Rediscovering Discovery Rooms

Creating and Improving Family-friendly Interactive Exhibition Spaces in Traditional Museums

by Lindy Villa
July 18, 2006

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Summary: The purpose of this project is to inform museum educators how to design their own family-friendly interactive exhibition space. This project can also help museum educators improve the current state of their discovery room to engage family visitors. My end product is a small booklet that outlines eleven concrete steps to creating discovery rooms. Designed for museum educators and in-house exhibit designers, the booklet discusses the characteristics and issues involved with discovery rooms that actively engage families and provide an optimal learning environment.

Executive Summary

Think about the last museum exhibition you saw. Try to remember how you felt, what objects were on display, and the content of the labels and
interpretive panels. Now, what three new facts did you learn? Donald Sibbett, Principal and Museum Exhibit Designer for The Sibbett Group, begins his first meetings with clients in this fashion. Although his clients are themselves museum professionals, it is rare for one of them to be able to answer the question. He continued: “If they can name three, I give them an A plus.”1 While it may be a simple question, Sibbett’s exercise exposes the fact that visitors’ museum experience goes far beyond learning facts. Moreover, it demonstrates that traditional, didactic exhibitions – where visitors are looking at objects and reading wall text – are not enough to create a memorable learning experience.

Museums have found one solution to this problem – the discovery room. Since the opening of the first discovery room at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History in 1974, several museums have followed suit and created their own interactive exhibition spaces. Discovery rooms are spaces, set aside from traditional museum galleries, which feature activities, objects, artifacts and exhibits to provide visitors with interactive, discovery experiences. When well-designed and operated, interactive exhibition spaces provide visitors with rich learning experiences in which they can form deep connections and understandings about the museum’s collection. Moreover, these spaces are ideal for intergenerational education where small groups of family visitors can talk and learn with one another. Museum educators and exhibit
designers can design a discovery room that reflects the theories and ideas of the great developmental psychologists and educational philosophers of our time.

For this project, I wanted to uncover the current state of discovery rooms, exhibit design practices and characteristics of successful spaces. The resulting report features four main research methods: a literature review, survey, interviews and site visits. The main goals of my research were to understand how museums could appeal to families, engage visitors of all ages and design a space that is an optimal learning environment. I reviewed articles, case studies, visitor studies, books and other publications regarding learning theories (post-1990) and family learning in museums and discovery rooms. Next, I mailed a one-page survey to museum educators who work in traditional museums in California. This survey revealed insights into the educator’s understanding of the creation and operation of a discovery room. I then interviewed outside exhibit designers from private firms across the country to get their perspective on the design process as well as on their working relationship with museums. Additionally, I interviewed independent museum consultants, in-house exhibit designers and museum educators to understand their views on how interactive exhibit spaces can promote intergenerational learning. Lastly, I visited California museums with discovery rooms to see how visitors interacted within the space. I also conducted preliminary site visits to several museums in the Boston and Washington, D.C. areas.

I present my research in two sections – a literature review and findings. My literature review revealed that true learning is born out of personal, discovery-based experiences. When discovery-based activities are performed in small groups and encourage social interaction and conversation, they foster family learning. Discovery rooms are the ideal space in traditional museums to offer these kinds of social learning experiences. My findings revealed that museums may be missing an opportunity to better serve their audience. One of the main challenges I uncovered was a disconnect, or a communication breakdown, between museum educators and exhibit designers. Another conclusion, perhaps more alarming, is that museums lacked a concrete and specific vision for their discovery rooms with project goals and learning outcomes.

After analyzing my findings, I developed recommendations as well as a manual for museum educators and in-house designers who are creating or updating a discovery room. It is crucial for museums to reevaluate their discovery room to meet the needs and learning abilities of their family visitors. Because over sixty percent of visitors come in small intergenerational groups, it behooves museum educators to ensure that not only the discovery room, but also that the museum itself addresses this audience. I argue that all visitors to the discovery room and museum itself will benefit when museums design for the family audience and provide discovery-based experiences.

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