Living our mission

You know the nugget of writing wisdom, “Show, don’t tell” ? It can apply to museums, too: live your mission, don’t just talk about it.

At the National Museum of American History, the Lemelson Center furthers the museum's mission to (among many things) “create opportunities for learning, stimulate imaginations, and present challenging ideas about our country’s past.” Enhancing the learning experience, particularly around invention and innovation, is the Lemelson Center’s reason for being.

But in planning exhibitions and programs, how might the Lemelson Center challenge and inspire itself the way it tries to challenge and inspire museumgoers? In addition to studying inventive thought, how might the Center model it?

With these questions in mind, the Center launched an adventurous, collaborative, design project with The Tech Virtual at The Tech Museum in California. (You may have read about the project last month on the Around the Mall blog.) The project, which runs until June 30th, represents an experimental, participatory method of exhibition development—and the Lemelson Center’s first foray into virtual prototyping.

Screenshot from The Tech Virtual prototyping space devoted to Lemelson Center design challenges
Amanda’s avatar visits The Tech Virtual prototyping space devoted to the Lemelson Center’s challenges.

Our project host and partner, The Tech Virtual, seeks to broaden the way exhibition content is created, tested, and shared by learning centers, museums, and cultural institutions around the world.

The Lemelson Center’s Tech Virtual design challenges invite anyone who is interested to suggest solutions that actually address a challenge many institutions face: how to convey a complicated topic in an interactive way. In this case, the topic is places of invention, both the physical workspaces where invention happens, and larger communities or regions that nurture inventive people and activities. The Center is interested in how physical surroundings influence the creative process, and how communities may support or constrain innovation. The results from these challenges may inform the Center’s next exhibition on these topics.

Our design challenges provide three opportunities around the “places of invention” concept:

  1. to design an interactive, hands-on museum space;
  2. to design a collaborative, multi-person museum activity;
  3. and to model your own place of invention using the virtual building tools of Second Life, or other illustration techniques.

Screenshot from June 10 design review meet-up in The Tech Virtual prototyping space in Second Life_2
Amanda’s avatar checks out Second Life contributions to our design challenges.

Submissions combine written descriptions with hand-drawn sketches, digital images, virtual models in The Tech’s Second Life prototyping space, and other illustration techniques. Second Life is a 3D virtual world—downloadable for free online—that offers a gathering place for people to interact, learn, have fun, and create. Beyond its recreational value, Second Life can be a useful prototyping tool, especially for institutions with limited budgets and capacity to build and test every concept in the real world. Second Life enables the kind of rapid building, testing, and feedback that can be enormously time-consuming and expensive in the real world.

Screenshot from May 27 design review meet-up in The Tech Virtual prototyping space in Second Life
 A screenshot of the weekly virtual review meeting Amanda runs weekly in Second Life where contributors can get feedback on their submissions.

Not everyone wants to download or use Second Life, though, and you certainly don’t have to in order to contribute to the Lemelson Center design challenges. And while the Center is exploring some design concepts in a virtual world, the exhibition itself will be built in the real world, at the National Museum of American History. The Tech Virtual provides one way of extending conversations about creative environments—and one way for the Center to model the kind of inventive thinking it seeks to inspire in others.

I hope you’ll sign up to respond to any or all of the Lemelson Center’s Tech Virtual design challenges by June 30th! To get involved, simply click the “View projects and start your own” link below each challenge.

Amanda Murray is Project Assistant for the Lemelson Center. Her avatar’s name is Demanda Batista.

DEADLINE EXTENDED! Contributions to our “Places of Invention” design challenges with The Tech Virtual can be submitted until SUNDAY, JULY 18. More info