Systems thinking in museums

Posted on August 10, 2008


A couple of weeks ago I criticised the Exploratorium for a lack of interactive exhibits addressing systems thinking. Since then I’ve been dredging the memory (biological and digital) for some examples. Being able to comprehend complexity, think across scales, and understand complex relationships is a vital part of sustainability education.

Here’s some examples:


Plant system at Eden Project: the kinetic sculpture in this case grows and responds to its “growing” conditions. The visitor has to manage those conditions by feeding the plant, supplying carbon dioxide etc. Information about these resources is on the rotatable signs at the base.


This water supply system at Melbourne Museum also combines analog and digital control systems to control the city’s water supply. When I was in Melbourne they were in the midst of the most severe drought ever, so this was foremost in Melbournian’s minds. A similar system in the museum foyer is less complex but incorporates narratives of water savings.

Other water systems, although not computer based, provide great interactive experiences for kids at Portland’s Childrens Museum and OMSI (also in Portland). The the water troughs at both institutions give a good experience of the limits of our control systems and unexpected consequences. The troughs range from a sand catchment through slots and posts to an engineering approach, but the effect is the same – our efforts to control the system are almost always thwarted.


Water at Portland Children's MuseumOMSI

At the Centre for Life in Newcastle a city simulator requires the visitor to manage the inputs and outputs from a city. Again, a mix of analog and digital controls makes the experience an increasingly desperate dance. Producing electricity requires reasonably hard handle turning. Sensibly,the answer isn’t more of everything.

Centre for Life systems thinking

I’ll keep looking. What other approaches are there?