Changing Exhibits

How often should children’s museums and science centers change exhibits?

Most museums change exhibits frequently, aiming to attract new visitors and recall existing ones. But when those visitors comprise children and their families, should different paradigms apply? When the makeup and members of your target audience are changing and growing all the time, does your museum or science center really need to?

Karen Kelly thinks so—if only to repair and replace permanent exhibit parts that get worn out, torn up, and even broken after being touched, grabbed, pulled, pushed, climbed on, and more by thousands of little hands and feet.

“The more interactive something is, the more our kids destroy it,” said Kelly, director of exhibits and education at the Children’s Museum of Atlanta. “The torque power of a 4-year-old is extreme.”

Her museum recently finished a complete remodel of its 20,000-square-foot space, including 2,500 feet for traveling exhibits, Kelly said refurbishments of this kind ideally happen about once every 10 years. Before taking on a project of this scope, it’s a must to talk members and visitors about what they do and don’t like, and observe what they do and don’t use, she added: Her staff spent two years researching user preferences before planning the museum’s facelift.

But the Children’s Museum of Atlanta also makes ample use of traveling exhibits, opening a new one every three months or so. A show featuring the offbeat performers Blue Man Group on the science of sound will open soon, and the current exhibit around the PBS TV personality “Sid the Science Kid” is extremely popular, she said.

Bringing in these exhibits not only satisfies Atlanta’s insatiable desire for the “new shiny,” Kelly said, but it also helps introduce educational concepts not covered by the museum’s permanent exhibits.

Keeping pace with the new

Frequent changes serve another purpose, too: They can help a science museum stay up-to-date with today’s rapid advancements and discoveries, according to Ian Brunswick at Science Gallery Dublin.

“It's very hard to make a museum exhibit which will last for five years and be current the whole time, you know, unless it's changing the whole time,” Brunswick told National Public Radio.

Booking traveling exhibits can be hard on a museum’s budget, however. In Atlanta, a single traveling exhibit can set the museum back $75,000 or more, Kelly said. Those on smaller budgets, or with a different attitude, say frequent changes may not be necessary.

“Kids don’t get bored easily,” Kelly admitted. “Parents do.”

Children’s museums and science centers on limited budgets don’t necessarily have to forego traveling exhibits, however, said Wendy Hancock at the Association of Science-Technology Centers.

Money-saving options

Not all exhibits are expensive, Hancock said, and museums can save money by forming exhibits together and then sharing it among themselves. Creating exhibits in-house, even purchasing the plans for traveling shows and building them them using recycled and found materials can save money. Buying less-expensive modular exhibits that can be taken apart and their components switched out is another option, she said.

The beauty of modular exhibits, according to Kim Hunter at the Kentucky Science Center, is that they engage returning visitors again and again at a fraction of the cost of conventional traveling exhibits, whose price can reach $600 per square foot.

“It’s a hamster wheel,” Hunter said. “Some museums get a new traveling exhibit two or three times a year, and on and on and on and on. Their visitors expect every three or four months to see a new exhibit. Then the museum can’t get off the hamster wheel because if they don’t bring these exhibits in, their attendance is going to go down. It’s a Catch-22.”

As for keeping up with trends and discoveries, Hunter said simply updating interpretive signs can sometimes suffice.

In lieu of expensive traveling shows, the Kentucky museum purchased a modular Photoelasticity Bridge exhibit that helps children to learn how different kinds of bridges work by building them for themselves.

When the museum wants to make a change, it can buy a different exhibit that attaches to the same base, and keep the Photoelasticity Bridge module to bring out again in the future.

“What we have done here is take that money you would put into traveling exhibits and start reinvesting it in permanent exhibits,” Hunter said. “We invest in our own permanent collection rather than giving someone else our money.”