Gaining STEAM: a new turn for OMSI's Turbine Hall
Some organizations celebrate their 75th anniversary with cake, confetti and balloons.
The Oregon Museum of Science and Industry marked its three-quarters-of-a-century milestone this month by taking an outdated permanent exhibit and giving it a fresh, forward-looking twist.
With an eye toward keeping up with the changing times, the museum's Turbine Hall recently underwent a significant transformation. While the hall kept its name, the 20 large steam engines once lined up along one wall have been reduced to a single example. The rest have been replaced by a new exhibit called the Center for Innovation that features a series of interactive activities focused on science, technology, engineering, art and math (STEAM).
It's the first time in about 15 years that the museum has created a new permanent exhibit, but museum staff said it was an update that was overdue.
The museum has always emphasized staying relevant concerning technology and science, and OMSI staff realized that the components of STEAM are fast becoming part of how almost every job will be done in the future. But the museum wanted to take that concept a step further for the exhibit, showing how STEAM-related jobs allow people to create and design solutions to improve communities and the lives of people who live there.
Love Centerwall, OMSI's vice president of development, admits the approach is an unusual way for OMSI to think about programming but adds that a willingness to step in a new direction has become the Portland museum's signature style.
"OMSI has been a leading player in the science museum world for a long time, and this is definitely another step," Centerwall told the Business Tribune. "A lot of science museums around the world are looking at this project because it is really innovative. It's a brand new way of thinking about what science is and does.
"I think a lot of museums are doing a similar thing, but not to this scale. They're not making it their main feature."
Coming of age
OMSI has been in its current location on Water Street in Portland's Central Eastside Industrial District since 1992 and traces its official start back to 1944 when the Oregon Museum Foundation was formed.
However, the idea of creating a museum dedicated to science in Portland goes back to 1896. That's when naturalist C. Hart Merriam, after seeing a temporary exhibit of natural history specimens in Portland's City Hall, called on residents of the city to create a permanent place to showcase the state's natural resources.
The result of that challenge was the creation of a City Hall museum that opened in 1906 with items from local donors. The museum was a hit, but in the 1930s, the exhibit items were stuck in storage to meet the city's need for more office space. An effort around that time to start a more formal museum in Portland dedicated to natural history ran out of steam once the Great Depression hit
The effort gained new energy in 1938, and picked up more support six years later when the newly formed Oregon Museum Foundation organized a natural history display at the Portland Hotel. Three years later, a businessman named Ralph Lloyd offered the foundation the opportunity to set up a temporary museum in a house he owned on Northeast Hassalo Street. The resulting museum was dubbed the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry and soon added a domed building that served as the first planetarium in the Pacific Northwest.
The Hassalo Street museum was a hit. Annual attendance at the museum reached 25,000 visitors by 1955. When the house being used was slated for demolition, however, the museum had to find a new location. Portland city councilors set up a plan to allow OMSI to lease land in Washington Park for $1 per year, and a group of business and education leaders set out to raise money to construct a museum building on the site. In a single day in August 1957, more than 400 volunteer union bricklayers and hod carriers , a worker carrying supplies for bricklayers, laid 102,000 bricks for the new museum, which opened about one year later.
By the mid-1980s, OMSI found itself looking once again for a new home as annual attendance grew to 600,000 people per year, outpacing the Washington Park building's capacity. Intending to create a structure that would be able to accommodate the technology of the time, plans called for a state-of-the-art science center, a 315-seat dome-screen OMNIMAX theater, and 200-seat planetarium.
In just five years, a campaign raised $32 million, allowing construction to start on a 17-acre site on the east side of the Willamette River donated to OMSI by Portland General Electric. By retaining the smokestack and turbine buildings of a sawdust-fired, power-generation plant that sat on the property, OMSI was able to create a 219,000-square-foot museum building that was a true testament to its mission to represent the past, present and future of science, technology and industry.
Since opening in its current location, OMSI has become globally recognized as one of the top science centers in the United States, treating more than 1 million visitors per year to innovative on-site exhibits and off-site educational programs. It's that reputation the museum is looking to add upon with the recent update of the Turbine Hall exhibit.
