...how we developed our COVID exhibit?

Ever Wonder? / April 14, 2021
overall view of All in This Together exhibition

The All in This Together exhibition is on display on the second floor of the Science Center as you exit the escalator.

Zoom meeting portrait of Devin Waller, Krista Ulman, Liz Roth-Johnson, and Perry Roth-Johnson

The exhibit development team for All in This Together, clockwise from top left: Devin Waller, Krista Ulman, Perry Roth‑Johnson and Liz Roth‑Johnson

The California Science Center just opened a new exhibition called All in this Together. The exhibit shows how science is used to understand and combat the COVID-19 pandemic, and how our individual actions affect our community.

It was an interesting challenge creating an exhibit about an ever-evolving science story that we were all living through every day….

So, do you ever wonder how we developed our COVID exhibit?

It just so happens that Devin and Perry helped develop the exhibit along with two of our colleagues—Krista Ulman, an exhibit developer; and Liz Roth-Johnson, a curator of life sciences. We sat down with Krista and Liz to talk about how we made All in This Together. If you have a chance to visit the Science Center, we hope you’ll stop by the exhibit and let us know what you think.

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Hospital staff applaud Southern California resident Daniel Kim as he heads home after a five-month battle with COVID-19
Image attribution
Paul Bersebach/MediaNews Group/Orange County Register via Getty Images

Hospital staff applaud Southern California resident Daniel Kim as he heads home after a five-month battle with COVID-19.


Perry Roth-Johnson (00:00):

Hey everyone! We have a special request: we want to hear from you! Please fill out our Ever Wonder? podcast listener survey, and tell us what you think of the show, our guests, and any other feedback you'd like to share. It will only take a few minutes, and you'll help us make future episodes of Ever Wonder? even better. You can find the survey in the show notes, or at bit.ly/everwondersurvey.

Perry Roth-Johnson (00:28):

Hello! This is Ever Wonder? from the California Science Center. I'm Perry Roth-Johnson. The Science Center just opened a new exhibition called All in This Together. The exhibit shows how science is used to understand and combat the COVID-19 pandemic, and how our individual actions affect our community. It was an interesting challenge creating an exhibit about an ever-evolving science story that we were all living through every day.... So, do you ever wonder how we developed our COVID exhibit? It just so happens that Devin Waller and I helped develop the exhibit along with two of our colleagues—Krista Ulman, an exhibit developer; and Liz Roth-Johnson, a curator of life sciences. We sat down with Krista and Liz to talk about how we made All in This Together. I think the four of us—a planetary geologist, an aerospace engineer, a historian, and a molecular biologist—made for an interesting team, and it was a great conversation. I hope you enjoy listening, and if you have a chance to visit the Science Center, I hope you'll stop by the exhibit and let us know what you think.

Perry Roth-Johnson (01:36):

Krista Ulman, you're an exhibit developer at the California Science Center. Welcome to the show!

Krista Ulman (01:40):

Thanks! I'm so happy to be here.

Perry Roth-Johnson (01:42):

And Liz Roth-Johnson, you're a curator of life sciences at the California Science Center, and also the editor of Ever Wonder?—it's nice to have you in front of a mic.

Liz Roth-Johnson (01:49):

It's a little weird to be on the side of things, but I'm really excited to be here today.

Perry Roth-Johnson (01:53):

Yeah, and Devin Waller, my co-host at the California Science Center is back with us again today. Hi Devin.

Devin Waller (01:58):

Hey Perry. I'm happy to be here. And, hi Krista. Hi Liz. Thanks so much for joining us.

Perry Roth-Johnson (02:02):

So, the four of us, you know, we all work together in Exhibit Development at the Science Center, and we're here today to talk about our latest project, and new exhibit called, All in This Together. As we're recording this, it just opened at the Science Center and I really want to dig in behind the scenes a little bit, talk about the origin of the exhibit, how we made it with the help of many other people, but first let's just take care of the basics. Uh, Liz, can you describe All in This Together for our listeners, like at a high level, just what's in the exhibit and what will people see?

Liz Roth-Johnson (02:32):

Yeah. All in This Together is all about, how science can help us understand and combat the COVID-19 pandemic. And so we've organized the exhibit in three sections. Um, one section explores the makings of a pandemic and it looks at really the very early stages, from the very first sort of mysterious cases of the illness before we knew this was a new disease through the March stay-at-home orders that we saw in California to just think about how we even got to this point of being in a pandemic. And, and there are lots of engaging graphics and stories to explore there. We have a second section called Slow the Spread that really digs deeper into all of the public health messages that we've been bombarded with for the past year, um, and tries to unpack some of the science behind those public health messages to make them a little bit more intuitive and help people understand where those messages are coming from, and that they're grounded in science. And so, there are a number of fun graphics to explore, some great videos, some interactive simulations. And then finally we have a section called Join the Fight, and we really wanted to highlight all of the ways that people in our community have been stepping up and doing their part to help fight the pandemic. And so, we have photos and stories from community members. We have some objects on display, such as a bridge ventilator from Virgin Orbit, and we're very excited to display a couple panels of a memorial quilt that has been part of a project that a local eighth grader has been spearheading.

