Thursday, February 23, 2017

Add "Office Supply Ninja" to Your Exhibit Prototyping Resume

Thomas Edison said,  "To invent, you need a good imagination and a pile of junk."  His reference was to inventing, but he could have also been speaking about prototyping.

To me, prototyping is an iterative process that uses simple materials to help you answer questions about the physical aspects of your exhibit components (even labels!) early on in the development process.  

As I mentioned in a previous post, it's always a bit discouraging to hear museum folks say "we just don't have the time/the money/the space/the materials to do prototyping ..."  (By then I'm usually thinking "So how is setting an ill-conceived or malfunctioning exhibit component into your museum, because you didn't prototype, saving time or money?"  But I digress...)

Maybe it's just me, but I can't imagine anyone fabricating an exhibit component without trying out a quick-and-dirty version first.  So in today's post I thought I'd lay out the simple steps I use to show how quickly and inexpensively prototyping can be integrated into the beginning of any exhibit development process, and how you too can become an Office Supply Ninja!

STEP ONE:  Figure out what you want to find out.

In this case, a client wanted me to come up with an interactive version of a "Food Web" (the complex interrelationship of organisms in a particular environment, showing, basically, what eats what.)  We brainstormed a number of approaches (magnet board, touch screen computer) but finally settled on the notion of allowing visitors to construct a "Food Web Mobile" with the elements being the various organisms found (in this particular case) in a mangrove swamp.  The client was also able to provide me with a flow chart showing the relationships between organisms and a floor plan of the area where the final exhibit will be installed.

The two initial things I wanted to test or find out about from my prototype were:

1) Did people "get" the idea conceptually?  That is, did they understand the relationships and analogies between the Food Web Mobile and the actual organisms in the swamp?

2) Could they easily create different sorts of physical arrangements with the mobile that were interesting and accurate?

STEP TWO: Get out your junk!

As in the Edison quote above, it helps to have a good supply of "bits and bobs" around to prototype with.  You might not have the same sorts of junk that I've gathered up over years in the museum exhibit racket, but everyone should have access to basic office supplies (stuff like paper, tape, markers, index cards, scissors, etc.)  And really that's all you need to start assembling prototypes. (The imagination part is important, too.)

STEP THREE: Start playing around with the pieces ...

Before I even start assembling a complete rough mechanism or system I like to gather all the parts together and see if I like how they work with each other.  In the case of the Food Web Mobile prototype, I used colored file folders to represent different levels of organisms.  I initially made each color/level out of the same size pieces, but then I changed to having each color be a different size.  Finally, I used a hole punch to make the holes, and bent paper clips to serves as the hooks that would allow users to connect the pieces/organisms in different ways.

STEP FOUR:  Assemble, then iterate, iterate, iterate!

This is the part of the prototyping process that requires other people beside yourself.  Let your kids, your co-workers, your significant other, whoever (as long as it's somebody beside yourself) try out your idea. Obviously the closer your "testers" are to the expected demographic inside the museum, the better --- ideally I like to prototype somewhere inside the museum itself. 

Resist the urge to explain or over-explain your prototype.  Just watch what people do (or don't do!) with the exhibit component(s).  Take lots of notes/pictures/video.  Then take a break to change your prototype based on what you've observed and heard, and try it out again.  That's called iteration.

In this case, I saw right away that the mobile spun and balanced in interesting ways, but that meant that the labels would need to be printed on both sides of the pieces.  Fortunately, my three "in-house testers" (ages 6, 11, and 13) seemed to "get" the concept of "Food Webs" embedded into the Mobile interactive, and started coming up with interesting physical variations on their own.

For example, I initially imagined people would just try to create "balanced" arrangements of pieces on the Mobile.  But, as you can see below, the prototype testers enjoyed making "unbalanced" arrangements as well (which is fine, and makes sense conceptually as well.)   Also, we discovered that people realized that they could hang more than one "organism piece" on the lower hooks (which was also fine, and also made sense conceptually.)

STEP FIVE: Figure out what's next ... even if it's the trash can!

