by Eileen Campbell • February 14, 2017
SPS team members visiting a site investigate the possibilities.
The work of the Studio for Public Spaces is firmly rooted in the Exploratorium’s core philosophy of active, inquiry-based experiences that empower visitors to explore their world and build their own understanding. By presenting exhibits that allow users to engage with actual phenomena, we provide experiences that reveal physical and human nature.
Because the Studio works outdoors, in public spaces, the museum’s traditional focus on awareness and investigation is expanded, and the available palette of phenomena widens to include the built and natural environments and a rich array of civic and social behavior. The Exploratorium focuses visitors on real things they can experience first-hand. This emphasis on the surrounding world leads naturally, in outdoors work, to a focus on place: highlighting the elements that make a given place unique and helping people discover their relationship to that place.
In planning for place-focused learning, the site itself is both substrate—the environment in which our work happens—and subject—a potential topic of noticing and investigation. Accordingly, work in any new location needs to start with an evaluation of what’s available. What is the context of the place? Who is the audience? What is the potential raw material for inquiry and investigation?
We have developed a set of questions to ask about any site to inform an initial assessment. The results of the assessment then become fodder for planning the learning environment. With information in hand, we begin to decide: What elements of the site are best to focus on? What larger understanding can a collection of noticings and experiences evoke—what is the forest that these trees are part of? And then, what strategies can we deploy to help users develop their own sense of this place?
This assessment is focused on creating place-focused learning environments, rather than place-making. Although both efforts consider some of the same features of a given place—in particular, social patterns and physical features—place-making is more focused on how they affect usability, comfort, accessibility, and activation. (For example, see the assessment tool developed by the Project for Public Spaces.) Instead, this tool assesses a site’s potential for inquiry and learning. It is the first step in developing a communication strategy. In practice, both types of planning need to happen in coordination to create a unified public space: a comfortable, attractive environment that supports sociability, learning, and engagement, all with a deep connection to the particular place.
Evaluating a Place for Learning
1. If you asked users, “What is this place?” what would the answers include?
What is the general understanding of this place? These are the visitor’s starting places, where they begin their “constructivist” journeys. The answer will be different for different people, but it’s good to get a sense of the main definitions.
2. Who populates this place?
Every place has a mix of user groups, there for different purposes. Knowing who they are and why they’re there will influence the work we do, allowing for development that addresses people’s needs and interests, considers the social and political situations, and potentially engages the community in the development process.
3. Who are the nonhuman users?
As with the human users of a place, the plants and animals are inhabitants whose needs should be considered and subjects for investigation.
4. What natural geographic features and processes define this place?
Much of a place’s history and current use are influenced by its physical setting. What factors are important and visible?
5. What buildings and infrastructure are present?
The built environment provides physical clues to history, economics, sociocultural conditions, local aesthetics, and much more. Such elements can be avenues to investigate engineering, science, and design
6. What sensory experiences (beyond sight) are present?
Non-sight sensory experiences can be powerful avenues to awareness. What is available in this place? What can you hear, smell, feel, taste? What other senses, such as balance or motion, might be engaged?
7. What Exploratorium exhibits are already present? (special case for onsite projects)
The Exploratorium campus has a special subset of built objects: our exhibits and exhibit-like elements. Together, these constitute a learning collection and begin to communicate who we are as an institution. Anything we add builds on this existing ecosystem, whether by accident or by design.