I Create Birmingham: McWane Exhibit Design Team

“We are seeing so many more people out and about which is very exciting both for us and our community. One of the things we are discussing internally is how McWane can play a bigger role in this revitalization process and how we can maximize our relevance to the new community growing up around us.”

Name: McWane Exhibit Design Team
Creative Industry: Design

1. Can you walk us through the process of concept to set-up?
The first step of our process is to ask ourselves some simple questions:

What do we want our visitors to walk away with?
Did they learn something new or did they change their perspective?
Was the interface design intuitive and appropriate for the experience?
Did they have fun or get to exercise a little creative muscle?
Did they see or do something that is only possible at McWane Science Center?

This will help us work toward the goal of an ideal visitor experience.

We are very conscientious of integrating our mission and strategy into the process. Our mission, to “change lives through science and wonder”, provides the foundation for our decision-making process and is broad enough to allow us to pursue a wide range of subjects. Because science truly is everywhere, we have endless avenues to pursue when creating exhibits. Developing environments and exhibits to elicit wonder is much more challenging. Fortunately, our team has over a century of combined exhibit design and production experience to draw upon. This wealth of experience allows us to hone in on what people like and how we can get there.

One of the great things about the science museum world is that we do not generally compete with each other for visitors. The Birmingham metro area does not have another science museum (or natural history museum, aquarium, or children’s museum for that matter). This means we share information, ideas, and techniques with other museums all over the country on a regular basis. We don’t always have to reinvent the wheel and when a museum does create something new, they are usually open to others recreating it at their own institution.

Other than these foundational steps, which are somewhat unique to the science museum industry, we follow a process that would be familiar to most team-based creators: Ideation- Concept Development- Schematic Design- Design Development- Fabrication- Maintenance. And we have something else in common with other creators- we “go back to the drawing board” all the time!

2. How to ensure an exhibit is interactive and enjoyable for both children and adults?
Surprisingly, if you design well for kids, you have designed well for adults. A successful exhibit should appeal to all ages. We have to think about all the senses – what does the exhibit look like, how do the buttons feel, etc. Many of our environments have soundtracks for you to hear, we have even had a body odor exhibit that you could smell. Experiences that are multi-sensory are more impactful, memorable, and fun.

Some of our best exhibits are open-ended; letting visitors create a stop motion video, dance in front of a screen which records and animates your movements, using giant foam blocks to build forts, mazes, furniture, vehicles etc. An experience that is fueled by the imagination a visitor brings with them can be enjoyed again and again.

Another important ingredient in creating enjoyable exhibits is authenticity – touching a live shark, seeing 65 million year-old fossils, lying on a bed of nails, or two kids beating five adults in a tug-of-war (using mechanical advantage) are experiences that appeal to everyone. That’s were McWane Science Center has an advantage over a lot of other venues – our experiences are active, novel, and real.

3. What has been your favorite exhibit to date?
We have a lot of favorites – the Tennis Ball Launcher, High Cycle, Dino Racer. Our natural history exhibits highlight the fact that Alabama is one of the most environmentally and biologically diverse areas in the world dating back to before the time of the dinosaurs. The local pride these exhibits can instill is an important reaction for our visitors but also for our creative team.

Our most recent permanent exhibition, a massive early learning space, Itty Bitty Magic City, was in the works for 5 to 6 years. It was an honor to create something brought to life and supported by our entire organization. In fact, the financial support of individuals, civic organizations, corporations, foundations, and most importantly the City of Birmingham, truly made the project a community effort. Seeing the kids and their caregivers have so much fun and use the space so creatively in such large numbers has exceeded all of our expectations.

4. McWane has been at the forefront of Birmingham’s downtown revitalization. How have you adjusted your exhibits because of this?
McWane Science Center was established in the downtown area because it was intended to be a catalyst for growth and a convenient destination venue for all of Birmingham’s citizens and schools. For many years, along with the beautiful Alabama Theater, we were surrounded by empty buildings. That is now changing. Instead of parking in our deck, visiting the Center, and then leaving, many or our guests are now opting to spend the day in the city. They can stroll through Railroad Park, eat at one of the nearby fantastic restaurants, see a baseball game, or catch a show across the street at the Lyric.

We are seeing so many more people out and about which is very exciting both for us and our community. One of the things we are discussing internally is how McWane can play a bigger role in this revitalization process and how we can maximize our relevance to the new community growing up around us. As we talked about before, McWane Science Center is not only designed with little children in mind. We constantly ask ourselves how we can better serve all ages in our community. As people move back into the city center, what kinds of programs and exhibitions do they want to see? These are the crucial questions we are working through now.

5. You guys are a team of 10+ minds. How do you manage all of those creative brains and spirits into one cohesive idea?
We argue a lot! And then we talk it out and sit down to work toward solutions. Patience, listening skills, trust and respect for each other are the elements a team must have to be successful.

Producing exhibits does require a lot of different skill sets so each of us wears many hats. We have an exhibit designer, environmental graphics designer, project manager, electronics expert, exhibit developer and a shop manager along with three fabricators. We all have input in the development process. With our years of experience, we have run into a lot of dead ends and have collectively learned from them. It is a balancing act – we do a few things that are tried and true, mostly push ourselves a little out of the comfort zone, and sometimes we tread an entirely new path.

With over 28 years of experience, our VP of Exhibits, Lamar Smith, has been with McWane Science Center from its opening days. Prior to opening this museum, he was at Discovery Place, Birmingham’s original hands-on museum. His experience, commitment to quality and attention to detail have guided our efforts and ensured that the exhibits at McWane are the best we can create.