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!

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Saturday, May 9, 2015

Writing and Responding to RFPs: The Dance Everyone Can Do Better

The following summary captures the discussion at the recent Conversation hosted by The Museum Group (TMG) during the American Alliance of Museums conference held in Atlanta.  This post was jointly prepared by Carol Bossert, Paul Orselli and Barbara Punt to appear on their respective blogs.  A briefer summary will appear on the TMG web site.

The Museum Group, a collective of independent museum professionals, has a history of bringing together small groups of people at conventions such as the American Alliance of Museums, to talk about topics important to the museum field. Carol Bossert, a member of TMG and host of Museum Life proposed a discussion about the RFP process, a process used extensively over the past ten years to select almost every type of outside contractor from an exhibit fabricator to master planner and campaign consultant.  She was joined by Independent Museum Professionals, Barbara Punt and Paul Orselli, to frame the ongoing conversation.

Bring together any group of consultants and specialty providers within the museum industry and the conversation eventually turns to the ways in which this process is poorly implemented from organizations that give respondents less than ten days to respond to the RFP, sometimes over Thanksgiving or New Year’s, to organizations that neglect to notify respondents after the selection has been made, or require respondents to submit fully developed design solutions and then ask the winning group to use a competitor’s idea.  But the greater concern is what the effect this process has on creativity, collegiality and the ultimate products the museum produces.

The goal of the TMG conversation was to move beyond whining to clarify the issues and think about solutions.  In fact, “no whining” was a stated rule at the outset. Nevertheless, the conversation was lively and thoughtful, and all participants—thirty in all—shared information.

The RFP process, whereby a museum issues a request for a proposal from a company or individual to perform a certain task such as designing an exhibition or developing a multi-media program, has a patina of fairness:  everyone receives the same information and has the same time frame to present themselves.  Boards and donors appreciate a transparent, documented approach to decision-making, especially when large sums of money are involved.  Unfortunately, a poorly crafted RFP, one that does not clearly express what the organization is looking for, or a process that is handled badly, can tarnish an institution’s reputation, lead to poor decisions and undercut trust—even from the company that won the job!

So, no whining.  Here are some key points that emerged from the discussion in Atlanta:

Be kind.  Everyone understands that this process involves competition.  A museum makes a selection.  There will be a winner and there will be losers.  But just because the selection process is competitive, does not mean that it should be stripped of civility and the niceties of human discourse.  This means that the museum needs to treat everyone involved with respect:  answer questions, keep to the stated deadlines for making decisions, and keep individual responses confidential.  At best, contact the firms that did not win the competition and tell them why.  Many RFPs provide a point system for selection.  There is no reason why the scoring cannot be shared with all respondents.  Also, appreciate the time it takes for a company or individual to put together their response.

Do your homework.  While there are no current standards for soliciting and managing RFPs for the museum industry as there are for architects, engineers and construction contractors, there are some good resources.  The National Association for Museum Exhibitions (NAME) devoted an entire issue of the Exhibitionist, entitled “The RFP Process,” published in Spring 2007.  (The articles from the issue are available for free online along with templates relevant to the RFP process.) Talk to other museums and organizations whose work you admire. Get recommendations.  Limit the number of companies or individuals you solicit.  The broader the solicitation, the less likely the museum will receive useful responses which respond to their particular needs.

Know how to evaluate the proposals.  Slick proposals and jazzy power points are nice, but which firm knows what to do when the budget starts to creep up or the timeline expands?  What happens when there are bumps in the road?  Will you trust that group over the long haul?  Will you enjoy being with that individual or team for long periods of time?  If the museum says that it is looking for a creative team, then how will they know when they see one?  What is the criteria for creative?

Reconsider the RFP process as the only way to select the individual or company.  The museum business is a people business.  It is a creative business.  The RFP process does not reflect this.  Do not use the RFP process to solidify thinking.  If you don’t know what you want—and many clients don’t, especially at the beginning of a project—the RFP process will not clarify it for you.  Spend your time talking with people:  other museums, companies and individuals whose work you admire.  It can be better to hire someone on a limited basis to help you figure out what you want.

Know the lingo.  There are RFPs, RFQs and bids.  They are all different, and they all should have different purposes.

