Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The Big Picture AND The Fine Details: An ASTC 2014 Recap



This year's ASTC Conference was a wonderful combination of discussions and sessions on "big picture" topics like Community Engagement, and the science behind Maker Spaces, as well as "fine details" like the best tech tools to use in our work, or the coolest educational demos.

This balance of philosophical and practical permeated the conference and all of my conversations and experiences outside the formal conference sessions as well. I'll comment on a few of the sessions I attended or presented at here, along with some links to follow-up resources. On the "Big Picture" side, the session “Where is the Science in a Maker Space?” tackled the tensions inherent in the paradigm shifts that the popularity of Maker Spaces, Maker Faires, and Design Education are forcing museums to confront. You can find a nice recap of the session here on the ASTC blog. (There are also descriptions of other sessions and activities there as well.)

Panelist Lisa Brahms from the Children's Museum of Pittsburgh also provided a link to research and resources about building a framework for Making in Museums and Libraries. Check out the makingandlearning.org site!

Troy Livingston and Kate Tinworth presented the “20+ Trending Tech Tools” session with some great apps and digital tools to help every museum person work smarter, not harder. Kate and Troy posted their presentation slides here, but they will also be updating that webpage with additional notes and content from their session. Great stuff!

A fun session (pictured at the top of this post) was “Twist and Shout: Using physical movement in STEM education.”  As the name implies there were lots of movement activities, but panelists stressed research connecting the importance of physical activity with learning. A true microcosm of the big picture/fine detail dichotomy at this year's conference!  (Here's another blog post describing the session --- with bonus video and references!)

While I could detail quite a number of other memorable conference experiences (including the "Science Busking" session that featured the World's second biggest whoopie cushion!) I'll finish up this post with a big tip of the hat to Keith Ostfeld, from the Children's Museum of Houston, and his fellow presenters for putting on the eight annual "Indie Style" session --- this year with a HOMAGO (Hanging Out, Messing Around, Geeking Out) twist.

The session featured multiple low-cost, high impact activities guaranteed to help advance museum visitors’ curiosity, creativity, and comprehension. Even better, all the participants shared the directions and materials for making the activities at your own museum. You can download a Dropbox folder of all the documents by following this link.

Looking ahead to 2015, the ASTC Conference will be in Montreal.   Since I'm part of the Conference Program Planning Committee, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that if you'd like to submit a session proposal just click on this link.  Also, if you attended this year's Conference in Raleigh,  PLEASE take the time to fill out evaluations about the conference in general, as well as specific sessions you attended. Your comments can help make next year's ASTC Conference even better!



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Sunday, October 12, 2014

Flying Into ASTC 2014!



I'm excited to be heading to the annual conference of the Association of Science-Technology Centers (ASTC) later this week in Raleigh, North Carolina.

I'll be presenting three times at the conference and I'd love to meet any ExhibiTricks readers who will be there!

On Sunday, October 19th, from 1:00 - 2:15 pm, I'll be part of a star-studded cast of presenters in a Pecha Kucha session that asks the question, "What If There Wasn't A Building?"  In a museum world filled with starchitects and unsustainable building expansion projects, I can't think of a more timely topic.  Come join us for some interesting presentations and spirited discussion!

Also on Sunday, from 4:00 - 5:00 pm near the ASTC publications booth in the Exhibit Hall, I'll be doing a meet-and-greet to celebrate the recent publication of the fourth book in the ASTC Exhibit Cheapbook series, "Cheapbooks Greatest Hits."  I'll be discussing inexpensive exhibit ideas and resources and also have some examples with me for show-and-tell!

On Monday, October 20th, from 2:30 - 3:45 pm, I'll be diving into a deep discussion of the Maker Space wave sweeping museums with Hooley McLaughlin (of the Ontario Science Centre)  Lisa Brahms (of the Children's Museum of Pittsburgh)  and Karen Wilkinson (of the Exploratorium.)  Our session is entitled "Where Is The Science In A Maker Space?" and is a continuation of the spirited session we all hosted last year. 

I look forward to seeing old friends (and meeting new folks!) during the conference.  The best place to meet with me in Raleigh will be right after the sessions I mentioned above, but if you'd like to schedule a specific time to discuss projects or the possibilities for working together, please email me so we can do our best to carve out some time to chat!

If you can't be in Raleigh, I'll also be tweeting from the Conference, so follow my #ASTC2014 posts at my @museum_exhibits Twitter account!



