Philly Creative Guide

Creative Personality

Steve Snyder | Ph.D., Vice President of Exhibit and Program Development at the Franklin Institute

Interview :: Steve Snyder, Ph.D.
by Ruth Weisberg, 1 Feb 2007

This month's Creative Personality is Steve Snyder, Ph.D., Vice President of Exhibit and Program Development at the Franklin Institute & Science Museum in Philadelphia. He can be reached at: [email protected].

PCG: You have a such way cool job at an equally way cool museum. What's your role and responsibility there exactly entail?

SS: I oversee the development and implementation of all our exhibits and public programs. The team that I work with is made up of a group of highly creative designers, developers and educators. Collectively, it's our responsibility to come up with the interactives, demonstrations and workshops that make a visit to The Franklin Institute a truly one-of-a-kind educational experience.

PCG: How do you go about accomplishing that?

SS: My job is to make sure that the team is always pushing for new and inventive ways to share the experience of science with our audiences. I'm often referred to as the 'wrench thrower' since I like to challenge the team when they are getting too comfortable. The great joy of my job is watching how a project team responds to those challenges and takes interesting ideas and makes them incredible experiences.

PCG: Speaking of science, what's the DNA of a museum exhibit? For example, what factors and considerations go into the planning, execution and maintenance of an exhibit to keep it relevant, educational, inspiring, appealing, and yes, affordable?

SS: Exhibits, like every educational offering, begin with a central tension. By that I mean the one between what the target audience is interested in and what science content is important for them to experience. We spend a great deal of time assessing what our visitors know, what they don't know and what they are interested in. Using exhibit evaluation and marketing techniques, we determine what topics will have the most appeal to our audience and then use those results to shape how we present the science content that is important for them to understand. For example, Bernoulli's Principle is not a topic in and of itself that will draw most people to an exhibit. However, presented as "why airplanes fly" is very intriguing to visitors and is a natural way to discuss Bernoulli in all its glory.

"...we determine what topics will have the most appeal to our audience and then use those results to shape how we present the science content that is important for them to understand."

PCG: Then what happens?

SS: After determining visitor interest and how to make the content relevant, we spend time figuring out how to make an experience that visitors can engage in that will allow them to explore a particular phenomena. We use techniques developed for the museum field, theme parks, retail stores and even video games to create interactives and hands-on activities. Any technique that can be used to engage people is fair game; we spend a good bit of time keeping and eye open for any new ways to reach our audience.

PCG: The next hotly-anticipated, blockbuster exhibit is "Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of Pharaohs." Why do you think the public will be so jazzed for it?

SS: "Tutankhamun and The Golden Age of the Pharaohs" is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for The Franklin Institute, the city of Philadelphia and for everyone in the region. The exhibit contains over 130 objects from King Tut and other tombs from the Valley of the Kings. Even if I say so myself, it is truly a remarkable exhibition. Larger than the show that toured in the late 70's, this exhibit also does a wonderful job at placing King Tut into context and giving a more full picture of who we think Tutankhamun was, how he lived and how he might have died.

PCG: Why does this exhibit especially resonate for you?

SS: For me, the exhibition's strongest aspect is how it creates an intimate picture of the "Boy King," this child who came to rule one of the ancient world's great civilizations before he reached his teens. You really get a feeling for not just life during his time, but his family and the politics surrounding his reign.

The Giant Heart

PCG: As a kid growing up in Philadelphia, the Franklin Institute was, and still is, one of my favorite places to visit. It's always changing, yet there are still the traditional mainstays. Any special insights you can share with us about this legendary museum and its presence in Philadelphia history?

SS: The Giant Heart is certainly the icon exhibit in The Franklin Institute, and in itself has become a Philadelphia institution. If you spent any part of your childhood in the Philadelphia region, you spent part of it in the Giant Heart. What most people don't realize is that when it opened in 1954, it was intended to be a temporary exhibit, open only three months. It became so popular that now, over 50 years, many layers of fiberglass and just a few 'by-pass surgeries' later, it is our most popular exhibit and the second-most requested item in the building--after the bathrooms, of course!

PCG: It's obvious you love what you do, and do what you love. It's my work-life, mantra, too.

SS: My office is filled with toys. Everything from a rubber ducky to a levitating top--and I use them all to explore and teach about science. I've had a perhaps unhealthy infatuation with science-related toys ever since a strange, and somewhat traumatic experience involving my uncle and rubber snot, and it is one of the things that make this job perfect for me. I get to dream up new toys of all sorts and sizes, get them built and then play with them. What could be more fun?

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