Do you need to change the label, or some physical arrangement of your prototype?  Using simple, inexpensive materials makes that easy.

Do you just need to junk this prototype idea?  Using simple, inexpensive materials makes it easier to move on to a new idea, too. (Much more easily than if you had spent weeks crafting and assembling something out of expensive materials from your workshop...)  It's not too surprising to see people really struggle to let a bad exhibit idea go, especially if they've spent several weeks putting it together. Quick and cheap should be your watchwords early on in the prototyping process.

In this case, I sent photos of the paper clip prototype and a short video showing people using the Food Web Mobile to the client as a "proof of concept."  They were quite pleased, and so now I will make a second-level prototype using materials more like those I expect to use in the "final" exhibit (which I'll update in a future post.)  Even so, I will still repeat the steps above of gathering materials, assembling pieces, and iterating through different versions with visitors. 

I hope you'll give this "office supply ninja" version of exhibit prototyping a try for your next project!

If you do, send me an email and I'd be happy to show off the results of ExhibiTricks readers prototyping efforts.

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Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Does Your Makerspace Really Need a 3D Printer?

I have a new article out in the latest issue of the Association of Children's Museums journal, Hand to Hand.

The theme of the issue is "The Maker Movement" and my article is entitled "Do You Really Need a 3D Printer, and Other Essential Questions You Need to Ask about a Museum’s Makerspace."

You can download a PDF version of the article via the Free Exhibit Resources section of my POW! website, but here are a few excerpts about Makerspaces (and other design-focused spaces) that I shared in my article:

• I love the idea of 3D printers, in a Jetsons/Sci-fi/World’s Fair type of way. The promise of using a tabletop device to create absolutely anything out of any material (even food!) is pretty amazing. The reality, however, is you can spend hours designing a widget the size of a quarter that then takes even more hours to print successfully on the 3D printer… only to often find out that it hasn’t. When they work, they’re magic, but they’re not that simple to operate.

• Forming creative partnerships with makers in the communities around your museum can be mutually beneficial. This could be as simple as recruiting artists/tinkerers to showcase their work and how they make it to your visitors. You could also recruit retired tool and die makers, seamstresses, or NASA scientists.

• The focus on flashy high-tech gadgets exemplifies how the development of makerspaces in organizations can be susceptible to a “Ready, Fire, Aim!” mentality. Makerspaces are perceived as cool and eminently fundable, but often museums start planning spaces and purchasing equipment (Laser Cutters! 3D Printers! Robot Kits!) without considering what a makerspace is all about, and what the qualities of the most successful spaces are.

•  An unstaffed or unfacilitated makerspace is a wasted space. The best interactions in a good maker space will certainly involve staff and visitors learning together. Does the stuff (tool and materials) you provide help foster those human connections?

•  Many makerspaces have adopted a rough, workshoppy, “toys for boys” aesthetic that can be off-putting for many people (male or female) who are unsure of their making skills and interests. Why not mix up the look and feel of different areas in your space so you don’t stop potential makers dead in their tracks as they peek through the door?

I hope you'll download my entire article by clicking here, and also check out the ACM website to learn how to obtain the entire "Maker Movement" issue of Hand to Hand. 

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Sunday, February 5, 2017

Reflecting on North American Museum Work Through a German Lens

I recently returned from Germany where I was invited by Hüttinger Interactive Exhibitions in Nuremberg to present workshops to their staff and then visit museums in Berlin for coordinated staff training and learning activities.

I think my experiences in a European country with different ways of approaching museums and museum work are worth sharing, so here are my thoughts about some of the things I did and saw and how they relate to museum work here in the U.S.

Hüttinger Company Approach

First off, I was very impressed with Hüttinger --- their large staff and facilities, as well as their in-house range of fabrication capabilities, were all outstanding.  However, what continues to strike me the most is the Hüttinger company commitment to their employees.  In addition to the staff training and learning excursion that I was a part of, I was very interested to hear about the company's profit-sharing program with their employees, and an intra-company Wiki system of documents that every employee has access to --- so that Hüttinger stands as a very open and transparent company.  In my experience, this sets Hüttinger apart from many of their competitors, not only in Europe but in North America as well.