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Sunday, October 5, 2014

What's The Big Idea?

A recent article in The Washington Post about the new exhibition “Nation to Nation: Treaties Between the United States and American Indian Nations” at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) made me think about the importance of "The Big Idea" in exhibition development.

The Post journalists basically put forward the notion that much of the NMAI visitor experience inside the exhibitions (but not the universally acclaimed museum cafe!) suffers from a lack of clear organizing concepts.  To quote The Post directly about the formation of the institution: " ... the leaders of the NMAI allowed individual tribes extraordinary input and power over what viewers saw in the museum’s galleries. The results were controversial: It was, in many ways, the ultimate postmodern museum experience, with no central narrative, no omniscient voice and no absolute appeals to the voice of science and history. But from the visitor’s point of view, it was also bewildering."   

But now it seems that the NMAI has gone back to the fundamentals of exhibition narrative (aka "The Big Idea") as described by Beverly Serrell in her foundational book "Exhibit Labels: An Interpretive Approach."

Rather than employing community curators and multiple perspectives, the NMAI brought in writer and Indian rights activist Suzan Shown Harjo to curate the "Nation to Nation" exhibition and to bring a strong editorial voice to the proceedings.

To be clear, strong curators can drive forward lousy exhibitions just as readily as a chaotic mish-mash of community input can, but it's difficult (and I'd say nearly impossible) to create a great exhibition without a strong central idea overall and equally strong messages as you break up the exhibition into smaller and smaller physical and conceptual chunks --- down to the individual exhibit component and informational graphic level.

You would think understanding the importance of strong exhibition narratives and clear framing ideas to create compelling visitor experiences would be "Museums 101" but it's apparent from my recent visits to a variety of museums around North America, that it's not clear at all.

How the Big Ideas get lost 


And I suppose there are two main reasons for why the Big Ideas get lost:

1) Crafting strong Big Ideas, and testing your concepts out with visitors, is hard!  It takes time to get the foundational ideas for an exhibition in place, and it takes institutional commitment to keep working at it, and trying things out to get honest responses from visitors and advisors.  That doesn't mean it's not worth doing, but rushing into physical designs and exhibit concepts before you have your exhibition conceptual framework in order is either a result of inexperience, or the result of significant outside pressures.  Which brings us to reason Number 2 that Big Ideas often get lost:

2) Don't let money or lack of perspective derail your exhibition narratives.  Of course every exhibition benefits from, if not downright requires, outside funding and input.  But something significant is lost when exhibition decisions are made to please outside funders (or community groups) rather than the end users inside the museum.  At its worst, this perversion of the exhibit development process pimps out the museum and misrepresents the ideas inside the exhibition.

So what's to be done to ensure that strong Big Ideas become the foundations for equally strong exhibition experiences?  Aside from buying, reading, and then implementing the ideas in Beverly Serrell's book, I'd say allying yourself with strong advisors, community leaders, and other stakeholders who put the visitor experience first is a good place to start.

There may well be some tense discussions when you push back against funders or members of the public trying to advance agendas outside the scope of a particular project, but the efforts will show in your final exhibition!



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Saturday, September 27, 2014

Dieter Rams 10 Principles of Good Design



Dieter Rams is an important industrial designer whose work deftly spans both the 20th and 21st centuries. (You can see his influence on designers like Jony Ive at Apple, for example.)

I've kept bumping into articles and books (like the excellent As Little Design As Possible) about Rams recently, so I thought I'd share his 10 Principles of Good Design below.  The 10 Principles certainly seem like a good reference as we think about design work in museum (and non-museum!) settings.


Dieter Rams Ten Principles of “Good Design”

Good Design Is Innovative : The possibilities for innovation are not, by any means, exhausted. Technological development is always offering new opportunities for innovative design. But innovative design always develops in tandem with innovative technology, and can never be an end in itself.

Good Design Makes a Product Useful : A product is bought to be used. It has to satisfy certain criteria, not only functional but also psychological and aesthetic. Good design emphasizes the usefulness of a product while disregarding anything that could possibly detract from it.

Good Design Is Aesthetic : The aesthetic quality of a product is integral to its usefulness because products are used every day and have an effect on people and their well-being. Only well-executed objects can be beautiful. Good Design Makes A Product Understandable : It clarifies the product’s structure. Better still, it can make the product clearly express its function by making use of the user’s intuition. At best, it is self-explanatory.

