Tuesday, January 16, 2018

5 Things That Great Dining And Great Museum Experiences Have In Common


Let me tell you about Bigelow's.  It's a little "hole in the wall" sort of place near my home on Long Island known for its fried clams. Bigelow's has been in business in the same spot since 1939.  I went there for lunch today with my youngest son Philip, and in-between our sighs of pleasure and chatting it up with our fellow diners, I was reminded of how much a great dining experience is like a great museum experience.

1) Everyone Knows Where It Is

I know you can use Google Maps or Yelp, but if you ask somebody at a hotel front desk or a taxi driver where a local restaurant or museum is, they should be able to tell you right away. If the place is really good, they should also be able to enthuse about a memorable experience that they or a friend had there recently.  I remember visiting a city whose (unnamed) museum was practically across the street from the well-known professional football stadium, and not one taxi driver knew where that museum was located or had even heard of it.  That's sad.

2) You Feel Welcomed Right Away

Even if it's the first time you've been there, a great museum or dining spot makes you instantly feel welcomed and at ease.  It's a combination of the physical entry sequence (starting in the parking lot) and the staff people at the entrance that do the trick. You feel like you are in the right place and are starting out your visit in a positive way.  Think about the qualities of the places that always make you feel welcomed (and the ones that don't!)

In the case of Bigelow's, you see the stools around the horseshoe-shaped counter (so you know where to sit right away) and the straightforward menu board lets you see your options (so you can start thinking about what you'd like to eat or drink as soon as you sit down.)  

Contrast that with some museums where you have no idea where to pay your admission, or how to figure out which things you want to do or pay for.

Welcome to Bigelow's!

3) Friendly Staff Anticipate Your Needs

You never wait for your water glass to be refilled, or twiddle your thumbs waiting for the check at a great restaurant. That's because the people who work there are alert and genuinely attentive to their customers' needs.  Great museums have actual floor staff interacting with visitors, not just chatting in a corner by themselves.  Wonderful dining and museum experiences share an important social component.  A positive interaction with a staff person often adds to the overall experience.


4) You Tell Friends About The Place And Want To Take Them There

A fantastic experience at a great place is one you want to share with other people. There's a reason "word of mouth" advertising is so sought after --- you can't fake it or spend your way there.  If you had a remarkable museum experience you tell other people about it.  And you want to go back there to share that positive experience with people you care about.  I've written blog posts about "museums worth a special trip" those places you would travel out of your way to go see based on a friend's recommendation.  I would definitely put places like The City Museum in St. Louis, or Chanticleer Garden outside Philadelphia in that rarefied category. 

Bigelow's is worth a special trip!


5) Memory Makers!

The best museums (and restaurants!) are memory makers.  They are the places that are part of every story that starts with "Remember the time we ..."  They are the places that you want to post on Facebook or Instagram because you felt the experience was worth capturing and sharing.  The picture at the top of this post shows my friends Bistra and Nadia from Muzeiko in Bulgaria after a lunch we shared at Bigelow's.  They asked for me to bring them somewhere that was real "Long Island."  And even though they both grew up thousands of miles away, they loved it!  And what business can ask for more than that?

As you are starting out your New Year and thinking about ways to improve the museum(s) you work for, maybe a trip to your favorite local restaurant can give you just the right kind of "food for thought" to inspire making some memorable changes for your visitors!

Facebook-ready "food for thought" from Bigelow's!




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Sunday, January 7, 2018

You Want "Free" Museums? Then Show Me The Money!

Recently the Metropolitan Museum of Art announced it was changing its entrance fee policies.

And immediately a torrent of outrage and pearl-clutching was unleashed into the Internet echo chamber by museum workers and art critics and culture supporters of all stripes. Basically, the social media grousing was about equally divided between those who said "all museums should be free!" and folks who characterized the people running The Met as heartless philistines (or worse!)

In an ideal world, every museum would be open to all, and not charge any admissions fees.  I am with you there 100%.  But how do we make that happen in a practical, and sustainable, way?

