Episode 64

64. Kennedy Space Center's Shuttle Atlantis Experience Is Part Museum, Part Themed Attraction

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About this Episode

The Space Shuttle Atlantis Experience, which opened at Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Cape Canaveral, Florida in 2013 brings visitors “nose to nose” with one of the three remaining Space Shuttle orbiters. The team that built it used principles of themed attraction design to introduce visitors to the orbiter and the rest of the exhibits.

Atlantis is introduced linearly and deliberately: visitors see two movies about the shuttle before the actual orbiter is dramatically revealed behind a screen. The orbiter’s grand entrance was designed by PGAV Destinations, whose portfolio includes theme parks and museums. Diane Lochner, a vice president of the company who was part of the architectural design team, says that without that carefully-planned preparation, visitors wouldn’t have the same powerful emotional reaction to the Shuttle.

In this episode, Lochner is joined by Tom Owen, another vice president at PGAV Destinations to talk about the visitor experience considerations of the Shuttle Atlantis Experience, whether attractions engineered to create a specific emotional response in visitors are appropriate for museum contexts, and the broader trend of museums taking cues from theme park design.

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Below is a transcript of Museum Archipelago episode 64. Museum Archipelago is produced for the ear and the only the audio of the episode is canonical. For more information on the people and ideas in the episode, refer to the links above.

We’re going to start today’s episode with a thought experiment. Think of a museum. The first museum you think of. What does it look like?

Hold that thought.

Now think of a theme park?

How different do they look from each other? My guess, is pretty different.

But the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Cape Canaveral, Florida has aspects of both.

One the one hand, it is a museum—galleries featuring spacecraft, historic launch pads, and a complete Saturn V rocket layed out in an enormous room.

But on the other hand, it is a themed attraction—a destination featuring ride-like simulators, themed concession stands, and the new Space Shuttle Atlantis Experience.

It’s as if the Complex, only a short drive from Orlando, Florida, is competing for visitors against one of the globe’s most effective themed attractions — Walt Disney World.

As it turns out, not everyone everyone mentally separates museums and theme parks so discreetly.

Tom Owen: We have a nuanced view about the relationship between entertainment and education

This is Tom Owen, a vice president of PGAV Destinations who worked on that new Space Shuttle Atlantis Experience at Kennedy Space Center

Tom Owen: Hello. My name is Tom Owen. I’m a Vice President with PGAV Destinations. My background is in theater, scenery and lighting design for theater and so I’ve been able to incorporate that theatrical thinking into my work with museums and zoos and aquariums and theme parks really the entire time I’ve been here.

It’s not surprising that someone who works in both museums and theme parks would see similarities between the two. But I am surprised that Owen doesn’t see the world divided between education and entertainment.

Tom Owen: I think that entertainment is a great way to educate people. If it was just the dry facts, people would get bored and leave. Entertainment doesn’t diminish education. In fact, I think it often times makes it more effective.

Diane Lochner We believe that you can actually learn quite a bit from theme parks and themed attractions.

This is Diane Lochner, who is also a vice president of PGAV. She also worked on the Space Shuttle Atlantis Experience.

Diane Lochner: “Hello, my name is Diane Lochner. I’m a Vice President at PGAV Destinations. And my background is actually in architecture. I’m a registered architect and have been for 20 plus years. And so my intrigue is the understanding of the built environment, but how that impacts visitors as they’re working their way through attractions and museums.

And the Space Shuttle Atlantis Experience can be described as both a themed attraction and a museum. The exhibit, which opened in 2013, features one of the three remaining shuttle orbiters — the white part of U.S. space shuttle system that looks like a giant glider.

Lochner and the rest of the design team used principles of themed attraction design to introduce visitors to the orbiter.

Diane Lochner: So we made some conscious decisions about how to introduce people to the shuttle itself. So, it’s a very scripted linear experience prior to witnessing the shuttle. And that was intentional because we needed to emotionally prepare the visitors to accept the information that they were going to learn about the shuttle. And we think that’s a critical piece in planning. And so before anybody actually sees the shuttle itself, there was a short pre-show film that gave a little bit of information, mostly about the people that were involved in designing the shuttle. It’s not heavy, it’s not deep, it’s not long. And then they move into another theater that is got a very inspirational film again about the shuttle and the launch and some of the sequence of the process of the shuttle, and then finally at the end of that film, the shuttle is revealed very dramatically.

This type of timed control with a required film reminds me of a more recent example: George Washington’s Headquarters Tent displayed at the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The tent is presented in its own theater with screens and projections. If the tent was simply set up in a gallery without the focused attention, people would just walk right past it. But by making a large production out of it with lights, screens, and sounds, the effect is a viscerally memorable experience.

Now back to the Shuttle Atlantis.

