Hands-On High Tech
At Monsanto’s biotech research center, Spagnola & Associates marries digital storytelling and farming in a dramatic interactive exhibit.
When Monsanto opened its new visitor center at its research headquarters near St. Louis, Missouri, the agricultural biotechnology company saw the opportunity to tell its story in a new way—one that focused more on agriculture than on the company itself and used technology as a powerful narrative tool.
“The facility was built in 1984, and in the meantime, the company had changed, the world had changed, and there were a lot of digital tools available to tell our story,” says Tami Schilling, Vice President of Technology Communications at Monsanto.
Previously, the company had offered a 45-minute video before guiding visitors (a mix of farmers, students, and financiers) around the facility. But Monsanto wanted to engage them in a new way by pairing high technology and agriculture—reflective of what is happening at the center.
“People would come in and want to learn about Monsanto, but we didn’t think about how to invite people into a conversation about what they care about—the population, the planet, people, progress, the potential to deliver more and better food, and better conservation practices,” says Schilling. “We wanted to share that we have a common value system, that there are things we think about every day, and that those common values matter more than anything.”
Storytelling by design
The first task was moving the visitor center from a conference room to a more prominent location adjacent to the entry lobby. The 2,500-square-foot exhibit is designed to be an unguided tour, with an informational hierarchy in each display that allows visitors to explore each topic at their leisure and in any depth they choose.
To reimagine the visitor center, Schilling tapped Spagnola & Associates (New York), which had designed an exhibit for Monsanto in China in 2010. Spagnola set out to create a permanent exhibit that would educate customers and visitors about the challenges facing farmers today.
Spagnola’s challenge—packing a lot of information into a small, high-ceilinged room with full-height windows and no wall space—led to the use of interactive exhibits. “Interactivity gave us the ability to layer a lot of information into a small space while ensuring visual continuity throughout the exhibit,” explains Tony Spagnola, Principal.
The exhibit is divided into four topics—Planet, Population, Productivity, and Progress. Each is the focus of a 13-foot-high interactive display that takes advantage of the 20-foot ceilings and features a central 10-foot-high glass totem, a waist-high white circular interactivity table, a black steel base, and 12-foot-diameter circular cork flooring underfoot.
The challenge for Spagnola was creating unique interactive elements that told individual stories but shared a continuity of form. The highly interactive displays emphasize how Monsanto is working to get technology into the hands of farmers by letting the farmers use interactive technology to learn more about the topics.
“The interactive stations talk about the big story, and each pillar has some kind of interactivity to get you started, with touchscreens that give you further depth of subtopics within the topic,” Spagnola explains.
For example, the four-sided glass Planet display incorporates three touchscreens controlling or presenting information on the amount of water on the planet, where farmable land can be found, and how changes in the weather impact where things grow. Visitors can turn one of three interactive knobs next to the touchscreens that, using LED lighting and transparencies, illuminate the vertical display with the answer to a question (e.g., the display appears to “fill” with water to show what percentage of the earth’s water is fresh). Each touchscreen then provides additional information on the topic, such as where freshwater can be found worldwide.
For the two-sided Population pylon highlighting the growing population and future crop needs, designers specified two glass panels with four rear-lit globes labeled with predicted future population growth. On the growing population side, the touchscreen allows visitors to see how the population is increasing in different time increments. Users can stop a time ticker (on a monitor hidden behind the glass) at any moment, and an image appears to visually illustrate the population growth for that time period. For example, if the ticker is stopped at one day, a picture of a stadium in St. Louis appears to show that one day’s growth worldwide equals the population of St. Louis. Likewise, stopping the ticker at one year will reveal an image of Japan to show that 365 days’ growth is equal to the population of Japan. On the other side of the display, visitors can push one of three buttons on the table with images of corn, cotton, and soy, and text will appear on three stacked, frameless monitors to show how much more farmers will need to grow to feed the future population.
The four-sided Productivity pillar uses lenticular images to illustrate how people farm in other countries. For example, one image shows farmers in America using tractors while another shows a farmer in China doing the same work by hand. The three touchscreens feature the same multiple-choice quiz game—for example, “How many countries farm by hand?”, “How many countries have electricity?”—with the opportunity for visitors to delve deeper for more information.
For the Progress display, Spagnola says, “All I wanted was a big image of corn, and three monitors made that happen.” Three stacked monitors display looped imagery of crops on all sides. The screens are designed to interact with soil-filled magnetic pucks on the table below. Users can place a soil-filled puck over a circular image of seeds (e.g., canola, wheat, corn, soybeans), and that triggers the “growth” of a plant on the stacked screens. For example, if you put the dirt puck over the corn seeds, a corn stalk begins to “grow” from the lower screen, then up to the second screen, until it is a mature 10-foot-high stalk that traverses all three screens. After the image is fully “grown,” copy slides in from the side to reveal how the crop is being grown better through new technologies.
Creating a theatrical display using a variety of interactives required a lot of behind-the-scenes effort. Art Guild Inc., which realized Spagnola’s vision for the interactive exhibits, had three months to “bend physics a little bit” and create a seamless experience, according to David Egner, Art Guild’s Director of Museum Services. For example, Art Guild went through several rounds of prototyping and materials to make the lightbox in the Planet pillar virtually invisible until text appears in front of the graphic. For the Productivity totem, Spagnola wanted illumination from corner to corner, so Art Guild had to figure out how to diffuse the light without creating hot spots.
Additionally, designers did not want any visible means of support for the pillars and had originally specified thin Corian tabletops. In the end, however, Art Guild used thicker Corian for better support and housed all of the mechanics in the pillars’ circular painted steel base, with access panels to reach the mechanics.
Art Guild also used thin, lightweight aircraft cabling and custom connectors to minimize the visible support for the ceiling-hung disk on Potential. And because St. Louis is in a seismic zone, everything had to be engineered for exceptional stability and security.
Getting the lighting just right was also crucial, so Spagnola tapped Richard Renfro, Principal of Renfro Design Group, to switch on the drama. Simple black track lighting illuminates the individual pillars from above, while tiny LED lights under each display throw light down onto the cork flooring. “I wanted the flooring around each display to glow, like you’re on a floating plane,” Spagnola says of the stage-set-like design.
The new visitor center—officially named the Ernest Jaworski Agricultural Science Gallery to honor Ernest Jaworski, who led the agricultural research group’s pioneering genetic modification efforts—has been a big hit with Monsanto and visitors.
“Tony’s design knocked our socks off. We had no idea how amazing it would be,” Schilling enthuses, adding that an unexpected outcome is the number of requests from the community to use the center as an event space. “It catches people’s attention, sets a tone when people enter, and has been a thought and conversation generator.”
Spagnola says the exhibit’s interactivity—and visual drama—are attention-getters. “If you make something that’s beautiful, it will be memorable, and if people remember it, then it’s worth their time.”
--By Jenny Reising, eg magazine No. 07, 2014
CHESTERFIELD VILLAGE RESEARCH CENTER
Client: Monsanto Company
Location: Chesterfield, Mo.
Project Size: 2,500 sq. ft.
Open Date: March 2012
Design: Spagnola & Associates
Design Team: Tony Spagnola art director; Nico Curtis, Kyle Green, Darren Norris designers
Exhibit Fabrication, Technology Development, and Production: Art Guild Inc.
Environmental Signage: Adler Custom Signs (exterior vine sculpture)
Consultants: Sue Wadlow exhibition writing; Renfro Design Group lighting consultants
Photos: David Sundberg / Esto