The Museum's director of exhibits, Mike Horvath, details the process of imagining and creating an exhibit and how it can lead to all kinds of fascinating situations!

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A guest exploring the recent Changing Landscapes exhibit.


ERIC: From the Museum of Science in Boston, this is Pulsar, a podcast where we seek answers to the most frequent questions we've ever gotten from our visitors. I'm your host, Eric. And one of the things that makes the Museum the museum is our exhibits. Nearly all of the museum's exhibits are built right here by our own team. The most recent example is Changing Landscapes, an immersive experience that gives visitors an up-close look at several world heritage sites that are currently threatened by different effects of climate change. With three wings full of life-sized dinosaurs, living ice walls, water-based engineering challenges, and more, tt takes a huge team to bring museum exhibits from dream to reality. And visitors often ask: who is that team? My guest today is Mike Horvath, the Senior Director of Exhibits here at the Museum of Science. Thanks for joining me, Mike. I know you've been here for a while, how many years is it for you?

MIKE: I'm in my I think 26th year. So I started as an intern, sort of worked a long time here as an exhibition designer and lead now, I think, five teams: the exhibit design team, the fabrication and interactive media team, the technical design team, and then also tour our temporary exhibits. So we have two Pixar exhibitions that are traveling the world. I had the pleasure to design both of those and sort of lead those projects, which was a lot of fun, and maybe an episode in the future.

ERIC: I'm sure that we can talk all about just the Pixar exhibit, that was the big one. In the last like decade, since I've been here, that we still get updates every once in a while on where it is and pictures of our staff, you know, installing it with the different plugs and stuff in Germany and Japan. So our question today is who creates the exhibits, basically, and I knew to split it into a bunch of different parts, because, like you said, there are a number of different teams. But the very start is just figuring out the topic, what the exhibit will be about.

MIKE: That isn't as sort of simple as, hey, let's do this, you know. It relies on a need, both in the community or the field, or a content hole on our floor. Or, hey, this would just be a really great thing that people will be interested in. Once we have sort of the concept, you know, coming up with like, this is the main idea that we think is really important that we want someone to leave with, these are the experience goals that we want. So like with Changing Landscapes, we did a lot of testing internally to see what was interesting to people. And then we also sort of looked at many different interactive modes out there and sort of said, hey, this sort of, I'm going to call it a fad of immersive rooms, like the Van Gogh room, we kind of melded those two things together and say 'there is no climate topic exhibit that's actually good, entertaining and marketable out there'. So let's try to take an immersive experience and sort of meld it with a climate topic exhibit and using the locations around the world as a way to tell those, and so, you know, I don't want to say give people you know, a spoon of sugar with their content. But sometimes you want to bury the downer, right? Everybody, you know, knows and people like I don't want to hear about COVID anymore. And I don't want to hear about climate change anymore. But both are actually still important for you to sort of think about.

ERIC: Someone might say, like, oh, no, a climate change exhibit on Venice. This is going to be a bummer. But it actually is, you know, learning all about the culture and how they've adapted and how they're going to adapt.

MIKE: Yeah, exactly. You know, we did an exhibition called New England Climate Stories. We told the stories of how climate is affecting animals, how they're adapting, how they're changing, how they're moving.

ERIC: So once you've got your topic and your goals for an exhibit, do you start to build stuff right away, like prototypes?

MIKE: We conceptualize, we do mock ups and prototypes and try to mock up as much as fast as we can. There's always conversation until you draw something, or always a debate in someone's mind what something's going to look like, right? So the sooner you draw it, the sooner you mock it up, you know, the sooner you get all your questions answered. So we're lucky here to have both a design team that does 3D, 2D, sort of environmental things. We have a content team that sort of researches, talks to the community, talks to scientists, you know, does their own research and development. We come together as a group with our technical design team and our builders to sort of think about, you know, what's possible. And it's definitely a give and take there to try to figure out oh, this is what we can do. You know, by the way, you have to keep this thing under 10 feet so we can travel. You know, traveling exhibits have their own special, you know, at some point halfway through you're like, I think we have too many trucks here, right? You don't want to have the thing you know, take up 40 trucks, right, because every truck costs money, every truck costs time, etc. So it's definitely a lot of fingers and trying to figure out how to do this. And then it's a lot of, I'll say, parameters and challenges along the way that you sort of have to keep in design in.

ERIC: Yeah, especially in a museum building. I mean, ours is a great example, it's kind of Frankensteined together over the course of 60 years. We keep adding buildings, we keep adding nooks and stuff. So I'm sure the parameters for what you need to do and not do when you're building a new exhibit in a specific space are a little bit unique.

MIKE: Yeah, and we're actively trying to architecturally renovate our spaces to make them more adaptable in the future. Anytime we hang something, you know, we have to scan the concrete beams. Our temporary gallery has a lot of vibrations. So when you're trying to project things, the HVAC system vibrates the floors, you know, when somebody jumps, they they move a projector, you know, things you're like, you know, we did it? Oh, no, we didn't do it, it actually doesn't look so great. You know, so we have to use, you know, vibration dampening mounts for our projectors, and there's lots of lots of work arounds, and then our visitors come in and break everything and then we try to fix or go back and re-engineer or re-prototype things.

