Making sense of science centre exhibit-making: a diffractive ethnography

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Ziff, Katherine
Interactive science centre exhibits are hands-on devices designed to appeal to visitors’ curiosity in order to entice them to explore scientific phenomena. Their success (or failure) at that task has been the primary subject of research conducted in science centre exhibitions, which overwhelmingly relies on evaluation methods to measure how well exhibits help visitors achieve the museum’s educational objectives. As a result of that tight methodological focus, our knowledge of science centre exhibitions is deep but narrow, with scant documentation, analysis, or theorization of what happens before, after, and behind the scenes of each visitor engagement. This dissertation addresses that gap. It communicates the results of a month-long new materialist diffractive ethnography conducted at the New York Hall of Science. The field study was conducted during the remediation of The Happiness Experiment, a newly opened (and, as is typically the case, only partly working) exhibition. The Happiness Experiment comprised over twenty novel or adapted exhibit components, all of which needed to communicate not only to visitors seeking to engage with them but also with the floor staff tasked with facilitating them and the exhibits staff who needed to fix them and create the systems required to maintain and operate them for the life of the exhibition. From opening exhibit cabinets to find what had jammed up their works to tracing exhibits’ parts as they travelled through delivery systems, workshops, storage closets, offices, and lunchtime brainstorms, I followed exhibits staff, visitors, and the exhibits themselves in order to ask “How can we understand the ways that the people who create exhibits, the exhibits they create, the visitors who use them, and the science centre that houses them all manage the relationships that shape their interactions?”. I explore what insights emerge from understanding exhibits as interactive devices, cybernetic feedback loops, parts in complex systems, and agential partners in an on-going iterative dance. I found that looking at The Happiness Experiment through those lenses (and extending attention beyond the scope of traditional evaluations) revealed a sprawling, dynamic ecosystem of exhibits, their parts, and their partners that extended beyond the exhibition’s operating hours and outside the lines marking its boundaries on the building map. I found that relationships between exhibits and the people who design, develop, facilitate, and maintain them can be rich and productive, or they can be fleeting, or they can devolve into a stalemate. In sum, the people who are nominally “in charge” of running science centre exhibitions in fact cannot control the exhibits that they build — but neither are they powerless to influence them, particularly if they can achieve the conditions that cultivate flexible, generative long-term relationships with exhibits and through them, their visitors.
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