Diane Lochner: The image on the screen actually aligns with the space shuttle beyond. At the end of the film, the screen actually lifts up and the visitors are presented nose to nose, so to speak, with Space Shuttle Atlantis. So it’s a pretty dramatic presentation relative to meeting Atlantis for the first time.

Diane Lochner: It’s really been an interesting thing to watch visitors clap and cry as that screen lifts up and reveals the shuttle. And so in that sense, I think we created that really important preparation so that people were ready to receive the information and start to learn and start their experience at Space Shuttle Atlantis.

After the screen dramatically lifts up relieving the orbitor, visitors pass through the hole where the screen used to be and enter the Atlantis display, after which they are free to wander through the entire gallery.

The main idea of the gallery is that the U.S. Space Shuttle system was an innovative program, designed to reuse spacecraft so that the frequency of going to space could increase and astronauts get more work done in space.

Tom Owen: The main takeaway about the whole shuttle program is the individual orbiters was part of a system and that that whole purpose of that whole shuttle program was working in space. And so we depicted Atlantis as a workhorse. In fact, the way that we chose to display it was up in the air, banked at a dramatic banking and with the payload bay doors open, the telescopic arm deployed just as it would have been at the moment that it was pulling away from the International Space Station. So that that message of Atlantis at work was a powerful image that we wanted to ingrain in the minds of people.

Tom Owen: Every exhibit that was designed had to be approved by NASA’s STEM education team. So there was, again, a very strong interest that people learn, but also that the project would inspire the next generation of space exploration. The project wasn’t designed for people that are already space enthusiasts or already knew a lot about space. It was really designed, at least as much or for the most part, for people that we wanted to inspire so that they would become space enthusiasts and maybe maybe take an interest in STEM or maybe even take an interest in a career in the space program.

So here’s that middle part of the Venn Diagram, the intersection of a themed attraction and a museum: the Shuttle Atlantis Experience is educational, and it deals with a set of historical events. But it heavily relies on some of the principles of themed attractions to get the point across.

Fundamentally, I see themed attractions as engineered to create a specific emotional response in visitors — and through that, they offer an escape from the real world. They are a chance for us to enter a fictional world. “Frontierland”, an “old west”-themed land in the Magic Kingdom at Disney World, never actually existed, but clever trick is to make it feel like a lived-in space that has a history. When I am in a fictional world, even the smallest thing that reminds me of the real world takes me out of the illusion. And hilariously, sometimes a theme park will go so far as to put up up fake historical markers and even museums that describe people and events that never happened, but nevertheless lead to what the environment looks like today.

But when learning about the real world, I’m not so sure the same strategies apply. The real world is messy, and the study of history, for example, is not fun, and not amusing. In episode 17 of Museum Archipelago, I cover the spectacular failure of a Disney theme park concept called Disney’s America in the early nineties. Disney’s misguided idea would have put a park showcasing [quote] “the sweep of American History” — including the institution of Slavery and the Civil War — within a fun theme park environment just outside Washington, DC.

Courtland Milloy, writing in a series of Washington Post editorials about the then planned Disney’s America around 1993, brought out the inherent contradiction of the project merging a fun day out with a view into American history. He writes, “Against a backdrop of a continuing distortion of African American history, which includes awful textbooks and self-induced amnesia about the legacy of slavery, a slave exhibit by Disney doesn’t even sound right.”

By contrast the U.S. space program happens to an example of a much less problematic history that, as a result, works displayed in a themed attraction setting -- and one on US. Government property not at Disney World. Being a shuttle astronaut was extremely risky -- of the five shuttle orbiters that have gone to space -- only three of them are still around to display in museums. But nobody become a shuttle astronaut by accident.

And since the failed Disney’s America concept, the big theme parks have stayed out of attractions based on real-life histories, or at least relatively recent real life histories. Instead, they have blurred the lines between various destination types by switching modes. Both Owen and Lochner see a world where competition for visitors leads museums to focus more on creating that specific emotional response you find in themed attractions.

Diane Lochner: I think that museums are beginning to investigate other attractions relative to continuing to capture more visitors, at least certainly the ones that we're talking to in the most recent projects. They are really beginning to understand that they might have to do some things that are a little more out of their norm relative to appealing to visitors because they still want to make sure that obviously they are achieving their goals relative to educational standards and things like that. But certainly the competition for time has really increased. And so I think, in general, museums are starting to think about different ways of curating the experience for individuals and really beginning to connect to visitors' emotions in different ways.

Tom Owen: And even though the objective of Disney may not be for visitors to come and learn something, or at least not to be able to go down a list of facts that they learned about a certain topic, which some of the museum might say is their objective. I think people learn things going to theme parks. For example, if a kid is at a certain age where they've been fearful of roller coasters but they get brave and they decide to get on a roller coaster. They're learning something important about themselves and the fact that they're put into an experience that's really special and over the top and different from their everyday experience, it inspires them and it opens up their world of thinking.