Friday, April 29, 2016

Tinkering and Building Things: An Interview with Clifford Wagner


Clifford Wagner started his Science Center career in 1980, and since then has created interactive exhibit components and traveling exhibitions for countless museum visitors.  Over 35 years later,  he still loves trying to come up with great visitor experiences.

I was delighted that Clifford took the time to share his thoughts with ExhibiTricks readers in the interview below:


What’s your educational background?  I’ve got a Degree in Art and Design.  But you could say my education started with my mother being a teacher and my father an engineer.  She always encouraged creativity. My father passed along a lot of his knowledge to me with the tinkering and building things in the basement we did together. 


What got you interested in Museums?  Truth to tell, I stumbled into it.  I did a couple of years of custom furniture making.  Then in 1980 I got hired as a cabinetmaker at the Franklin Institute Science Museum.  Immediately I was building hands on interactive exhibits and that is what I have been doing ever since. I was the chief interactive device designer/prototyper when I left the Franklin eleven years later, to jump across the street to Please Touch Museum for Children as Director of Exhibits.  The Science museum work focused me on creating the best possible interactive experiences for our visitors.  The children’s museum work got me to be more playful. 


How does actually building your own exhibits inform your design process?  I make my own mechanisms and cabinetry, so I have a good idea of what is workable.  This hands-on knowledge informs my design process at every stage.  Whether I’m working on my own projects or with another museum or science center, the process starts with brainstorming.   At the beginning,  don’t rule something out because it seems impossible to achieve.  Who knows? It might be doable. One of my favorite lines I use in brainstorming is “And the luxury version of this device would be….” Quite often  the final, doable device can incorporate much from the pie in the sky version.

When I design and build interactives I pay very close attention to where our eyes go when we are looking at something for the first time.  An interactive can be confusing to visitors if the sequence isn’t logical.  I’ve seen text, just six inches away from where it should be. Because it is not in an intuitive place, for the visitor it might just as well be on the other side of the moon. I do this eyetracking as a mental process but now eyetracking hardware can be had for as little as $500.  I can’t endorse this because I haven’t used it, but it does exist.


Tell us a little bit about your current thinking about traveling exhibitions?  When we make  a traveling exhibit we must ensure that visitors are going to have a meaningful response to it, whether that response is humor or emotion or pure delight or relevancy to their lives. Every component that makes it into my traveling exhibits is there because it has a high probability of the visitor reacting to it by pulling over their friends  “Come here, you’ve got to see this!” Are your exhibits doing that? If not, tweak them until they do.


What are some of your favorite online (or offline!) resources for people interested in finding out more about exhibition development?   Museum conferences are great. This is when all of our virtual colleagues turn real. Go and talk to everyone doing the same sort of work you are doing.  Do not be shy. For me there is nothing more valuable than being at a host city museum with other people whose lives are creating exhibits and being able to ask them: what do they think? What do they think of the exhibit that you both are standing in front of? Ask, talk, listen, learn and teach.


What advice would you have for fellow museum professionals, especially those from smaller museums, in bringing more variety into their exhibitions?    Museum professionals have a lot to learn from each other. Science Centers can learn a lot about playfulness from Children’s Museums. Children’s museums can learn how to engage adults as well as kids. Art Museums can enhance visitor experiences by having more hands-on devices. For variety from a purely design point of view, a good interactive has both hooking and holding power. It has to attract the visitor’s attention, and then keep that attention. One way to get variety into an exhibition is to have as many different kinds of hooks as possible. An unexpected way to control the action. A mirror so people can see their own faces. A sign with an interesting question.


What do you think is the “next frontier” for traveling exhibitions?  Science Centers have been exploring timely and relevant topics for quite a while, since pioneering exhibits such as Darkened Waters about the Exxon Valdez oil spill. When we produce an exhibit we are asking for our visitors' time and attention.  Are our exhibits worthy of their attention?  Are we putting all this time and energy into illuminating things that inspire visitors and help our civilization continue to flourish? Children’s museums have to make sure that any traveling exhibition they bring in works for the adults as much as the kids.  Adults are 50% of your audience.  Giving adults good stuff will make them want to come back.