ERIC: Yeah, because that's the, you know, not the last part. But towards the end, you have to make sure that once you have it, you know, beautiful. and you put it out there, that it's not going to break, on the first day, literally everything. We have sort of an open office plan here in our education wing. And there was a time a couple of weeks ago where I heard a bunch of banging. And so I looked out over, I'm upstairs. So I looked down and you were, you had some kind of box or something. And you just were banging it off a desk and a bunch of the exhibits team was kind of looking around, kind of confused. You threw it on the ground and somebody was like, 'what are you doing?', and you just kind of distractedly were like 'I'm being a visitor', and kicked it. And so that's really what you have to do, you have to kind of make it ready for battle.

MIKE: Yeah I have a little bit of a reputation in the shop, when someone says, 'hey, look at this', and then I just break it or snap it or move it or bend it, you know, but that's what people do. You know, there's an urban legend out there that someone overheard, you know, somebody in the restroom saying, 'what did you break today?', and the other boy goes, 'I broke this, this and this.' So I'm like, that's who our visitor is, right? It's the 12 year old boy. So I think the the 12 year old kid in me sort of comes out and in beats it up. That piece that I was testing was actually a sculpt for a large moai statue for our Rapa Nui Changing Landscape section. So we're trying to recreate a large moai model that, you know, visitors will be able to touch and take a photo with, but really sort of set the stage for it. But we wanted to make sure the finish coat was going to hold up to 10 years of of 12 year old fun.

ERIC: So it's important to test that out ourselves. But you also take prototypes and components still in the design stage, and you bring them out to the museum floor to test that out with visitors. Can you talk about that process?

MIKE: So I mentioned before we have a research and evaluation team and our teams, you know, sort of figure out 'hey, what do we need to test here? Do people understand the content? Do they understand the interface? Do we need to do hardened testing to make sure this thing lasts?' So any one of those three is a viable thing that we need to test here, but maybe you don't need to test all three of them at once. So we do a lot of paper prototyping, or fake, you know, we call it Wizard of Oz, you know, the man behind the curtain presses buttons. Rather than trying to program an entire computer interactive, it's easier to just sort of make a PowerPoint that has multiple options.

ERIC: And you mentioned earlier, to wrap up, that one of the most fun parts is when it's done, to promote it. I have heard a legend that we, for one of our most successful exhibits that traveled around, we had our Star Wars exhibit. Did you wear the Chewbacca suit to promote that?

MIKE: I did. You know, I'm a lifelong Boston Red Sox fan. And I actually had a nickname 'Chewbacca' in high school. And, you know, just was a huge Star Wars fan working on the project. It was a, what I thought, once in a lifetime, you know, exhibit at the time. I remember someone asking me, 'hey, what do you think about throwing out a pitch at Fenway dressed as Chewbacca?' And I was like, 'yeah, sure. Yeah.' It didn't take much convincing. So you know, we bought a really good costume. And one of the staff here actually groomed it and sort of fixed it because it was a little wild. It actually didn't look that great. It was very much a costume. And if you look at the other Chewbaccas out there, you know, there's a big difference between the suits that some of the fans have even made and what the suit was. But anyways, we went out, I practiced out behind the museum and practiced in the suit. Because, you know, this is my one time to throw a pitch right? I wanted it to be a strike and and make the best of it. The bigger story, my wife, we had our first our first baby and she was in the hospital and it was a big debate whether or not I was going to be able to do it or not, and I told her, I said, 'hey, you know, we may be able to have another child, but I don't think I'm going to be able to throw out another pitch as Chewbacca.' So you know, we ended up having another daughter and I haven't thrown out another pitch, either as Chewbacca or not. So I think I was right there. But yeah, I actually left the hospital, you know, it was the day the day before. Luckily, we had our daughter, everything was great, so I left to go throw a pitch out at at Fenway. It was like a dream, you know, being in a hot mask, little eyes, just imagine being out in the field, right? And it was just a strange, strange experience. I think the picture is pretty good. But the amazing part is, like, the photographs look amazing. So you know, if you Google the photographs and Fenway, they just looked really great. I'm a lefty. So there was a lot of controversy whether or not Chewbacca was a lefty. The Red Sox needed a left-handed relief pitcher at the time, I would have been happy to help. But yeah, it sort of went viral before that was a thing. So you know, there was something I think it was called Fark, or something. And actually, my kids hadn't really seen it yet. So last week, in fact, I pulled out the DVD that the team gave me. And it was on ESPN, it was on Regis and Kelly. And yeah, it got sort of nationally picked up and was in newspapers. It was actually in Sports Illustrated too. So I never would have made it for for athletics, but I made it as as Chewbacca, which is kind of cool. And since then, you know, Star Wars events at ballparks and sporting events have become a thing. So I don't know. Yeah, maybe ahead of our time.

ERIC: And I'm sure it drove a lot of people to actually come and check out the Star Wars exhibit that we had. All right, Mike, thanks so much for telling me all about who creates the exhibits here at the museum.

MIKE: Yeah, thanks, Eric, it was a pleasure.

ERIC: On your next visit to the Museum of Science, be sure to check out Changing Landscapes. It'll be here until Fall of 2024. After that, check ahead of your visit to find out what new exhibits have just opened. And while you're home, visit for a look at one of our most famous exhibits that is still traveling the world today. I've been your host, Eric. Thanks for listening to my podcast, and never stop asking questions.

If you liked this episode, be sure to check out:
How Did Your Triceratops Get To The Museum?

Why Does the Museum of Science Have Monkeys?

What's Inside Your Van de Graaff Generator?


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