The new Center for Innovation exhibit is a series of exhibit bays made possible by a $6.5 million campaign that also provided money to upgrade the museum's planetarium.
Dangermond Keane Architecture and Felt Hat served as designers for the Center for Innovation exhibit, which was built by Walsh Construction. The current stations in the exhibit also were created through partnerships with local companies with a connection to STEAM. In addition to providing financial support to create the exhibits, the companies helped come up with ideas for interactive activities.
Vernier Software and Technology, a Beaverton-based company, for example, helped create a bay that features both technical and creative activities. An area outfitted with a wall board invites museum visitors to design a space for someone based on filling in three blanks in a sentence and then drawing a picture that illustrates the resulting idea. One visitor, for example, decided to create a park where robots could play. The station features flip cards to help spur imaginations, colored pencils, and magnets to post completed artwork.
A second component features six stations with iPad-like screens that allow visitors to design rooms in a house by touching and dragging furniture from a sidebar to a floor plan.
While the stations encourage creativity and put kids in touch with technology through problem-solving with design, they also focus on an area that's new for OMSI and its exhibits — using STEAM to help others and support the concept of community.
That focus is in full force on another stop at the Center for Innovation — a series of stations hosted by Union Pacific that teach visitors about earthquakes while using STEAM-focused activities in scenarios to help friends and families stay safe.
An oversized computer game on the wall, for example, encourages visitors to select, from a swirling stream of colorful icons, the ones that contain cans of food and bottles of water to build earthquake relief kits for family members and friends. Another station invites guests to build a tower out of plastic straws and then subject it to the motions of a shake table, intending to see if the structure is strong enough to protect people on one of the floors.
"Instead of focusing on building a tower that won't fall down, it's how do we keep a family on the sixth floor of that tower safe during an earthquake," John Farmer, the museum's communications and marketing manager, said. "The design challenges become person-centered as opposed to project-centered."
The Center for Innovation program has only been in place since the beginning of November, but it already appears to be a hit. Laughter and excited squeals fill the hall as kids dart back and forth, talking into tubes that morph their words into strange sounds and riding out simulated earthquakes in a revamped Epicenter exhibit.
Looks can be deceiving, though, so the museum's in-house evaluation team is keeping a careful watch over the new programming. They're focusing first on whether the exhibit and its stations are working as intended.
"We're building things to create a very specific experience," Andrew Haight, OMSI's director of guest experience, told the Business Tribune. "The system of tubes that modulate voices, that's a very unique thing. You don't just go on Amazon and order one of them. So just getting the technology in place takes a unique effort."
The in-house team also needs to evaluate the effectiveness of the exhibit. They'll interview visitors and even use a stopwatch to time how long someone spends at each station. The typical length of stay for a regular activity that would be found at any science museum, for example, is between 30 seconds and one minute, according to Haight
"What we've seen since rolling out the Center for Innovation exhibits is that people are spending 12, 14, 16 minutes," he said. "The hold time is significantly longer."
Sometimes, though, the best tool for evaluating the success of an exhibit is watching the older visitors.
"We know we've done an exhibit right when the kids are like, 'Mom, let's go.'" Centerwall said.
A wind of change
The bays of the Center for Innovation are a work in progress, Farmer said. Evaluating the effectiveness of individual activities is just part of the refining process.
Within the next week, the headlines on the walls above each bay will be moved around to determine if the new positions better communicate what Farmer calls the exhibit's narrative. The walls are actually sheet metal covered by green felt. The letters are stuck on with magnets.
"We're constantly adjusting and changing," Farmer said. "We're just continually tinkering and trying new ways to engage with the public."
The focus of the three or four bays that make up the Center for Innovation also will change over time, by deliberate design. The museum actively is looking for more companies interested in helping come up with STEAM-related ideas for design challenges and activities that can be connected to careers and community.
"The Center for Innovation is a platform for ideas and concepts and experiences," Centerwall said. "We want the business community to think of this as a platform to talk about what they care about and to engage OMSI's audience and help the community to become problem solvers."
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