We are reimagining our Exploration Gallery.
At The Mariners’ Museum and Park, we strive to create gallery spaces where guests can connect with one another and engage with incredible stories of mariners, past and present. Our Exploration Gallery was built more than three decades ago and now needs updating. This project is not just a renovation; it is an opportunity to reimagine how we engage with guests in our physical spaces.
Our approach to this new gallery
During the pandemic, when most of The Mariners’ team was working from home, Museum President Howard H. Hoege asked leaders across the Museum to read The Lean Startup by Eric Ries. The book offers an approach for companies operating in climates of extreme uncertainty to produce products that consumers need in the most capital-efficient manner possible. Ries suggests companies ask, “Why bother creating a product if there is no audience for it?” In other words, we could spend millions of dollars building the most high-tech, flashy exhibit around, but if no one is interested in the story it tells, what is the point? The Lean Startup method is grounded in a three-step cycle: 1) build, 2) measure and 3) learn. It sounds simple enough, but each step comes with layers of complexity.
The first step, “build,” requires companies to clearly define how they intend to provide value to their customers. “Customers,” in The Mariners’ case, translates into the communities we serve. A little over a year ago, the longstanding Ages of Exploration Gallery was deinstalled to make room for a new gallery that would reimagine the way stories of exploration are shared. In the summer of 2022, the new Exploration Gallery went through the “build” phase of identifying the target audience and their specific need(s). Our team decided that the 3,000 third-grade students from Newport News and Hampton that visit the Museum annually for an Educational Enrichment Program focused on exploration would serve as the primary audience.
After weeks of discussion and research, we identified two significant areas of need for the students: 1) the need for out-of-classroom experiences that enhance the standard classroom curriculum and 2) the need for community engagement that fosters a sense of belonging. Our unique approach to meeting those needs is to redefine the in-gallery experience by creating a space where kids can be kids. The new gallery features several hands-on interactives, and the content will help students begin to see themselves as part of the larger community of mariners.
In December of 2022, we welcomed the first group of third-grade students into the gallery, and these field trips will continue through March of this year. Each third-grade group is an opportunity to measure the impact of the new gallery and whether or not it is meeting the needs of the students. One of our evaluation techniques is to have staff from across the Museum serve as observers in the gallery. As students participate in a series of activities, the observers answer questions designed to assess what works and what doesn’t. We are also collecting valuable feedback from the teachers.
We have already begun making changes to the interactives based on student and teacher feedback, and when the field trips wrap up next month, we will officially enter the “learn” phase of the project. We will then apply everything we have learned and update the gallery based on this first round of testing.