Beyond the Battlefield: Finding Common Ground for Developers and Marketers
Mission Based, Market Savvy
By Jane Eastwood
For years, a battle has gone on behind the scenes in many science centers and museums. Voices rise and egos clash,
as professionals in the exhibit development and marketing departments struggle to come to grips with what kind of
exhibitions to put on the floor, which exhibitions the museum should build, and how best to design, title, and even
After years of our own interdepartmental struggles, staff at the Science Museum of Minnesota (SMM) tried to
defuse this battle of supposedly contradictory philosophies and attitudes. We started by outlining a formal
process that would integrate marketing input with exhibit development and design at the appropriate stages.
Lovingly scribed by senior staff at the top of the hierarchy, this document has, in practice, largely been
ignored. Instead, the reality of SMM collaborations plays out in much more intense, personal, and imprecise ways,
but with often rewarding results.
The process is built on trust (or trying to trust). At times we have research to back up what we think; at other
times, we go on instinct and personal/professional preference. It all boils down to four major areas on which we
try to collaborate, some folks with more success than others. These are the things we all think exhibit
developers and marketers should try to see eye to eye on.
1. Compelling concept
It may seem obvious, but the subject of an exhibition must be compelling to a significant portion of the museum's
core audience, generally families and schools.
"Compelling" is a vague word, of course; research at our museum suggests that a compelling subject is one that is
either "one-of-a-kind" (something one can't experience anywhere else), or "highly relevant." To give an example
familiar to most readers, Grossology is both one-of-a-kind (based on a best-selling science book) and
highly relevant (because people are inherently fascinated by the workings of their own bodies).
If there is one issue on which it is most difficult to get consensus, that issue may be what makes a compelling
topic. Marketers tend to lean toward popular and easy-to-recognize concepts, while exhibit developers tend to
feel the desire or need to take on challenging topics.
Exhibits based on popular culture seem desirable to marketers and PR professionals because it can be easier to
get audiences interested in attending. But such projects are successful with audiences only if the science can
presented in an authentic and compelling way. The Field Museum's A T-Rex Named Sue is an example of the
kind of exhibition marketers pray fora project with big, attention-getting concepts that also comes with
high levels of name recognition and advance publicity and marketing.
An important factor in determining whether a topic or concept is compelling is the level of emotional attachment
audiences have to it. That can also be the most difficult factor to assess. Over the space of more than a decade,
SMM created three highly popular exhibitions based on animals: wolves, bears, and birds of prey. These
exhibitions were successful at the museum, and around the United States, in part because people had deep
emotional and intellectual attachments to these creatures and were fascinated by the myths and the facts of
Research on a topic can help assess the relative interest in a subject, but sometimes instincts about what will
be successful or appealing have to come into play.
|An intimate "hook" experience: A
family tries the Jitterbugs activity in Robots+Us. |
Science Museum of Minnesota
2. Hook experiences
An exhibition's science content is the domain of its exhibit developers, but how that content is presented should
be, at least to some extent, up for discussion between developers and marketers. In particular, marketers look
for key, or "hook," experiences around which they can build a message platform, create good visuals, and develop
artwork for publicity and advertising.
Hooks are not just good for promotion. Ideally, they are also among an exhibition's most memorable and engaging
experiences. Some hooks are large-scale, the kind of thing a TV reporter can stand next to for a great live shot.
Examples from SMM-developed exhibitions include the Sailboard Simulator in Invention at Play, the
animated Talking House in If These Walls Could Talk, and Jeremiah, the animated digital character, in
A hook experience can also be small and personal. Again, looking at SMM projects, examples might include the
Build-a-Champsosaur activity in When Crocodiles Ruled or the high-speed camera in Playing with
Time, which lets visitors see every tiny tremor of flesh magnified on a screen in slow motion as they make
a "raspberry" face into the camera.
When marketers beg for something highly interactive that photographs well, it doesn't mean they don't appreciate
small and highly engaging experiences. It's because PR and marketing staff know that easy-to-describe, visually
exciting, and photographable exhibit experiences will create the compelling invitation that gets visitors to
leave their homes and come to the museum. That is everyone's primary goal.
3. Integrated design
More than ever, I am convinced that the visual style of an exhibition, the materials used, and the spatial
arrangement of the elements can make or break the experience even before a visitor steps into it.
Many science centers have one design team to do it all: printed materials, exhibit design, banners, everything.
At SMM, there are two design teams, one for exhibitions and one for marketing. This compounds the issue of
creating a design that is successful in print, electronic media, and three dimensions. To address all of these
factors, our exhibit designers invite marketing designers to join with them early in the design "concepting."
Together, the group agrees on a general direction that will support the science content, appeal to the core
demographic, and be translatable into good design for marketing and publicity materials. More detailed
discussioninvolving other marketing professionals, exhibit designers, and the project managertakes
place as the project logo and key art are created.
|The oversized teddy bear couch that
anchors the Bears exhibition is an example of a large-scale hook experience.|
Science Museum of Minnesota
4. The right title
Even when the desire to collaborate is deep and the shared experience with the process is rich, both developers
and marketers may experience great angst when naming an exhibition. Tales abound of titles gone badtitles
that nobody really liked, that maybe a funder influenced, or that a stubborn developer or marketer insisted on.
Even with a good testing process and many creative minds generating options, choosing a title can feel like a
Nevertheless, life will be much easier if you can get the real title in place quickly, before the working title
gets stuck in people's heads or someone decides to use the formal scientific word for the concept. In general,
simple, clear, and memorable titlesRobots+Us, Grossology, Magic, Special
As for subtitles, although they are often favored by exhibit developers as reassurance that their content will be
clear, marketers tend to resist them. Subtitles take up precious ad space and are rarely used or remembered by
the media or museum visitors. In practice, the first key message of your press release generally removes any
doubt as to what the exhibition is about, and the subtitle becomes just extra words to fit in a small space.
Always test title ideas with your audiences. This can be done on-site, online, or in another location if you're
lucky enough to have one. (At SMM, we have tested titles at our state fair booth.) Once you fix on a choice, the
next step is to create your title blockthe graphic that includes the exhibition nameand make sure
that it works in every possible advertising medium, and that its colors and design fit the exhibition design.
Focusing on these four key elements has helped exhibits and marketing staff at SMM to overcome the "us and them"
attitude that can undermine successful product development. Where so much risk is involved, tempers still
occasionally run high, but we try to remember that we're all on the same team, working toward the same goals.
As a result, the heraldic moments when one side would claim victory over the other have given way. In their place,
we have more shared angst, but also more shared celebration, as we all get to stand proudly behind great design
and compelling experiences.
Jane Eastwood is vice president of marketing, communications, and sales at the
Science Museum of Minnesota, St. Paul.