Updating the Natural Science Exhibits at the Maria Mitchell Association

Sponsor: Maria Mitchell Association
Sponsor Liaison: Janet E. Schulte, Executive Director MMA
Student Team: Molly D. Congdon, Alexander Paul Tutone, Victoria C. Valencia
Abstract: This report, prepared for the Maria Mitchell Association, explored ways to update the existing exhibits and increase kindergarten through fifth grade visitation to the Natural Science Museum. The current exhibits were evaluated based on content and aspects of exhibit design. We developed and modified six interactive prototypes regarding erosion and bird adaptations. By working together with local schools, we determined key obstacles preventing class visitation. Through our analysis of surveys, observations, and interviews we developed recommendations for the Association.
Link: MMAIQPNantucketB2008

Executive Summary

1.1 – Introduction/Sponsor’s Goal

It has been the goal of every museum since the end of the 19th century to act as an educational venue to the general public. To accommodate for changing trends in society, museums are constantly reinventing their exhibits and programs to increase their effectiveness and appeal. These institutions strive to attain both new and returning visitors.

1.2 – Problem Statement

The Maria Mitchell Association acts as a valuable source of history that helps remind visitors of what makes Nantucket such a unique paradise to many rare and exotic plants and animals. It is the goal of the MMA to help its visitors to become amateur naturalists through the combination of its programs and natural science exhibits. Currently the exhibits in the Natural Science Museum located in the Hinchman House are seen as “the weakest link in [the MMA’s] education and research programs”(Schulte, 2008, 4). Many of the exhibits are comprised of an assortment of donated mounted birds, small mammals, and other specimens found on Nantucket. The exhibits also consist of numerous: wall panels, glass case displays, live animals in representative habitats, and potted plants during the summer. Executive Director and sponsor Dr. Janet Schulte informed us that the project’s audience is children in kindergarten to fifth grade; however, many staff members have described the exhibits as inaccessible to visitors with no prior knowledge of the topics presented. The MMA also expressed a need to increase visitation since many islanders and school teachers do not know about the Natural Science Museum or its resources. The challenge posed to our group was to increase the visitation to a museum that is little known to the locals, and to update the exhibits.

1.3 – Goals and Objectives

The overall goal of this project was to update the natural science exhibits in the Hinchman House and to encourage local school children from within our target age group to visit the museum. To accomplish this we established two objectives to be completed:

  1. To update the current natural science exhibits by making them more interactive and hands-on.
  2. To determine how to increase kindergarten through fifth grade school group visitation.

1.4 – Process and Methods for Objective 1: Updating Exhibits

In order to successfully update the exhibits, first we had to determine the effectiveness of the current exhibits. We began by interviewing various staff members to see how they felt about the museum, what its goals were, and whether they saw the Natural Science Museum reaching those goals. After this, we set up an open house. This was a free event, open to the general public of Nantucket. We used this event as an opportunity to observe visitors as they walked through the museum without a guided tour, checking for which exhibits they looked at and how they interacted with them. The data collected from this event as well as our interviews with the staff informed our decision to create prototypes for the potential new exhibits.

At the open house, we distributed feedback surveys to visitors to determine how much they enjoyed the exhibits. These surveys gave us an idea of what the local population likes about the museum currently and what they felt should be changed. We used this input, in addition to the observations gathered that day, and the interviews with staff to determine the topics for our prototypes. In general, we looked more closely at exhibits that were ignored during the open house for prototyping. We also paid special attention to what staff members said they would like to see in the museum.

When interviewed, most staff members expressed interest in exhibits displaying the recent changes in Nantucket’s shoreline and overall geology. As a result, we built prototypes that focused on the erosion of Nantucket and on the purpose of various types of bird adaptations. The first prototype based on erosion was modeled after pictures from the Williams-Mystic program. These pictures measured the distance between a building and a costal cliff using a human chain. The second group of prototypes was based on an existing exhibit about the evolution of bird beaks and an adaptation exhibit located in the Museum of Science Boston. These prototypes were all presented in a hands-on manner that engages the visitors while allowing them to draw their own conclusions about the topics presented.

The erosion prototype was a storybook aimed at younger children, showing a shrinking shoreline with each turning page. In a simplified manner it described the process of erosion which continuously affects the island and the methods by which this occurs, such as wind, incoming storms, and global climate change. This book engaged visitors by relating the island as a whole to their personal lives.

The bird adaptation prototypes were analogy-based exhibits that described why birds have certain types of beaks and claws in order to survive. For this prototype, we used common household and office items to represent claws and beaks. We also invited the visitors to use them in two different situations per feature: the appropriate one for each adaptation and one that is better suited for another adaptation.

We brought in school groups from Nantucket Elementary School, New School, Lighthouse School, and the Boys and Girls Club to test our prototypes. Over the course of the following weeks, we made several iterations of the aforementioned prototypes. As different groups came in, we edited the prototypes until they were the most effective and appealing that we could make them.

1.5 – Results and Observations for Objective 1: Exhibit Updates

Our early results from the Open House yielded several trends that helped us create effective prototypes. It was observed during the open house that exhibit placement affected how well people were drawn to a specific exhibit, while label length contributed to how long a visitor paid attention to the exhibit. As we expected, it was also observed that the interactive exhibits attracted the attention of the children much more than the other exhibits within the room. While some rooms, such as the Main room, were generally overlooked, other rooms, like the Live Animal room, received the most attention and praise on the feedback forms.

