and the Wright Flyer.  With each example the Umbrella Concept is the unifying concept for the institution a sort of “elevator speech” for the Science Center.  Take your time and try on several unifying concepts before deciding on one, make sure you have enough “critical mass” of exhibit ideas to support the Umbrella Concept.
  3. Filters There is no shortage of good ideas.  Often the tough part is having a way to separate one good idea from another.  Create a set of “Exhibition Filters”; guiding principles by which exhibits are chosen or rejected.  The filters become the criteria by which the exhibits are judged to be included as part of the overall Science Center.  Examples of Exhibition Filters, “Wherever possible exhibits will be open ended with multiple outcomes”, “Exhibits will be discovery based vs. didactic” and “Exhibits and environments will be built with exposed fasteners and connections”. Make sure your Exhibition Filters are in line with your Umbrella Concept.   Run a couple of tests, “we know we would like XYZ exhibit in the science center, does it pass our Exhibition Filters?
  4. Design and Research Concept Development, Schematic Design, Design Development and Final Design are the phases of exhibition design.  As the process goes through iterations, more and more details will be added to the design.  During Concept Design, you will be reviewing area themes and space allocation, schematic design, you will be reviewing rough layouts of exhibits in areas, Design development, you will be reviewing dimensioned drawings of each area and Final Design will be details of case design and AV systems.  The Fabricator will be creating Working Drawings for review prior to fabrication.  Accept and embrace that exhibition design is a never ending process, even on opening day, you will still be making changes and revisions.  Revisions are not mistakes.  What you are creating has never existed before.  Until you have hundreds of people in the science center you are not going to know how it all works.  A friend of mine says “designers are people who can see the future”, she may be right.  A design is an image of the future, but only “an” image, the “image” will change with time.
  5. Architecture Sometimes the building comes first and you have to do a “force fit”, “how do you create your umbrella concept in the planned architecture?”.  Sometimes you create a the Umbrella Concept and work with an architect to reflect the umbrella concept in the architecture.  The truth is the second is much more difficult than the first.  Architects are NOT exhibition designers.  Often exhibition designers and architects think very differently.  Architects are concerned about creating spaces, exhibition designers are concerned with creating activities.   In the best relationships the architect creates a space to house the activities of the Science Center.  You want a very patient architect, by design your process will be ever changing, and that will mean changes to the architecture.  Define the spaces for the exhibitions, create “foot prints” of each exhibition area.  Include, lighting, HVAC, electrical, doors, windows and create a elevations of the space and reflected ceiling plans.
  6. 1/3, 1/3, 1/3 There are thousands of science centers all over the world, there is no need to “redesign the wheel”.  1/3 of the exhibits should be original to the Science Center, 1/3 purchased from a vendor or science center and modified and 1/3 should be bought “off the shelf”.   Once you have established the areas of your science center, go visit at least ten science centers and find out what exhibits could be used for your science center. Start a data base of the exhibits that can be purchased “off the shelf”, which ones you like but would like modified and exhibits that you would like original to the science center.  To the “nah sayers”, Frank Oppenheimer the founder of the Exploratorium researched existing science class experiments as the starting point for the Exploratorium.
  7. Science Center Icons Create an icon for the Science Center and create an icon for each exhibition area.  I often think about the “parking lot conversation”, when people are walking back to there car after visiting the science center “what is the one exhibit they will be talking about?”  Make sure that you have that “wow” exhibit for the science center and each exhibition area.  A few samples of icons, the Tactile Dome at the Exploratorium, The Cube at Discovery Science Center and The Hoberman Sphere at Liberty Science Center.
  8. Fabricate Ask other science centers who they used for fabrication, ask local building contractors for the names of casework companies and speak to your local convention center about trade show fabricators.  Start a list of ten fabricators and go visit each shop and ask to meet the project manager.  Walk through the shop and look at the projects in the shop, look at the quality of the work, review the working drawings in the shop.  Narrow your search down to three  fabricators and ask each to prototype an exhibit and tell them you are choosing between three shops and one of the shops will win the project contract.  Choose your fabricator by the quality of their project manager, the quality of the shops workmanship and their reputation and response to warranty requests.
  9. Prototype, Prototype, Prototype One third of the exhibits will be bought “off the shelf”, leaving two thirds that will either be original to the science center or modified “off the shelf”.  Some of the original exhibits will be from artists, some will be built by the selected  fabricator and some will be modified “off the shelf” that will be modified by the original vendor.  Start a list of the exhibits to be prototyped and group them by type.  Create a relationship with a local Art museum, library, middle school or college and prototype the exhibits there.  Test the exhibits with the public and evaluate the responses and modify the exhibits according to the evaluation.  
  10. Install, Open and Archive Installation, opening and archiving is part of the design process.  During installation there will be lots of small (and maybe large) decisions made; changes in exhibit placement, changes in lighting, changes in exhibit parts and all of those decisions need to be captured in “as built drawings”, maintenance manuals and archived for future changes and maintenance.

Be as transparent as possible.  Include others in the process and ask for feedback, use facebook, tweeter and a blog and include people in the process.

Funny isn’t it, only one of the ten steps even mentions drawings !  Drawings are not designs, drawings are the culmination of lots of research and thinking.  Some Science Centers such as the Exploratorium don’t even create drawings until after the exhibition has been prototyped and evaluated. The best exhibit designs happen through research, creativity, evaluation and luck.

Would love to hear comments about the ten steps above.  A future post will be the “10 steps to Project Managing the Opening of a Science Center.

Comments 9

  1. You would be surprised. We are currently designing a Science Center in Asia and plan on starting work on a second Science Center in Abu Dhabi -Mark

  2. Thank you so much for sharing this. I’m a physicist who was recently invited to start a science center at my hometown. At first, I thought ‘there is no way this to be done’ but after some googling I found this post and just loved it. Great heads up.

  3. Thank you for your coherent and inspiring insights in this field, Mark! I’ve gained my B.A. in Interactive Media and now heading to my Master’s Degree (in Europe). I would love to make a career of designing the interactivity to museums and science centers, so your advice and hints in these pages are greatly appreciated.

  4. Thank you a lot… Im just an 18 year old boy but im currently running a science organization in my community so i want to build a science centre but i have no money

  5. My husband and I started a 501c3 arts and science center for under prevliged kids in an at risk area in Dallas. We have a larger building that use to be a shopping center we’re looking into. Any advice?

  6. Pingback: Starting a Science Center

  7. hello… Im currently studying a science degree in augmented programme and would like to start my own science center after finishing my degree…. I just have no idea where to start and who to contact for help

  8. Post

    Dear Porita,
    Below are a few resources that you might find helpful.

    Starting a science center is an expensive and lengthy process, I would suggest that you work in a museum or science center prior to making plans to start a Science Center.

    Be well,
    – Mark

    My book; Museums 101 https://www.amazon.com/Museums-101-Mark-Walhimer/dp/1442230185

    My online course, Museums 101 https://museumcourses.com/catalog/info/id:126

    “How to Start a Science Center” or 10 Steps to Designing a Science Center

    Measuring the Impact of a Science Center on Its Community

    Association of Science-Technology Centers ASTC

    Museum Fundraising

    Museum Grant Resources

    Starting a Museum

    Start-Up Success Isn’t Enough to Found a Museum

    Running A Museum

    Starting a Museum – The American Alliance of Museums

    Thinking About Starting a Museum?

    So You Think You Want to Build a New Science Center…

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