Places of Invention
The Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History (NMAH) contracted Randi Korn & Associates, Inc. (RK&A) to conduct a formative evaluation for Places of Invention, an exhibition funded by the National Science Foundation. The exhibition aims to stimulate visitors’ thought about how people, resources, and space come together to support invention in historic and modern communities. Through formative evaluation, RK&A explores visitors’ use of exhibition prototypes (including barriers to use) and the meanings visitors take away from their experiences using the prototypes.
How did we approach this study?
For this second and final round of formative evaluation, the Lemelson Center and the exhibition design firm Roto mocked up three prototypes for the exhibition. At the first prototype, the Medical Alley Pacemaker interactive, visitors read patient files and adjusted the settings of a 1950’s pacemaker in response. At the second prototype, the Bronx Scratching interactive, visitors tried out their DJ skills by mimicking and experimenting with scratching on a record. At the third prototype, Hub Build Your Own Place of Invention interactive, visitors built their place of invention using wooden blocks and figures and made a stop-motion video. Forty-eight walk-in visitor groups, including both adults and children 6 years and older, were observed using the prototype area and interviewed about their experience.
What did we learn?
Visitors used the prototypes to varying degrees with different levels of success. Visitors’ responses to the Medical Alley interactive were mostly positive, with the majority understanding the essential concept that a pacemaker’s settings are unique to the individual; yet, visitors did not recognize that the set up of the interactive (with one side of the interactive representing an operating room and the other an operating room) reflected the collaboration crucial to the development of the invention. The Bronx interactive had high appeal to some, but visitors spent the least amount of time there compared to the other exhibits, with some confused by how to scratch and others reluctant to try scratching. The Hub Build Your Own Place of Invention had high dwell times and visitors said they enjoyed the activity. However, visitors had difficulty understanding the purpose of the interactive. Some wondered whether they should build an invention or a place of invention. Additionally, some others thought the exhibit was about the invention of stop-motion technology versus an interactive through which to consider the conditions necessary for their personal place of invention.
What are the implications of the findings?
Findings suggest that the prototypes will physically function well with mostly minor modifications from Roto, mostly related to providing clear visual cues at the interactives. For instance, for the Medical Alley interactive, the designers should consider how to demarcate the Medtronic garage and operating room by physically separating the areas and include objects in the setting indicative of each place. For the Bronx interactive, refined video instructions showing someone scratching should help assuage confusion and reluctance to scratch. Lastly, at the Hub Build Your Own Place of Invention, designers should include stop-motion videos that show examples of personal place of invention (e.g., mine has a coffee shop and the university, whereas another has a garage close to home).