The EMBL Imaging Centre: all about visibility

The future EMBL Imaging Centre will be a technology platform for state-of-the-art microscopy at EMBL Heidelberg. It will allow scientists and industry to use and develop new microscopy techniques to visualise the smallest building blocks of life, and thus its basic processes.

EMBL Imaging Centre Technology Centre Heidelberg grraphic scientist electron microscope advanced light microscope EM ALMF
The EMBL Imaging Centre will host cutting edge imaging technologies. Image: Matthias Schardt/IBA Heidelberg

The EMBL Imaging Centre will also host a permanent exhibition open to the public. The exhibition, henceforth termed visitor experience, will introduce EMBL as an organization, explain the importance of basic research and showcase the potential and the impact that imaging technologies have. It is an invitation to the public to get to know EMBL better, but also to dispel prejudices against basic research.

Inviting the public to get to know EMBL

EMBL as an organization and as a leader in molecular biological research needs to become better known and more accessible to the public. As EMBL’s Outreach and Local Communications Manager, inviting the public to get to know EMBL is my priority and I am leading the EMBL visitor experience project within the Strategy and Communications team.

Ultimately, we want to create a modular programme for visitors and the visitor experience in the EMBL Imaging Centre will be the central module. The concept of an exhibition for the public in the EMBL Imaging Centre has already received some attention as the Internationale Bauausstellung Heidelberg (IBA is one of the most influential urban planning instruments in Germany) have chosen the EMBL Imaging Centre as IBA candidate/ IBA project.

But the visitor experience in the EMBL Imaging Centre will not solely be an educational exhibition for the public but will also function as a physical representation of how EMBL defines itself. For me, EMBL is this buzzing hive of talented people who all together shape EMBL. Thus, in this blog-series, I invite all EMBLers to follow the process and progress involved in developing the visitor experience and to provide your thoughts and your input.

Let’s dive right into it:

Starting the project

Inside, as well as outside of the lab, every well-planned project starts with research into the topic. For instance: What do others do and how do they do it? And, importantly, What are the pitfalls and tricks?

I started by contacting folks at science museums, and I visited museums and conferences and I joined the huge public engagement and science-exhibition online community. It was nice to see that the majority of these people are scientists who, like myself, swapped the pipette for the pen and became science communicators. Everyone was very supportive and eager to share their experiences. The most common and most important piece of advice I received was:

“Know what you want and then, partner with an exhibition design agency that makes sure you also get what you want.”


Do we need help? Yes!

Although EMBL is a pool of talented people with diverse backgrounds, we lack specialists in exhibition design. If we want the visitor experience to meet EMBL’s high quality standards and to blow the mind of the public, we need to get experts on board – as do many institutions and small museums that do not have an in-house team of curators, exhibition designers and public engagement experts.

A design agency specialized in science exhibitions will ensure that our the visitor experience is state-of-the-art, that we reach our intended audience and that we will be effective at planning, producing and managing the exhibition. And an additional external consultant experienced in the setting up of science exhibitions might be of additional value when it comes to deciding on the agency. In brief: partnering with professionals ensures the success of EMBL opening up for the public.

table with phases and timeline of EMBL Imaging Centre exhibition
Overview of project phases

Phase 1: Defining the parameters

“Know what you want” means to define the goals and the basic framework for the visitor experience. Within the last few months we have discussed questions like What is the overarching theme of the exhibition? Who does the exhibition target as an audience? Will the exhibition be guided or stand alone?

Here is a short summary of what we envision the visitor experience to be:

The new EMBL Imaging Centre will host a visitor experience targeted at a non-scientific audience. The visitor experience should inspire people and get them interested in what we do. It should also move people to get involved in science; show the impact of our work in society; and educate visitors about the concepts and principles of life and the scientific method. The scope of the content should include: 1) EMBL and its missions; 2) core concepts in molecular biology; 3) imaging technologies, particularly those in the EMBL Imaging Centre.

Based on this vision, we can start looking for a design agency that helps us creating a visitor experience. A visitor experience that represents EMBL, its values and missions and  that is the fundament for EMBL opening up to the public.




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