1.6 – Process and Methods for Objective 2: Increasing School Visitation

In order to reach our second goal of increasing school visitation to the Natural Science Museum, we met with teachers of various grades from schools in the area. We interviewed teachers from Nantucket Elementary School, New School, and Lighthouse School. During our interviews, we determined how they are teaching STEM topics, whether the Natural Science Museum is beneficial to their curriculum, and what obstacles are keeping them from visiting the museum with their classes. We also looked into the Massachusetts Curriculum Frameworks to determine general topics taught to our target audience.

1.7 – Interview Results

When asked what some major obstacles for bringing classes to the Hinchman House for field trips are, all of the local teachers mentioned cost. Other common obstacles mentioned included tying the exhibits into the frameworks, lack of time, and that the size of the exhibit space is too small for their classes. These interviews also provided us with a list of topics taught to our target audience and so a list of topics for future exhibits.

1.8 – Prototype Results

Our final prototypes were the result of modifications made after several school visits to the Natural Science Museum. The alterations were made as a result of our observations and the analysis of the children’s ability to understand the concepts and manipulate the prototypes. Throughout all of the school group visits, we noticed several trends in the behavior of the children. Some of these are an overall enjoyment of the interactive prototypes, a lack of desire to read labels, and the ability to understand the presented analogies.

1.9 – Prototype Conclusions

Based on all of our observations and interviews with the MMA staff, it is our conclusion that the natural science exhibits in the Hinchman House are heavily dependent on the tour. This is largely due to the lack of clarity of labels and associated text to the exhibits. Our observations have yielded that the text requires some amount of prior knowledge of the subject matter in order for the average person to walk up to it and learn something. This is contrary to what our background literature suggests should happen in a museum. One key aspect to having a successful interactive exhibit is to make it understandable to anyone, regardless of their intellectual background. On top of the difficult and unclear labels, the text is either too lengthy, too short, or in too small a font to be legible from an appropriate distance. These characteristics render the text inaccessible to both adults and children alike.

Another conclusion we made from our observations, was how exhibit placement affected an exhibit’s ability to attract visitors. We observed that many of the exhibits located in the corners of the rooms and the exhibits in the main room were ignored by the visitors. It was also clearly evident from the beginning that the lack of useable space in the museum provided little room for adding on the current exhibits in already overcrowded rooms. As a result the prototypes were forced to be placed within a close proximity to one another which caused congestion in certain areas of the rooms. This was clearly evident in the bird room and live animal room where children would crowd around to see the animal or new prototype exhibit.

From our prototype observations, we have noticed several trends in the way kids prefer to learn. One such trend is, that children who are in second grade and below, do not tend to read the labels because they are just learning how to read and it is still difficult for them. For these audiences we found that the use of more visuals to portray the idea rather than text is more effective. On the other hand, children in third grade and up are much more prone to read and thus an easy way to engage them in an exhibit is to pose thoughtful questions within the accompanying text, allowing them to come to conclusions on their own. This is a great way to update an old exhibit to be more interactive without redoing the way the idea is taught.

1.10 – Conclusions for Objective 2: Increasing School Visitation

From our many interviews with local school teachers, we discovered which science topics are being taught in Nantucket’s kindergarten through fifth grade classes. While many of these topics, such as geology, adaptation and classification, are included in the current museum exhibits, many others are not. These topics could be incorporated into the current exhibits to further encourage teachers to bring their classes to the museum.

From our interviews it appears that the greatest obstacle preventing classes from visiting the museum is cost, which was mentioned by teachers from all three public and private schools that we worked with. The second obstacle to getting schools to visit the natural science museum is meeting the Massachusetts frameworks. Since the public school is required to meet these frameworks, the teachers are forced to keep the children in the classroom unless a field trip is able to cover multiple frameworks. The other less frequently mentioned topics include the small size of the museum, the need for transportation, and lack of time to take field trips, the latter being a direct result of having to teach the frameworks.

1.11 – Recommendations

In our opinion this project has been an overall success. We are confident that our prototype exhibits will help guide the MMA in the creation of many more interactive exhibits and that our research will help the MMA apply for grants to cover the costs of creating and installing these new changes. We also believe that our contact with the private and public schools will help strengthen the communication between the teachers and the MMA.

In regards to updating the current museum, we recommend rearranging the exhibits to help connect each of the five main exhibit rooms. We suggest that the main room focus on the formation of the island while the other four rooms focus on a different Nantucket habitat: air, land, freshwater, and sea. In regard to exhibits this project group recommends incorporating more interactive exhibits spread throughout the individual rooms as well as the museum as a whole. We further recommend placing live animals in the room that best corresponds with their habitat, i.e., freshwater fish in the freshwater room, snakes in the land room. To further improve the flow of the museum, we suggest removing some of the doors which hinder the flow of visitors in the museum.

This project group strongly suggests rewording the exhibit text to make it more informative and accessible for the children in the target audience. We recommend that the text be made concise, short and incorporate thought provoking questions to allow visitors to create their own conclusions.

To encourage school visitation, we recommend that the MMA expand their exhibits on topics mentioned by the teachers. We also suggest incorporating some of the topics that were mentioned but are currently not present in the museum. It is also suggested that the MMA offer themed tours to school groups that include a related activity. Regarding school contact, it is suggested that the MMA staff remain in contact with teachers throughout the school year, through both email and personal meetings. Lastly we strongly recommend that the MMA seek grant opportunities to help fund school visitation and programs, as well as, cover the costs associated with updating the museum.