Friday, January 1, 2010

Listen, Do You Want to Know a Secret?

Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry
Visiting Chicago, the city where I did my undergraduate and graduate studies (the latter being before my library science degree), I visited the Museum of Science and Industry for the first time in some 25 years. My family and I didn't have a lot of time to stay so we devoted our attention to the new U-505 submarine exhibit, completed in 2005 (

Visiting the new exhibit was, succinctly, phenomenal. I started off rushing as I proceeded through the wending, twilit walkway, then began to slow down to take in the whole experience. Eager to get to the submarine, I must have been doing what every visitor did; flying through to the next exhibit. I saw the first station in a blur, but not without noting its import. It spoke of the strategic significance of the German u-boat in the context of WWII. Well, that's important; people need to understand U-505 in time, place, and circumstance.

With each station leading the visitor to a deeper understanding of what they were about to see, I started slowing down to pay attention. Each emphasized a diorama or a video screen surrounded by printed panels providing more information about the value to the Allied effort of capturing a submarine, the challenges, and the genesis of a plan to surmount the challenges.

Proceeding more leisurely, I started taking in more details. I paused at a diorama behind backlit glass and satin curtain which dramatically opened and closed on electronic cue to see a scene which now portrayed the effort to sight the targeted German submarine. I anticipated what was sure to be, in my assessment of traditional museum exhibits, quasi-professional acting and noted with surprise that it was quite passable. I studied the faces of the actors and guessed from the physiognomies that they were contemporary. The production must have been filmed recently, not 20 or 30 years ago like museum productions I've seen always seemed to be.

I noticed an increasing sense of eager anticipation as I progressed. It was fueled by orchestration piped in from speakers positioned through the walkway. The music reminded me of a 21st century drama movie soundtrack. The fact that it was continuous was typical of so many movies today that use music integrally to establish mood and utilize silence only occasionally but with deliberation as its own distinct sound element.

The next station was a period style black and white video imagining the scene inside the vessels of the anti-sub task force dropping depth charges. The cameras captured closeup after closeup of the seamen. But these weren't the stiff, immaculate faces of reenactors of the past. These were the emotive visages of contemporary actors adorned with perspiration and grit, rumpled and sweat-stained. The background music continued to reinforce the drama.

With the stage set, I entered the hall housing the vessel itself and reeled at the unfolding view of the stern back to the keel that neither permitted it to overwhelm the space nor the space to overwhelm it. Descending the circumferential ramp, I continued to read more and more details about the submarine and the supplemental artifacts and educational stations.

A Biology major at the University of Chicago in the 80s, I remember the submarine as a museum piece that stood outside the museum where you could observe it while driving along Lake Shore Drive. I'm not sure I ever even went into it during the couple of times I visited the MSI in those days. Whatever the exhibit was then, the museum had moved leagues beyond the sensibilities of the day and thoroughly embraced a revolutionary approach to exhibition design.

The best of museum exhibitions I've seen have been floor-to-ceiling displays filled to visual and informational overflowing with printed and illustrated details. True they were typographical and layout extravaganzas designed to emphasize main themes and minimize information overload while telling a story, but the rare intrepid visitor was the primary beneficiary. (Yes, I generally read everything. It pains my family.) This exhibit was true storytelling carefully conceived to unfold the account sequentially and experientially. Participants had time to absorb the unfolding details as they proceeded to each station at a measured pace. It was difficult to imagine many people missing the main themes the way they surely would confronted by Info-wall.

How could the Museum of Science and Industry afford such an exhibit? Someone had clearly consolidated years of observation and made striking conclusions about the inadequacy of older designs. And the recommendation clearly to me couldn't have come cheaply. Museums in recent decades stopped depending solely upon admission dollars and had already been soliciting major corporate and private donors to underwrite its operations and development. This exhibit would have demanded a substantial budget simply to generate the concept accoutrements necessary to secure the donors for its development.

As I exited the hall, I paused to read about the making of the exhibit; a final nod to contemporary movie-making.

This blog could end here. But I'm a librarian—who's blogging i-candy.

As a big picture person, I see solutions across boundaries. And there are some here, I believe. One is to pay attention to the trends in the entertainment industry. So the industry uses music and visuals to create suspense and anticipation. Why not use a soundtrack and striking images on the library's website? The museum created a successful storytelling technique by unfolding the details through the exhibit. Can a website about learning database searching techniques capitalize on this technique? It's worth an experiment. Will it cost an arm and a leg to execute? It could, but doesn't need to even if it does take time. How do the entertainment industry and even museums keep people coming back? By keeping content fresh. Libraries can emulate that.

What else will come out of this mind-expanding experience? I don't know yet, but I'm not going to stop considering what I saw.

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