Exhibit planning team members traveled to view exhibitions and meet with staff at natural history museums and other free-choice learning environments around the country. Most of this travel preceded schematic design. Two trips remain to further investigate issues that arose as part of the design process, (e.g., bilingual labeling at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum), and to talk with other exhibit teams further along in the design process of similar exhibits (e.g., Fort Worth Museum of Science and History, Texas Dinosaurs: How Do We Know?).
This study enabled the team to reflect on existing exhibitions and the experience of staff at other museums. Lessons learned fell into three primary categories:
- Exhibit design, paying particular attention to traffic flow, accessibility, and new technology
- Content delivery, analyzing which strategies were most effective for different types of information
- Operations, especially exhibit maintenance and the definition of roles with subcontractors.
Findings shaped the team exhibit philosophy and have been integrated into the design of Fossil Mysteries. Museum staff viewed the following paleontology exhibits with NSF funds, matching funds, or at personal expense. Whenever possible, team members interviewed staff, reviewed visitor research documents, and collected associated educational materials.
- Integrate all aspects of the exhibit, lighting, air handling, electrical needs so there are no visual distractions, e.g. the dinosaur halls at the American Museum of Natural History put all the air handling equipment under the floor, leaving the ceiling open and the historic beauty of the architecture uncluttered.
- Use every opportunity to augment the visitor experience, e.g. pressed leaves incorporated into light panels at the Bronx Zoo Congo Gorilla Forest.
- Use the architectural space to create an environment and augment the exhibit message, e.g. the Bronx Zoo carefully controls views into their animal enclosures to maximize the perception of depth and the natural setting.
In some exhibits, lighting appeared to be an afterthought rather than incorporated in the overall design.