OMSI’s exhibit-crafting wizards ready newest exhibition

Here’s a rare look behind the scenes at the lair of the craftspeople who create and build many of those novel and fun hands-on exhibits you see at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry …

Working in OMSI’s Exhibit Studio, David Redburn, production lead for the new exhibit “Design Zone”, attaches knobs to a console that will let visitors create hip-hop music.

Story and photos by David F. Ashton
Since it first opened in 1944, the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI) has entertained and educated young and old with the colorful, unique exhibits they feature on permanent or temporary display.

But, many people don’t realize that OMSI’s own Exhibit Studio actually designs, fabricates and finishes many of the exhibits seen in the museum – and on tour at science museums around the country.

The specialized work that this group of 22 craftspeople perform takes place in a hangar-sized workshop, not far from the museum. We got a tour from David Redburn, currently serving as the production lead for the newest exhibit to be opened to the public on November 20 – “Design Zone”.

Exhibit maker Aaron Liss checks the prototype for a feature called “Design for Speed” against the finished display.

“In our shop, we design and build exhibits, from the circuit boards on up,” Redburn began. “From the smallest part, including mechanical assemblies, we build up exhibits right here in Portland.”

Many different disciplines of construction are represented in their shop, Redburn explained.  “We have a full cabinet shop, a full metalworking shop, and a full electronics and computer shop. But, it all starts with our research, development, and design people. You might say our job is to build what they think up.”

OMSI spokesman Lee Dawson tries out “Drawing in Motion”, part of the newest exhibit at the museum, opening November 20, entitled “Design Zone”.

Several of the exhibits they’ve created and built are permanent exhibits. “Others are designed to go ‘on tour’ as rentals, or we sell them to other museums. It is an additional source of revenue that helps support OMSI,” he added.

OMSI’s touring exhibitions travel throughout the United States; “And, we also build for overseas museums. We have built a version of our CSI exhibit for a museum for Europe, and a copy of the ‘Gravitram’ for one the Philippines. We’ve also built exhibits that are on display in China.”

The current project, opening to the public on November 20, is called “Design Zone”, OMSI’s spokesman, Lee Dawson, told us – while we tried out “Drawing in Motion”, one of the features in the new exhibit.

“I’ll let you in on a secret,” Dawson said with a sly grin. “This new exhibit is about what we call algebraic thinking. But, our visitors will be having so much fun with our hands-on interactive activities – like creating a skate park, a roller coaster ride, a laser show or hip-hop music – they won’t realize that they’re learning mathematical principles.”

You’ve seen their masterfully built exhibits and displays – and now you get a look at just one section of OMSI’s Exhibit Studio, where they are created.

OMSI’s design and fabrication team took on a challenge – successfully, it appears, based on our behind-the-scenes look at “Design Zone” – from the National Science Foundation, to figure out a way to make math fun.

The Oregon Museum of Science and Industry is located at 1945 SE Water Street, on the east bank of the Willamette River, just north of the Ross Island Bridge. For more information, give them a call at (503) 797- 4000 or visit

© 2010 David F. Ashton ~ East Portland News

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