Sunday, June 28, 2015

What is a High Quality Museum?

How would you define "High Quality" in the context of museums?  It's a slippery term (like "World Class" which we've written about before here on ExhibiTricks.)  Every museum wants to be described as "High Quality" and "World Class" but what do those terms actually mean, in a practical sense, and how do you know when you truly have become a high quality organization?

What does high quality mean to you, or to the museums you work in, or visit?  

I was asked to contribute a short article (excerpted below) to the Association of Children Museums journal, Hand to Hand, about just this topic.  In fact, all the articles in the entire issue are focused on the notion of "High Quality."  The current issue of Hand to Hand is available as a free PDF, so click on over to the ACM website to check it out.  (And enjoy my "high quality" thoughts below!)

High Quality = Internal Capacity  by Paul Orselli

“High quality” to me means something of lasting value, something special that is meaningful over time and across generations.  And children’s museums—any museums, really—that can be described consistently as high quality are quite uncommon.

As a practical matter, the way to develop a truly high-quality children’s museum experience means having a clear sense of what you want your museum to look like two, three or more years in the future—not just two months after opening! That means investing for the long-term in thoughtful experiences, materials, staff, and expertise.

In my exhibit design and development practice, I ask museum collaborators two simple questions: How will you (the staff inside your museum, not contractors orconsultants) 1) fix things that break or don’t work? and 2) transform great new ideas into real exhibits and programs? If you can’t come up with credible answers to both questions, I’m afraid that not only will you be constantly racing to “put out fires” in the form of problems that could have been anticipated (as opposed to the many un-anticipated ones you’ll encounter) but your bright, shiny museum will soon become dingy and boring, not only physically, but in its intellectual and emotional spirit as well.

Creating a strong institutional culture of internal capacity is the key difference between a great museum and a mediocre one. Building and investing in this strong institutional capacity doesn’t mean that you work in isolation.  On the contrary, carefully understanding the strengths and weaknesses across your institution makes it clear when and where you need to invest time and resources. Those investments in time and/or resources can involve seeking out expertise in your local communities, sending staff to national or regional conferences or local professional development opportunities, or (gasp!) bringing in consultants to help build up internal capacity in other areas of institutional need. There are many choices.

What is not a choice is doing nothing. Because doing nothing will surely begin the slide from “high quality” to “who cares?” And is that the kind of museum you want to be part of?

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Saturday, June 20, 2015

Creative Design Toolbox: PAINT!

Paint is often an underutilized creative tool, so here's a round-up of four interesting types of paint that you can incorporate into some of your next design projects:

Albedo 100 paint is a series of four different sprays that are essentially invisible in daylight, but become highly-reflective in low-light conditions.  The manufacturer has created formulations suitable for metals, textiles, concrete, wood, and even horses and pets!  (For example, here's a BBC report about reindeer herders in Finland coating the antlers of their reindeer with Albedo paint so they don't get hit by cars at night.)

Albedo paints could be just the thing for outdoor exhibit areas or low-light areas around planetariums or art installations, not to mention the possibilities around Halloween!  You can find out more by clicking over to the Albedo 100 website.

You may have encountered chalkboard paint before, but to me the real design opportunity lies not only in flat walls, but in dimensional (aka 3D) opportunities, like the car done up in chalkboard paint at the top of this post (the vehicle of one of our local public school art teachers!) or the play table below.

Imagine chalkboard-painted furniture in a Maker's Space or an Art Studio, or chalkboard-painted objects in a math or topology exhibition!

Chalkboard paint is available from Amazon, or from large hardware stores like Home Depot.  I think Krylon brand works the best, and it comes in different colors, as well as in brush-on or spray-on forms.

A wonderful introduction to the possibilities of "hydrophopic" (literally water-fearing, or water-resistant) paints are through the website or videos of Seattle-based artist Peregrine Church.  

