...who decides what an exhibit is about?

An Ever Wonder? podcast by the California Science Center

06/24/2020 (updated 07/7/2020)
A man with grey hair and a white goatee examines a bright yellow flight suit

David Bibas examines a flight suit at NASA Armstrong Flight Research Center

For the first few episodes of this podcast, we'll take you behind the scenes of the California Science Center to meet some of the people who design and develop exhibits. Here at the Science Center, you can find both permanent and temporary exhibits about all kinds of topics. Dogs. King Tut. Space exploration. Or even the emotion of fear. Do you ever wonder who gets to decide what these exhibits are about? In this episode, we talk to David Bibas, the curator for technology programs at the California Science Center. Curators like David imagine up new exhibits, help decide what they should be about, and shape what kinds of experiences you as a guest will have in them. To learn more about the exhibit discussed in this episode, Goose Bumps! The Science of Fear, visit the official website at fearexhibit.org

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Perry Roth-Johnson (00:05):

Hello, this is Ever Wonder? from the California Science Center, I'm Perry Roth-Johnson for the first few episodes of this podcast. I'm going to take you behind the scenes of the California Science Center to meet some of the people who design and develop exhibits. Here at the science center, you can find both permanent and temporary exhibits about all kinds of topics; dogs, King Tut, space exploration, or even the emotion of fear. Do you ever wonder who gets to decide what these exhibits are all about? For this episode I'll talk to David Bibas, the curator for technology programs at the California Science Center. Curators like David imagine up new exhibits help decide what they should be about and shape what kinds of experiences you as a guest will have in them. So David, welcome to the show. Thanks for coming on.

David Bibas (01:06):

Thank you.

Perry Roth-Johnson (01:06):

I really appreciate your time.

David Bibas (01:07):

Thank you. Good to be with you.

Perry Roth-Johnson (01:10):

I think you mentioned you've been at the Science Center for 32 years, is that right?

David Bibas (01:14):


Perry Roth-Johnson (01:15):

And you've worked on many exhibitions in your career. Do any stand out to you? Do you have a favorite exhibition that you like to work on?

David Bibas (01:23):

Well, if it's, if I have to choose one, I would choose Goose Bumps: The Science of Fear.

Perry Roth-Johnson (01:29):

And why do you choose that one?

David Bibas (01:32):

Well, because, I curated that. Hey, that's a good reason.

Perry Roth-Johnson (01:36):


David Bibas (01:39):

But also it was a, it still is. It's a traveling exhibition that we opened, uh, the Science Center back in 2007 and it's still on tour. And so I could, you know, I could say it's a successful exhibit in the sense that it's popular. People like it, they enjoy it, they learn from it. It's doing what it was meant to do.

Perry Roth-Johnson (02:05):

Walk me through a little bit about like, what is it about, what do guests experience in it?

David Bibas (02:11):

Well, it, the exhibit is really about the physiology, the biology, the psychology, and the sociology of emotions in this case, fear. What we wanted to do through the exhibit is basically have people experience fear, observe fear, understand the science behind fear and also reflect on fear in their lives.

Perry Roth-Johnson (02:40):

So, tell me the story about how that grew from an idea to an actual project that, you know, became your favorite exhibition.

David Bibas (02:46):

One day, I think it was 2004 or 2005. Jeff Rudolph where he's our president and CEO came to my office and just wanted to tell me about an experience he had, I think in a science museum in Australia I believe. I can't recall the exact experience, but it was something that basically was, you know, scared people, but in a fun way, and it kind of triggered this idea. So it's like, "What do you think about something about fear?" And then I said, "Okay, let me think about it." And, uh, started doing, you know, research, what is involved in fear, what, you know, what disciplines are actually address the various issues that only involved in this emotion. Slowly it felt like, you know, it's, it's, it's a topic that has really some legs. I mean, there's something that you can, you can work with anyway. So we started and, and, you know, soon through that research, trying to put together a brief that basically outlines what an exhibit about fear could be. And as we do with all exhibits, based on the research, we start generating some educational messages or educational goals for the exhibit. What is it that we want to convey to our visitors? What is it that we want our visitor to come up with once they go through the exhibit. A sense of what is the framework? What is the, the concept for the exhibit and early on this notion of experiencing the emotion itself, but in a way having experiences that actually elicit the emotion. It's not, we know it's beyond the talking about the emotion, you know, how can you....

Perry Roth-Johnson (04:45):

You're not just like walking up to an exhibit panel and reading about fear.

David Bibas (04:49):


Perry Roth-Johnson (04:49):

You're actually going to get scared.

David Bibas (04:51):

You're experiencing fear again. And that was one of the challenges, how you can create experiences that elicit fear, but at the same time, it's like fun and scary kind of thing, not to go overboard. And so through our market research and focus groups, it wasn't the issue. We asked people, "Do you think this is appropriate for kids?" Would you take your, I don't 10, 12 year old kid to, or even younger. And people said, "yes." I mean, yeah. I think it takes some fun. Why not? Uh, the other question we were interested in is finding out, uh, would you go through these experiences for yourself? And some most, I would say probably I would say more than, you know, 60, 70% said, "Yes, why not?" I mean, knowing obviously this is a museum environment, no harm is going to be done to them, but some people said "No," but they said, but "I wouldn't mind seeing other people experience fear."

