Thursday, October 8, 2009

Exhibit-Building at Mindport

At Mindport many visitors ask what new exhibits we have planned, or why we don't get new exhibits more often.  We are also often asked where we get our ideas, or "how did you think of that exhibit," and related questions.

The process by which exhibits show up on Mindport's display room floor is a complex one, not by  intention but because the process just evolved that way. "As it happened," in other words.

Before discussing these matters, I'll remind you that most of the hands-on exhibits at Mindport are accompanied by a notebook. On the front you'll find instructions for the exhibit, and inside more information about it, often with much detail about how the exhibit was made and why.

Generally, we choose to build a particular exhibit because it interests whichever one of us builds it. We assume that if an idea interests us, it will interest visitors, which is an assumption that has proved valid in most cases. If the exhibit only interests a minority of visitors, we still tend to view it as successful, because we don't believe that the interests of the majority should necessarily triumph over the interests of the few. Something for everyone, including us, is our motto.

The exhibits we either try to improve or completely eliminate, are those that visitors avoid because they're too confusing or complex, or ones which are more trouble to maintain than they're worth. Sometimes exhibits go away because we're bored with them and something else interesting has turned up as a replacement. As time has passed, we've paid an increasing amount of attention to making exhibits both robust and relatively easy to maintain. Maintenance is one of our least enjoyable tasks, which is why we request that guests treat exhibits gently and with respect. It leaves us more time to build new things.

Ideas for exhibits crop up everywhere. Sometimes an idea that starts out as a joke at one of our meetings ends up, with modification, becoming an exhibit. One exhibit, Sonoluce, with the whirling musical lights, was inspired by a hand-held toy brought back by one of our staff members from a trip to San Francisco. Some exhibits, such as the Tornado, are our own version of well-known exhibits at other museums.

With a few exceptions, we build most of our exhibits rather than buy them; they're often a product of much thought and experimentation. . . and, since our staff is very small, we don't turn out new major exhibits at a great rate. None of us builds exhibits exclusively, because we have many other tasks to attend, which rarely leaves us undivided time for new construction. With this slow turnaround in mind, we put much thought into creating exhibits that visitors will find interesting enough to return to repeatedly. The "creek" is one example. Visitors young and old find the creek highly alluring, which isn't surprising, since I myself, the designer/builder of this exhibit, never grew tired of playing in creeks as a youngster, and still like playing in creeks, rivers, and Puget Sound as an oldster.

For every exhibit that finally makes it to Mindport's display floor, two or three are usually abandoned before they're finished or even halfway started. Usually, after some experimentation or trial, they turned out to be uninteresting, impractical, or they seemed like they might prove too difficult to maintain. Some exhibits we abandon because we feel they might not be safe. The shelves in my shop at home, where I build exhibits, are full of bits and pieces of exhibits that haven't happened yet, or are left from others that didn't work as expected, or fell to others of the perils just mentioned. They may later be incorporated into other exhibits later on.

Often, an exhibit that started out to be one thing turns into something else. Marbellous, for example, was assembled from disparate parts that I hadn't fully decided what to do with. The main "pump" with the rotating wheels was built as a module to see how and if it would work. The marble course on the right side, I built as a second module to explore mechanical "flip-flop" gates, and as an experiment in generating interesting sounds with falling marbles. The marble course on the left was built pretty much "off the cuff," as a spontaneous creation. The whole works took about 15 months to build. It includes some electronic logic designed to unstick hung marbles in the main pump, and another circuit to detect marbles that fly off the labyrinth above and end up in the "basement," visible through a circular window at the bottom of the piece.

Perhaps this will give you more insight into the exhibit-building process at Mindport. As you can see, there's no set process or routine. Serendipity takes its course, and we're happy with that. It makes life and our exhibits more interesting for us and for our visitors.

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