Lowell Robinson, Director of Digital Experience Lab, Exploratorium

On October 16 I interviewed Lowell Robinson, Director of the Digital Experience Lab at the Exploratorium in San Fransisco. During the interview, Mr. Robinson informed told me about his background in digital media, in particular abstract cinema. This is different than the “usual” fine arts background which other museum professionals have, yet it has helped him create experiences which get visitors to engage with and understand abstract concepts. I asked Mr. Robinson if he creates the apps and experiences for the Exploratorium with a particular audience in mind or if he aims for more educational or entertaining experiences for users. His general opinion was that if an experience is engaging and accessible, it can both educate and entertain for audiences of all ages. I also asked Mr. Robinson about his changing role at the Exploratorium over the last 20 years and if he has needed to learn new skills in order to keep up with rapid changes in technology. He replied that yes, he has needed to learn coding and programing in order to create the apps.

I would have liked to learn more about how Mr. Robinson works to make abstract concepts accessible to visitors, particularly if he uses surveys or studies to gauge what level of understanding visitors arrive with. I understand that this would be dependent on which project Mr. Robinson and the Exploratorium were working on, as well as the demographic information of the average visitor to the museum. A discussion off the average Exporatorium visitor might also have given me a better idea of where the inspiration for these projects comes from.

Overall I had a very pleasant conversation with Mr. Robinson, and I was interested to learn how different strengths and backgrounds can be used to connect visitors with source material. I was also interested by the idea that sometimes a sensory experience is needed to help create that connection.


  1. Elizabeth G. says:

    I admire Lowell’s approach to his work and the fact that his primary focus is the user. The challenge of creating a visceral experience through the digital landscape is still under exploration with many novel applications. UX should always be at the forefront of design considerations on a web space, while optimizing content value.

  2. Mary Mathias says:

    What an interesting conversation! One thing Lowell mentioned that stood out to me was what he said about a successful project: even if a project meets its goals, for him to consider it a success the museum/team needs to have learned something that can be applied to future projects. That’s something that can sort of overshadowed at times when launching and evaluating a digital project. Projects shouldn’t (in general) follow a rigid template time after time. Museums should learn from each project and use that knowledge to make better things in the future.

    1. Jenna Stepp says:

      I loved this comment as well! It fits with the attitude of considering themselves an “R&D” team – all projects are effectively a means of researching what works and will engage their audiences and help them connect with the content and then applying learnings to the next project.

  3. Robin Reif says:

    I was really interested with his background in talking about transitions in technology. He thrived in his field because he was in a digital department instead of animation which guts me as an artist but I understand the adaptability we all have to have in the world today. It was also interesting talking about the beginnings of digital experiences being independent from the museum and the challenges that causes.

  4. kpolesky says:

    I visited the Exploratorium before the move during a day-long workshop with Chandler Screven where we designed, prototyped with white paper and markers, and then tested by watching the visitors and what they read, passed by, etc.
    I thought that Lowell’s recollection of an event where people had to think about what was dangerous on their phone…you have to listen to this! The Exploratorium continues to be the coolest, cutting-edge exhibits on science, and this interview with Lowell just reinforces that reputation. So cool.

  5. Christopher Martinez says:

    Lowell has really put some thought into how one can learn things digitally. It’s refreshing to think that museums are willing to step out and do their own research into how they can transmit concepts to people, and that they can critically think about learning strategies as opposed to using past models for their primary reference.

  6. First of all, the idea the CD games/software could be foreign concept for some is crazy to me! What a great indicator for how far technology has come in just a decade or two. Imagine the feeling you get when you learn your apps and software are being used around the world in meaningful ways that are helping educate so many! It almost seems surreal. I truly appreciated his discussion on how to protect your institution and its brand when you are putting content on the Internet. I think this is a big concern for many institutions who don’t want their content/name to be misused, abused, or taken out of context. In the same thought, we can’t let these fears hold ourselves back from sharing to the public. Learning how other institutions like the Exploratorium protect themselves is helpful for others to adapt as well.

    1. Andrea A. says:

      This is Andrea! I’m not sure why it doesn’t have my name on my profile.

  7. Jenna Stepp says:

    As an admirer of the Exploratorium, I really loved this talk – so many great questions were asked! The spirit of ‘learning about learning’ Lowell speaks to can be so well served with digital and interactive projects; especially when you can take learnings from each project and apply it to the next. I really appreciate the commitment to making the Exploratorium a “safe space to learn” where visitors feel comfortable enough that they can really challenge themselves beyond standard educational activities. Designing interactives by starting with asking yourself what are the things you remember as learning experiences, that changed how you see the world around you and make you ask questions will certainly lead to some great concepts.
    I was also really interested by his pointing out that there are likely many users of the apps that the Exploratorium has put out who may not be aware that the Exploratorium is actually a space they could visit. Digital has the potential to expand a museum’s audience and reach to new audiences who may never make it in their doors; these products from the Exploratorium demonstrate that these audiences are just as valuable, will find what you put out there, and are willing/eager to interact with great content.

  8. I wish I could visit the Exploratorium for their After Dark series! Lowell’s discussion of the Dangerous Ideas activity was interesting. I’m not sure I could come up with a response if I were there, though the transaction – idea for a beer – would be really appealing! His comment about having the right amount of parameters to make it feel like a real experience makes a lot of sense. There’s a fine line between orchestrating an experience for an audience and setting them up to have their own experience, whatever that may be. It seems similar to what several other guest experts have touched on: allowing the audience to dictate their needs instead of telling them what their needs should be.

  9. Jennifer Hall says:

    It’s great to hear from a representative of the Exploratorium with its incredible history and to try to get a glimpse of the atmosphere and learning techniques being used today. I think he gets right at the heart of the museum field when he talks about “learning about learning.” Learning as a matter of engagement is absolutely why I think the challenge of creating exhibits and digital initiatives is so fun (and engaging in and of itself!). How do we stimulate Active Prolonged Engagement to encourage learning? It’s such a great framing of the issue, and I think his elaboration on the fact that the designer should be learning as much as the user is really useful for museum studies students.

  10. Zoey Washington says:

    I love that he has such a rich background in abstract cinema, which would make sense given the exploratory nature of his job. The merger of new technology with the in-person approach is a tough balance to strike and I think having an art and cinema background would lend itself well to being able to help visitors connect on a sensory level with the collection online.

  11. Kelly McKenna says:

    Lowell’s approach to the design process echoes a lot of the user-centered topics that we covered this semester. He changes designs all of the time based on showing work in progress to as many people as possible and finding out what they take away from it. It’s important that he likes being surprised and ending up with something completely different that we he started with. Making changes based on user feedback will always make the project stronger.

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