Perry Roth-Johnson (05:59):

They want to see other people get scared.

David Bibas (06:05):

Yeah, in a way.

Perry Roth-Johnson (06:06):

So how do we get from ideas that are on paper or in your head to something like we can start testing and seeing? How do we start thinning out these ideas to select which exhibit experiences?

David Bibas (06:17):

Well, I mean, you start with first with the assumption that not all exhibit ideas can make good exhibits. It's, it's like, you know, you're pruning a tree in a way. I mean, it's like you start with a lot of leaves and you start, you know, taking, taking stuff out. Initially we try to zero in on the things that really can make engaging compelling, uh, experiences for people. So in terms of this, if I were to think of the goosebumps exhibit in terms of experiencing fear, as I said, we wanted to, uh, basically feature, I think we started with possibly five fear experiences, but we ended with four. We wanted to feature the, these, you know, to innate and to learn fear.

Perry Roth-Johnson (07:08):

what is the difference between innate and learned?

David Bibas (07:11):

Well, the innate we were born with and the learned fear, for example, I learned face a fear of electricity or fear of, uh, you know, of the stock market going down.

Perry Roth-Johnson (07:22):

Now, you mentioned also that you had five, room ideas, but you only ended up with four. What, what's the story with that fifth one that got cut?

David Bibas (07:30):

Yeah the fifth one we wanted to do about claustrophobia, which we know that some people are fearful of closed spaces. You know, people who want to go to an inside an elevator, for example. So we basically created a, a big crate that you could basically just go in, standing in, we close the door and, and, uh, seeing how long can you, you know, stay there. And from, you know, early on, it became obvious that either people wanted to go in and they didn't care, they was not, they were not scared or people who didn't want to go in. So we had these two poles basically, and it didn't sound like he was going to make, you know, to be an experience because the people who went in didn't have any fear to, you know, of close spaces, didn't have any claustrophobia. The people we didn't want going. There's no way they were, you know, and so you ended up with a, you know, an exhibit, that's not an exhibit basically, an experience that nobody wants to experience.

Perry Roth-Johnson (08:38):

There's no one to actually experience claustrophobia and no one to watch experiencing claustrophobia.

David Bibas (08:44):

Yeah. Yeah. So that one was, was, uh, you know, obvious, you know, we dropped that one. Better to make mistakes early on, rather than, you know, complete an exhibit that, uh, is not successful, it's not really doing what, uh, you know, the, the, you, you meant it to do.

Perry Roth-Johnson (09:03):

Um, I want to shift gears a little bit and kind of zoom out even further to just like, it sounds like even just within this microcosm of putting a single exhibition together, like Goose Bumps, you're wearing many hats, but of course you've worked on other exhibits. What do you like about the work of a curator? Is it this idea that you get to wear many hats?

David Bibas (09:24):

Yeah. I mean, I think that that's part of it. I think I, uh, you know, the, there's this image of curator, which is, is based on, on, uh, you know, like historical truth that curators, you know, take care of collections. I mean, if it's, you know, on art museum, it's painting sculptures, if it's natural history museum, they have their own collections and, but science museums, or science centers, by the way, that's why the name also of science center and not science museum, because it's not collection based. It's more about interpreting science phenomena, science principles, uh, technology applications, and all of that. So in a sense, I always, you know, saw the the role of the curator more as an executive producer. I think exhibit development is probably one of the most collaborative undertaking that there is in terms of so many, you know, people in so many disciplines, many you know types of expertise and all of that. So you have not only to deal with the research and the, uh, you know, the vision of the exhibit and the educational messaging and the, and, and, uh, you know, the content part, but there's also the design. So you have to be conversant with the designers. You have to, uh, later on, you have to deal with fabrication. We have to deal with every production. And basically you're orchestrating all of that. I think it's, it's, um, yeah, it's a very dynamic environment. It's it's, as you say, it's wearing many hats. And so yes, all of that has always been, uh, an exciting part of the work and what has kept me, you know, for over 30 years in, in the field.

Perry Roth-Johnson (11:22):

Well, David, I think that's a, that's a great note to kind of end on it was a great conversation. Thanks for coming on the show.

David Bibas (11:28):

Thank you.

Perry Roth-Johnson (11:30):

That's our show. Thanks for listening. Until next time, keep wondering.

Perry Roth-Johnson (11:37):

Ever wonder? From the California Science Center is produced by me, Perry Roth-Johnson, along with Jennifer Castillo, Liz Roth-Johnson is our editor. The music provided by Michael Nicholas and Pawn Five. 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 or tell a friend about it. Now our doors may be closed, but our mission to inspire science learning in everyone continues. We're working hard to provide free educational resources online while maintaining a central operations like onsite animal care and preparing for our reopening to the public. Join our mission by making a gift at californiasciencecenter.org/support