Friday, May 27, 2011

I Want Your Job! Media Producer, American Museum of Natural History

Mindy Weisberger recently gave us the inside scoop on the Museum of Natural History’s new show—Think BIGGEST: The World’s Largest Dinosaurs—that you can still read right here. It left us wanting to know more! For instance, what’s it like to be a producer with the media team in the Exhibitions Department at the Museum of Natural History? That’s the museum in New York City with (among other treasures) the extraordinary dinosaur skeletons, a whale suspended from the ceiling, and recently revamped planetarium.

We sat down with Mindy to find out what a week in her life is really like. The Natural History Museum is a favorite destination for people from all over the world, but children especially find an accessible, welcoming experience that never talks down to them. We wanted to find out how Mindy (a parent herself) and the rest of her department manage to find the “sweet spots” that keep patrons of all ages engaged and excited.

Mindy’s department creates temporary exhibits addressing diverse scientific topics. New discoveries in paleontology, the evolution and functionality of the human brain, and the race to discover the South Pole are a few recent examples of exhibits where Mindy’s group contributed to the creation of engaging interactive exhibition materials. She works with writers, exhibit designers, graphic designers and artists who create models, casts, and dioramas. They all work under the scientific direction of AMNH curators.

Media Darlings: How do you ensure that content can be enjoyed by the maximum number of museum goers?
Mindy Weisberger: We keep the media activities and narratives focused and straightforward, with a clearly defined goal or conclusion. That makes it more likely that visitors will not only appreciate and understand the content no matter what their age or background, but will retain the information when they leave the exhibit. From a physical standpoint, we accommodate large numbers of visitors with multi-user interactives, multiple stations of single-user experiences, and ample seating and/or standing room for video displays.

MD: How do you address the needs of children in your creations?
MW: Even though exhibits often tackle complex subject matter, we have to make the science easily understandable for a range of ages. Children tend to naturally gravitate toward screens and interactives, so that makes the media team’s job easier! We design media to deliver content on several levels; even the youngest visitors should learn something from the experience. For example, a stacking game produced for the Brain exhibit challenges you to move blocks from one stand to another in the fewest possible moves. By playing this game—using forethought and planning—visitors as young as pre-schoolers can learn something about how their own brains work. Our more sophisticated computer interactives and videos reach younger kids through their visuals, while still providing appeal to older children and adults.

MD: What are some of your department’s/the museum’s educational goals?
MW: As media makers, our main objective is to communicate scientific content in a fun, entertaining way that engages people intellectually, physically, and emotionally. Our narrative videos, atmospheric installations, computer games and hands-on activities are designed to encourage visitors to interact with the science directly—we’ve found that participation greatly contributes to understanding the science. Exhibits should inform and educate, but we want visitors to leave with their curiosity fired up to learn even more—their visit should be like a window opening into a fascinating new world that they want to continue exploring on their own.

MD: How do you make the exhibits more accessible and fun for kids?
MW: Sometimes kids fly through an exhibit and hardly read anything at all, but they’ll certainly stop and look at every screen and try every game. And if they find it interesting, they’re more likely to read a label deck or graphic panel, spend a little more time looking at a fossil, or even look something up when they get home. Ideally, all the parts of an exhibit work together to make the science—whatever it is—more accessible, especially to kids, and ultimately more fun.

MD: You mentioned interactives. How important is interactivity in your department and in the exhibits?
MW: It’s absolutely essential! People love to DO things in an exhibit; an activity can make the science easier to understand. It can sometimes be difficult for visitors to connect to the science if it isn’t a topic they’re already interested in. Interaction puts aspects of the science in their hands, and suddenly it all becomes a little more accessible.

MD: Are there rules when it comes to creating support media for kids?
MW: When we create a media piece, part of the prototyping process is trying as hard as we can to break it. Kids can be very, very hard on exhibit media; since we know they won’t hold back, we need to make sure that everything we build is durable enough to withstand the abuse it’s going to get in many months of exhibit display. During this testing stage, we also check that buttons, joysticks, and other controllers can be easily and comfortably manipulated by little hands as well as big ones, and that heights and viewing angles allow children to experience the media without adult assistance.

MD: Who comes up the ideas for the different media associated with your exhibits?
MW: It’s a very collaborative process. All the groups in Exhibitions work together to figure out the best ways to present the main messages and the big stories. We propose media ideas based on the overall needs of the exhibit, but we also take into account what topics would best be represented by media, rather than, say, objects or graphics and text.

MD: What new technologies have you incorporated into exhibits?
MW: We have large and small-scale media interactives that respond to gesture or touch (screen-based and projections on walls and tabletops) as well as audio input; we’ve created multimedia displays that combine video, animation, lighting and sound delivery; we’re currently developing an augmented reality experience for an upcoming exhibit that will add media overlays to physical spaces and objects.

MD: What’s the most exciting “shoot” you’ve been on?
MW: For the exhibit “Dinosaurs: Ancient Fossils, New Discoveries,” I traveled to England to interview paleontologist John Hutchinson for a video on the biomechanics of T rex. He took us into the elephant enclosure at Whipsnade Zoo so we could shoot footage of running elephants; the zookeepers had them running right at us. Elephant locomotion was an important part of his research for determining how fast T rex might have been able to run.

Just for fun:

MD: What was your favorite t.v. show when you were a kid?

MW: I really enjoyed shows where the characters were in a band—The Archies, Josie and the Pussycats, The Banana Splits and The Monkees. When I got a little older, it was all science fiction—Star Trek, Space 1999, and Battlestar Galactica.

MD: What character would you like to be?
MW: Xena, Warrior Princess!

MD: What was the first book you remember really loving?
MW: Kay Thompson’s Eloise. She was a little brat, but such an interesting brat, and with a great imagination.

MD: Do you remember being read to as a child? Favorite book from that era?
MW: I think I did all my own reading from a very young age. I loved (still do, actually) The Story of Ferdinand; it’s a great book—and wonderfully illustrated—about a bull that preferred flowers to fighting.

MD: Favorite character from a t.v. show or cartoon?
MW: Buffy from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. One of the best female characters in the history of television, period.

MD: What’s in your dvd player right now? Your iPod?
MW: I’m halfway through Season 1 of Firefly. I’ve been listening to Wanda Jackson’s new album “The Party Ain’t Over”, Amy Rigby and Wreckless Eric’s “Two-Way Family Favorites,” and Amanda Palmer’s ukulele covers of Radiohead songs.

MD: What’s your favorite smart phone app?
MW: I love, love, love the photo app Hipstamatic. The lens, flash and film options deliver terrific images; I shoot with it every day. I barely use my iPhone’s regular camera anymore.

MD: Who’s your favorite animated character, show, or film?
MW: Gromit, of the Wallace and Gromit films. He’s pretty darn expressive for a claymation dog with no eyebrows.

MD: Thanks, Mindy!
MW: No problem.

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