Church has turned the rainy weather of Seattle to artistic advantage by creating "Rainworks" (sidewalk-based artworks that only appear when wet, due to the hydroscopic nature of the stencil-based designs he and his co-conspirators create.) 

Check out his Rainworks YouTube video below:

Hydrophobic paint comes in many formulations, but Rust-Oleum's "Never Wet" brand seems to be most accessible for consumers, either at Amazon or hardware or paint stores.   Hydrophobic paints seem like a great opportunity to enliven the sidewalks and walls around any sort of museum, gallery, or cultural venue.

Last, but not least, IdeaPaint  is a coating that transforms ordinary surfaces into dry-erase surfaces.  So imagine all the walls (or all the furniture!) of a room transformed into dry-erase surfaces that can capture drawings, notes, whatever!

IdeaPaint seems like a great opportunity to not only enliven cultural spaces, but corporate spaces as well.  Click on over to the IdeaPaint website for more creative inspiration (or to purchase IdeaPaint products.)

So get out those tarps, brushes, and rollers to start getting creative with PAINT!  Did we miss any of your favorite paint-related creative design tools?  Let us know about them in the "Comments" section below!

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.

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Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Three Lists

“The best laid schemes o' mice an' men ... "

Robert Burns could have been a museum planner.  Despite the best laid schemes for our museum and exhibit projects, things often do go awry.  Whether it happens during the initial stages of value engineering (often providing neither "value" nor "engineering") or before the opening of a new building or exhibition, the harsh realities of schedules and budgets often squeeze our hopes and dreams like a vise.

In an effort to shake myself out of the funk that often accompanies this part of the exhibit/museum development process, I've taken to creating three lists for myself (at any stage of a project) and suggesting that clients do the same.

What are the titles of those three lists, you ask?  Simple:

• Things that MUST happen before opening

• Things that would be NICE to have happen before opening

• Things that ABSOLUTELY WON'T HAPPEN until after opening

Exactly which specific things you put on your lists will vary from project to project, and situation to situation.  (It's a pretty sure bet your new museum will need working front doors on your first day, but if a few staff office chairs arrive a week late, it's probably not a reason to cancel the opening gala.)  But to proceed otherwise, as if everything on all the punch lists and wish lists and to-do lists will happen before opening, is, at best, a rookie mistake, or at worst, a one-way express train ticket to Looneyville.

So pause a moment to process the bad news you just got from your General Contractor (or Director or Fire Marshall or Lead Designer ...) take a deep breath, and gather your team together to start putting together your three lists.

Your project (not to mention your health and sanity) will be better for it.

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. 

Need some help putting together your project's three lists?  Let's talk! Contact Paul Orselli and POW! today.

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, June 1, 2015

Museums as Magic Places: An Interview with Carol Bossert

Carol Bossert is owner and principal of CB Services, LLC a consulting practice that helps cultural institutions, government agencies and corporations tell their stories in museums, visitor centers and community venues.  She is an interpretive planner, content researcher and writer. CB Services also manages the details of organizing archives, selecting photographs and objects, and coordinating internal and external experts to support exhibition development.

Carol is also the host of Museum Life, a weekly talk show that showcases leaders in the field who provide perspective on current issues as well as creative thinkers who are impacting the future of museums. Join the conversation every Friday at 10 a.m. Eastern time, 7 a.m. Pacific time on the Voice America Variety Channel.

Carol was kind enough to take part in this interview for ExhibiTricks readers:

What is your educational background?  I have a liberal arts education with a bachelor’s of arts degree in zoology from DePauw University and a doctorate in molecular biology from University of Texas-Dallas.  I began my career at The Newark Museum and I attended the Getty’s Museum Management Institute (MMI). 

What got you interested in museums?  I have always thought of museums as magic places. I have great memories of visiting the Field Museum of Natural History and Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago with my mother.  She grew up near Chicago and she wanted to share “her museums” with me. I was nine the first time she took me to Chicago. She was so excited.  I saw my mother transformed into a little girl just like me when she and I looked at Colleen Moore’s doll house together.  That’s magic.

