Centennial Railway Garden

An interactive outdoor pavilion that unlocks the past with playful tablets and a whimsical mobile site
  • Client:
    San Diego Model Railroad Museum
  • Services:
    Concept, Design, Development, Grant-writing, Visitor Study
  • Funder:
    Institute of Museum and Library Services

To commemorate the centennial of Balboa Park, The San Diego Model Railroad Museum (SDMRM) teamed with BPOC to imagine an innovative, forward-thinking homage to the past. The result is an intricate model featuring scale reproductions of Balboa Park landmarks and interactive elements controlled by visitors through a trio of clever tablet-based quizzes. Visitors can continue the experience—and learn more—by playing on their mobile phone as well.

Working closely with the landscape architect's, model builders, electricians, and electronics consultants of SDMRM, BPOC designed and developed an interactive iPad quiz which communicated with the models themselves, letting visitors trigger lights, sounds, and water features when they answered questions correctly. After the garden’s opening, BPOC continued to work closely with SDMRM, both in providing training and maintenance documentation, and in planning and conducting a thorough visitor evaluation to measure impact.

With goals of education, inspiration, and celebration, BPOC planned, designed, and evaluated the project carefully to make sure it met expectations. The result was an intricate, immersive exhibit that visitors reported learning from and enjoying.

Electronics with Raspberry Pi in a custom enclosure

Technical Details

The Centennial Railway Garden strives to spark visitor interest across disciplines. SDMRM highlights engineering aspects of model building in much of their work, and collaborated with local MakerPlace to 3D-print details on the garden’s models. To balance the engineering focus, SDMRM wanted to incorporate humanities-based historical information about the 1915 Exposition. BPOC designed a web app for iPads placed in front of three of the garden’s models, which shares historical facts and quizzes visitors on trivia about buildings in the Exposition. The web pages on the iPads are served by three small Raspberry Pi computers running a Node.js webserver, which are wired to amplifiers and electrical relays to trigger lights and sounds on the model when a visitor correctly answers a question. The bell tower rings; the fountain turns on; the Spreckels Organ lights up and plays a tune from an archival recording. Incorporating these responses into the physical environment serves not only as a reward for learning, but a delight characteristic of the wonder of the original Exposition.

Evaluation and Survey

As part of the grant, SDMRM hired BPOC to create, administer, and analyze a two-month survey of the SDMRM visitors’ experience with The Centennial Railway Garden exhibition. The exhibit increased attendance; of over 300 visitors surveyed, 15% came specifically for The Centennial Railway Garden. On a 5 point scale, 53% of those surveyed gave the highest rating to “it was a highlight of my visit today,” 82% gave the highest rating to “I learned something interesting from my exhibit experience,” and 90% gave the highest rating to “I was satisfied with my exhibit experience.” Visitor feedback confirmed that the exhibit experience worked. SDMRM is working with the City of San Diego to make the exhibit—planned only to be temporary—a permanent installation.

The Centennial Railway Garden honors the innovation of the 1915 Panama-California Exhibition, combining traditional railroad models with modern iPad interactivity, and providing visitors with a memorable cross-disciplinary learning experience. It is a unique representation of, and tribute to the museum, the Park, and the heritage and spirit of each.

Additional Information

Throughout 2015, organizations in San Diego’s Balboa Park looked for ways to commemorate the centennial of the Panama-California Exposition which put Balboa Park on the map. The 1915 Exposition showcased the best in technology, innovation, and culture. Part of the Exposition’s success was the trolley system, which took visitors across the country to San Diego and from the City train depot to Balboa Park. What better way for The San Diego Model Railroad Museum to honor the exposition than with a scale model version of Balboa Park, with its trolley, as it was in 1915? Wanting to design a novel, memorable experience honoring the spirit of the 1915 Exposition, SDMRM worked with BPOC to create an interactive to complement the model environment.