Devin Waller (04:05):

I want to take a step back and actually look back about a year. A year ago, things were so different. So, Krista, can you share with the audience the origin story of this exhibit?

Krista Ulman (04:14):

Gosh, I remember when the museum closed down in March of 2020, and it was just this crazy emotional time. Everyone was super anxious and worried. I remember our very last in-person meeting where our 16-person team was in a ginormous conference room, all sitting in chairs spaced six feet apart. And we didn't want to be near each other, but we were trying to project so we could actually be heard, and it was just such a weird feeling. Um, and then the next day we were all working from home and suddenly we were scattered all across the entire metropolitan area, but still trying to be a team. And as we were navigating the reality of this pandemic, um, our boss Kurt Haunfelner, the senior vice president for exhibitions, came to us and said, "I think we should do an exhibition on COVID-19. This is the biggest science story of our time and we're living through it. And I think we really owe it to our guests to explain what is going on around them and break down the science for them so people can feel less scared." And we know that we're a trusted institution in the community, and it really felt like something that we could contribute to help put people at ease. So, he asked for volunteers and the four of us raised our hands. And even though we all come from very different backgrounds and have very different expertise, we all said, "You know what? We will learn about COVID-19 and we will do an exhibition about this". And [we] came together and just started kind of digging into the research around it and coming up with exhibit ideas like we always do and trying to develop an exhibition on a very fast timeline in the middle of an ever-evolving story, which was quite a challenge.

Devin Waller (06:01):

So, for all of our listeners, I just want you to know that when we develop an exhibit, we typically bring in teams of experts to help to advise our content teams, to work with us. And this seemed even more important for this exhibit on COVID. The feedback from the health advisory committee that we brought in was invaluable. So, Liz, can you talk a little bit about the types of health advisors that you reached out to, and that you spoke to? And why did we pick them and what did they share?

Liz Roth-Johnson (06:33):

Yeah, that's such a great point because, you know, even though my expertise is in molecular biology, I'm not a virologist by training. I'm not a public health expert. And I think that's something we've seen through the pandemic is how critical not just the science is, but how critical public health as a discipline is. And it's really sort of, it's its own thing. It's not just about knowing the science, but it's about really taking that science, taking complicated, often murky, results—uh, you know, biology is a nuanced complicated thing—um, taking all of that science and distilling it down into understandable interpretable, clear and realistic, um, actionable things for people to do. I mean, it really, you have to not just say here's what the science says, but you have to say, now here's how to apply it in your daily life and not just tell people to sit in a bunker, right? You have to be realistic. And so, we engaged with a number of public health advisors specifically. We really sought out that expertise. And so, we had a great panel of scientific advisors with public health expertise. Um, we also reached out to LA County Department of Public Health because not only did we want to make sure that we got everything right from a public health perspective, but one of the really important things in public health is that messaging has to be consistent. And so, we wanted to do everything we could to make sure our exhibit aligned with all of the public health messaging that was being put out by, by the state of California, by LA County Public Health, by the CDC. And I guess, you know, one story I can share about just the kinds of insights and the way specifically that they helped us with this is, you know, I remember being in a meeting with some folks at LA County Department of Public Health. And, uh, and they were looking at some early concepts and ideas we had for the exhibit and giving us feedback. And generally, they were like, "You know, things seem like they're on the right track, but, you know, I noticed you had, you had this picture, we had, we'd shown a picture as sort of a placeholder of a team of healthcare workers, um, you know, holding signs. And you know, it really had the right spirit." And she said, "That's really nice, but nobody in that picture is wearing a face mask." We stopped and said, "Oh, we hadn't even really thought about that, but that's such a great point." You know, if all of our messaging and our written descriptions are going to be telling people how important it is to wear a face mask, then all of our photos should also reinforce that message. And so, it really just helped us, um, you know, see things from a different perspective and make sure that our whole exhibit was pulling in the same direction.

Perry Roth-Johnson (09:06):

Yeah. I want to spend a little bit of time on that whole wall that highlights the lives lost and the heroes in our community. Uh, Krista, I know this was really like your baby on this project. Can you just tell us the story of like, how you decided which community partners to reach out to and how you got in touch with them?