In the real world, somebody (or some entity) pays for free admissions policies --- and that usually boils down to rich people and/or governments giving money to museums. That money almost always has various strings attached, and not every museum has access to the recurring rich people's money and/or government funding to make that happen.

In places where most of the museums are "free" (like Washington D.C. or St. Louis, for example) taxes or voter-approved funding structures pave the way for "free" admission.  Somebody is still paying to keep the museum running, but not through the direct contributions of visitors through the door.

I understand The Met is an easy target for outrage (for lots of reasons beyond admissions policies) but let's looks at some numbers:

• Recent articles indicate that only 17 percent of Met visitors pay the full suggested admission of $25; the average person pays $9.  So let's just set aside the egalitarian notion of "suggested admissions" or "pay what you can" policies.  There are people visiting The Met who can pay more to get in, and choose not to.  If The Met wants to make it harder for rich tourists to cheap out on paying their fair share to see the Museum, I say go for it!  (The real question is how to provide universal museum access for the truly needy, not just thrifty yuppies.)

• How much would it actually cost to make up the "lost" admission revenue at The Met annually if there were no admission charge?  Recent attendance figures at The Met topped 6.7 million visitors.
So if you multiply that by the suggested admission fee of $25 you get a figure of over 167 million dollars annually. More than the 148 million dollars annual budget of the National Endowment of the Arts.  For just one museum! And that doesn't even take into account the Association of Art Museum Directors 2016 report findings that show the actual average cost of serving art museum visitors is closer to $55 per person. So museums are already subsidizing the costs of visitation in most cases.

• Beyond admissions prices and policies, does no-cost museum entry really provide the sort of universal access we would hope for?  Check out this blog post by Colleen Dilenschneider for some data and links regarding that very question. (Spoiler alert: free admission is far from the engagement cure-all that some of its supporters believe it is.)

So while I understand, on an emotional level, the pissed-off people shouting slogans or comparing The Met to Marie Antoinette on the Web, I'm afraid that alone isn't going to change the crappy, unsustainable business models of cultural institutions. 

I think our challenges to improve museum access can be both "big picture" (using the example of the funding structure of public libraries as a good starting point for political action and advocacy) and "intensely local" (what is one way we as museum workers can help a local museum to increase its access to all people?)

Those sorts of efforts might not provide the noisy, immediate gratification of social media posts about free admission policies but I think they can create longer-term impacts for both our museums and our communities.

What do you think?  Let us know in the "Comments" section below.


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Sunday, December 31, 2017

A Look Back at 2017: Worldwide Workshops, Making Museums Better, and Creative Inspiration!



As I reflect on 2017 through the lens of the ExhibiTricks blog, three broad categories stand out: Worldwide Workshops (and the International Museum Community), Making Museums Better (especially in terms of museum workers' pay), and Creative Inspiration (drawing on work from outside the museum field).


Worldwide Workshops

Despite the fact that Paul Orselli Workshop (POW!) primarily develops exhibits and museums, I also do a fair number of workshops for museums (and companies that work with museums.)  In 2017, I was fortunate to travel to Germany, Tunisia, and China to give exhibit development and prototyping workshops. (You can find out more about each of these experiences by clicking the link on the country name.) 

Every time I have the opportunity to work with creative partners outside the U.S. I'm reminded of how small the world of museums really is, and the challenges in serving museum visitors that we all share.

Visiting museum colleagues outside of North America also helps me put my own museum work into perspective by learning how often museum workers outside the United States do things a bit differently --- whether it is a twist on a "familiar" exhibit or a new approach to an education or outreach program.



Making Museums Better

The most popular ExhibiTricks post in 2017 (by far) was Claire Mildrum's honest (and wrenching) account called "Why I Left The Museum Field."  There is something wrong with the museum field when many young, talented, and well-trained professionals feel they must pursue their career goals elsewhere.

