Exhibit Design at The Tech Museum of Innovation

By Norman Chan

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the exhibits at the Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose.

Some time ago on the podcast, I mentioned how unimpressed I was the last time I went to the Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose. I'm a big fan of visiting science and technology museums in every new city I visit (The Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, OMSI in Portland, and EMP Museum in Seattle are a few of my favorites), but have noticed that some of these museums share similar (and occasionally dated) exhibits. San Francisco's Exploratorium was one of the nation's first interactive science museums, and its exhibit designers published "cookbooks" for other science museums that followed to build their own exhibits. That lead to many of these museums opening up galleries that shared similar exhibit concepts: model planes to illustrate flight dynamics or a large-scale model of a DNA double-helix, for example. That's what I remembered of The Tech when I went there back in high school.

That's why I was extremely impressed when I revisited it last summer and again this past weekend (in part for the special Star Wars travelling exhibition). Exhibit prototyper Dan Streelman, a reader of Tested, invited me down to the museum last year to show me what he and his team of exhibit designers have been working on. They've built out a large workshop space, dubbed the Tech Studio, where prototypers fabricate new exhibits in clear view of visitors, using the latest in CNC machines. There's nothing that gets both kids and adults excited faster than a 3D printer at work, Dan told me.

Because the exhibits are designed and built in-house, it doesn't take long for them to make their way from a CAD program to the museum floor. When I visited, Dan was working on prototyping a concept called "Social Robots"--a custom modular robotics system that lets visits build their own robots and learn the basics of circuits and programming. When I came by again this past weekend, there were dozens of parents and their kids building these robots, clearly engaged with the exhibit. These visitors are getting pretty cutting-edge technology to play with, not exhibits designed decades ago. And The Tech is filled with plenty of these projects, like Google's Liquid Galaxy Project, Kinect-activated LED walls, and awesome displays showing the guts of robot toys like the Pleo and Furby.

So I humbly take back my dismissal of The Tech--it's definitely on my list of places to recommend for anyone new to the Bay Area. And thanks to Dan for reaching out to show me their modern approach to designing exhibits for today's science geeks. I took a few photos of my visit there, which you can find below.