Think like a Designer — Re-imagining the Museum of Science and Industry

| Shelley Stern Grach

The World’s Columbian Exposition, celebrating the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s landing in America, was  held in 1893 in Chicago. The exposition occupied 630 acres in Jackson Park and the Midway Plaisance. The main site was bounded by Stony Island Avenue on the west, 67th Street on the south, Lake Michigan on the east, and 56th Street on the north. Planners selected a classical architectural theme for the fair. The buildings housed 65 exhibits that followed the theme of the building. Some of the more popular exhibits were curiosities rather than serious displays of technology and progress. They included an eleven-ton cheese and a 1,500 pound chocolate Venus de Milo in the Hall of Agriculture and a seventy-foot-high tower of light bulbs in the Electricity Building. The world’s first Ferris Wheel, invented by George W. Ferris, was also on the Midway. The 250-foot high steel structure had 36 cars carrying 60 persons each.


More than 200 buildings occupied the exposition’s grounds; today, only one remains. Like most of the other buildings, the Palace of Fine Arts had exterior walls of staff, a temporary building material made from plaster of paris and hemp fiber. It housed the Field Columbian Museum after the fair’s closing until 1920. During the late 1920s, the building was reduced to its steel skeleton and brick interior walls and rebuilt in stone. The structure was opened again to the public as the Museum of Science and Industry in 1931.


Fast forward to 2016. You are part of a team who have been asked to re-imagine how to use this spectacular space at the Museum, now known as MSI. The Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago — one of the largest science museums in the world — is home to more than 400,000 square feet of hands-on exhibits designed to spark scientific inquiry and creativity. This local and national treasure could bring countless STEM resources to Chicagoland with a 21st century facelift — in design, in content, in outreach to the tens of thousands that visit each year and to the neighborhoods and children of the city of Chicago. In an age of Pokémon GO and virtual reality, what would you do to help MSI? Microsoft Chicago is honored to be included in an ongoing redesign of MSI Chicago as part of a group of civic leaders. The following is a glimpse into the process and the challenge — and opportunity — for this iconic resource.

Think like a designer.

First, find a group of really interesting  people, who are passionate about MSI in all aspects: board supporters, scientists, designers, corporate supporters, world-class foundations and so forth. Second, bring in top talent from IDEO-a global design company. Their mission: “We create impact through design.” Third, engage these smart people in fun, creative and thought-provoking dialog. Take the time to really think it through.

Envision all aspects of MSI, now and in the future:

  • Have Empathy for people who will visit
  • Imagine the Stories you want MSI visitors to learn and to tell
  • Observe and reflect on what the values of MSI are…and should be
  • Consider what are the new,  future constraints for MSI as a building, as a center of innovation? (If any….)
  • Create an enduring vision for next decade…and the next. To inspire and motivate our children…and our children’s children.
  • Re-imagine almost everything. How the space can be used? How can we  extend the MSI experience outside of our walls, deeper into the community?
  • What are our values and how do we activate them? How do we make MSI a living demonstration of our mission?

Think about the outcomes for our Families, Teachers and Children who experience MSI. Let’s target  50% learning and 50% fun! Think about how MSI can help influence and inspire careers in STEM by exposing our visitors to the future and share different experiences that can’t find elsewhere.

  • A promising future
  • A Tech-enabled  future
  • A world of virtual and augmented reality, intertwining “real” life and potential enhancements
  • Enhance family togetherness — unplug, touch experiences, interact, inter-relate
  • Shared social experiences
  • Have fun! “Science is a blast”.
  • Learning experiences with Science Teachers, where:
    • Failure is ok
    • Students experience messy, hands on, open ended investigation
    • Students see themselves in science /STEM

In order to truly experience this redesign beyond team brainstorming and sticky notes, each of us last week was assigned to a group of individuals with different backgrounds and we had a “site visit” of several exhibits to think through the different “Personas” that MSI brings out in each of us. Are you a Tinkerer, Pathfinder, Provocateur, or  Futurist? Or do you change your role (as many of us do) depending on what you see and how you react? For example, the Fab Lab is tightly linked to Tinkerers. But what about the classic Coal Mine? Perhaps a Pathfinder in the 1940s and 1950s, but what does it mean today? Can the Coal Mine be re-imagined as the baseline of Energy and fueling mankind and can it be re-imagined as part of a natural resources ecosystem that now includes wind and solar.

FAB Lab photo from Bing
FAB Lab photo from Bing
Coal Mine Photo from Bing
Coal Mine Photo from Bing

All too soon, the site visit experience concluded. We brought our ideas back to the larger team and shared our ideas and the potential to be unlocked. No final conclusions just yet! Innovation, invention and re-imagining take time. Can’t wait to attend the next IDEO session to see what’s next.

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