In 1999, a generous grant from the National Science Foundation enabled us to launch an ambitious Web-based pilot project called Origins , which explores the origins of matter, the universe, earth, and even life itself. We wanted to open a window onto the culture and process of scientific research, enabling our audience of adults and children to get as close to it as possible. Our plan was to use the tools of interactive media, such as live video Webcasts and interactive Web sites, to illuminate the human endeavor behind scientific research. Other goals were to use a museum setting to cover contemporary science, and to reach an audience of millions, a seemingly impossible challenge. We met our goals, but learned a humbling amount about our audience, the process of science, and media technology along the way.

The project was organized around virtual field trips to eight scientific observatories where significant, ongoing research is conducted. We went behind the scenes at these institutions and at locations that are generally off limits to the public, including a rain forest research station in Belize, underneath Antarctica’s sea ice, and an underground particle accelerator. Using the Web, we enabled our audience to look over the shoulders of scientists at work—in laboratories and in the field.

For each location, we created a content-rich Web site with interactive elements, video clips, articles, and images, providing context for a series of live Webcasts. Each Web site included pieces on related topics—from particle physics to penguin research—and introduced the ideas that drive research, the tools that make discoveries possible, and the scientists and support staff that conduct the work. Along the way, we created a new kind of public space: an intersection of the Web and museum floor that brought live events and multiple remote locations together for both on-line and museum audiences.

Origins was a risky venture. With virtually no successful media models to use as examples, we had to invent our own. We tried many experiments—some successful, others minor disasters—but like the scientific process itself, we always learned something from each experience and tried to apply the lessons to our next location.

Collaboration and Teamwork Are Key

Origins would have been impossible without the generous assistance and expertise of scientists and staff at each location. We entered into each partnership with a collaborative spirit, searched for scientists who could tell compelling stories about their work, and acted as mediators between esoteric research and the general public. We backed up scientists’ stories with striking text, images, and video that showed as much as told the details of life and work at these institutions. It took time to gain trust and develop relationships with collaborators—at least a year of advance research and meetings—before production work could begin.

For each location and its subsequent Web site, we assembled a team of Web developers, artists, video producers, photographers, writers, and technical producers, and involved them in generating ideas as early as possible. After establishing a relationship with an institution, we conducted research and scouted locations to prepare for production and media-gathering trips. We used this material to develop each Web site and provide additional media for Webcasts. Each Web site was launched in advance of the Webcasts to provide context and to build on-line audiences for live programs. Early on, we experimented with marketing Origins through printed posters. However, we learned that we could generate a larger on-line audience by promoting the site via major search engines and newsgroups.