Saturday, August 1, 2015

Exhibit Labels: The Story Behind the Second Edition Interview with Beverly Serrell (and FREE Book Giveaway!)

Since 1979, Beverly Serrell has been an exhibit and evaluation consultant with art, history, natural history, and science museums, as well as zoos and aquariums. She previously was head of a museum education department for eight years, and worked as a high school science teacher and a research lab technician. Serrell holds an MA in science teaching in informal settings and a BS in biology. In 1995, she was a guest scholar at The J. Paul Getty Museum and has received two National Science Foundation grants to conduct research on visitor behavior in museum exhibitions. She has been a frequent museum visitor all her life.

Beverly was kind enough to answer some questions for ExhibiTricks readers AND provide a copy of her latest book, Exhibit Labels: An Interpretive Approach, to two lucky ExhibiTricks readers!  (Find out more about the Book Giveaway at the bottom of this post!)

Paul Orselli:  I received a mailing from your publisher about the second edition of “Exhibit Labels: An Interpretive Approach,” and I thought I’d circle around to get your thoughts about it for my blog.  But before we talk about the second edition, what inspired you to write the first edition, published in 1996?

Beverly Serrell: Actually the first edition of Exhibit Labels was a follow-up on my book published by the Association for State and Local History (AASLH) called “Making Exhibit Labels: A Step-by-Step Approach.” I wrote that in 1983, before I’d ever done much work on exhibition planning and design, although I had a background in museum education.

I had a master’s degree in science teaching in non-school settings, and I’d worked as the curator of education at the Shedd Aquarium for eight years. I was in charge of programs, not exhibits. I kept pushing for more interpretive stories in the labels of the Shedd’s galleries, but that wasn’t my job.

After the Shedd, I started consulting with the Field Museum and Brookfield Zoo, and all types of museums about ways to increase the effectiveness of museum interpretation, mainly through wall labels. Being young, enthusiastic, and impetuous I thought I would write a book and tell people how to make better labels, since many of the examples I was seeing those days were too long, too small, and not written with an interested novice visitor in mind. That was “Making Exhibit Labels.” For the next ten years I tried to practice what I’d preached and was often humbled by the complexities of the politics, philosophies, economics, and conflicting priorities of exhibition design.

In 1995 I got the opportunity to write another book—one that would incorporate more of the issues of planning and evaluation that are critical to good label-writing and expand on the work being done by many of the practitioners and leaders in the museum field who had influenced me, including Steve Bitgood, Minda Borun, Marlene Chambers, John Falk, Ross Loomis, Kathy McLean, Paulette McManus, Roger Miles, Chan Screven, Harris Shettel, and many others. That was “Exhibit Labels,” the first edition.

PO: What motivated you to write a second edition of “Exhibit Labels”?

BS: The first edition was published by AltaMira Press with Mitch Allen. AltaMira was sold to Rowman & Littlefield, and in the total of 19 years it sold more than 15,000 copies. But sales were down, and R&L wanted a new version under their copyright.

R&L approached me in 2010, but I didn’t have the time or interest in doing it then. I was still receiving good feedback on the first edition, especially from museum studies students, young professionals, and practitioners who had to keep buying new copies to replace the one they loaned out and never got back!

R&L kept asking me, and even suggested that they publish a second edition using another author, since they owned the copyright. Well, that was motivating. I didn’t think it would take too long, because I believed most of the book still resonated in a very profound way and it just needed some freshening up. Soon, however, I realized that it would be a much bigger project, so I made time and recruited Katherine Whitney to help me.

The first edition, for example, had a chapter about “electronic labels and hypermedia.” That was quaint, and the new edition needed to address technology issues in more depth.  But the bottom line was that the guidelines for writing were the same (e.g., clarity, brevity, legibility) regardless of the technology.

A colleague told me the other day that a new curator had been given the first edition of “Exhibit Labels” as a tutorial in how to write interpretive labels, who said “But this was published in 1996. Don’t we have anything newer, more up to date?” And the reply was, “Well, in fact there is a second edition coming out soon!”

PO: What have been the biggest changes related to exhibition labels between the first and second editions of your books?