Of course, one way to address the challenges of bringing (and keeping!) new people into museum jobs, has to do with the woeful pay scales of so many positions in cultural institutions.  I offered a quick way to address some of that in this post.  Short story --- don't allow museum positions without salary ranges listed or "unpaid internships" to be advertised.  If you see this happening online or in a publication you subscribe to, email them and tell them to change!

Museums are great at jumping on to bandwagons, which may be why the post "Does Your Makerspace Really Need a 3D Printer?" got such a big response.  "You mean we don't need to automatically buy some 3D  printers if we are creating a Makerspace in our museum?" 

Another way we can improve museums is by looking for lessons from outside the field.  I was especially taken by Trevor Noah's memoir of growing up in South Africa during apartheid called "Born a Crime."   I wrote a post listing 4 things I thought cultural institutions like museums could take away from some of Noah's experiences described in his book.





Creative Inspiration

I always like to share creative inspiration(s) I come across on my blog, and 2017 was no exception.

"Where Can You Find Fake Dirt?" highlighted the Great Big Exhibit Resource List, a compendium of resources for exhibit makers and educators.

Over the years, one of my favorite questions for people I've interviewed on ExhibiTricks is "If money were no object, what would your “dream” exhibit project be?"  and this post shares some of the most inspiring answers to that question.

Although much of our creative design work happens inside buildings, there are often many opportunities to create unique visitor experiences outside our buildings.  This popular post shared some outdoor creative design inspiration.

One of my favorite things about collaborating on exhibition or museum projects is finding new creative partners to work with.  I was delighted to have the opportunity to work with the artist James Kuether on a recent children's museum exhibition about dinosaurs and write a post about his work.  The artwork that James produced for the dinosaur exhibition made it so much better than I ever imagined it could be.  (Check out James' book, "The Amazing World of Dinosaurs" if you'd like to see some amazing images of prehistoric worlds!)

And allow me to close the Old Year with a pitch --- if you are looking for an excellent creative partner for your 2018 dream projects, feel free to contact me.   


HAPPY NEW YEAR!




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Friday, December 22, 2017

Creative Inspiration: Transient


As 2017 draws to a close, and I put my business and blog into "quiet mode" to spend more time with family and friends, I thought I'd share one last bit of creative inspiration courtesy of Dustin Farrell Visual Concepts --- this beautiful video called "Transient."



I love how techniques like ultra high-speed videography help us better appreciate a familiar phenomenon (like lightning) and become more careful observers of the world around us.

I hope all my ExhibiTricks readers glide smoothly into 2018 in a healthy and happy way, and that we all become better at observing and appreciating things in the New Year.

If you've read this far, can I ask a favor?  Could you please send me a quick email to let me know what you like best about ExhibiTricks?  That will help me think about and plan for my posts in 2018.

THANKS!


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Friday, December 15, 2017

Your Creative Fortune(s)


Creativity and creative enterprises sometimes take unexpected paths.

I have a bag of fortune cookie fortunes that I've saved for over 30 years (obviously I like Chinese food AND fortune cookies!)


But I only save the "good" fortunes -- the ones that somehow resonate with me. (Now if my kids get a fortune they think is a "good" one they save it for me too.)

Anyway, I was thinking about my bag of fortunes, and how they relate to the little unexpected nudges that send us down creative paths we might not have followed otherwise.

See that picture at the top of this post? That's Lin-Manuel Miranda reading a book in a hammock while on vacation.  But not just any book, it's the biography of Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow.
Miranda just wanted a "big book" to read while on vacation and somewhat randomly chose Chernow's historical tome.  And from that sequence of events, the smash-hit play Hamilton is born.

The musician Brian Eno, inspired by artist Peter Schmidt, developed a deck of cards called "Oblique Strategies."  Each card offers "a challenging constraint intended to help artists (particularly musicians) break creative blocks by encouraging lateral thinking."  