As a family, we also went to national parks, particularly Civil War battlefields. I tromped around the battlefields with my dad as he described the battles and military strategies in enthusiastic detail.  It made me feel special that he wanted to share something he loved with me.  I develop museum exhibits because I want all children to experience that special magic with the adults that love them. 

How can museums become more responsive to their communities? By changing their internal dialogue. The way a museum talks about its community is incredibly revealing.  I recently heard Bill Booth speak to a room full of museum professionals and ask “How are you working with instead of for your community?”  That semantic shift was powerful and stimulated a great discussion.

Working for the community assumes a transactional relationship. It clearly defines the role of museum as provider and community as consumer. This model limits discussion and possibilities.  A museum that sees itself working with its community assumes that the community has something to offer beyond passive consumption.  This changes the nature of the relationship and opens up greater possibilities and opportunities. 

Tell us a little bit about how your “non-museum” skills/activities inform your exhibit design work?  I was trained as a research scientist and for me this meant learning how to ask good questions.  I ask a lot of questions during a project.  I don’t make assumptions about what I know about a subject, a museum or its community. At the beginning of a project I want to understand everyone’s expectations, concerns and dreams. I want to know about the little known facts or surprising information that will make the exhibit content memorable and I want to understand the museum’s current audience and the audiences the museum wants to engage. I keep asking questions throughout the project to make sure expectations, concerns and dreams are being addressed. Asking questions also promotes dialogue and I'd much rather be talking with people than at them.  

What are some of your favorite online and off line resources that are influencing your thinking about exhibit development?  I have been profoundly affected by Leslie Bedford’s book, The Art of Museum Exhibitions. Leslie identifies imagination as one of the important elements in an exhibit experience. To paraphrase Leslie, “what if” is as important as “what is.” It has reminded me that what takes place within the visitors’s mind is as important as what they see, hear and do in the physical exhibit. I know that my interest in microbiology came from looking through a microscope and using my imagination to construct the life inside a cell.  I have revised some of the tools that I use as an interpretive planner to make sure we leave room for the visitor’s imagination.

As for online resources, I follow ExhibiTricks of course and I have been following the Incluseum where Aletheia Wittman and Rose Paquet Kinsley have created a site to talk openly about the challenges that museums face in terms of being truly inclusive.  

What are the ways in which you think about making your projects accessible to the widest range of visitors?  I think about accessibility in terms of creating a sense of welcome. People want to feel safe and smart in an exhibit, but first they need to feel welcome. Bi- or multi-language labels, orientation and educational materials create that sense of welcome and I’m glad to say that I am working on more projects that use multiple languages.

I have also been influenced by the work of Paul Gabriel and Beth Redmond-Jones who have identified qualities in an exhibit that affect the experience of people with ADHD, dyslexia or who are on the autism-spectrum.  Sometimes it is a matter of creating an accommodation to open the museum early when it isn’t crowded. But I think we could all do a better job of examining our design decisions from graphics to lighting and case layouts to see if we might be able to make the exhibits themselves less distracting and more enjoyable for everyone.  

What do you think is the next frontier for museums?  I’m thinking that the next frontier for museums is to reclaim their unique contribution to society.  Museums are “in the moment” experiences. For a while I think the discussion about the future of museums was shifting away from one of their most distinguishing characteristics—the objects. Many research areas from neuroscience to sociology are pointing to the importance of looking at things in physical space rather than on a screen to foster creativity and well-being.  I don’t think this diminishes the value or impact of online collections and social media opportunities for museums, but I find it exciting to think that museums may finally be acknowledged as places essential for learning in the 21st century.

What are some of your favorite museums or exhibitions?  My favorite museum is the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto.  It has a fabulous collection of shoes and it conveys the human desire to make even the most utilitarian things beautiful. I love wandering the halls of the American Museum of Natural History in New York because I always find discover something new and I enjoy finding those out-of-the-way museums when I’m traveling.  