Krista Ulman (09:25):

So, kind of the genesis of this part of the exhibition is, you know, usually when we develop exhibits, our idea is to spark science learning and spark curiosity about a specific topic, but this one was really different because we were living and still are living in a public health emergency. And so we really needed to promote behavioral change in people, not just spark their curiosity about this topic and the stakes were just so much higher. So, we delved into some of the social science research about how to promote pro-social behavior. You know, like how do you get people to follow speed limits? Or conserve water? Or in this instance, how do you get people to wear masks and get vaccines when they're available and physically distance, which is really hard to do? And one of the things that we learned is that you get people to do these pro-social behaviors by showing them that everyone else is doing it. We're social creatures by our very nature. So, we wanted to create a gallery that highlighted real people in our community who were joining the fight, who were volunteering, who were acting as healthcare heroes, who were really on the front lines of this thing, and then get people to join the fight themselves and really follow the public health messaging. So, we started by kind of just brainstorming different organizations that could help us curate some photos and stories. Um, I know Perry, for example, you suggested if we're looking for images of frontline workers, why not reach out to local unions? So that's what we did. And they were more than happy to help provide amazingly beautiful photos of essential workers during the pandemic. I had the thought of, maybe let's see if the YMCA is doing anything. My parents were always really active in the Y when I was growing up and I just googled them and sure enough, they were handing out millions of meals. They were providing childcare to people who needed it and, and camps for kids and things like that. And just basically cold-called them. And they said, yes, we have lots of photos and we'd be happy to send them along. Um, as far as finding pictures of healthcare heroes, one of our advisors works at Cedars-Sinai. And so, she connected us with their communications team. They also had some beautiful photos of nurses and doctors and custodial staff and everyone at their organization who was really chipping in to help. Um, as far as first responders, our colleague, David Bibas, who's one of the curators at the Science Center, he is working on an exhibition all about fire, fire safety. And so, he helped us get in touch with some of the fire chiefs and they provided cool photos of their EMTs on the front lines of this. And then just some other like goofy personal connections. We wanted to get stories of scientists and people who are participating in vaccine trials. And I suddenly remembered that a family friend of mine, Dr. Steve Shoptaw, is the Director of one of the UCLA clinics that was running one of the Moderna vaccine trials. So, I just shot him an email and said, "Hey, Steve, remember me? You were at my wedding. What do you have? Do you guys have any photos or stories of people?" And he was so gracious and connected us with their entire team. And not just photos. They provided us tons of really important and interesting insight as to how the vaccine trials were conducted and, the safety and the efficacy of the vaccines that really proved invaluable for the rest of our process. So, it was really, it was really rewarding just to reach out to all sorts of different people, our friends, our family members, our colleagues, and just ask for stories and photos and people really, really responded.

Devin Waller (13:12):

So, Krista, you've developed a number of exhibits. What were some of the really unique challenges in developing this exhibit on COVID?

Krista Ulman (13:20):

Yeah, I think one of the biggest challenges that we were in the middle of this story, and we didn't know where it was going to go. Uh, so we had to really focus on topics that would still be relevant whenever we would be able to open the museum again. 'Cause we didn't even know when we'd be able to welcome guests back. Something really interesting I remember learning early on is that a lot of the health measures that we're still using now were things that were put in place during the 1918 pandemic. And it's just fascinating to see those same things like masks and physical distancing and all of that still being used a hundred years later. But honestly, it was a huge relief for me because I knew if we were able to focus on that sort of thing, it wasn't going to change. Like masks were still going to be important. Physical distancing was still going to be a thing that we were all doing. So, it was really comforting to know that we could focus on some of that science that hasn't changed and hasn't evolved and incorporate that into our messaging.

Perry Roth-Johnson (14:19):

Yeah. And the other thing is like we were living through the story that we were trying to tell. On the one hand, we all had the unique privilege of working from home when a lot of folks couldn't. But it, I mean, I'll admit, you know, it took a little bit of a mental toll to be steeped in all these stories of suffering and uncertainty pretty much 24/7. It was weird to like, you couldn't turn your brain off from it when you were at work, because we were trying to tell that story and tell it in a compelling way. So that, that's something very different than like when you're trying to make an exhibit on a space shuttle that's not flying anymore. Uh, Liz, I want to spend a little time on the title of the exhibit. Why did we choose the title "All in This Together"?

