Tuesday, 22 September 2015




Welcome to the first Museum Innovations column of the year! The first innovation of the season actually isn’t new at all. In fact, it celebrated its 30th birthday last year. But this underrated innovation still has a lot of un-tapped potential.

Nature Exchange in Sudbury. Shelves with trading items.
Nature Exchange at Science North. Source

The Nature Exchange reminds me of the prize counter at Chuck E. Cheese's – you’ve just played a bunch of games and have clambered together a couple hundred tickets to trade for prizes based on points.

Flip that to the museum. The Nature Exchange is the museum version of a prize counter. And it has SCIENCE! The exchange was the brain child of Science North in Sudbury, Ont. way back at its opening in 1984. Since then, the idea has been adopted in institutions from Las Vegas to Kamloops, B.C.


The goal of the exchange is for visitors to explore the natural world around them and bring that knowledge back to the museum. The Nature Exchange exhibit (if you can call it that) asks visitors to bring in their own natural history objects – rocks, shells, fossils, pinecones, etc. You then share your knowledge about the object with Nature Exchange staff.

People looking at objects at the Nature Exchange in Springs Preserve Las Vegas.
Nature Exchange at the Springs Preserve in Las Vegas. Source.
The more you know, the more points you get. The nicer or more curious the specimen, the more points you get. Visitors then cash in their points for other cool natural history objects at the exchange, like geodes or nifty shells. Bank points for some of the bigger objects.


What's fascinating about the Nature Exchange is how the experience spans beyond the museum walls. Usually, museums aim to transfer information from the inside-out; you learn something at the museum and then transfer that to your community.

But the Nature Exchange is the opposite. Visitors are learning outside the museum and bringing that knowledge into the institution. It's helping people learn more independently from the museum, you could say, while still using the institution as a forum for idea-sharing. However, I'm sure Nature Exchange staff share tidbits of information, as well.

The trading counter at the Nature Exchange at the Woodlands Park Zoo in Seattle.
Another version of the Nature Exchange at the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle. Source

As far as I know, this outside-in approach is not too common in museums. You could say it happens when visitors share their experiences and memories about objects, but this is often knowledge they already possess.


So, how would this model look in other museum settings? I'm not too sure of the answer to that. Maybe an "Art Exchange", like this mini-museum below, is in order.

The Mini-Art Exchange with art objects in Sudbury.
The Mini Art Exchange... also curiously from Sudbury. Credit: Jenny Ford

The applications are interesting to speculate, and there are advantages to thinking of museums not as disseminators of knowledge but forums, like at the Nature Exchange.


1 comment:

  1. I had never heard of this kind of museum innovation being put into practice before... and I love it! How nice to hear that a Canadian museum has been a pioneer in getting the exchange counter idea up and running. I hope other museums beyond nature / science centres consider getting in on implementing this kind of participatory element. Thank you for sharing it, Jenny!