Can you talk about some of your current projects?  I’ve been doing quite a bit of work in Saudi Arabia, including a corporate visitor center, government briefing center, an exhibit promoting environmental literacy, and a children’s exhibit about city planning.  Working across cultures is intriguing and challenging.  It makes me think about all the assumptions I have about audience and interpretation.  As you and I have discussed, we can’t assume that our western approach to exhibit development will work in exactly the same way in another culture.  But I’ve enjoyed my work in Saudi Arabia and have met many people who are committed to increasing transparency through public exhibitions. 

If money was no object, what would your “dream” exhibit project be?  I don’t think it is a matter of money, but I would love to work on an exhibit about the women in science that have won the Nobel Prize.  Each of these women tells a fascinating story, sometimes just because their lives seemed so ordinary yet they made extraordinary contributions to science.  I also think they would serve to put real faces on specific scientific achievements and this would help make science more accessible and interesting to many.

Thanks again to Carol for sharing her thoughts and insights with ExhibiTricks readers!  To find out more about Carol's museum work, click over to the CB Services Web site.  To find out more about the Museum Life radio program, click over to the Voice America Web site.

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.

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, May 25, 2015

Rewind: The World's Best Museum?

Here's one of my personal favorite ExhibiTricks articles.  I thought it was worth rewinding as an  "encore" posting.  Enjoy!

"We want to build the world's best science museum."

That's what the leader of a group of board members from an emerging museum said to me several months ago during our first lunch meeting.

My immediate reaction was to start laughing. But because: a) I wasn't raised by wolves, and b) my consulting business supports my wife, and our four kids, I instead nodded, and asked, "Well, what do you mean by best?"


Silence and blank stares. It was like being in a meeting with an oil painting.

Finally, one of the board members cautiously said, "We'd like to have all the newest high-tech exhibits, but we want ours to be unique." Another said, "We think we should have an IMAX theater. But we'd like ours to be the biggest, so we could have a good PR angle to drum up more funding support."

I tried to redirect the conversation to get the board members to discuss WHY they wanted to start a science museum in the first place, to try to uncover and understand their passions about their soon-to-be (hopefully!) museum, but we just kept circling back to making the "world's best" museum --- and worse, the terms "best" and "biggest" now started getting used interchangeably.

What about starting a small demonstration site to get things started? No, not "sexy" enough. They "needed" to start BIG.

What about learning to build up internal capacity, so that staff and resources could be allocated to be able to create things locally, both internally, and collaboratively, with folks from local communities?

A new round of blank stares.

I could see this was going to end in tears, so I gently suggested that their project might not yet be at the stage where I could help them. This group seemed destined to be spinning this project around for years without it going anywhere.

I thanked them for the (soggy) sandwich, and drove off into the sunset.

Even though as a consultant, my brain is usually for rent, here are a few lessons I took away from this experience that I'm happy to share:

• You can't claim the title of "world's best" for yourself before you even start something (or even after you start something, for that matter.) It makes you seem arrogant and/or clueless.

When your visitors start telling all their friends to go to your museum, and better yet, start referring to the place as "their" museum, you will have started down the road to success.

• Start small, and build thoughtfully from there. It's o.k. to stay small in order to maintain quality.

• Focus on building internal capacity by investing in staff, training, and tools appropriate for your situation. Paradoxically, I like to teach museums and their staff how to "fish" (metaphorically speaking) rather than having them always feeling like they need to buy "fish" from folks outside of their organization.

Starting a museum is tough, but making sure your museum continues to improve and evolve after it opens, is even tougher. Good Luck! (And if you need help with a museum project that you would like to grow into being one of the "best" let me know.)

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.

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Sunday, May 17, 2015

Show Me, Don't Tell Me: Thoughts on ACM's 2015 InterActivity Conference in Indianapolis

I love going to the Association of Children's Museums (ACM) InterActivity Conference for many reasons. First and foremost, Children's Museums folks are FUN to hang out with!  Also,  InterActivity is consistently one of the most thought-provoking professional conferences I attend.