Exhibits in one of Huttinger's workshops

Berlin Museum Experiences

In Berlin I had the opportunity to explore three places with Hüttinger staff, two museums and one corporate exhibition space.

The first museum we visited was Science Center Spectrum, which by some claims is (historically speaking) the oldest Science Center in the world.  The current Spectrum facility was completely revamped in 2013 and consists of thematically-arranged exhibits (Light, Sound, Heat, etc.) spread out over four floors.  The vast majority of Spectrum's exhibits are produced in-house and so the components themselves are made in a fairly straightforward way using familiar materials.   

Spectrum Exterior

I enjoyed my visit to Spectrum, although many (but not all!) of the exhibits were familiar Science Center classics.  One of the things about Spectrum that stood out for me was its simplicity and accessibility.  None of the spaces or experiences were meant to overwhelm the visitor (as it so often seems to be the case in mega-Science Centers in North America or elsewhere in Europe.)

Coupled-pendulum swing

The second museum we visited in Berlin was The Museum of Technology (actually situated right next to Spectrum.)  I would consider The Museum of Technology an "old school" museum in the sense of a big museum with large, yawning exhibition galleries filled with equally large artifacts like locomotives, machinery, and models. 

Most of the interactive experiences I encountered, whether mechanical or screen-based, seemed very didactic and oriented towards carrying very specific content messages.  Even in collections-heavy museums in the U.S. I am used to seeing more open-ended messaging and interactive experiences. 

Nevertheless there is still something special about being in the presence of authentic objects in a social space, and in that sense, The Museum of Technology did not disappoint (although I have probably seen enough ship models to last me for the rest of 2017!)

Sail-making display in the Ship Section

The last place I visited in Berlin was called DRIVE.  It is part corporate showroom, part auto show, part interactive exhibits gallery put on by Volkswagen inside of a large commercial space located in one of the shopping districts in Berlin.  DRIVE was free to enter and when I was there showed VW products and exhibits centered around electricity and electrical vehicles.  It was an interesting combination of traditional science center exhibits (in this case borrowed from Phaeno Science Center in Germany, and including some components made by Hüttinger) along with some custom-made touchscreen devices.  

DRIVE entrance

There was also the science museum standard of a large Van de Graaff generator that you could get a picture of yourself with, having all the hair on your head standing up in the air.)  I think this "hybrid" approach of free corporate showroom exhibition galleries integrated into downtown areas is an interesting approach not really seen in North America.

Nuremberg Museum Experiences

Since I had never been to Nuremberg, when I had a free day to explore the city, I wanted to see as many things as possible. Not only did I get to walk around the Imperial Castle grounds, but I also got to visit the Toy Museum, Albrecht Dürer's House, and, most importantly, the Documentation Centre Museum at the former Nazi Party Rally Grounds.
The Toy Museum was primarily a fairly standard static collection of historical toy displays, and a small "Children's Room" with simple activities, not directly connected to the collections. This seemed like a missed opportunity, not only because the subject of toys naturally lends itself to interactive exhibit areas, but also because Nuremberg has a history as a "Toy City" and continues to host an annual international Toy Fair.  I think the Toy Museum could really benefit by teaming up with design students or emerging museum professionals to expand the museum's repertoire of interactive experiences.

Albrecht Dürer's House was a delightful blend of a historic house of one of Nuremberg's most famous citizens, as well as a combination of different interpretive techniques, including a very good audio tour, meaningful touchscreen interactives, and participatory elements like a printing press room where visitors could make their own prints. All of these elements worked well to give a strong portrait of the famous Renaissance artist Dürer.

Clear LED touchscreen display on artifact case in Durer House

In all honesty, before visiting Nuremberg in person, my main association with the city was the famous war crime trials that happened after World War II. My hosts thought it was important that I see the Documentation Centre Museum and I'm very glad I did.