BS: There have been many changes that have had impacts on exhibitions in general and exhibit labels specifically in the past two decades, such as issues surrounding authority, points of view, voice, diversity of audiences, prototyping and evaluation, and of course, digital technology for exhibit design and production, plus visitors’ use of smart devices. 

But there are also many things that remain the same, regardless of the changes in museum politics, technology, and the role of museums in society. We still need to work harder to give visitors better orientation through signage and graphics—to the building, to the exhibits, to the café and restrooms. We need to formatively evaluate every new interactive exhibit as a prototype. We need to be more clear in our professional discussions about what we mean, for example, when we say “layers of information” or “visitor-centered.”

Some of the seemingly new issues turn out to be very much the same as old issues but have new names, such as audience segmentation, experience design, user-testing, or intentionally designed spaces. Often the changes are very subtle, so it is helpful to know the literature and the history of the issues to see how they evolve, build, or shift emphasis rather than being revolutionary or brand new.    

Unfortunately, there are many museums still set in their old ways about authority where curators control the content and design of exhibitions without the input from other staff members who are trained, experienced, and have valuable input. Many institutions still do not use a visitor-centered perspective in their approach to creating engaging, interactive, and personally meaningful exhibits for diverse audiences. The second edition gives more examples of projects and programs with professional collaborations in service of best practices, and keeping visitors part of the equation throughout.

PO: What were the biggest changes to the second edition, compared to the first, besides the issues we’ve already talked about?

BS: Katherine and I worked very hard to gather photographs of good examples of many types of labels, so there are a lot more pictures in this edition. We pulled together a whole new set of case studies, using the voices and opinions of different experts in the field.

We included a few drawings to keep it light—although I’ll say the heft of the new edition was the biggest surprise to me when I finally held the published book in my hand. I knew we’d added a lot, and it feels like it.

We dropped the Glossary and Resource sections from the first edition. The glossary didn’t seem necessary to repeat, and the resource section would be out of date in a few years, as it was in the first. People can google these topics.

PO: What advice would you have for fellow museum professionals, especially those from smaller museums, in developing labels?

BS: The changes we talked about impact small museums as well as large ones, and the advice in “Exhibit Labels” works for all sizes of institutions. In the smaller places, the same person might be wearing the hat of curator, educator and designer, and he or she needs to balance the responsibilities of all those roles for the benefit of the visitor experience. Small institutions might actually find it easier to introduce new ways of meeting visitors’ needs because there are fewer departments to coordinate or convince. Good labels can be developed and produced on small budgets, and small exhibitions are often more thoroughly used by visitors than larger ones.

PO: How does “Exhibit Labels” relate to your other books, “Paying Attention” and “Judging Exhibitions”?

BS: The second edition of “Labels” puts even more emphasis on the Big Idea: Have a meaningful one and stick to it; let it guide the label writing as well as set boundaries for the amount of interpretive content. Paying Attention was my effort to gather a large amount of data on how visitors use the content in its various forms (e.g., labels, videos, interactives) to inform our expectations.

The “excellent judges” project and framework (Judging Exhibitions) gives us a way to discuss the degree to which visitor-centered perspectives are integrated into an exhibition experience. So, I guess I’m asking: What’s the Big Idea? Are visitors paying attention to it? To what extent does the exhibition afford the aspects of a positive educational experience, no matter what the subject?  “Exhibit Labels” addresses the ways and means and the critical role of producing excellent labels in support of (rather than interfering with) those positive educational experiences.

PO: What are some of your favorite labels?

BS: I’ve seen many good examples in all types of museums. We put 100 photos in the book to illustrate the wide range of interpretive labels with well-chosen words and graphics. Here are a few of them.

At the Detroit Institute of Arts, every interpretive label or device undergoes thorough visitor-usability testing and is edited with guidelines to appeal to non-art-history students. When I encounter DIA labels in the galleries, I know that the information will be clear, directly related to what I can see, and will leave me feeling more competent about understanding and enjoying art.

