How Museums Break Down Complex Topics for Attendees

museums break down complex topics

Why do tech companies love to ask questions like “How would you explain our SaaS platform to your grandmother?” at job interviews? It’s not because they want your grandma to subscribe to their service, it’s because explaining complex topics in simple terms is no easy feat and doing it well means winning customers.  

Museums are experts at breaking down hard-to-understand topics for general audiences. Science museums, in particular, tackle topics as abstract and complex as black holes in ways that every visitor — even the ones being pushed in strollers — can understand. Museums teach us about how to make complex ideas come alive through playful storytelling and hands-on, immersive experiences. 

Here are some tips for bringing complex concepts to life, all inspired by our work with museums.   

Make It Hands-on 

Let’s start by defining our terms: when we say museum in this context, we’re not talking about delicate artifacts displayed behind glass or cordoned off. We’re specifically talking about modern interactive museums, where visitors are entertained and educated by exhibits curated to encourage touching, movement, and play. 

Fourth-generation museums harness the power of hands-on learning to design engaging experiences for visitors of all ages. We partnered with the Pacific Science Center to create Professor Wellbody’s Academy of Health & Wellness, a collection of interactive activities designed to teach young people about health. Wellbody’s “students” can preview their future selves with aging software, see their physical movements transmitted to a humanoid automation, and get “sneezed on” by water misters while learning about germs.   

The Denver Children’s Museum’s exhibit on water offers plenty of opportunities for hands-on play: kids can launch geysers, trigger thunderstorms, and use jets to spin a kinetic sculpture. And in fourth-gen museum style, visitors are encouraged to start exploring before they set foot in the building — the website suggests filling a dishpan with water and playing with plastic bowls and funnels at home.  

Break It Down  

Another technique museums use to make complex information accessible is breaking down that material into manageable chunks. Coral reef habitats are complex ecological environments, but an exhibit that explains these undersea communities piece by piece lets audiences master the knowledge. An exhibit might start by explaining what coral is, explaining what a reef is, and then explaining how coral forms a reef. And then it might explain that “habitat” simply means natural home, two words kids already understand.  

This technique is also useful in explaining your SaaS platform or cryptocurrency exchange. Being able to break down your complicated product or service into manageable, familiar pieces goes a long way.  

Immerse Your Audience  

Instead of simply explaining how bird flight works, the Perot Museum in Dallas invites visitors to give it a try. Motion sensors in the Fly Like a Bird experience respond directly to the user’s movements, taking them through the process of a bird’s flight step by step (or flap by flap). Not only do immersive experiences like this one offer visitors a comprehensive explanation of the topic at hand, they also provide a fun, one-of-a-kind experience they won’t soon forget.  

London’s Science Museum offers another opportunity to take to the skies. Its Handley Page VR experience transports visitors into the handsome 1928 aircraft and up into the sky, where they experience an exhibition flight with 360-degree sound that demonstrates how the plane flies. The physical experience of piloting the Handley Page gives guests a visceral connection to the plane — and a reason to care about the math principles that keep it aloft. 

We’re still a few years away from VR establishing itself as a mainstay of exhibit design, but there are low-tech ways to immerse your audience in your products and the ideas behind them. Whenever possible, look for opportunities to do more than simply convey information and offer attendees a memorable experience.  

Tell a Story 

As Scheherazade could tell you, a captivating story goes a long way. Metaphors in particular are a powerful way to reach people — comparing a new idea to a familiar concept gives your audience a clear and immediate understanding of what you’re talking about. Consider the cloud: it’s easier to imagine our data stored in the cloud than to think about the physical location of the servers that host it. This popular metaphor is friendly, reassuring, and simple enough to appeal to broad audiences. 

What story will you tell, and how will you tell it? Take a cue from modern museums: make your message easy to understand, let your audience touch and play with interactive features, and watch engagement soar.  

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