Ever Wonder? from the California Science Center

...how your favorite exhibit got made?

August 05, 2020 California Science Center Season 1 Episode 4
Ever Wonder? from the California Science Center
...how your favorite exhibit got made?
Chapters
Ever Wonder? from the California Science Center
...how your favorite exhibit got made?
Aug 05, 2020 Season 1 Episode 4
California Science Center

For the last three episodes of this podcast, we’ve been taking you behind-the-scenes of the California Science Center to meet some of the people who design and develop exhibits. 

Many of you probably already love visiting science centers and museums. Odds are you have a favorite exhibit--something especially awe-inspiring or fun. Do you ever wonder how your favorite exhibit got made?

 In this episode, we talk to Kathy Marsailes, the senior exhibit designer at the California Science Center. She helps design and build all of the three-dimensional things--the exhibits themselves--that you actually touch or play with when you're visiting one of our galleries.

Have a question you've been wondering about? Send an email to everwonder@californiasciencecenter.org to tell us what you'd like to hear in future episodes.

Follow us on Twitter (@casciencecenter), Instagram (@californiasciencecenter), and Facebook (@californiasciencecenter).

Support the show (https://CaliforniaScienceCenter.org/support)

Show Notes Transcript

For the last three episodes of this podcast, we’ve been taking you behind-the-scenes of the California Science Center to meet some of the people who design and develop exhibits. 

Many of you probably already love visiting science centers and museums. Odds are you have a favorite exhibit--something especially awe-inspiring or fun. Do you ever wonder how your favorite exhibit got made?

 In this episode, we talk to Kathy Marsailes, the senior exhibit designer at the California Science Center. She helps design and build all of the three-dimensional things--the exhibits themselves--that you actually touch or play with when you're visiting one of our galleries.

Have a question you've been wondering about? Send an email to everwonder@californiasciencecenter.org to tell us what you'd like to hear in future episodes.

Follow us on Twitter (@casciencecenter), Instagram (@californiasciencecenter), and Facebook (@californiasciencecenter).

Support the show (https://CaliforniaScienceCenter.org/support)

Perry Roth-Johnson:

Hello, this is Ever Wonder? from the California Science Center. I'm Perry Roth Johnson. The last three episodes of this podcast, I've taken you behind the scenes of the California Science Center to meet some of the people who design and develop exhibits. If you haven't already heard those episodes, go check them out. Now, if you're listening to our show, I imagine many of you already love visiting science centers and museums. And I bet you have a favorite exhibit--something especially awe-inspiring or fun. For me, I'm a sucker for wind tunnels that I can walk into and pretend to be an airplane...but you probably have something different in mind. Do you ever wonder how your favorite exhibit got made? Well, today, I'm going to introduce you to Kathy Marsailes, the senior exhibit designer at the California Science Center. She helps design and build all of the three-dimensional things--the exhibits themselves--that you actually touch or play with when you're visiting one of our galleries. So Kathy, thanks for coming on. Welcome to the show.

Kathy Marsailes:

Thanks for having me.

Perry Roth-Johnson:

So you're the senior exhibit designer. And from what I understand, you work with all of the three-dimensional things that people interact with when they're playing with exhibits in the museum. And the other day, when we were talking, you told me a story about , um, I think it was the wave table in our Ecosystems gallery. Can you tell me the story behind that?

Kathy Marsailes:

It's shows that sometimes, the usual path for developing an exhibit, doesn't always get you there because maybe the concepts are more abstract and it's hard to , um, convert or , uh , communicate that in an interactive science exhibit. In that case, it was that , uh, the inner tidal zones along the coast are extreme zones. They have extremes of heat and dryness and pressure--the pressure of the waves coming in. And so, we had a discussion about, well, how can we let our guests feel the pressure? And there was talk of having a diaphragm filled with water that could press against them. Well, in trying to see if you could get an exhibit that would do that, it just wasn't feasible. It was moving a lot of water, which is always difficult in an exhibit. And in talking to the fabricator, it was, it was something that for, I'll say a limited budget--it was a decent budget--We couldn't really get there. And so we didn't know what to do. And I kept going into Chuck's office being fascinated with this oil and water little trinket. And it was a rectangular acrylic box that was sealed on all sides, filled with oil and water, and it had a little plastic dolphin in there that would ride the wave.