The USS Constitution Museum has a great family exhibition called “All Hands on Deck.” AHOD was developed with extensive prototyping, and the results show that visitors of all ages are very engaged: Witness this teen at the “Get down on your knees and scrub!” interactive. The labels are written in first person voice and are in a handwritten font.

I love the wayside panels at the Big Bend National Park. Very direct, expressive, and bilingual. This one surprised me, because when I visited it for a second time--years after the first time I saw it—it was shorter than I remembered it being. My imagination had filled in many more words than were actually there.

The Exploratorium doesn’t shy away from exhibiting complicated phenomena. They also take the time for the trial-and-revision edits it takes to hone the label’s design, instructions and interpretive content to the point that it works well for a majority of users.

The Huntington Botanic Gardens has a “Plant Lab” in the conservatory where there are many hands-on interactives with live plants. The panels give instructions and information in clear, easy-to-follow text. and graphics. Nice use of color and very few words.

The dead albatross in the ocean section of the Gallery of Natural Sciences at the Oakland Museum of California was an attention-grabbing exhibit that drove home the message about human impacts on the environment. Still, the overall exhibition also communicated a sense of the beauty and value of nature.

These were all featured in the second edition of “Labels” but printed in greys. I am pleased to have them reproduced in color here.

PO: If money were no object, what would your “dream” exhibit project be?

BS: I’d love to work on one that started with adequate discussion about the Big Idea. Followed by front-end and formative evaluation of key elements (e.g., introductory label, all the interactive elements, title), modifying the Big Idea if necessary. Write the labels to be interesting, visually integrated into the design, contextually appropriate, and have just the right number of words. After a soft opening, invite visitors to participate in remedial evaluation, along with the stakeholders.

Save some of the budget for remediation and build in inexpensively changeable label content and design.

There are always many things you learn about the relative appropriateness of location and context after the exhibition is open that cannot be predicted beforehand! Keeping the design flexible and having the money to make the changes can result with some important improvements in the effectiveness of the exhibits. Saving money and time for thoughtful remediation after opening is probably one of the best uses of your evaluation budget, but how many places plan for it?

I have worked in many situations that have some of these features but not all in one project.

Thanks again to Beverly for providing her insights about labels and museums to ExhibiTricks readers!  To find out more about Beverly and her work, click on over to her website!

And now for the FREE Book Giveaway! 

To be eligible to win one of two copies of Beverly's latest book, Exhibit Labels: An Interpretive Approach, simply subscribe to the ExhibiTricks blog (Just click the "Sign up for Free ExhibiTricks Blog Updates" link on the upper right side of the blog) OR submit a comment or question in the "Comments Section" of the ExhibiTricks blog below.  After August 15th, 2015, we will randomly select one new ExhibiTricks subscriber and one ExhibiTricks Commenter to receive copies of Beverly's book!

P.S. If you receive ExhibiTricks via email (or Facebook or LinkedIn) you will need to click HERE to go to the main ExhibiTricks page to make comments or view multimedia features (like videos!)

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Favorite ExhibiTricks Posts: People, Tools, and Inspiration (Summer 2015 Edition)

I've been doing the ExhibiTricks blog for over eight(!) years now, and in that time I've built up quite a "back catalog" of articles and resources.

Since it's summer (in North America) and that is often a time for slowing down and catching up on reading and ideas, I thought I'd put together a list of some of my favorite posts in three recurring ExhibiTricks categories: People, Tools, and Inspiration.  Obviously the Venn Diagram often overlaps between those three topics, but I hope you have fun reading these curated posts nevertheless.  Enjoy!




Don't miss out on any ExhibiTricks posts! It's easy to get updates via email or your favorite news reader. Just click the "Sign up for Free ExhibiTricks Blog Updates" link on the upper right side of the blog.

P.S. If you receive ExhibiTricks via email (or Facebook or LinkedIn) you will need to click HERE to go to the main ExhibiTricks page to make comments or view multimedia features (like videos!)

Friday, July 17, 2015

Are You Building a Team of Loyalists or Mercenaries?

I think I've found another quality that distinguishes a great museum from a merely so-so museum.

And that's whether you are building a team of loyalists or mercenaries.  (I was struck by this idea after reading this recent article by Fred Wilson.)

