Even while Boston’s Museum of Science was shuttered for part of last year, there was an awareness among its staff that something extraordinary was happening.
As scientists raced to develop a COVID-19 vaccine, “we were watching the biggest science story of many of our lifetimes unfold,” said Lydia Beall, the Farinon director of museum programs. “There’s the moon shot that people remember from the ′60s, and then this is going to be something that people talk about and tell their kids about for generations.”
“Project Vaccine: Our Best Defense,” the newest exhibit at the Museum of Science, tells this story through hands-on activities and presentations for the whole family, with the end goal, Beall said, of reducing vaccine hesitancy and honoring the people who made the vaccines a reality.
“It’s rare that we get an opportunity to tell the story of a science event that everyone can relate to,” Beall said. “We know that people might be suffering some COVID fatigue, but we’re hoping that the experiences and the interactives are engaging enough that there’s still something you want to participate [in] with your family when you come to visit.”
The 1,500-square foot exhibit, which debuted Aug. 16, has five main components. The first is a short film that highlights the emphasis put on diversity and equity in clinical trials for COVID-19 vaccines, as well as past examples of medical mistreatment of individuals and communities of color, such as the Tuskegee study. “It’s something that needs to be discussed,” Beall said. “We want to have the information to provide about how it’s different this time and how we are getting better.”
The film, like the rest of the exhibit, is presented in both English and Spanish.
At another station, “Many Vaccines, One Purpose,” visitors can learn about the different types of vaccines, including viral vectors and mRNAs, through videos of notable Boston scientists such as Adrianne Gladden-Young of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard and Galit Alter of Harvard Medical School.
On a recent Friday afternoon, Sarah Witherell and her son, Jonathan, were visiting from Woburn. “My son has been asking a lot of questions — he’s not old enough for the vaccine yet, he’s only 5,” Witherell said. “Having that visual definitely helps.”
Beall said it was crucial to enlist experts in developing the exhibit, which is sponsored by the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center and the Janssen Pharmaceutical Companies of Johnson & Johnson. “People are looking to the Museum of Science as a trusted voice,” Beall said. “We want to make sure that we’re convening the most trusted resources that we can in our community.”
At “Stop the Spread,” people can use a touchscreen to manipulate variables, such as a virus’s contagion rate and the number of people getting vaccinated daily, and watch a time-lapsed visualization of the virus’s spread. “Managing the Last Mile” covers “how vaccines become vaccinations — they’re produced, but we need to get them into people’s arms,” Beall said, showing the contributions of people including nurses, computer programmers, and truck drivers in the vaccine distribution process. “It really is a big orchestrated effort.”
In “Take a Stand,” participants move to different spots on the ground indicating their position on different questions — for instance, how likely they would be to enroll in a clinical vaccine trial. “We let people think about vaccine questions that are influenced by science and also by their personal values,” Beall said. A screen then shows how other visitors answered and plays prerecorded responses illustrating each perspective.
Though results from vaccine trials for children under 12 have yet to be released, Beall said the museum wants “to be ahead of that” with dialogue around the importance of getting as many people as possible inoculated.
“We want to be talking with schools, with kids, with teachers about vaccines and vaccine science so that they’re informed and ready to make those decisions when the time is available for them to get them,” she said.
The museum will mandate vaccines for its approximately 650 employees and volunteers by Sept. 13.
“Project Vaccine” will be a permanent exhibit at the Museum of Science — “vaccine education will continue to be important,” Beall said — and two copies of it were made to travel to other cities. The first stops, later this year, will be at institutions to be announced in Worcester and Birmingham, Ala., one of the country’s least-vaccinated states.
Beall said she hopes the exhibit — recommended for children in third grade and up — will “spark a conversation” for the whole family.
“These are really amazing science accomplishments, many of which came right out of this community, that are going to help us get back to normal,” Beall said. “Science saving the day is a message that I hope that kids get.”