How One Museum Reimagined a Key Exhibit by Centering Community Voice
Denver Museum of Nature and Science’s Space exhibit has always been a draw for community members. Caregivers, educators, children and space enthusiasts alike have a genuine connection to their experience in that space – no pun intended!
The problem? It was falling apart. It needed continuous, expensive updates and, after 17 years, it didn’t necessarily reflect the cutting edge developments + evolutions in the field.
The Museum could have decided internally to scale back the experience or change direction entirely. Instead they embarked on a more challenging but more powerful journey to redesign the Space exhibit with community stakeholders at the table.
In 2015, DMNS embarked on a five year project to reimagine this popular exhibit in a way that centered the values and interests of their community.
The museum was well-equipped to do this work because they have made community research and collaboration a central pillar of their strategy.
The Museum employs a team of research & evaluation staff who specialize in building and maintaining community relationships as well as developing fun and engaging methods of collecting input. The impact?
DMNS has a comprehensive picture of the visitor experience and unique needs of their community that they can use to inform decisions across the organization.
So how did this dream team map the journey to the new Space Odyssey?
First, they created the internal team, which included Museum scientists, exhibit developers, program staff, and a project manager. The team also included the external design collaborators on the project, Roto. After they assembled the internal team, the next step was activating the community. Because of their deep understanding of their communities, DMNS was able to identify the strategic audiences who they were eager to invite on this journey. Those stakeholders included:
- Parents of young children
- Community members that were not engaged with the museum
- Subject Matter Experts (Museum scientists & industry experts)
They sent out a recruitment survey to their key stakeholders and invited to join panels or serve as truth-checking audiences, and share their vision for the organization, content, and activities of the future exhibit. The panels that they created were made up of community members and met multiple times over the 3-4 years as they designed and ultimately launched the Space Odyssey!
Over those five years, in addition to the intensive work of the community-based panels, DMNS heard from nearly 1200 individuals – bringing community members in right from the exploration phase and through to the final designs and decision making. Let’s take a look at how the process worked!
May 2015 - Dec 2015
The Exploration phase had one big driving question: “What do people want to know about space!?”
They were still operating the old exhibit at this stage, so they interviewed visitors on the floor and surveyed the exhibit volunteers.
With this new qualitative data, they gathered information on the resource intensity of the different aspects of the exhibit and compared the two. Were there aspects that were VERY resource intensive and non-negotiables for visitors? More on that later!
OCT 2016 - JUL 2017
In order to develop their new direction for Space Odyssey, DMNS brought together community members and went through three rounds of concept development.
Community members from each key stakeholder group spent time in the existing gallery and then shared thoughts on what the new space could look like.
DMNS ran focus groups to specifically talk about a popular exhibit component: the Mars Diorama!
Using information from rounds 1 + 2, the team worked with their design firm to create 12 concept boards reflecting big ideas that could shape the direction of the new exhibit.
JUL 2017 - JUL 2019
In the Design Phase the team explored gallery design, virtual reality experience testing and they even prototyped a few experiences!
Community members were asked to review different activity and experience ideas for the new exhibition and identify those that were of most interest to them, from there, they were iterated on and presented for feedback several times. Many times stakeholder feedback led directly to decisions around the components that would end up in the gallery.
Not only did the community members help with the creative direction of the exhibit, they also were brought in on tough budget decisions such as cutting exhibit components!
The result of this collaborative journey? Outstanding experiences for visitors across the community and a feeling of being seen and heard by DMNS. On top of that, they also included elements in the gallery which would not have been incorporated without community input – check out the Fantasy Spaceship next time your in Denver. It is very popular with visitors of all backgrounds!
As with any ambitious, complex project with multiple stakeholders, DMNS encountered challenges along the way. The lessons emphasize two foundational elements to successful community collaboration projects: Transparency and Clarity.
Providing Process Updates are Key
A challenge that arose during the Space Odyssey project was making sure the right stakeholders were in the room at the right stages AND that they knew what they were trying to achieve at each stage.
At the beginning of the process, the Museum intentionally only spoke to the stakeholders that didn’t ‘live and breathe’ space everyday but they needed to make sure the subject matter experts were informed about the process so that they were ready and excited when DMNS needed to activate their expertise.
Set Clear Expectations
Another challenge was making sure the stakeholders engaging at each phase knew what the boundaries, expectations, and deliverables were meant to be.
So much of this work revolved around imagining the future and blue-sky thinking, so when it was time to move into phases for feedback or decision making, clearly communicating the shift in need was important.
Being clear about expectations can make everyone’s lives easier!
The original Space Exhibit had one component that was a HUGE hit with visitors and community members: The Crater Maker.
The problem? The Crater Maker was a massive component that required costly + time-intensive maintenance.
But instead of just unilaterally taking it off the table, the DMNS team shared the constraints and asked the stakeholder team how they might reimagine it within those constraints. The Crater Maker persists!
The Community Research + Collaboration team that led this work leveraged many different tools: interviews, focus groups, surveys, heat mapping, and workshop facilitation frameworks, among others. But there were two tools that really guided strategy: The Community Co-creation Spectrum and the Appreciative Inquiry Framework.
Community Co-Creation Spectrum
- Inform: A organization provides the community with information on a project
- Consult: The community provides one time or periodic feedback on a product, idea, decision
- Involve: An organization works directly with the community and communication flows both ways
- Collaborate: A organization partners with the community and the community influences decision-making, including the development of alternatives and identifying solutions
- Shared Power: Community members share power and responsibility in decision-making and in some cases will have final decision making power
Appreciative Inquiry Framework
The success of the Space Odyssey was built on meaningful, honest, and at times challenging conversations. DMNS leveraged a methodology called Appreciative Inquiry to guide their collaborative work with community. Appreciative Inquiry (AI) is an asset-based approach to engagement that uses open questions and dialogue to surface opportunities, big ideas, and strengths (in individuals and communities).
During the concept development phase of this project, DMNS would ask big open-ended questions like “What do you want to see in this exhibit?”
As a hypothetical example, if a community member replied “a roller coaster!”, an AI approach would help them see the possibilities embedded in that answer and not reject it out of hand. While they most likely would not build a roller coaster, what could they take from the experience of the roller coaster for that person and apply it to the design of the Space Odyssey? That is how they approached these early conversations!
Check out this beginner’s guide to Appreciative Inquiry!
You might be asking…
It’s a good question! DMNS is uniquely equipped to conduct these community research and collaboration projects because of their deep expertise, dedicated teams, and lived experiences.But in addition to doing this work everyday, they also help others learn how to do it – both at a local and national level. They know that not every team has the bandwidth, resources, or time to build in-depth community engagement strategies. They recommend starting small – think of a core question you have related to an exhibit, program, or another aspect of the visitor experience. This could be something like “how are people in my community currently connecting to nature?” Then, as a team, agree on one question you can ask in your community and leverage the daily interactions of people working on the project. The next time you see your mail carrier, are checking out at the grocery store, or are at your Wednesday night book club, ask, “Tell me about a time you recently felt connected to nature.”
We’d love to hear from you!
Do you have a powerful story of successful community engagement or collaboration you’d like to share? Or do you want to connect and learn more about community engagement resources and supports?
Reach out to your National Outreach Manager. They’d love to connect and share ideas!