The Museum is situated outside the Old City, at the former Nazi Party Rally Grounds. Because of Nuremberg's relationship to the Holy Roman Empire, Hitler and the Nazi party constantly used the city as a backdrop for rallies and as a justification for German "purity" and the Third Reich.  The experience of visiting the Museum is completely linear and led by an audio tour that very carefully brings you through the history of Hitler's rise and the importance of Nuremberg in that rise.

Old Nazi Rally Grounds exterior

Because the museum cuts through the old Nazi Party Rally Grounds buildings, you are literally walking through history in an extremely place-based way.  It's hard to describe how upsetting it was to go through the Documentation Centre Museum and learn in excruciating detail about the activities centered around Nuremberg and the rise of Hitler and not find striking parallels to what President Trump and his advisors are doing right now in Washington. I'm ashamed of my historical ignorance regarding the Nazis and Nuremberg, but I'm even more ashamed of the behavior of President Trump that appears willfully unconcerned with historical parallels in Germany.

It seems easy for us in the United States to carelessly toss around words like "Nazi" and "Hitler" when talking about someone you disagree with politically. But I urge ExhibiTricks readers of all political stripes to learn more about what happened in Nuremberg (through the Documentation Centre Museum website and other sources) to compare that history to current U.S. events.

All in all, it was a fascinating trip to Germany, that helped me not only reconsider my museum professional practice, but also my place in our interconnected world.  Thanks again to Hüttinger Interactive Exhibitions for giving me such an opportunity!

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Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Off to Germany!

I'm delighted to have been invited to speak about exhibition development and to also critique exhibitions in Nuremberg and Berlin with the staff of Hüttinger Interactive Exhibitions in Germany this week.

For the past several years, Hüttinger Interactive Exhibitions has been doing a professional development program with their staff. Once a year, their staff climbs into a bus for several days of exhibition critiques. First they visit one institution for which Hüttinger has worked, and then another museum for which their respected competitors have produced exhibits. This year we will be visiting museums in Berlin.

The deal with their staff is simple: Hüttinger pays all expenses and the staff donate a full day of their free time, and there is no obligation for anybody to participate. Prior to the Berlin museum junket, I will lead Exhibit Development Workshops at Hüttinger's headquarters in Nuremberg. Previous internationally respected speakers for this workshop series have included Peter Anderson, Elsa Bailey, and Ian Russell.

While I'm away in Germany, I thought now would be a great time to post an essay previously featured on ExhibiTricks by Managing Director Axel Hüttinger.  Click here to read "What is Innovative Exhibition Design?" 

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Tuesday, January 17, 2017

The Amazing World of Dinosaurs: An Interview with James Kuether

James Kuether is an award-winning artist whose paintings and photographs hang in galleries and private collections around the globe. He is an amateur fossil hunter and a life-long dinosaur enthusiast. His natural history art has appeared in numerous publications and enhances natural history museum displays in the United States and Europe. 

His book, "The Amazing World of Dinosaurs" features a collection of more than 160 original illustrations and was published by Adventure/Keen in October 2016. James is a member of several professional artist organizations as well as the Society for Vertebrate Paleontology. In addition to creating artwork, James has been a corporate executive, an executive coach, and a consultant to nonprofit organizations and Fortune 500 companies. He makes his home in Minneapolis, MN.

Jim was kind enough to answer these questions for ExhibiTricks readers.  As a bonus, we'll be giving away autographed copies of "The Amazing World of Dinosaurs" to two lucky ExhibiTricks readers, so read on for more details!

What’s your educational background? I have a non-traditional education. I worked in the financial services world for 25 years. During that career, I studied art, going on to become a fairly accomplished watercolorist. That experience provided a grounding in art principles and theories. At the same time, my interest in dinosaurs had me subscribing to academic journals and buying every book on the topic I could get my hands on. So regarding the disciplines of art and paleontology, I’m mostly self-taught.