Vocabulary says a lot.  The word “vendor” automatically creates a divide between the museum and its consultants and specialty provider.  We are as committed to museum best practice as museums staff and board members.  We attend conferences, read articles and work hard to improve our practice.  Many of us have worked in museums.  We have areas of expertise that compliment and augment the museum’s resources.  It takes both of us.  We are partners, not vendors.  Similarly, calling RFPs contracts and[P1] /or throwing in a lot of punitive contract language creates an adversarial relationship from the start that is bound to end badly.

So how can we address these issues?

The museum industry seems to be the only industry without industrial standards and code of ethics that covers the solicitation and selection process.  As more museums look to outside companies and individuals for specialized expertise, there is greater need for standards.

Data. We need to analyze good projects and find out what made them successful, not just on opening day, but beyond.  We tend to focus on the horror stories, but what about the projects where despite the inevitable bumps in the road, the team worked well together and was proud of the product?

Communication.  We need to have more conversations among museums and providers.  We need to work toward partnership.

Feel free to contact any of the folks below to follow up on this discussion.

Punt Consulting Group
We manage projects of all sizes to ensure they are completed on time and on budget. Our holistic and proactive approach takes into account the totality of your vision, not just elements of architecture or construction.

Contact Barbara at or call her at (310) 937-3366.

Carol Bossert Services
We help organizations think through, shape and document the ideas and stories that form the foundation for remarkable exhibitions. We bring a systematic and deliberate approach to content research, development and label writing.

Contact Carol at or call her at (301) 208-0303.

And you can always contact POW! and Paul Orselli at or (516) 238-2797.

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Saturday, May 2, 2015

Rogue Sessions and Conversations: Thoughts on AAM 2015 in Atlanta

I always have conflicted feelings about attending the AAM (American Alliance of Museums) Conference.  In many ways, the event is too big and unwieldy, and filled with annoying logistical hassles. (This year was no exception!)  On the other hand, there are opportunities for meaty and interesting conversations with fellow museum professionals --- most of which happen outside the confines of formal conference sessions.

This year in Atlanta, the "outside the session" construct was taken to the extreme with a number of well-publicized "rogue" (not officially on the AAM program) sessions taking place at different venues during the conference.

As you might expect for someone like me, the rogue sessions and outside-the-session-box conversations form most of my impressions of this year's conference.

One rogue session I did not attend in person, but kept track of via the lively Twitter feed, was the one about "Museum Labor" put on by the Museum Workers Speak group.  Certainly the issues revolving around museum worker's pay and treatment are essential, if uncomfortable at times, conversations to have.  Hooray for MWS for holding this important rogue session!  You can check out a "Storify" recap of the topics and conversations by clicking here.

The Museum Group (TMG) has had a longer tradition of hosting off-site "conversations" during the AAM Conference.  This year TMG presented a full roster of conversations, and I was pleased to be part of one entitled, "Writing and Responding to RFPs: The Dance Everyone Can Do Better" hosted by Carol Bossert, with Barbara Punt as my conversational partner.

I'll be writing a more extensive blog post soon, in collaboration with several TMG members, on this conversation and the topic of changing the (horribly broken) RFP process, but for now I'll say that we would all be better off if we could strive for ways to make the RFP process both kinder AND smarter.

I also took part in an impromptu session sparked by Jamie Glavic of Museum Minute with museum bloggers and museum social media folks during the conference, and I came away feeling more than ever that blogs and other social media outlets are the connective tissue that supports important conversations outside conference time.

Paul Martin from the Science Museum of Minnesota and Polly McKenna-Cress from the University of the Arts co-hosted an "Exhibits Roundtable" session which proved to be both eclectic and spirited. I hope Paul and Polly will publish a re-cap of the conversations, but things I'll be thinking about more include: how to use (Big) Data to tell important stories and leverage emotions inside museum exhibitions, and why museums should piss people off more! (For example, many Science Museums have "No Guns Allowed" signs on their doors, so why not also have signs saying "For the safety of all our visitors, only those who have been vaccinated will be admitted.")

Lastly, all the "rogue" conversations during AAM helped me continue my thinking about shifting the standard conversation about museums and their institutional mindset away from "For Profit" vs. "Not For Profit" to "For Profit" vs. "For Purpose."  It might provide a way to move away from relying only on metrics like visitor attendance numbers as the primary way of measuring museum success.

Hmmm ... perhaps "For Profit" vs. "For Purpose" is a rogue conversation that we can kick off right now in the "Comments" section below!