Perry Roth-Johnson:

Oh, cute.

Kathy Marsailes:

And I thought, this is so fascinating. Could we blow this up? And he was like, yeah, maybe we could. And it did convey some of the message in that it takes force to move that water when you're pushing on the handle. And also, you can see the wave action, you can kind of see what's going on. And so it didn't...the guests didn't really get to feel the pressure against them, but it , it conveyed some of the messages. And we were kind of desperate and it isn't perfect, but the outcome of it has been fairly successful in that I've seen guests kind of fascinated with it.

Perry Roth-Johnson:

Just for people who might not already know Dr. Chuck Kopczak, he's our curator for the Ecosystems gallery, a curator of life sciences. And so, paint me a picture of the final exhibit , uh , it's also kind of big rectangular prism box, but it's , it's got big handles on it. Kinda like a teeter-totter, right?

Kathy Marsailes:

Yes. It's like a giant aquarium with handles that you can push in each direction that create the wave movement. A part of the process was I thought I wanted to make a shape other than a rectangle. So I made it more of a bowl shape, but the prototype , uh, demonstrated that that was not the ideal shape, because the way it , it dampened the , um, the breaking of the waves. So the rectangular box was perfect. And so when you push on the handle, you, you see the waves. So, I'm saying it's oil and water, but it's, it's something like water. So one part is...

Perry Roth-Johnson:

It's kinda like a bluish liquid, right?

Kathy Marsailes:

...right, right. So you see the wave action clearly. And I think the message of that story is that inspiration for exhibits comes from many directions. It was just an unusual approach to exhibit development because we were up against a wall.

Perry Roth-Johnson:

I want to shift gears a little bit because you said, you know, this was a unique experience. You know, it's not the typical process we go through when we're developing and building exhibits. Um, but I think it touches on , on some of the things that like most people don't think about when they find out that you're a designer that works at a museum. Like, are there other things that people , uh, are surprised about when they ask you what you do and you tell them?

Kathy Marsailes:

I think people think designers are artists. And especially for an in-house designer, the role is very different. Your job is to make manifest the content that the institution wants to put forward. And , um, your other goal, another thing the institution wants as part of its mission is to make a fun, memorable experience and allow guests to explore. So you kind of have to push sometimes , uh , content specialists on that issue.

Perry Roth-Johnson:

But in the end, the goal is always like what we in the biz call, we want a good guest experience. Right?

Kathy Marsailes:

Yes! Right, that's right.

Perry Roth-Johnson:

And earlier you were, you were saying, you know, everyone, or a lot of people think designers are artists, but you really think of yourself more as like an engineer in some ways? Because you're trying to bring together all these different ideas from different people and different perspectives and reconcile them, right?

Kathy Marsailes:

Right, you're problem solving.

Perry Roth-Johnson:

So, honing in on this like good guest experience, like what are some of the things that you're trying to keep in mind and keep constant throughout developing an exhibition? Like , um , when we brought space shuttle Endeavour, right?

Kathy Marsailes:

First of all, it's the whole project seemed almost impossible. Decisions had to be made quickly, budgets were tight, and we were just moving. And it was interesting to see how the Science Center is like a mechanism that works together. Everybody had the vision and it just moved like, like one organism. It was beautiful to see. And when it opened, it was so funny to see. I thought, "Oh, we're getting the Endeavour." And then it turned into not just a citywide experience, it was this national experience. And my family, I don't even know if they knew what I did before. But when I worked on the Endeavour project, all of a sudden it was like, "Oh!" But that was just so interesting to see that process.