What are some of your favorite museums or exhibitions?   I love the extraordinary playfulness of the City Museum in St. Louis. I also love the questions raised by the exhibit and book called Massive Change by Bruce Mau.  How is this for an opening statement in an exhibition:  “Whether we realize it or not, we live in a designed world. The question is: will this be a design for destruction or for a sustainable new world that we can safely hand down to our children and our children’s children?”   How’s that for relevancy?


Can you talk a little about some of your current projects?  Earlier this year,  I built five interactives  for The Discovery Museum and Planetarium in Bridgeport, Connecticut based on The Fostering Active Prolonged Engagement (Project APE) exhibit book produced by the Exploratorium.  A couple of them I built much as described in the book with minor improvements, others like the Thermal Camera exhibit I redesigned and added on to provide more opportunity for visitor engagement.  

I was happy to give The Discovery Museum an extra device I developed  for the thermal camera.  It is a 4 pane rotatable window. Two of the panes are clear to our eyes but opaque to the thermal camera and two are clear to the camera but opaque to our eyes. It is so cool to see visitors react to this counterintuitive effect showing the camera seeing what we can’t.  That’s the hook in this - the unexpected- and it’s a really good hook.     

I’m also building theatrical props, including some that are on tour with Cirque du Soleil.


If money were no object, what would your “dream” exhibit project be?  I’d love to put together a team to make an exhibit that helps people really think about their place in the world and how we can help achieve sustainable well being for all people and for the planet.  I sincerely believe we have the knowledge to do so.  It wouldn’t be an easy exhibit to create—it’s a tough topic.  But I can’t imagine anything more important.

For me, the most important question of all is  How are you helping?  How are you helping all of us have quality lives?  For us working in museums, the way we help is to make things that enrich our visitors’ lives. We help visitors understand science phenomena, we make creative spaces where kids  play and grow.  The work we do is so important.  So thank you all for what you do. 


To find out more about Clifford Wagner and his exhibit work, click on over to his website!

Speaking of Clifford's exhibit work, he will soon be retiring some of his most popular and visitor-tested traveling exhibitions after very successful tours --- but he would like to find good homes for all those exhibit components!  So if your museum is in the market for some top-notch exhibit components (or entire exhibitions!) at incredible prices, check out these PDFs featuring exhibit descriptions, images and prices for Garden of Gizmos, Color Play, and Contraptions A to Z.  These exhibitions are well built and in great shape, so much so that Clifford is providing a full one year warranty on every exhibit component purchased.

As a BONUS to ExhibiTricks readers, if you purchase any components from the traveling exhibitions mentioned above before May 30, 2016 and mention "ExhibiTricks" you'll get a 5% discount! 




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Thursday, April 21, 2016

Exhibitionist Changes To Exhibition


The National Association for Museum Exhibition, otherwise known by the acronym NAME, has just released the newest issue of its journal, which is published twice a year.  It is a thematic issue about the power of words in every aspect of exhibitions --- written, spoken, and designed.

Every article is filled with thoughtful information that anyone involved in the exhibition process will find valuable.

And there are big changes afoot with each part of NAME's journal. First the name has been changed from "Exhibitionist" to "Exhibition."  (There are many reasons for the name change, not least of which include unfortunate Google search results, but "Exhibition" is the new name.)

Exhibition has been entirely redesigned and has gone to a full-color format.  Having just received my own copy of Exhibition, I can attest that the graphic and organizational design is beautiful, and the inclusion of color exhibition images is a great leap forward. (In fact, here's a link to a PDF sample of what you can find inside the newly revamped Exhibition journal.)






