Numbers in Nature is an interactive and immersive exhibit that was developed at the Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago (MSI), which reveals and explains the fascinating mathematical patterns that exist in nature in an entertaining and hands-on way for visitors of all ages.
“When we first started the process of creating Numbers in Nature, we spoke with a lot of guests who said they didn’t like math or were not good at it,” remembers Anne Rashford, director of special exhibitions and business partnerships at MSI. “We wanted to make math approachable by highlighting how numbers and patterns surround us, from the leaves that grow on trees to the amazingly intricate colonies ants create underground.”
The MSI mission is to “inspire the inventive genius in everyone,” so when MSI staff spoke with colleagues at museums across the country and found that they too shared an interest in highlighting math subjects within their institutions, the idea of creating a traveling version of the exhibit was cemented. By offering Numbers in Nature as a traveling exhibit, guests would have the opportunity to see the world through a completely different, STEM-focused lens without having to make the trip to a different state.
MSI had created other traveling exhibitions, including Robot Revolution, which made stops at the Museum of Nature & Science in Denver as well as The Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, and returns to MSI in early 2018. When the original permanent Numbers in Nature exhibit was originally conceived, the possibility of a future traveling version was discussed with exhibition design firm Luci Creative.
The Luci Creative and partner fabrication firm Ravenswood Studio had done a number of traveling exhibits and went into the process of designing the permanent exhibit armed with that valuable experience. Knowing that there was a possibility that the layout would need to be adapted for multiple spaces, the Luci Creative team approached the permanent exhibit with the goal of creating flexible solutions. The design team even identified a variety of spaces the exhibit might travel to, assessing them for pain points in order to develop a systemic tactic for flexibility in their design.
The permanent exhibit is built with a lot of tensile structures and freestanding components as a result. “We knew from the beginning of our initial design that it may not happen, but if it did, the translation to a traveling setup would be minimally noticeable—if at all,” recalls Kevin Snow, creative director at Luci Creative. “That was our overarching goal, to provide the exact same experience.”
The two exhibits, designed and built by the same exact team of MSI, Luci Creative, Leviathan, Ravenswood Studio, Lightswitch and Harvest Moon Studio, are very comparable in size. The permanent exhibit occupies an 8,000-square-foot space, whereas the traveling one can adapt to areas from 7,000 to 10,000 square feet.
Adaptability for travel comes at a price, though: Traveling exhibits tend to be more expensive because of engineering changes to allow for at least five years of consistent building and dismantling and the creation of custom transportation crates. For Numbers in Nature, there were significant engineering changes that were needed, but the overall equipment could remain unchanged. The modular exhibit, which took nine months to build, ships in 60 crates and 25 large carts packed into six semi-trailer trucks.
Typically, museums rent an exhibit for three to six months and often they’re booked up for the first year or more before they are built. The permanent Numbers in Nature exhibit was convenient for interested museums to visit for a preview. For the Franklin Institute, MSI assisted by providing their Philadelphia colleagues with the blueprints of the exhibition, from mirror measurements and programs used for digital touch-screen elements, to the music playlist guests hear as they explore the entire exhibit. “As you can imagine, each museum has its own unique space, so we assist throughout the process,” notes Rashford.
Numbers in Nature is organized into three major zones: an immersive theater, a pattern maze and a pattern discovery area. The immersive theater is a four-minute-long, large-format film by Leviathan that introduces the universality of mathematical patterns like fractals, spirals, the Golden Ratio and Voronoi patterns in nature, art and architecture. The centerpiece of the exhibit is an 1,800-square-foot mirror maze built on a system of equilateral triangles that combines the geometric patterning characteristics of repetition, symmetry and tessellation. The pattern discovery area invites visitors to spot the patterns in the world around them using interactive tools like a Golden Ratio magic mirror, 3-D models and musical instruments. (More on the permanent exhibit.)
Some of the difficulty in recreating the exhibit was that the traveling version had to be entirely self-contained and freestanding in addition to being robust enough to withstand frequent reassembly. The Luci Creative-Ravenswood Studio and MSI teams worked on these logistics to ensure all the components worked and the experience remained essentially the same as the permanent exhibit.
The team began by exploring what parts of the permanent exhibit could be easily replicated in the traveling exhibit and then what elements needed adjustment in terms of materials, size or setup to account for the durability and safety features. For example, the room that houses the permanent exhibit at MSI has 20-foot-high ceilings and for the traveling exhibit they needed to redesign the vertical components to accommodate standard ceiling heights and door widths. Graphic elements, now freestanding, required backlighting for a more powerful effect and additional signage was created to accommodate different locations.
The entire exhibit was fabricated for quick set-up and compact storage, as touring museum exhibits usually allow for about two weeks for setup and one for teardown. The bases of all of the freestanding units were constructed with structural forklift pockets built in, so they could be positioned easily and lifted in and out of crates. Custom-printed tensile fabric structures, often used at trade shows due to their compact nature when disassembled and ease of assembly, were created as masking panels to help create traffic patterns or to group parts of the exhibit.
“We made bases of units heavier, to help with ballast and support, while making things higher up lighter, to make installation easier,” explains Glenn Ragaishis, the director of production at Ravenswood Studio. “The upper section of the petal pods was changed from steel to aluminum for just this reason.” They also re-designed the interactive components from being housed in an AV closet to being self-contained in modular pods that could be installed with minimal intervention.
The Vitruvian Man unit went from an LED display wall to a front projection and display cases were designed and built to stand side-by-side or back-to-back. Because it is formed from interlocking triangles but had to be able to be reconfigured to accommodate many different floor plans, the mirror maze presented the biggest challenge.
The maze is comprised of triangular platforms, columns, mirror panels and open archways. The touring version was built on identical triangular interlocking platforms that hold the maze together as well as contain the floor lighting and electrical components. “Tempered glass mirrors were used, for their strength,” clarifies Ragaishis. “An additional safety backer was applied to the backs of all the mirrors before mounting to one-and-one-quarter-inch-thick honeycomb panels—a sturdy, lightweight and rigid substrate.”
The triangular units interlock, and the upper units clip together and into the floor, essentially creating a floor and ceiling into which the panels fit. The ingenious maze can be raised in five days with a crew of five. According to Snow, “It’s almost like an Erector Set; it clips together and locks into place.”
“From an engineering standpoint, the mirror maze was absolutely the most interesting and complicated challenge because it is heavy and fitted with lighting and complex connection points that require seamless reassembly every time,” he adds. “We went through two to three iterations in prototyping before we landed on a systematic approach that was usable and dependable. For the illusion to work, the setup has to be perfect.” Because of the intricacy of the mirror maze setup, the installation crew is split into two teams, one that handles the maze and one that handles the rest of the exhibit.
Snow and the rest of the team are—very appropriately—proud and pleased with the final product and the design process employed. It goes up efficiently, works every time, is visually unified, looks close to the original version and perhaps most importantly made math more accessible to many people; the MSI exhibit alone has had close to one million visitors per year. “The exhibit provides a softer approach to showing that math, often seen as cold and didactic, is omnipresent in nature, your body, art and design,” concludes Snow.
Client: Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago (MSI)
Location: Franklin Institute, Philadelphia
Open Date: May 2017
Project Area: 7,000—10,000 sq ft
Design Team: Museum of Science & Industry Chicago (content development and graphic design), Luci Creative (exhibition design), Leviathan (film and interactive design)
Fabrication: Ravenswood Studio (exhibit fabrication), Lightswitch (lighting design)
Collaborators: Harvest Moon Studio (exhibit script writing)