Evalyn Gates: Bringing Research into the Museum
Dr. Evalyn I. Gates holds a joint appointment in the University of Chicago's Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics, where she teaches and conducts research in cosmology (the study of the origins and structure of the Universe), and at the Adler Planetarium & Astronomy Museum, where she is chairman of the astronomy department. She wrote this profile of her work with the museum in 2000.
I have always loved math and problem solving. Because my high school didn't have a very good science program, I wasn't thinking of science as a career when I entered college. I hoped to do something that involved a lot of math, such as engineering. However, after my first physics course I was hooked, and eventually I went on to get a Ph.D. in theoretical particle physics.
My current dual appointment has been both an incredible challenge and a wonderful opportunity to be creative with the science I love. I chose this position for several reasons: Not only did I think that science education for the public was extremely important, but the idea of working with museum professionals to create exhibits, sky shows, and educational programs sounded like a lot of fun! My job at the Adler gives me an opportunity to bring the latest exciting discoveries in astronomy and cosmology (my field of research at the university) into the museum's programs and exhibits—and to stretch my mind and imagination in the process.
Designing a new exhibition
As part of Chicago's Millennium Celebration, a citywide initiative for which various cultural institutions developed special exhibits or events, the Adler Planetarium decided to create a temporary exhibition on cosmology. The task of the astronomy department was to come up with exhibits that would examine how our model of the Universe has changed over the past millennium, up to and including our current concept of the Universe's origins in the Big Bang. We called our exhibition From the Night Sky to the Big Bang.
The project team for the exhibition included six staff members:
- three content experts (two historians and myself), to develop the ideas, themes and content for the gallery
- a project manager, to oversee the whole project, deal with outside firms, manage the budget, and keep everything on target
- an exhibit prototyper, to build early versions of exhibit components that could be tested with museum visitors
- an evaluator, to test exhibit ideas and wording with visitors.
In addition, we hired an outside design firm to create the layout and graphics and help us develop our ideas and exhibits in the most effective and exciting way.
Dealing with challenges
Two major challenges emerged as the team worked on the Big Bang project. One was the frustration inherent in creating an entirely new exhibition gallery in a relatively short amount of time with a limited budget. I was surprised to discover just how expensive exhibit development can be! The second was the difficulty that some team members had in dealing with subject matter that hadn't been presented before. It was sometimes a struggle to convince them to try new ideas, to step outside of the box. Ultimately, the team was able to resolve these issues by stretching both ourselves and our resources, and by learning where and how to compromise (and when not to).
The scientist/museum partnership
Museum professionals will tell you that it is not easy to design good exhibits that deliver the message you intend them to, engage and delight visitors, and stand up to repeated use (and, unfortunately, abuse) by visitors. The following suggestions may help other practicing scientists to work effectively in a science center setting:
- Understand your role. Before you begin, sit down with one or more members of the museum staff to discuss the project and your role in it. Everyone needs to be clear on the scope of the project, the financial commitment, the time commitment, deadlines, and how the process will be managed.
- Stay involved. As a content specialist, you need to be part of the process at many steps along the way, not just at the beginning. Exhibit development never proceeds in a straight line, and content can change in significant ways as the original design is modified to address problems that arise.
- Have fun. Don't be afraid to play with ideas and concepts early in the process. You may be surprised at what can be done. Because your background may be different from that of the museum staff, you might be able to offer new ways of presenting or explaining a particular topic. Your experience in the lab or on the computer may suggest avenues that can be modified for an exhibition or program.
- Be realistic. Issues like durability and cost can strongly affect the design of exhibits or programs. Talk to museum staff about your ideas. Visit museums to observe how visitors use the exhibits: How much time do they spend, what exhibits do they use or avoid, how much of the text do they read? You may need to alter your ideas to fit museum constraints.
To learn more
About the Adler Planetarium & Astronomy Museum
About Evalyn Gates