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Saturday, April 25, 2015

Activated Sound: An Interview with Steve Haas

Steve Haas, owner of SH Acoustics, is the leading specialist in acoustics and audio for museums, exhibition galleries and themed entertainment venues. Steve works with architects, exhibit designers, multimedia producers and systems integrators to achieve optimum quality and control of sound in many types of spaces. In his projects, he addresses room acoustics, sound isolation, noise control and audio delivery for performance spaces, interactive exhibits, multimedia theaters, public event spaces and many other areas common in museum facilities.

Steve took a moment from his travels to provide this interview for ExhibiTricks readers:

What’s your educational background? I’ve been involved in sound and music most of my life, but knew that I wasn’t talented or disciplined enough to make it as a full-time professional musician, so I went to school for mechanical engineering at Cornell. Halfway through, I became not so interested with thermodynamics and heat transfer, and knew that I had to do something with sound for my career. That’s when I discovered the world of acoustics, which offered me the perfect blend of sound and engineering. I remained at Cornell, but created an independent study program for myself in acoustics.  

What got you interested in Museums? Truthfully, I never thought much about sound in museums as a kid, nor had any special museum-related interests, other than the typical field trips with school to all the museums in the Cleveland area, which is where I grew up. It was not until I started my career after college at a major acoustical consulting firm that I was first assigned to be part of a museum project. It happened to be the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, so it was a great opportunity to “cut my teeth” with a prominent facility and top-level designers. I definitely learned a lot and, as they say, never looked back since!  

Can you tell us more about your acoustics work with museums? My firm and I address all aspects of sound quality and sound control within museums and exhibit spaces. This means that we not only design the physical aspects of a gallery or theater, as they relate to sound, but also the audio delivery methods to ensure that there is great synergy between the way sound is delivered and how the space receives it. Our work compliments that performed by AV designers and integrators, since we primarily focus on how the sound behaves in a built environment.

We also go even further and interface with the media producers to help them understand how their audio content will perform in the actual gallery space, and then guide them to optimize the recording and mix accordingly so that everything works well when it is time for us to calibrate the installed sound programs.

Tell us a little bit about how your “non-museum” skills/activities inform your museum work? Besides pulling relevance from all of the challenges that I have faced and overcame over the last dozen years just by being a small-business owner, the one thing that my wife and I both are very good at is studying how people behave in public spaces and interact with the environments around them. This awareness actually has allowed me to develop our overall process and design philosophies relative to the sonic experience even further in our projects, simply by better predicting how patrons would listen to a particular interactive exhibit or react to a blend of immersive sound programs. 

What are the most interesting audio technologies changing museum installations today?  From an audio delivery standpoint, the growing number and improved sound quality of focused speakers is encouraging. About 15 years ago, my mentor for all-things-audio in museums – the late Bill Lobb – and I pioneered the development of the first electronically focused 2-dimensional steerable array for museum applications, which is still being manufactured and sold worldwide by multiple companies.

Other manufacturers have ever-improving devices that use ultrasonic frequencies to create tight containment of audio. One final category of technology is what we call “activated sound”, involving the transformation of architectural and exhibit surfaces into virtual loudspeakers. Our extensive use of this technology has allowed for better integration of sound into objects such as display cases, multi-touch tables and more without aesthetic compromise.

What do you think is the “next frontier” for museums? I think the next frontier is already here – continuing to find ways to make museums more appealing to a broader range of people, when there are so many other “experiences” competing for their time and money. While media technology certainly costs money, we are all so accustomed to having great videos, interactive games and music/sound right on our phones that we carry everywhere. Yet, many museums still seem to ignore this fundamental fact and create underwhelming interactive experiences that seem more like a throwback to 10-20 years ago, in terms of sophistication.

What are some of your favorite museums or exhibitions? Well, because of my background as a musician and love for music history, I tend to like exhibits that focus in that area and am happy to have been part of the creation of a number of institutions that continue to tell the story of different genres and cultures of music. Beyond that, now that I am a new father again after a long time, I am sure that this will give me more reason to visit a wide range of historical, science and other museums beyond just the projects I work on.

Can you talk a little about some of your current projects? We have a nice blend of museum and exhibit projects right now, including the National Museum of African American History & Culture and the Museum of the Bible, both in DC. Also, the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia and the new Air & Space Center at the California Science Center in LA. We just recently finished the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg and are in the midst of wrapping up the USA Pavilion at the World Expo in Milan, Italy.