NAME's journal was previously only available to AAM members, but now any museum/exhibit/design professional can subscribe to Exhibition.  I may be a little biased since I write the "Exhibits Newsline" column in every issue, but I truly believe that Exhibition is the best professional museum journal available.  If you are already a subscriber, I'm sure you agree!

If you are not already an Exhibition subscriber, what are you waiting for?  Click this link now to subscribe and move your professional practice forward today!



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Tuesday, April 12, 2016

What Does Your Museum's Stroller Parking Look Like?


Today, during a Master's Thesis defense on creating shared learning spaces inside History Museums, a conversation came up about Stroller Parking that really intrigued me.  So let's step deep, deep into the weeds of a very specific museum/exhibit/design topic, shall we?

As all types of museums (not just Children's Museums and Science Centers!) and cultural organizations strive to become more welcoming to family audiences, these institutions often find themselves facing traffic jams of strollers inside their pristine hallways and common areas.

Many museums, in an effort to restore a semblance of order (visual and otherwise) often designate areas willy-nilly near stairways or gallery entrances with a sign stuck on the wall labeled "Stroller Parking."

But let's face it, most of these Stroller Parking areas have all the visual panache of a turnpike restroom.  Can't we do a little better (for ourselves, and our family visitors) than a virtual used stroller lot jammed into an underutilized corner?

Let's have some fun and put together images of great examples of Stroller Parking inside museums (and other cultural institutions like zoos or theaters ...)

We've done this before with a crowd-sourced ExhibiTricks post about donor recognition walls, so I'm expecting great things from you, dear readers!  I'll give you some inspiration to get started on your submission by highlighting the image at the top of this post showing one of the Phoenix Children's Museum's Stroller Parking areas.  It's fun, it's intuitive, and it sends the right kinds of messages to family visitors.

So, email me an image of a well-considered Stroller Parking area, a brief description of why you like it, as well as the location or institution featured, and I will gather up all the words and pictures for a future ExhibiTricks post and a downloadable PDF on the subject!



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Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Design Inspiration: Polymagnets!

What's a Polymagnet?  Correlated Magnetics Research (CMR) is a company that has developed techniques to imprint everyday magnetic materials with a layer of patterns that can produce uncommon magnetic behaviors.

Essentially, Polymagnets are "Smart magnets."

Now designers can create a more nuanced physical experiences in their products or creations through magnetic feel and function. Polymagnets can provide the sensation of a spring or latch or a twisting open/close behavior unlike traditional magnets with only fixed north/south poles.

Words don't really do Polymagnets justice (and, quite honestly, I'm still trying to wrap my brain around the museum/exhibit/design possibilities!) so watch the demonstration video  below to get a better sense of what Polymagnets can do.  (If you want, you can skip ahead to the 2:00 mark to get directly to the Polymagnet part of the video.)



For more information about Polymagnets, check out the CMR website or peruse the Polymagnet catalog to discover Polymagnet materials that can spring, latch, shear, align, snap, torque, hold, twist, soften or release!


Don't miss out on any ExhibiTricks posts! It's easy to get updates via email or your favorite news reader. Just click the "Sign up for Free ExhibiTricks Blog Updates" link on the upper right side of the blog.

Looking for a designer that can help you explore exciting new materials like Polymagnets?  Then click on over to the POW! website and find out how working with Paul Orselli can change good ideas into great exhibits!

P.S. If you receive ExhibiTricks via email (or Facebook or LinkedIn) you will need to click HERE to go to the main ExhibiTricks page to make comments or view multimedia features (like videos!)

Monday, March 28, 2016

Stories and Conversations: Some Thoughts on the University of the Arts MEP+D@25 Symposium



For over a quarter of century, the MFA program in Museum Exhibition Planning + Design at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia has produced change agents in the museum field. Recently the MEP+D program held a symposium, and I was pleased and honored to be an invited provocateur for the occasion.

My takeaways from two days in Philadelphia involved the ways that "stories" and "conversations" are pointing the way toward the next 25 years of the museum business.