Over the years, Eno has developed several Oblique Strategies decks that you can purchase, but there are also Oblique Strategies apps and online versions that offer creative suggestions like: "Slow preparation, fast execution" or "Steal a solution."

The composer John Cage used the I Ching to produce compositions called "indeterminate music." An example is "Music of Changes" in which all the musical and compositional decisions were determined by the I Ching.

So in the spirit of John Cage, I chose four fortunes at random from my collection to share, and to reflect on what they mean to me in the context of my creative design practice:




Sometimes in exhibit design (and in life!) there's no "perfect" choice, sometimes you just need to choose and move forward!





I like working with creative partners that don't need to always be right, but who are willing to engage in robust give-and-take and offering up options and solutions, not just criticisms.





It's good to be open to ideas that might not initially make sense.  (A hip-hop musical based on the life of Alexander Hamilton? Nah, that will never work!)



Here's wishing all ExhibiTricks readers good creative "fortune" in the New Year!  

Do you have your own favorite ways to get past "creative block"? Share your ideas in the "Comments" section below!





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Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Expectations and Exhibitions


Any trip to a great museum city (like Washington DC) is a "moveable feast" of sorts. 

I was delighted to gather with my fellow members of The Museum Group recently for our winter business meeting in Washington and to go on a museum-viewing spree.

In particular, three museum experiences really stood out: the new Museum of the Bible (MoB), the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), and a temporary show at the Renwick Gallery.

Great Expectations (Part One)


Entry ceiling video panels at MoB
I have to say that I was sort of dreading my visit to the Museum of the Bible (MoB) a bit, mostly because of the political views of the Hobby Lobby family that funded the museum, but also due to a number of news stories outlining questionable practices used by MoB to obtain artifacts.  But, to be honest, I felt as a museum professional I "had" to visit one of Washington's newest and largest museums.

And (spoiler alert!) overall I was pleasantly surprised and impressed by my visit to the Museum of the Bible.  Overall, the architecture and exhibitry were top-notch.  I didn't feel like I was being preached to at all. It was easy to see that large sums of money were spent on the museum through technology and the fit and finish of exhibit furniture.

Even the security checkpoints were designed to be visually appealing.

MoB Security Checkpoint at Entrance

Almost as if deflecting concerns about the provenance and authenticity of artifacts, MoB signage and exhibitry seemed to go out of the way to highlight issues for the public.  If the authenticity of some scroll fragments were unclear, labels clearly stated that.  Similarly, a temporary show called "People of the Land" made repeated mention that all the show's artifacts were on loan from the Israel Antiquities Authority.

People of the Land Entry Panel

Central exhibitions like the "History of the Bible" galleries were quite large and jam-packed with artifacts, videos, and interactive elements.

History of the Bible interior exhibitry

Of course, as with any newly-opened museum, the Museum of the Bible was still sorting some things out.  Certain technologies (like all the touch tables in the lobby) were not yet operational and some artifacts were not yet in place. Many of the historical videos had the worst false beards I've ever seen -- like cotton balls stuck on the actor's faces! (Maybe it's a Hobby Lobby thing ... or an artifact of HD video.) But those are small quibbles.

Worst fake beards -- ever!

My large quibbles about the Museum of the Bible involve the "dumbing down" of content or (in my view) underestimating the audience.  Fortunately, this only happened in a couple of spots inside a very large museum.

One example of underestimating the audience was in the "Drive Thru History" theater, an annoyingly simplistic jaunt through biblical history (Jerusalem! Rome!) with matching vehicles --- a jeep in the Middle Eastern desert and a Ferarri(?) for zipping around outside the Roman Coliseum.

"Drive Thru" the history of the Bible!

But the absolute worst area in MoB was the "Children's Area."  Imagine a biblical-themed Chuck E. Cheese designed by a color-blind carnival game inventor and you will get a sense of it.  (Throw balls representing Daniel into the Lions' mouths! Push the Temple Pillars down like Samson!)