Liz Roth-Johnson (15:04):

Yeah. So, a big reason we chose the title All in This Together is that, um, there is a quote that I have had printed out on a piece of paper sitting on my desk for many, many months now. And it's a quote from the World Health Organization's Director General, that was a part of the statement that was put out over a year ago now when the World Health Organization first declared COVID-19 a public health emergency of international concern, which is really their highest level of alarm. And that was even before they called it a pandemic. Um, we knew this was something serious that we needed to pay attention to. And this is what the quote says: "The only way we will defeat this outbreak is for all countries to work together in a spirit of solidarity and cooperation. We are all in this together and we can only stop it together. This is the time for facts, not fear. This is the time for science, not rumors. This is the time for solidarity, not stigma." You know, and that quote as a whole, I think really embodied the spirit of what we were trying to do with the exhibit to really highlight the importance of facts and science. And also, really try to encourage this spirit of solidarity amongst our guests and our community members. And so, it just felt very fitting to pull from this quote "all in this together" to sort of summarize the exhibit as a whole.

Devin Waller (16:35):

It's a beautiful quote. Really is fitting.

Perry Roth-Johnson (16:39):

I think the reasonable criticism of this idea of "all in this together"—that it hasn't affected everyone equally. There are many disparities and inequities. Many more people of color have gotten sick and died from COVID compared to white people. Right here in LA, for example, Latinos have nearly 3x the death rate of whites. Black Angelenos have a death rate more than 1½ times that of white Angelenos. And across California Latinos account for more than ½ of COVID infections, even when they're only about ⅓ of the state population.

Liz Roth-Johnson (17:08):

Yeah. And frankly, when we were deciding to title the exhibit, that was sort of the one thing that gave me pause. In choosing this title, there is this sort of valid criticism that maybe we're not all in this together, if we're being affected unequally by it. But, you know, I think from a science and public health and biological perspective, we are all in this together, whether we like it or not. The virus is just looking for cells, it's looking for humans to infect. And there is no biological basis for these disparities that we're seeing across ethnic and racial groups. We are seeing those disparities, but that is a societal problem. We have longstanding inequities in our social structures that have put different groups at higher risk of being exposed to the virus than others. So, we do highlight that in the exhibit.

Devin Waller (17:58):

Yeah. It's interesting how this pandemic has really exacerbated those preexisting societal issues, those underlying inequalities that were there, like you're talking about. And, and that was something that was really important and that we had to address. And we do, I think we do a fair job of just bringing that to light.

Perry Roth-Johnson (18:19):

Yeah. And science helps us understand why there are these societal disparities. If you look at the people affected, it's the people who live in overcrowded homes because rents are so crazy here in Los Angeles. It's the people who are incarcerated and in overcrowded prisons who can't get into separate rooms, you know, if they don't have walled off cells. And people living in these congregate situations who are just so much more vulnerable to the virus.

Krista Ulman (18:49):

Yeah, and the title of this panel was partially a James Baldwin quote, talking about how, you know, nothing can be changed until it is faced. And that was really the point of it was to talk about these issues, to show the inequities and where they come from so people don't blame them on things that aren't relevant and then say, "Okay, it's up to us what we do with this." Like, this is our chance to change our society for the better and make sure that these inequities do not happen in future public health emergencies.

Liz Roth-Johnson (19:18):

And to bring it back to the title, you know, All in This Together, as we're starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel a little bit with the pandemic, I know there's some talk of, you know, what are some of the silver linings? What are some of the things maybe we've learned? You know, we've learned how to work remotely better. You know, people can visit their doctor remotely now, and that's becoming more common. There may be some, some silver linings things that we're going to be able to get better at coming out of the pandemic because of things we've, we've had to adjust to. And I would hope that because of the way the pandemic has made these longstanding already existing social inequities, so visible, I hope that one takeaway from all of this is that more people become aware of those inequities and that we can kind of take the spirit of "all in this together" beyond just fighting the pandemic, but really just think about what do we owe each other as fellow human beings. And how can we take this information, knowing that we have these inequities and do something about it even after the pandemic ends.

Perry Roth-Johnson (20:31):

Everyone listening to the show, I hope you keep wearing your masks! And Krista and Liz, it’s been a pleasure talking to you, both. And you too, Devin. Thanks for joining us on the show.

Krista Ulman (20:40):

Thank you. It's been fun.

Liz Roth-Johnson (20:42):

Thanks for having us.

Perry Roth-Johnson (20:44):

That's our show, and thanks for listening! Until next time, keep wondering. Ever Wonder? from the California Science Center is produced by me, Perry Roth-Johnson, along with Devin Waller. Liz Roth-Johnson is our editor. Theme music provided by Michael Nickolas and Pond5. We'll drop new episodes every other Wednesday. If you're a fan of the show, be sure to subscribe and leave us a rating or review on Apple Podcasts--it really helps other people discover our show. Have a question you've been wondering about? Send an email or voice recording to [email protected] to tell us what you'd like to hear in future episodes.