Last week we began evaluating the first of four new computer interactives that will go into the upcoming “Moving Beyond Earth” exhibition. Visitors got to test their space knowledge with a simulation of Space Flight Academy, a quiz format that will allow up to fifteen people to play at a time. Over the next month we will give visitors the opportunity to help us test three more interactives: one is a multi-touch table where six people at a time will gather around and design their own space station modules; one allows the visitor to play the role of flight director in a real-life mission scenario; and one matches a visitor’s interests and skills with several fascinating jobs in the space industry.
Most Museum visitors don’t realize how much work goes into each and every interactive component in an exhibition. Whether it’s mechanical or computer-based, an interactive must have several qualities:
• It must be engaging – visitors must want to do it
• It must have an educational point – yes, we want our visitors to learn!
• It must complement and support the major themes of the exhibition around it
• It must be easy to understand – if visitors are confused they won’t complete it
• It must withstand the use and abuse of millions of hands per year – we don’t want it to be broken constantly
At the National Air and Space Museum, interactives are often designed completely in-house, but sometimes we hire help from the outside. In either case the process combines a tremendous amount of creative energy with accurate and well-researched content. Once we have a solid idea, we then ask our incredibly talented production staff to come up with a plan to build it. Sometimes they come up with the brilliant ideas.
Other interactives in the works will give visitors an opportunity to accompany the Tuskegee Airmen on a mission over Germany, to help Charles and Anne Lindbergh pack for their flight on the Tingmissartoq, to arrange logistics for the Douglas World Cruisers’ round-the-world-flight, and to design an airplane so it will be competitive in the air races. Another one will allow visitors to decode a Morse code message, explaining the process of sending and receiving messages as Anne Lindbergh did as radio operator for her husband’s exploratory flights on the Tingmissartoq.
Interactives make any exhibition a more active experience, and we couldn’t develop them without the opinions of our visitors who agree to test the prototypes. If you visit the Museum and someone asks you to try an interactive, help us out! We want your input!
Tim Grove is acting Chief of Education at the National Air and Space Museum’s building on the National Mall.