Playing in the Sandbox: Meaningful Exhibit Design

by Dr. Alton Dooley, WSC Executive Director

“Dig site” boxes  (which we usually refer to as sandboxes) are an almost ubiquitous part of any paleontology exhibit. These days they’re often filled with foam crumbles instead of sand, and they’re generally populated with casts of various fossils, usually anchored to the bottom of the box. Using some combination of whisk brooms, plastic trowels, and pails, children will crawl around the sandbox and uncover the fossils Jurassic Park style. Sandboxes are always extremely popular, especially with families with small children, and they are invariably one of the most heavily used parts of an exhibit. We did a sandbox in our Stories from Bones exhibit last year, and we’re doing another one for this exhibit.

I hate sandboxes.

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The sandbox from Stories from Bones.

But my dislike doesn’t stem from the sandbox itself, but rather how it is all too often implemented as a playground with no other function.

In a research museum such as Western Science Center, I see the role of exhibits as being to educate our visitor about whatever topic is covered by the exhibit. As we plan an exhibit, the first question we ask is “What is our story?” Whatever that story is, each component of the exhibit should contribute to the story. In many ways, developing an exhibit is like developing a screenplay from a novel. There may be great ideas in the novel that just don’t work as part of the screenplay; they are too tangential to the main story, or they take up so much time that they pull attention away from the main theme. In exhibit design, we make the same types of choices. The story of science is huge (essentially infinite), complex, and deeply interconnected, and we only have 3,000 square feet to work with; there’s usually no room for extraneous components that don’t contribute to the theme.

This doesn’t mean an exhibit component can’t be fun! In fact, it should be; who wants to see a movie based on a screenplay that tells its story thoroughly, but with no drama, comic relief, or variety of any kind? Exhibit components should be engaging and (usually) fun, but they still need to contribute to the story.

That’s where my issues with sandboxes arise. The way they are often implemented, they do a great job being fun and engaging, but not so much being informative. If some of our visitors are going to spend half of their time in the exhibit at the sandbox, they should at least have the opportunity to learn from it.

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Building the sandbox – you can see the fossil horse cast here before it was covered with foam crumbles.

To that end, we’ve spent a fair amount of time thinking about what a sandbox can offer to our story, and testing out ways to make it more informative. Brett and I have spent a lot of time looking at sandboxes at other museums, and have seen some that were pure playgrounds and others that were well integrated into the larger exhibit themes.

In our exhibit, we’re using the sandbox in several different ways. We’re focusing on the hominin diversity at Olduvai Gorge, which is a major part of our overall human evolution theme; Homo sapiens represents just one branch of a formerly much more diverse clade. As a second order concept, we want to get across that hominin remains are almost always fragmentary, but that it’s still possible to make identifications and infer relationships, behaviors, etc. from fragments (a lot of people have difficulty accepting how much we can infer from limited data). So we’ll have exercises where the visitor has to identify the specimens they uncover and determine things like the minimum number of individuals. (As an additional twist, every few weeks the contents of the sandbox will change; repeat visitors won’t necessarily find the same things every time.) Young children will still be able to play in the sandbox and have a good time moving sand around, but we hope their older siblings, parents, and grandparents will be able to take part as well, and learn some things about hominin history at the same time.

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