Part of health communication is working with unexpected, non-traditional partners to share health messages in innovative and engaging ways. The “Outbreak: Epidemics in a Connected World” exhibit at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History is just that. This novel exhibit communicates about infectious disease outbreaks to the public using interactive multimedia and gamification.
“An outbreak anywhere is a threat everywhere."
The 4,400 square foot exhibit is centered on the theme, One Health, and is designed to highlight the interconnection of human health, environmental health, and animal health. This theme aligns with One Health approach used by the CDC. This approach involves working not only with physicians, but also veterinarians and ecologists, and others to better understand how diseases spread among people, animals, and the environment and to track and control threats to public health.
The exhibit’s opening video gets at the importance of One Health, making a harrowing statement: “An outbreak anywhere is a threat everywhere.” What could be daunting and overwhelming experience, however, is not. The design, content and flow of the exhibit work together to engage, inspire, and empower visitors around health. There’s an excellent balance of science, data, facts and fun throughout the exhibit. This balance is not coincidental; it’s intentional. The exhibit was expertly designed down to the colors, action items and arrows to counteract doom and despair.
The curator of the exhibit, Sabrina Sholts; content expert, Daniel Lucey; chief science adviser, Jonathan Epstein; and their team spent a total of three years developing this exhibit. Starting in 2014, the team held several round tables and were meeting almost daily to flush out the mission statement, goals, learning objectives, and messages for the exhibit.
Once the conceptual framework was complete in 2015, the project manager, writers, graphic designers, and architect worked to develop the content and bring it to life. The team also included an educator, who served as an advocate for the visitor experience and reviewed the content through that lens. With the content and materials done in 2017, the exhibit was set up and opened to the public on May 18, 2018.
The exhibit showcases what countries are doing globally to protect health, and provides visitors tips about what they, as individuals, can do in their day-to-day lives to protect themselves and their loved ones.
Visitors are taken on a journey.
A video loops explaining contributing factors of disease outbreaks using the One Health lens, including how:
An entire wall in the exhibit is dedicated to activities that fuel epidemics, such as wildlife displacement and ecological and climate changes. A placard/display card explains zoonotic diseases (those that have spilled over from bats, rodents and other animals) and how they work.
Visitors learn about nine zoonotic diseases, including HIV, hantavirus, influenza strains, MERS, Nipah, Zika, SARS, Ebola, and the global response to control and prevent those outbreaks.
The exhibit employs a very engaging, visitor-centric spatial and experiential design. The refined lighting moves visitor’s attention to key points of the exhibit, and matches the mood and focus of the exhibit: serious and scary, while empowering and hopeful.
Each section of the exhibit is a chapter in a novel. There are reconstructions of specific events, conditions, environments that allow visitors to experience and emotionally connect to what they are reading and hearing about regarding disease outbreaks.
The mixed multimedia components, including large format graphics, floor to ceiling video screens, 3D models and virtual interactive activities entertain and educate visitors simultaneously.
Visitors can hold and touch models of different pathogens. They can also take on the role of disease detective in an interactive computer game.
Trained volunteers are available to guide and assist visitors through these activities, and to answer questions as visitors make their way through the exhibit. These volunteers complete online modules, attend face-to-face sessions with One Health experts, and learn inquiry-based learning approaches so they are able to facilitate visitors taking an active learning role throughout the exhibit.
The exhibit doesn’t have to end when visitors leave the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. There’s Outbreak DIY, an initiative which includes a condensed, downloadable version of the exhibit, along with communication assets and a toolkit, so anyone in the world can set up an outbreak exhibit. The materials have been requested in over 30 countries (as of May 2018). There was a local DIY Outbreak exhibit in the Russell Senate Office Building Rotunda in Washington, DC on October 1-5, 2018, and universities across the United States are using DIY materials.
The exhibit is a great example of how public health organizations and institutions can engage people around public health issues.
Visit the exhibit to see for yourself. If you’ve visited already, tell us what you think in the comments below.
By: Monique Thornton, MPH