Good Design Makes A Product Understandable : It clarifies the product’s structure. Better still, it can make the product clearly express its function by making use of the user’s intuition. At best, it is self-explanatory.

Good Design Is Unobtrusive : Products fulfilling a purpose are like tools. They are neither decorative objects nor works of art. Their design should therefore be both neutral and restrained, to leave room for the user’s self-expression.

Good Design Is Honest : It does not make a product more innovative, powerful or valuable than it really is. It does not attempt to manipulate the consumer with promises that cannot be kept

Good Design Is Long-lasting : It avoids being fashionable and therefore never appears antiquated. Unlike fashionable design, it lasts many years – even in today’s throwaway society.

Good Design Is Thorough Down to the Last Detail : Nothing must be arbitrary or left to chance. Care and accuracy in the design process show respect towards the consumer.

Good Design Is Environmentally Friendly : Design makes an important contribution to the preservation of the environment. It conserves resources and minimizes physical and visual pollution throughout the lifecycle of the product.

Good Design Is as Little Design as Possible : Less, but better – because it concentrates on the essential aspects, and the products are not burdened with non-essentials. Back to purity, back to simplicity.



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Thursday, September 18, 2014

Quick Creative Inspiration: Camera On A Car Wheel


Artist Dirk Koy had a simple, but great, idea --- stick a camera on a car wheel.

The results are hypnotic and a great reminder to creative folks that even simple materials can lead to spectacular results.

Enjoy the video here


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Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Museum Hype or Museum Hope?



How do you know if a trend lighting up the Web, or the latest issue of Museum magazine, will be something of lasting value,  or whether it's almost pure hype?

More importantly for your museum, and the people who visit your museum, can you tease out the actual "hows" and "whys" for implementing a buzzy program idea, instead of just the "whats"?

It's amazing (and a little disheartening) to me how often the real answer for doing something new at a museum is a combination of:

• everyone else is doing it

• we can lots of publicity out of doing it

• anything connected to [insert hyped topic here] can get us funding   (As an aside, the acronym STEM should really stand for "Simple To Extract Money")


So let's take two different topics that have been buzzing around the cultural sector for the past few years:  Maker Spaces and the notion of "Hacking The Museum."

Setting up a Maker Space at a museum (or increasingly often, the local public library) can readily veer into the "hype" zone:

• lots of places are doing it (I'm actually working with FIVE different projects right now that want to include Maker-type Spaces in their new buildings!)

• Media outlets love to do stories on cute kids and/or wacky nerd types making things

• Funders love Maker Spaces!  (Especially if you tie making to STEM.)

The good news is that there actually is some long-lasting value in Making and Maker Spaces underneath the hype, especially if the institution creating a Maker Space is committed to being thoughtful about staffing, community engagement, and appropriate tools and materials (it's not all about 3D Printers!)

The further good news is that thoughtful, and readily available information exists online about the qualities that constitute a great Maker Space.

The slight bit of bad news is there are still plenty of museums merely rebranding their existing "recycled crafts areas" (filled with cut up magazines and cereal boxes and glue sticks) as Maker Spaces to latch onto funding.

That doesn't mean Maker Spaces are just hype, but it does mean those particular museums are as bogus as their pseudo "Maker Spaces" are.  In a similar vein, my jaw dropped (literally!) at a recent Science Center conference session where at least a dozen folks admitted that they received funding for creating a Maker Space, but had no real idea of how they were going to go about doing that!

In sum, even though there's much righteous hype surrounding Maker spaces, there's a long-lasting, meaty core of programming, content, and philosophy there that thoughtful museum folks can build upon.

Unlike "Hacking The Museum" which is 99% hype.


What does the term "hacking the museum" even mean beside being naughty or transgressive?  As the late great Steve Jobs would tell upstart software developers before crushing them, "that's a feature, not a product."

And the hopeful "feature" that makes the 1% non-hype aspect of "Hacking The Museum" worth your attention is the piece that gets you to think about re-examining the way of doing business at your institution. Not merely with the aim or being shocking, but with the aim of adding programs or approaches with lasting value to visitors.

And that should always be the core "product" behind our work, not just some buzzy "feature."


What do you think?  Where's the line between hype and hope in the museum biz these days?  Let us know in the "Comments" section below!



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