National Canal Museum

The Science Museum of Minnesota worked with the National Canal Museum to develop, design, and build a series of interactive science exhibits that interpret the rich history of America's canals. The large-scale, low-tech, hands-on interactives, aimed at an elementary-school audience, describe how early engineers manipulated natural forces and simple machines to build an efficient inland waterway system. Visitors float model boats through a 90-foot working scale model canal system, loading and unloading cargo and operating locks and weirs. Other interactives allow them to experiment with pulleys, harness a mule, and run the finances of a boat captain. Designed to offer maximum interactivity in a minimum amount of space, the exhibit is on permanent display at the National Canal Museum in Easton, Pennsylvania. A modular traveling exhibit, Building America's Canals, is available to smaller museums.

The National Canal Museum received the Leading Edge Award for Visitor Experience (small institution) at the 2008 ASTC conference for these permanent exhibitions. From the ASTC website, "Since opening in 2006, the exhibits have been enjoyed by over 456,000 visitors and have transformed the National Canal Museum from a didactic, artifacts-based history museum for canal buffs into an interactive and engaging science and history center for visitors of all ages."

BACK TO PROJECT HISTORY

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Intro Title Wall
Intro title wall
The introductory panels utilize visual design elements from canal locks. Open areas in the walls provide tantalizing glimpses into the exhibit.

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Build a Canal
Build a Canal
Drawing from a selection of canal parts, visitors build a canal into this landscape.

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Build a Canal
Build a Canal
A low table and sturdy materials mean this young engineer can design a canal his own way.

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Arched Bridges
Arched Bridges
First, build an aqueduct. Then remove the embankments and press down on the top of the arches to see why those supports are necessary.

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Canal model
Canal Model
A 90-foot-long, water-filled model canal system is a great place to learn about how locks work.

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Canal model
Canal Model
Simple machines, like inclined planes, were essential to canals when a hill was too steep or did not have enough water available to make locks practical.

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Canal model
Canal Model
Coal fueled America’s growth. Canals were an inexpensive route to move coal from the inland mines to where it was needed.

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Harness
Harness
Mules were essential for pulling canal boats. Visitors can harness a mule while they learn how harnesses help distribute weight and make pulling easier on the mule.

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Tiller
Tiller
Shift the tiller and the “boat” you are standing on rotates—with you on it! Suddenly, pulling the tiller right to make the boat turn left makes sense.

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Pulleys
Pulleys
Visitors try out simple machines for themselves. The barrel with the most pulleys takes the least force to lift, but you have to pull a lot of rope to raise it up.
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