How do you make a topic like epigenetics (the study of heritable changes in gene expression that does not involve changes to the underlying DNA sequence) relatable?
“Epigenetics is not a word everyone knows,” O’Hara said. “You can’t drown yourself in technical jargon. We want to make things accessible to a wide range of people.”
This is a skill Emily O’Hara excels at, thanks in part to her artist’s eye, as an exhibit content developer and one of the lead designers on a number of the Museum of Science’s permanent exhibits, most recently, “Yawkey Gallery on the Charles River,” which debuts this spring.
“I translate expert knowledge into digestible nuggets in order to excite people about science,” O’Hara said. To do this, she plays the role of a museum visitor, learning about current research, meeting with scientists and other experts in the field, and figuring out what will really excite visitors. Then O’Hara works with a team of people to develop, design, and test prototypes of exhibits, many of which are hands-on and interactive.
Boston.com spoke with O’Hara recently to see what it’s like developing exhibits that are interesting, fun, and accessible to visitors with a wide range of knowledge and abilities.
Describe your job.
I’m senior exhibit content developer. My job is basically to help conceptualize what visitors are going to be doing, learning, and seeing at new exhibits. On a day to day basis, I work with a team of designers, evaluators, and fabricators to figure out how to create things around a certain content area, or skill, or action we want visitors to participate in.
I spend a lot of time communicating with research scientists and community groups to find content or get help with fact checking label copy. I write audio versions for all of our labels, and work on writing scripts and producing videos and animations.
There’s also lot of testing content with visitors. I’ll take prototypes out, and show visitors a piece of paper or ask them what they know about a topic already. It’s a lot of work but a lot of fun. It’s a lot of learning.
How did you get this role?
When I was an undergraduate, I majored in art and did an internship at a small house museum out in Michigan called the William G. Thompson House Museum & Gardens. I worked there right after Mr. Thompson passed away so the museum wasn’t open yet. That experience said, “You don’t want to work in a museum.” I didn’t enjoy myself.
After graduation, I did some retail, some construction, I worked in a factory…Then I found out there was an opening at the Montshire Museum of Science in Norwich, Vermont. The description made it sound like your job would be problem solving and that’s what I wanted to do, so I got an internship there.
Working there was when I transitioned into content development and learned more about customer experience. Then I got a masters in museum studies at Johns Hopkins University online. My husband was a graduate student at Dartmouth and got a job in Missouri, but I couldn’t find work there. After four months of unemployment, I was going bonkers, so I applied to various positions in cities and was hired here. I was brought on temporarily, to help out with “Hall of Human Life,” and then I was brought on full time after that and promoted to a senior position.
When you were majoring in art, what did you think you’d end up doing?
I wanted to own a lamp store one day. I love lamps and lighting. I’ve done a few art pieces with lampshades focusing on light and the blocking of light. But no, since I left New Hampshire I haven’t done as much art. Here, I’m able to do the creativity and problem solving I was getting out of art, so I stopped producing as much art. Back then I did mostly sculpture and mixed media.
What is a typical day like at the Museum of Science?
Tomorrow, I’ll start by volunteering with the Charles River Watershed Association at 6 a.m. My site is the Mass. Ave bridge. Once a month, volunteers take a water sample and test it for E.coli. Tomorrow is a nutrient test for phosphorus and nitrogen, components used to determine the grade the Charles River gets. I started volunteering because I was working on the new Yawkey Gallery exhibit.
Then I’ll walk or bike here, check my email, communicate with some advisors about whether we have any outstanding questions regarding Yawkey Gallery and I’ll work with our graphic designer because we’ve been integrating our content and illustrations more closely.
[Yawkey Gallery on the Charles River is the Museum of Science’s newest permanent exhibition, where visitors will explore the connections between engineering and nature on the Charles River. In the exhibit, visitors will observe the Charles River to learn more about the natural world and the effects of engineering decisions, and will engineer solutions for problems encountered by scientists and engineers and test the impacts of their decisions.]
I’m also beginning research for bringing engineering and computer science into some of our exhibits, like I’ve done for the Charles River exhibit. It’s nice that I can take things from high level concept to production and see visitors interact with the museum.
What is the best part of your job?
Seeing visitors enjoy themselves here, but also the diversity of what I do. I like learning new content, filming videos, writing label copy, and working with visitors. It’s neat to find out when something isn’t working too. We sit an exhibit out on the floor and see what people do, and you expect one thing, and they might do something different and you go, “Woah!’ If the title of an exhibit says, “Fish,” they might go to exactly what they know already about fish. You have to remember you’ll never get visitors there if you don’t acknowledge their base knowledge.
What is the hardest part of your job?
Deciding what’s not going to be in an exhibit because there’s always something neat or fun a visitor could do or learn but we have limited space and time with visitors so we can’t put everything in. Cutting things out is the hardest part.
What trends in science do you foresee impacting the museum’s exhibits?
I think because we’re looking at the next generation of science standards, one trend we will be trying to capture is less memorization of facts, and more engaging in science. At the museum, you can do that. You can engage in science and be a part of it. That’s an exciting trend. We’re looking at everyone here, not just people who are going to become scientists.
People need to engage in the discussion around science and be an informed population to be able to make decisions.