Theme Park Wisdom: How Cinnabar Makes Exhibits Fun
Posted by Sasha on Monday, November 3rd, 2014
Something really cool happens when you take a background in theme park design and apply it to museums: you get exciting exhibits that kids want to visit again and again, and where they leave having actually learned something. Jonathan Katz, CEO of Exhibit Fabrication firm Cinnabar, believes that museums need to take more creative risks when it comes to presenting information, and that interactivity is key. He also recognizes that not all interactivity works — about 90% of hands-on interactives don’t function properly or break soon after an exhibit opens. Other times, the educational takeaway is weak: “If kids can’t tell you what they learned in a sentence or two, the interactive isn’t successful,” says Katz.
An example of Cinnabar’s creative approach to traditional museum exhibits is the Eco Crew, a series of animated characters with layered content that interact with visitors and serve as “labels” explaining a science or sustainability concept. As Katz points out, “Less than 10% of visitors actually read basic text labels at museums. For the Eco Crew, kids played six times in a row — do you think they’d read a label six times? No way!”
Before producing museum exhibits, Katz did special effects for the film industry. As digital effects began to take over the physical set design market, Cinnabar shifted towards theme park design, doing work for big theme parks including Disney and Universal in the 1980’s and 90’s. When stores started to want more immersive environments, Cinnabar lent their talents to retail, working on the prototypes for the Disney Store. When Cinnabar finally turned its attention to museums, its cumulative experience in filmmaking, theme parks, and retail would prove a valuable combination. Katz explains, “We were the first to really talk about visitor experience to the museum folks. Now it’s part of their vocabulary, and they know they need it.”
Most museums today are fully aware that their venues are in direct competition with other visitor destinations, including theme parks and shopping malls. “In a visitor’s mindset, going to a museum is a leisure time decision, which means that there are many competing options,” says Katz. Museums used to look down on retail methodology, which analyzes how people make decisions about where to walk in a store, and what they are drawn to investigate. Today, experts on retail methodology keynote museum conferences.
According to Katz, the ethos is changing in museums. They realize that the process needs to be more collaborative: the varying levels of the museum hierarchy and external experts need to be at the same table when making design decisions, and these decisions should factor in the best practices of other leisure industries. Museum projects are also much more integrated than they used to be. In the past, museums oversaw a project as it went from a design firm to a fabrication company to media developers. More recently, projects are packaged with design, fabrication, and media handled by the same company. This puts the designers in the driver’s seat, making for more engaging and stimulating finished products.
As museums give more authority to the designers, we will begin to see institutions taking creative risks not only in their exhibits, but also in how they are designed, allowing for more prototyping and playtesting. Museums have historically shied away from prototyping to protect their budgets, but testing ideas on real audiences leads to a higher probability of success, which in the long run, is much better for a museum’s budget. It’s better to put out a high-quality product than one that will need constant maintenance or even a complete makeover down the road.
Cinnabar believes that prototyping a year in advance will ensure that exhibits resonate and function at the highest level. They are currently wrapping up fabrication of five exhibits for the upcoming Discovery Cube Los Angeles, which will make up about 70% of the new children’s museum set to open this November. The exhibits will reinforce local 4th and 5th grade science curricula, focusing on STEM and sustainability topics. Cinnabar’s Basil Katz describes, “These highly immersive exhibits are going to be very innovative for the science center world, using GPS tracking technology, multi-media and physical interactives. We will also be integrating Exploratorium exhibits in new ways and we are making extensive use of prototyping and playtesting to ensure maximum durability.”
One of the upcoming exhibits, the “Sustainability House,” is a life-sized home where kids explore different parts of the house with mobile devices, learning about ways to conserve energy and reduce waste. An indoor GPS tracking system will know where each participant is located in the house and will speak to him or her with suggestions or calls to action. A second planned exhibit for Discovery Cube is “Race to Zero Waste,” where kids will race to properly sort RFID “trash” moving past on a conveyer belt. Cinnabar’s remaining exhibits are “Making the Grade Gallery,” “Eco Challenge,” and the “Planetary Research Station.”
Science museums are typically the ones that take the most creative risks in the exhibit design world. We can’t wait to see how companies with the themed entertainment touch like Cinnabar will re-imagine other types of museums.