Perry Roth-Johnson:

How long did you have to work on this from when we got awarded the space shuttle until when we opened, was it like three months? Was it a year? Give me, give me a sense.

Kathy Marsailes:

All I know --it was in January of the year that we opened that they came to me about , uh , floor plans for exhibits within the pavilion. And what kind of infrastructure , uh , like electrical and , uh , such that they would need. And my recollection is , is that we didn't really start developing exhibits until May.

Perry Roth-Johnson:

And then you opened in October?

Kathy Marsailes:

And we opened in October. And then we decided we were going to have a queuing line through the changing gallery. And at first it was just going to be a line. Well, you know, us, right. Well, what are people going to do in line? Well we need exhibits ! So we started moving artifacts from Endeavour in there and developing a story and, and then it became , uh , an exhibit on its own. And there were AV components in that . Um, my role was to design the exhibits. So we were putting artifacts on display and I was designing kiosks for , um, video presentations and floor plans for the pavilion, stuff like that.

Perry Roth-Johnson:

One of the things in that queuing line, our Endeavour Together pre-show kind of gallery, is the space potty that we pulled out of Endeavour, right? And that , that has a video next to it that has some astronauts training, other astronauts, how to like sit properly on the potty and everything. So you helped build the, the exhibit around that to protect the artifact, but let people learn how it works?

Kathy Marsailes:

Yes. There's a psychological barrier when you have an artifact behind a piece of glass or acrylic. And so we wanted it out in the open, but people can't touch it. It's an artifact. So we wanted people close enough to see it and feel like they're really there and engaged with it, but not be able to touch it. And then I think there, there was, there are all these videos that are , um , available to the public from NASA. And that potty video--it's so funny. I know , I don't know. I think it's the mystery of space. That is the story of the mystery of space. How do you go? I don't know! But the kids love that. And so there was sort of a challenge, you know, creating interactive exhibits on a short timeline is almost impossible. There's just too many components and you don't have an opportunity to prototype things and we didn't have any money either. So we were trying to, how can we make this interactive in some way? And that's where we got to allow a guest to touch the actual , uh , space shuttle tires. And the potty--we've got a little step where they can step up and look inside. Not that there's anything in there, but the video describes , uh , how the astronauts train is that there's actually a camera inside the toilet. And then they can watch on a monitor if they're aiming right at it . The kids love it! They all stand around and laugh.

Perry Roth-Johnson:

Well, that that's really impressive. Because it sounds like within the span of a year, maybe even a little bit less, we had to be nimble enough to not only bring in this priceless national treasure of a space shuttle, but also design a nice guest experience around it. And you were thinking about how are we going to keep folks engaged while they're waiting in line to see this thing that they're really excited about? And so you put things like the tires and the space potty out , uh , while they're , while they're in the queuing line. Well, Kathy, it sounds like you've worked on a lot of cool projects, brought a lot of good experiences to our guests at the Science Center. Thanks for helping me kind of peel back the layers. You know, I think when people are playing with their favorite exhibit, they might not know that there's people like you behind it, you know, helping to create it. So thanks for coming on the show. I appreciate your time.

Kathy Marsailes:

Thank you very much. And, it's fun working with you.

Perry Roth-Johnson:

Thanks, Kathy. Well, that's our show, and thanks for listening! Until next time, keep wondering. Ever Wonder? from the California Science Center is produced by me, Perry Roth-Johnson, along with Jennifer Castillo. Liz Roth-Johnson is our editor. Theme music provided by Michael Nickolas and Pond5. We'll drop new episodes every other Wednesday. If you're a fan of the show, be sure to subscribe and leave us a rating or review, or tell a friend about us. Now, our doors may be closed, but our mission to inspire science learning in everyone continues! We're working hard to provide free educational resources online while maintaining essential operations like on-site animal care, and preparing for our reopening to the public. Join our mission by making a gift at californiasciencecenter.org/support.