What got you interested in dinosaurs and dinosaur illustration? My grandparents had a ranch just outside of Rapid City, South Dakota. One of my earliest memories is of my grandmother taking me to the South Dakota School of Mines Museum in Rapid City where I saw a mounted skeleton of the duck-billed dinosaur Edmontosaurus. Right from there, we drove up to Dinosaur Hill where there were life-sized reconstructions of dinosaurs. I think I was 5 years old, and from then on, I was hooked. 

Regarding art, throughout my career as a watercolorist, I painted “respectable” subjects like landscapes, still lifes and traditional figures. Then about 10 years ago, 3D computer graphics became accessible and affordable for home computer systems. I began dabbling, and it was then that my passion for both dinosaurs and art really came together.

What informs your design process? First and foremost it is the scientific accuracy of both the dinosaur’s anatomy and its environment. The species of vegetation that existed during the time of dinosaurs are different – in some cases very different – from those we’re familiar with today. It’s important to make sure that the plants in the images lived at the same time as the depicted dinosaurs.

In addition, the same factors that influence traditional art –color, value, composition – inform the image. It’s not enough to plop some cool-looking animals into a scene. I give a lot of consideration to the behaviors of the animals and how to compose them within a scene that is not only pleasing to look at, but also feasible and consistent with current scientific knowledge. All that being said, imagination still plays a huge role in determining the coloring of the animals and the design of the landscapes. The dinosaur imagery I create is a unique combination of science and imagination.

What’s your favorite dinosaur, and why? I have to admit to having a real love/hate relationship with that question. I love the question because it always sparks great discussion – especially with young people – but I hate it because, for me, it’s so hard to answer. There are currently more than 1,000 valid genera of dinosaurs, and most of those have been described in only the past 15 – 20 years! So favorite for me changes constantly. But I will say this – I always end up rooting for the underdog. So the herbivores – especially the hadrosaurs – tend to be my favorites. Edmontosaurus isn’t a flashy dinosaur. It doesn’t have big teeth or horns or spikes. But its form and design had an elegance that I find fascinating and quite beautiful.

What are some of your favorite online (or offline!) resources for people interested in finding out more about dinosaurs? There are a lot of dinosaur dictionary and encyclopedia sites. Websites like Prehistoric Wildlife and Dinopedia offer a convenient resource for finding out about your favorite dinosaur. But my favorites are the ones that focus on exciting news in the field of paleontology and dinosaurs in general.

Earth Archives is a wonderful site that has lots of “breaking news” features and summaries of ground-breaking research that are presented without a lot of scientific jargon. Novataxa features the newest discoveries, not just of dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals, but of extant (living) animal discoveries as well.

For off-line resources, The Princeton Field Guide to Dinosaurs by Gregory S. Paul, and Dinosaurs: The Most Complete, Up-to-date Encyclopedia for Dinosaur Lovers of All Ages by Thomas Holtz is packed with Luis Rey’s great dinosaur images. I also keep a regular list of resources on the Resources tab of my own website, so people can check there as well.

What do you do when you’re not creating dinosaurs? I think about creating dinosaurs! It really is a bit of an obsession. In addition to my natural history art, I consult with non-profit organizations, specifically in Southeast Asian countries. My business background along with my passion for art and prehistory has provided me with an incredibly rich (I don’t mean that in the monetary sense) and varied life!

What do you think will be the “next frontier” for dinosaur discoveries? Wow. That’s a great question and an exciting one to consider. New tools that are available to scientists are allowing us to look deeper into the microscopic details of fossils and discover aspects of dinosaur physiology we never dreamed we’d have access to. Recent discoveries of actual soft-tissue remains that have been preserved in amber, and the discovery that certain soft-tissue remains that can be coaxed from fossilized bones are providing answers to some of the most fundamental and perplexing questions about dinosaurs, such as their relationship to birds and whether they were warm blooded, cold blooded, or something else altogether. As an artist, the work being done to determine the coloration of some dinosaurs is really amazing. That work holds a lot of promise for developing ever-more accurate reconstructions of how these amazing animals looked.

