Saturday, July 7, 2012

Explore Yellowstone: A Gateway Experience

Fishing at Lake Yellowstone

Museums often create and offer what they consider gateway experiences. These are experiences that open doors to a museum and its collections, to foundational ideas, or to new places and adventures. Explore Yellowstone at the Museum of the Rockies (MOR) in Bozeman (MT) is a gateway experience for children and adults to the Museum and to Yellowstone National Park (WY) about 100 miles south.

The need for more space for young children and families was identified during MOR’s strategic planning process. In addition to member families expressing an interest in more spaces for young children throughout the museum, MOR recognized an opportunity to better serve families in the Gallatin Valley as well. A new space created out of a loft gallery for art on the museum’s mezzanine level was selected to replace a smaller existing children’s play space. In 2006 serious exhibit planning began. A collaborative process involved initial design work by Lexington Design, content and interpretive work with the National Park Service at Yellowstone Park, and an in-house education, design and fabrication team. The re-conceptualized space for infants through children eight-year olds opened in June 2010.

Explore Yellowstone’s focus on the science and natural wonders of Yellowstone Park and the Northern Rocky Mountains is engaging to children, respectful of them, and interesting to adults. Knowledge of both science and young children is well balanced. A strong sense of place grounds the exhibit. Areas inspired by the region and made famous by the Park invite children to explore, engage, and make connections. A skillful mix of experience and play affords a range of learning experiences. Authenticity and accuracy are delivered with a knowing touch. Solid content is always present, supporting the experience without driving it. When used, text covers content concisely and in intriguing ways, for instance explaining mudpots and cooking fish on geysers.

Immersive Experiences, Connected Play
Designers have created immersive experiences rather than designing immersive environments in the exhibit’s Campsite, Fishing Bridge, Lodge, iconic Geyser Basin, Fire Tower, and Yellowstone Grand Canyon. In immersive experiences, there is just enough design and detail to suggest a time and place, perhaps a season or time of day. Internal relationships are kept in tact, accurate, and reinforced by structures, materials, and features. Context supports the learner and visitor experience–the direct, social, emotional, physical, and cognitive engagement in a situation or setting.

Bringing smell to the scenic landscape
Explore Yellowstone does this with design restraint, realism, authenticity, and a high regard for sensory cues to establish a sense of place. Animal sounds come from trees; smells of a forest fire can be released near the Fire Tower. The essence of a park lodge comes from pine log walls, rustic furniture, and a stone fireplace that feels massive to young children.

Painted wall murals for each area are specific scenes in the Yellowstone area. The campsite sits against a lodge pole pine forest. A child fishing in front of the mural of Yellowstone Lake catches cutthroat trout found along the shore. In addition to choosing views for scenic cues that inspire play and conversation, staff considered MOR’s strengths in realism and the information and stories embedded in each view to support staff facilitation.

The areas might seem sparse or incomplete if they did not work naturally together and were not layered with props. Connected play activities build on one another extending in many directions. A map orients visitors to Explore Yellowstone where they can pick up a backpack and head off to the Campsite, Fishing Bridge,  Lodge,  Geyser Basin,  Fire Tower, or Yellowstone Grand Canyon.

A child moves back-and-forth between the campsite and fishing bridge, catching a fish, measuring it, and cooking it. Another child catches a fish and feeds it to the eagle in the nest. In one encounter observed by staff, a boy was fishing on the bridge and was approached by a girl wearing a ranger’s vest. She asked him for his fishing license which he could not produce. She suggested they step over to the nearby fishing license station and fill out a license which they did.

Props that are relevant, plentiful, and at varying scales also support and extend play across several Yellowstone areas. A mother and son were setting up camp around the tent, arranging the mess kit, backpack stove, and food. Some of the same food was later being cooked atop the 1920's stove to serve guests at the Lodge.

Connected play experiences
In the Lodge, a 5-year old declares, “I don’t know when I’ll ever be done cooking,” as she removes a pan from the impressive stove. This is just one delightful snippet from her much longer dialogue about cooking and serving a meal for the crowd gathered around the table. This crowd included a three or four year old girl in a firefighter outfit eating a carrot, the chef, backpacker, and a real mom and dad.

Two areas, the Fire Tower and Magma have relatively few interactives and don’t receive comparable levels and types of interactions other areas do. Working with an education professor at Montana State University, Explore Yellowstone staff is looking at the goals of each area to show how children interact with one area compared to another. Remediation is the intended next step.

Getting Geysers Right
Every project has technical and content challenges to manage. Explore Yellowstone had several unusual ones that it navigated well. Designing a geyser presented several challenges.

The exhibit team’s first geyser challenge was to design and fabricate a feature that was not only identifiable as a geyser, but also worked without water because of MOR's collections. A second challenge was a convincing geyser that goes off several times a day without scaring toddlers. A third challenge was explaining geysers to toddlers since “super-heated” is not a concept familiar to toddlers or preschoolers. This last challenge was addressed through an exchange between lead interpreters at Yellowstone Park and Explore Yellowstone staff. Eventually all agreed that “boiling macaroni and cheese” to describe the boiling water under Yellowstone would work for both young children and geysers.

A quiet geyser from 10-noon
According to Angie Weikert, Education Director, Early and Elementary, meeting the first two challenges produced a lively design process. The geyser was designed to start with a low rumbling. A fan inflated a balloon-shaped geyser; the rumble continued in a low vibration. This was a very successful event with the geyser going off several times a day. The sounds of the geyser, however, were a bit too authentic for toddlers and preschoolers. Staff heard children scream and run out crying. After talking with parents, staff determined that the surprise, duration, and sound were scary. The Museum’s website now carries this message: "There are no geyser eruptions in the Center between the hours of 10-Noon daily. This is in consideration of visiting families with small children who may be sensitive to the noise.”

A new twist on Yellowstone wildlife
Yellowstone Park is a mountain wild land, home to grizzly bears, wolves, and herds of bison and elk. Because animals are well loved and engaging, Explore Yellowstone would also need to be home to animals. Exhibit planners made an interesting choice in deciding how to represent about a dozen animals, such as a swan, wildcat, and bison. Animals are fabricated from recycled objects. While this solution may sound strange particularly in a science and nature museum, it addresses a number of audience, experiential, and content considerations.

Children inevitably ask whether an animal is "real.” Answering whether a stuffed bear is real is tricky. When real objects are assembled to represent an animal, however, the answer is one a child can grasp: the animal is not real, but the objects–that guitar, brushes, and bowl–are. At the same time, the sculptures are able to accurately portray animals in size, positions, and settings. Finally, children want to touch animals. Allowing them to touch these artful assemblies of everyday objects avoids teaching them that they can approach live animals in the Park.

Explore Yellowstone works on many levels. Children are highly engaged in place-based explorations of the science and natural wonders of Yellowstone Park.  Parents and grandparents get into the act and extend children’s play. Conversations are long and lively. The layered immersive experiences, connected contexts, ample props, and scenic backdrops work together to support the kind of playful exploration museums, educators, parents, and children value.

As a place that values young families, Explore Yellowstone becomes a gateway experience to the Museum of the Rockies. By complementing the National Park Service in areas where it excels, MOR serves as a gateway experience to Yellowstone Park.

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