Inventing an Exhibition

At the Lemelson Center we often talk about how we need to “live our mission” and “be innovative” in our work. So not only do we study invention and innovation, but also we apply inventive and innovative approaches to our research and outreach activities. We aim to be creative, solve problems, take risks, practice flexibility, share ideas and communicate clearly, be interdisciplinary, and collaborate well, always striving to do things as a team in new and different ways. In the larger educational world these approaches are among the 21st Century Skills being promoted to help today’s youth become the inventors and innovators of tomorrow.

As the project director for the Center’s Places of Invention exhibition, I am struck by how much the exhibition development process uses those invention skills and mirrors the invention process generally. For the Center’s Spark!Lab we have distilled the invention process into a series of phrases, which are featured in our Inventors’ Notebook—Think It, Explore It, Sketch It, Create It, Try It, Tweak It, and Sell It. These also happen to be key steps along the path we are traveling to create the Places of Invention exhibition for 2015.

Developing museum exhibitions is a more time-consuming and complex process than most people would probably think, and the Places of Invention (POI) exhibition certainly has a longer history than most. The moment of conception, at least in terms of Lemelson Center scholarship, really began with our first symposium, “The Inventor and the Innovative Society,” back in 1995. As the Center grew and evolved, we continued to research inventors and innovators, study the invention process, and examine the relevance of place and culture, which led to the 2005 “Cultures of Innovation” conference at the National Museum of American History.

In 2007 the Center hosted the first Lemelson Institute at which “an interdisciplinary group of scholars and practitioners met at the Lemelson Archives on the shore of Lake Tahoe to examine the relationship between physical spaces and creativity. What is it about a particular place that excites a creative mind and makes it a ‘place of invention?’ How do creative people shape the spaces in which they work? What combinations of elements make one place a hotbed of innovation while a similar place may founder? These questions and many more were discussed at the first Lemelson Institute through case studies of creative people, new and existing spaces, and innovative regions.”[i] The resulting Institute report provoked us to decide that the topic could be further explored and creatively disseminated to a wider audience through a family-friendly exhibition in the Lemelson Hall of Invention at NMAH.

In 2009, the Lemelson Center’s POI team, with assistance from grant writer Carol Inman and museum evaluator Randi Korn, developed our initial exhibition concept into a National Science Foundation grant proposal, which was thankfully awarded in September 2010. This funding allowed us to move onward from “Think It” to “Explore It”—we could hire a museum evaluation firm and an exhibition design firm to help us develop our intellectual and historical content into an interactive and hopefully highly engaging physical exhibition. During summer and fall 2011 we worked with Randi Korn and Associates, Inc. to conduct front-end evaluation with museum visitors about the POI exhibition concept and initial content ideas.

Finding, reviewing, selecting, and contracting an exhibition design firm took place over about a six-month period. In March 2012 we officially hired Roto to help us with what the Smithsonian calls the “10% design phase” of an exhibition project. During this stage of the collaborative process, the Lemelson Center/NMAH team and the Roto team are working together closely to develop the exhibition content areas and interactive components, discuss possible objects, images, and tone and voice of the exhibition text, and create floor plan options. These current activities constitute the “Sketch It” and the beginning of the “Create It” steps of the invention path.

When the 10% design phase ends in September 2012, we will be ready and eager to move onward and upward through the “Create It,” “Try It,” and “Tweak It” steps during 2012–2014. We hope you will join us as we travel along this path. When the final product is ready to go on the market, as it were, we certainly hope it will attract and serve a diverse array of excited museum visitors when NMAH’s West Exhibition Wing reopens in 2015. Stay tuned to this blog for more reports on the exhibition invention process between now and then!


[i] Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation, Places of Invention: The First Lemelson Institute (August 16-18, 2007): p. 2.

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