MoB Children's Area

It really is disappointing that the Museum of the Bible blew the opportunity of the Children's Area, especially since so many families with children were clearly visiting, and also when there are wonderful and thoughtful biblically-themed experiences and exhibits (like the Skirball Center's Noah's Ark) that could have served as better models.

Despite my reservations, overall I found the Museum of the Bible a good museum experience --- definitely worth a visit while in DC.


Great Expectations (Part Two)

To be fair, my expectations for the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) were set VERY high.  Every one of my museum colleagues who had visited had great things to say, and I had read many glowing accounts in the press that made clear that NMAAHC was a "pilgrimage" site for many visitors.

Overall (spoiler alert!) I enjoyed my NMAAHC visit very much.  In fact, I stayed engaged for an entire day inside the museum without leaving (I ate lunch inside the Cafe.)

The Museum is conceptually and physically divided into two "chunks." The three floors below the Lobby/Entry floor focus on Slavery starting in the 1400s, then through aspects of Freedom, Segregation, Civil Rights, and on into Modern Times (ending with a display of President Obama and his family.)


I did not take any pictures on the bottom three floors, because for me, personally, I was too absorbed in the experience.  It also felt (again, for me personally) obtrusive to other visitors' experiences to take pictures on these floors.  There was a lot of sobering material to try and absorb --- slave shackles, photos of abuse. 

The woman at the Information Desk told me (quite accurately) that I would need at least two hours or so to move through the lower three floors.  It was clear that some visitors were easily spending twice that amount of time in what are collectively called the "History Galleries."

After a very tasty lunch in the Sweet Home Cafe, I heard some visitors remarking that music legend Quincy Jones was giving a talk that afternoon and seats may be available.  Luckily, I got into the talk and was treated to some great stories by Mr. Jones.  (I'm hoping the video of his talk will show up online somewhere.)


After the Quincy Jones talk (part of the NMAAHC's extensive programmatic events) I made my way to the upper galleries --- where I did take pictures!  The upper galleries revolve around topics of Community and Culture.  Although at all times you can't help but feel enveloped by David Adjaye's thoughtful architectural design as you move around the upper floors.



Two objects especially spoke to me during my explorations of the Culture Galleries, both coincidentally called "Mothership."

The first was a version of George Clinton's "Mothership" from his tours with Parliament Funkadelic.  I just really enjoy P-Funk's music so the object is particularly iconic for me.

The Mothership!

Another "Mothership" I encountered was a piece by artist Jefferson Pinder constructed from reclaimed tin panels found in Baltimore and fashioned into a space capsule.  It was breathtaking!

Another Mothership
Of course, given the way that the National Museum of African American History and Culture has continued to resonate with such large, diverse audiences in its first year of operation, NMAAHC may be its own "Mothership" of sorts.   Definitely on the "must see" list if you are visiting Washington, DC.


No Expectations

I had absolutely no expectations as I wandered into the Renwick Gallery to kill an hour or two before dinner.  Little did I realize that any absolutely fascinating temporary exhibition called "Murder is Her Hobby" was tucked inside.



The exhibition shows the work of Frances Glessner Lee, who created a series of miniature vignettes (that she called "Nutshells") of murder scenes to help train detectives and coroners.  Who knew this could be the basis for such an engaging show?



Most of the exhibit labels read like a mini murder mystery describing each "Nutshell."


Visitors were intently focused and carefully observing minute details of every installation.  I can't help wondering what lessons (especially for Art Museums) could be learned from this exhibition.


The Renwick also provided (untethered!) flashlights to allow people to focus even more carefully on particular details within each Nutshell scene.



There was also a (now seemingly ubiquitous) "Talk Back" board in the exhibition, where people left (often very detailed) thoughts about one of the Nutshell installations>



The exhibition about Frances Glessner Lee's work, as well as my visits to NMAAHC and the Museum of the Bible, made me reflect on the inherent power and wonder found in museum experiences --- whether we are expecting them or not.



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