Marsha Semmel gave an excellent keynote speech on Thursday evening that touched on the changes in museum exhibitions over the past twenty-five years.  She highlighted influential exhibitions such as 1988's "ART/artifact."  


One side note: it became clear from Marsha's remarks, and also the statements from honorees Jane and Ed Bedno that the museum world has done a terrible job of documenting our own history! Marsha was unable to provide adequate images of many of the seminal exhibitions she discussed during her talk.  Even though sites like ExhibitFiles exist, we, as a profession, need to do a much better job of capturing the stories of exhibition development and design.

Marsha also pointed toward continuing exhibition issues that the profession will continue to grapple with in the future:

• How to maximize the use of story in exhibitions

• Listening-feedback loops between visitors and museums

• Museums having increased comfort with ambiguity (not having all the answers)

• Exhibitions as conversations


For my part of the symposium, I led discussions on Making and Participation as Inclusion with Peggy Monahan.




Some of the topics that came up in our groups were:

• How to create Museum "Fans"?  
Fandom really equals identity for many museum visitors, and a way to share and participate in stories at the museum.

• How best to measure success?
The way that many, if not most, museums gauge success is through quantitative measures like annual attendance or admissions numbers.  But are there qualitative ways to measure museum success?  Like happiness or connectedness of museum visitors.


The UArts MEP+D@25 Symposium was a great opportunity to think about ways to increase inclusion in museums through the use of stories in exhibitions and by changing the voice of authority in cultural institutions.



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Sunday, March 27, 2016

What Are Your Favorite Museum "Easter Eggs" ?

In honor of the season, we repeat our homage/post to museum "Easter Eggs."  Enjoy!


Museum designers often add "Easter Eggs" to their work.  But not the brightly dyed or chocolate-y varieties --- these are more akin to the hidden "Easter Eggs" that you may stumble across (or deliberately search out) inside video games, crossword puzzles, or DVDs.

For visitors, it's fun to feel like you've found a little "secret" inside a museum building or exhibition, and for designers it's a little "trick" to reward visitors for carefully observing and examining things inside the museum.

"Exhibits as advent calendars" as Dan Spock has observed (to mix religious holiday metaphors a bit!)  So here are a few of my favorite museum easter eggs:

• The Hidden Cat: Starting with the picture at the top of this posting is the "cat" hidden in the atrium of the Science Discovery Museum in Acton, MA.  It's fun to point out to visitors, and it really reflects the playful nature of the building and exhibits inside.


• Secret Elves at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science: Artist Kent R. Pendleton worked on many of the Museum's dioramas, but supposedly he wasn't allowed to sign his name to his work.  Instead, Pendleton included little "elfin" figures hidden throughout many of the displays.  There's a great blog posting (with video) about Pendleton's retro easter eggs!






• The Magic House Mouse:  The "Magic House" Children's Museum outside St. Louis has some wonderful exhibits, but one of my favorite "hidden gems" is the tiny decorated mouse hole near the baseboards in one of the galleries.  If you were just whizzing around you might not ever see it, but if you're willing to get down on your hands and knees you might see (as in the photo below) a "presidential" mouse:





• The "Hidden Tunnel" at Casa Loma:  Casa Loma is a gigantic historic house outside Toronto that is filled with enough crazy details to keep even little kids interested during the self-guided tours.  One  of the things I remember from a family visit (nearly 40 years ago!) was the cool secret tunnel, nearly 100 feet long, that was hidden behind a pivoting wall section (just like in all those scary movies --- but this was real!)  that led to the Casa's underground wine cellar:




Of course some museums, like The City Museum, also in St. Louis, or the Museum of Jurassic Technology in L.A., are practically interlocking collections of "easter eggs" or in-jokes, but that's certainly one aspect that makes them so popular.

What are some of your most memorable "Museum Easter Eggs"?  Let us know in the "Comments Section" below!



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