If money were no object, what would your “dream” exhibit project be? One of two things – either an exhibit involving the history of music performance, where virtual reality-based sound, video and motion technology can take small audiences back in time to be part of some of the most memorable music concerts ever performed – or a museum of superheroes that portrays the evolution of many of the major characters in comics, TV and movies with lots of supporting media and soundscapes included!

Thanks Steve for sharing your insights with ExhibiTricks readers!

You can find out more about Steve's company, SH Acoustics,  by visiting the SH website.   Steve is also a member of the Praxis Museum Projects Group, a collaborative group of professionals striving to improve museum practice. 

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Friday, April 17, 2015

Popular But Not Good (PBNG)

At a restaurant in Pittsburgh recently, the waitress described some items as "popular" and others as "good."  There was something about the way she used those words that made me want to dig a little deeper into her descriptions when we were actually ready to order.

It soon became clear that most of the "popular" items at this particular restaurant were actually mediocre.  In some cases, the waitress wasn't even sure why people kept ordering those particular items over and over again.  (The waitress was kind enough to suggest an off-menu combination of a veggie tempura taco with added shrimp that was awesome!)

Being that I was dining with fellow museum folks, I couldn't help remarking that there are also many things in museums, or in museum practice, that are "popular" but not "good" (or PBNG for short.) One example of PBNG is the continued, and often thoughtless, recycling of old exhibit warhorses (especially inside Children's Museums) like mini grocery stores or dig pits. Piles of wooden blocks thrown onto a table are not a smartly designed building exhibit!  (I've written previous posts about why grocery store exhibits are not just bad for museums, but bad for the planet.)

It's not that these types of exhibits are inherently bad, or can't be done in creative ways, but the basic frameworks just seem to attract clich├ęd ideas and lazy design approaches.

The second PBNG idea that impacts every type of museum and every type of museum designer is the RFP (Request For Proposals) process.  If ever there was an overly onerous procedure designed to ostensibly help museums separate the wheat from the chaff, the RFP process is it.  It is so often unfair and unrealistic to proposers that a selection process involving throwing darts at a grid of names seems brilliant by comparison.

So now that I've outlined how popular, but not good, some types of exhibits and RFP processes can be, what suggestions for improvements or substitutes can I offer?

By happy coincidence, I will be speaking at sessions during the upcoming AAM (American Alliance of Museums) Annual Meeting and the ACM (Association of Children's Museums) InterActivity Conference that will be addressing both these PBNG topics head-on.

First up, in Atlanta The Museum Group will be hosting a series of Conversations on a range of interesting topics.  I'll be part of the Conversation entitled, "Writing and Responding to RFPs: The Dance Everyone Can Do Better" which will take place at the Glenn Hotel on Monday, April 27th from 2:00 - 3:15 p.m.  Hope to see you there!

Then in Indianapolis, during ACM's InterActivity, I'll be part of a fun session called "Material Matters: Thoughtful Choices for High-Impact Visitor Engagement" in Marriott Ballroom 10 on Wednesday, May 13th starting at 3:00 p.m.

I'll be recapping the action at both conferences, so follow along on my Twitter feed @museum_exhibits and on my POW! Facebook page

If you'd like to schedule some time to chat about working together on new projects, or just to catch up over a drink during either conference, please drop me an email so we can compare calendars!

Last, but not least, I'll be giving away FREE STUFF! --- copies of some great research and exhibit journals and publications I've written for recently.  So look for me in Atlanta or Indy and ask for your free museum swag (while supplies last!)

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Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Designer Toolkit: Ergi App

How high should I hang this picture?  How wide should I design this worktable?  How tall should I make that bookshelf?  These are the questions that an app called Ergi helps you answer.

Ergi makes use of official government standards to create a simple, attractive interface that allows designers to either reference common benchmarks, or to enter specific criteria about the age, gender, and relative height (short, tall, average) of the clients they are creating things for.

Ergi does one thing and does it well.  The app is an excellent tool for designers to use while actually designing or to share with clients while moving through the design process.

Ergi is a bit pricey relative to other apps, but you only have to use it once to resolve a design issue with a client (or to avoid an embarrassing error!) and Ergi will have already paid for itself.

You can find out more on the Ergi website.  Ergi is currently available for iOS only.

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