So here are some of my InterActivity 2015 thoughts for those ExhibiTricks readers who were unable to attend this year's conference in Indianapolis.

My main takeaway is that the most effective sessions and speakers were those that could SHOW examples or ideas, and trust the intelligence of their audience to synthesize and apply the ideas back at their museums, rather than TELL the audience how to implement specific ideas or approaches.

The conference started with a series of "Small Talks" (similar to TED talks) with short, impactful messages.  Three talks stood out, and each covered very emotionally-charged topics.  Leslie Lagerstrom from Transparenthood shared her experiences as the parent of a transgender child, and spoke eloquently about the value of inclusiveness in museums.

Erica Hahn's son Spencer suffered a stroke in-utero, and doctors thought he would never walk or talk.  But Erica, a single mother, used an access pass to visit the Children's Museum of Indianapolis  every weekend to help her son learn to walk and talk.  Erica's presentation finished with Spencer coming on stage with Rex, the Indianapolis Children's Museum's mascot!

The last Small Talk that really stuck with me was a short dramatic presentation by an actor portraying Anne Frank's father, Otto.  It was part of the programming from the Children's Museum of Indianapolis  exhibition called "The Power of Children."  Even though I have read Anne Frank's diary recounting her experience hiding from the Nazis, I was touched by this portrayal of her father, and reminded of Anne's optimism about people despite the hardships she suffered.

Of course, it wasn't all about tugging heartstrings --- I also got to ride in a real Indianapolis 500 race car during one of the evening events, as you can see in the picture at the top of this post!

I'll quickly share two less than positive experiences at IA 2015, and finish with two positive ones.

One session on Intellectual Property was a real disappointment --- definitely more about telling, than showing.  In fact I haven't encountered more whining and finger shaking (outside of a preschool classroom) in a long time. Plus an added bonus of jamming an entire semester of intellectual property law into an action-packed (yawn!) PowerPoint of black and white slides filled with nothing but legalistic language.  IP is an important discussion for museums, but could benefit from a range of opinions in a presentation on the topic, as well as showing specific good and bad examples.

The other "tell-er" not "show-er" was a keynote speaker on transmedia topics.  What started as an evocation of childhood memories of Star Wars, soon devolved into a commercial for Disney products and some really off-target suggestions for how new technologies could be implemented inside museums that betrayed a basic lack of knowledge regarding the day-to-day realities of running a museum.  It's not surprising that at the end of the talk the audience could not muster the enthusiasm to raise even one question.  A real bummer that a smart person with a potentially interesting topic couldn't land her keynote before a receptive crowd. 

To end on a more positive note, the session entitled "Using Research and Evaluation to Inform Practice with Exhibits" featured two of my favorite PhDs!  Lisa Brahms, from the Children's Museum of Pittsburgh, and Robin Meisner, from the Providence Children's Museum, as well as their colleagues showed some great examples of museum exhibition projects benefitting from evaluation. Take a look at the website to dig into some of the reports featuring Lisa or Robin's work!

Last, but not least, I was delighted to share presentation duties on the session entitled "Material Matters: Thoughtful Choices for High-Impact Visitor Engagement" with Marcos Stafne (Montshire Museum of Science); JJ Rivera (Portland Children's Museum); and Reid Bingham (NY Hall of Science).  We showed how to take common Children's Museum tropes, like mini-grocery stores, dig pits, and block tables, and shift them through the introduction of new materials and environments.  Then we finished the session with roundtable discussions and playing with materials based on the the four topics in our talks. 

So InterActivity 2015 is a wrap!  Thanks so much to the dedicated staffs of the Association of Children's Museums, and our host institution, Children's Museum of Indianapolis , for SHOW-ing us the way to have fun with colleagues while thinking about how to move our museums forward!

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.

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!)