GeoFort is a science centre in the Netherlands where visitors can experiment with various aspects of cartography and navigation on a beautiful old fortress. GeoFort emphasises the importance of spatial thinking to a broader audience and stimulates young people to choose a geography-related study programme. Visitors are invited to experience the role of geo information in climate change, renewable energy, big data, tracking and tracing, satellite imagery, geodesign, Minecraft and many more topics. In June 2016 GeoFort won the title of the ‘Best Children’s Museum in the World’.
What is the winning formula of GeoFort? Why is it different from many other science centres in the world?
At GeoFort we have a beautiful antique copper sextant with which Dutch pirates used to find their way on the oceans to faraway countries. None of the students understand what this instrument is about until they are allowed to use replica plastic sextants. They measure the width of the canal at GeoFort by using the sextant in combination with a mathematical formula with cosines. We tell them that if they do not like maths they are allowed to swim to the other side to measure the width. Recently a pupil came to me and said: "now I understand what maths is for, it is for keeping dry feet....". This is the way GeoFort likes to get kids exploring the world of geographic information.
Another example is that we let visitors experience the topic of geographic projections by letting them make a 3D photo of themselves. We then flatten this digital picture in the projection of their choice. With a Merkator projection, their forehead and chin will be extended in a horizontal way. With a Peters projection, they will get a vertically extended face. It is really funny to see these strange faces, while in the meantime this exhibit explains that all maps are distortions of the globe.
When dealing with the topic of earthquakes, we first let visitors build a high tower of small wooden bricks. After three minutes, the table starts to shake. Why do some buildings resist this earthquake while others tumble down immediately? You see family members of all ages having fun while doing competitions with each other. After that they are inspired to learn why and where these earthquakes exist.
In the fortress you can step into an elevator leading you 6000 kilometres down to the deepest part of the earth. On large screens you see all the earth’s layers passing by. The story of the journey to the centre of the earth by Jules Verne is ade real with a floor that is shaking and screens that seem to break because of the great pressure. After these five minutes everyone in the elevator is impressed about the immense heat inside the earth. This helps to understand that this energy source will be of great importance in the near future.
Many kids love to play Minecraft. This game is like digital Lego. For GeoFort it is a wonderful way to teach kids spatial thinking and to teach them to navigate in the virtual world. For that reason we have built the Netherlands in Minecraft. It took us 1000 billion Minecraft blocks to show all the roads, rivers and buildings. Every hill and every house of the real world can be found in this virtual version called GeoCraftNL. This is an excellent educational platform for teaching how to interpret aerial maps, how to navigate in a 3D environment, and how to design new buildings or landscapes. The GeoCraftNL community now consists of 40,000 children working on this virtual version of the Netherlands. This is a totally new type of museum visitor...
Although GeoFort was the winner of the Children in Museums Award 2016, not all people understand the formula of GeoFort. We are a modern science center. This does not fit well in the more traditional concept of museum. Recently the Dutch Ministry of Culture and Education rejected GeoFort from an important cultural fund because our experience based museum does not fit the rather strict criteria, focussing on collection rather than on storytelling. I sincerely hope that the next generation of ministers will be able to think more outside of the box...
The Do's Don'ts of GeoFort
Sense of Fun: Make the exhibit fun to explore.
Every topic on earth can be approached in a humoristic way. Start asking creative and crazy people to join your museum team.
Sense of Experience: Let the visitors do it themselves.
The old Chinese philosopher Confucius told us: "I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand."
Sense of Urgency: Make sure it is clear why your topic is really relevant.
Most people are unaware of the importance of spatial thinking. We show them how to use maps to avoid disasters, how to find the best locations for new wind turbines or how to trace environmental pollution through satellite images. It is wonderful to see how people become fascinated when they get to experience the relevance of this 'geo thing'.
Sense of Theme: Focus on your theme and stick to it.
Everything at GeoFort has something to do with XYZ coordinates. We are very strict about this. Absolutely nothing without XYZ is allowed to enter GeoFort. Even the items on the lunch menu are covered with a geo-related story.
Avoid text as much as possible
It is very difficult to read long texts in a noisy museum with kids pulling at your arm wanting to go on. At GeoFort no more than four lines of text per poster are allowed. We use short sentences and we test if ten-year-old boys and girls can read it easily. We use many visuals and we make sure these pictures perfectly match with the text.
Avoid senseless interactivity
Many museums want to be trendy and want to be called an interactive museum. They add many buttons visitors can press. However, these buttons often do not really have an added value. If they are of no use, I really feel quite stupid pressing all these dumb buttons.
Scientists generally want to search for the absolute truth. A museum, however, is a place to inspire people. You cannot inspire if you let people drown into too much detail. You have to have the guts to generalise and simplify to be able to get the attention of your audience. If they really get interested, they will look up more detailed information on the internet and in libraries afterwards.
Avoid quantity-driven exhibitions
"Less is more". I really get tired of looking at 100 paintings without any explanation or context and I tend to forget them easily altogether. I have more pleasure in looking at just a few paintings while listening to interesting stories being told about them. I am sure I will then tell it to my friends.
Avoid old stuff in glass displays
What can be more boring than looking at many objects stuck behind thick glass displays? Please think of something that can tell the story behind your objects in a more exciting way.
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