What are some of your favorite museums or exhibitions? It’s pretty tough to beat the American Museum of Natural History in New York. In fact, whenever I visit New York I stay right across the street from the museum so I can spend as much time there as possible! I also have a fondness for the Science Museum of Minnesota. Its dinosaur and prehistoric animal collection isn’t very well known, but it’s impressive (sporting the largest mounted Triceratops in the world!) It has a special place in my heart as my hometown science museum. It was key to developing and feeding my passion.

Can you talk a little about some of your current projects and your recently published book
This has been a fun year. I’ve had requests from several museums around the world to use my images to accompany their fossil displays. That’s been a huge honor. My artwork has also appeared in several publications, including major books by noted paleontologists. But certainly, the publication of “The Amazing World of Dinosaurs” by Adventure/Keen publications was the biggest kick. I was given the latitude to write the book I wanted to write – something that’s a rare gift in the publishing world. As a result, I was able to give voice to the things I feel the strongest about, including the importance of science education, the role of women in science and in paleontology in particular, and the amazing beauty and grace (in addition to the innate coolness) of dinosaurs.

If money were no object, what would your “dream” dinosaur project be? I love collaboration with smart, knowledgeable, passionate people, so it’s great to partner with experts to create natural history imagery. I get excited when I’m requested to change an image to match up to a specific fossil discovery.  Adjusting my work to more accurately fit the science or the client’s ideal of what an animal should look or act like is when I get really pumped up about the process. If I can do that, and if the results further the science or inspire someone (and not only young people) to want to learn more about dinosaurs and ancient life, then I'm living my dream.

Many thanks to Jim for sharing his thoughts with ExhibiTricks readers! You can find out more about his artwork by clicking over to his website.

AND NOW FOR THE CONTEST! If you'd like a chance to win one of the two free autographed copies of Jim's book, 
The Amazing World of Dinosaurs” that we'll be giving away, you can either subscribe to the ExhibiTricks blog by clicking on the link at the top right side of this webpage, OR send an email to me (Paul Orselli) with the subject "Dinosaur Book Contest" before January 31, 2017 to enter to win.

We will be randomly choosing one winner from new subscribers and the other winner from the email entries on February 1, 2017.  Good luck!

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, January 10, 2017

Museum/Exhibit/Design Toolkit: Dinosaur Duplicates!

I'm just finishing up work on a fun dinosaurs exhibition for The Children's Museum in West Hartford, Connecticut.  While we've been lucky to get some real dinosaur and fossil materials from our creative partners to use, there are times that using cast or realistic replicas in an exhibition are the way to go.

With that in mind, I thought I'd share some resources where I've purchased "dinosaur duplicates" for exhibitions (and in some cases, real fossil material as well.)

Black Hills Institute
Black Hills Institute of Geological Research Inc., has long been recognized as the world’s finest paleontological and earth science supply house. The Institute’s primary business is supplying professionally prepared fossils, fossil casts, and mineral specimens for research, teaching, and exhibitions.

Skulls Unlimited 
Skulls Unlimited International is the granddaddy of commercial skull cleaning and processing dealers. They also sell high quality replicas in addition to their natural bone products.

Dinosaur Resin Replica
As the name implies, Dinosaur Resin Replica sells resin statues and models of dinosaurs of all shapes and sizes (including the raptor I'm pictured with at the top of this post!)  They sell statues and models of other types of animals as well.

Glen at PaleoScene really does a great job creating museum-quality reproductions produced from original fossil specimens. Their catalog includes a variety of well-preserved and historically important specimens from several different geologic periods, as well as one of the largest selections of dinosaur and pre-dinosaur track casts available anywhere.  You can also purchase real fossils in bulk (great for simulated fossil dig exhibits!) from PaleoScene as well.

Prehistoric Planet
Prehistoric Planet bills itself as "The Museum where you can purchase every exhibit!"  Leaving that aside, the website does sell a wide range of items, including some hard-to-find cast replicas.

I hope you find some good information and inspiration at the websites above. If you have some of your own suggestions for prehistoric paraphernalia purveyors that you've used for exhibits projects, let us know in the "Comments" section below!

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