Are you creating a work environment, and an institutional culture, that makes people want to stay, to become part of this great thing, and to make it even greater?  Are people there for purpose, not merely for profit?  

Or would they happily skip over to just about any other company or organization that would pay them a little more?

Tough questions.  How is YOUR museum answering them?

Don't miss out on any ExhibiTricks posts! It's easy to get updates via email or your favorite news reader. Just click the "Sign up for Free ExhibiTricks Blog Updates" link on the upper right side of the blog.

P.S. If you receive ExhibiTricks via email (or Facebook or LinkedIn) you will need to click HERE to go to the main ExhibiTricks page to make comments or view multimedia features (like videos!)

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

ROAD TRIP! More Museums Worth a Special Visit

My family and I are off to visit friends and relatives in Detroit, so of course my mind heads in the direction of interesting places to visit.  I've written about "Museums Worth A Special Trip" in previous ExhibiTricks posts (see here, here, and here!) but I thought summer travel season would be a good time to pick up the topic again.

So here are some Summer 2015 "Museums Worth A Special Trip" suggestions for your reading (and hopefully, road tripping!) pleasure:

Since I'll be heading to Detroit, I would be remiss if I didn't mention one the great Art Museums in this country, The Detroit Institute of Arts (aka The DIA.)  As if the spectacular Diego Rivera murals weren't reason enough to visit the DIA, in recent years the Museum was completely redesigned, both physically and conceptually to enhance visitors' experiences.

This summer, The National Building Museum in Washington, D.C. has a special immersive (literally!) exhibition called The BEACH that fills the massive central space of NBM with nearly one million plastic balls that create a giant playground to wade, dive, or swim through!  In addition to the rollicking fun of the BEACH, you can also enjoy the other architecture-related exhibitions nestled into NBM's amazing building. 

While we're on the East Coast, if your travels bring you near the Boston area, be sure to check out The Discovery Museums in Acton, Massachusetts.  Pound for pound, still two (a children's museum and a science museum on the same "campus") of the most charming museums around. Packed with simple, elegant, and inventive exhibit ideas and playful spaces.

Whenever people ask me if I have a "favorite" museum, I generally say I have too many "favorites" to pick just one, but, if pressed,  The City Museum in St. Louis, would definitely make my top three.  How can you not love a museum that did an exhibition about toasters? With someone inside who will make a piece of toast for you using an antique toaster? A phantasmagoria filled with slides and tunnels and shoelace making machines and ... check out this video to get a sense of the place!

Now let's bop across the Bay Bridge to Oakland, California to visit the Oakland Museum of California  (aka OMCA.)  This museum has reinvented itself in recent years with lots of community involvement.  It's worth checking out the book, How Visitors Changed Our Museum, to find out more about OMCA's exhibit process and products.  The museum is divided into Art, History, and Natural Sciences, and each part reveals truly interesting and innovative approaches.

Of course my Museums Worth a Special Visit list could include many other worthy institutions (like The Exploratorium and The Ann Arbor Hands-On Museum)  but I'd like to crowdsource my Summer 2015 list a bit. 

So, what are some of your favorite museums to visit and recommend to others?  Let us know in the "Comments" section below!

Don't miss out on any ExhibiTricks posts! It's easy to get updates via email or your favorite news reader. Just click the "Sign up for Free ExhibiTricks Blog Updates" link on the upper right side of the blog.

P.S. If you receive ExhibiTricks via email (or Facebook or LinkedIn) you will need to click HERE to go to the main ExhibiTricks page to make comments or view multimedia features (like videos!)

Sunday, June 28, 2015

What is a High Quality Museum?

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

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

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

High Quality = Internal Capacity  by Paul Orselli

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

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

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

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

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

Don't miss out on any ExhibiTricks posts! It's easy to get updates via email or your favorite news reader. Just click the "Sign up for Free ExhibiTricks Blog Updates" link on the upper right side of the blog.

P.S. If you receive ExhibiTricks via email (or Facebook or LinkedIn) you will need to click HERE to go to the main ExhibiTricks page to make comments or view multimedia features (like videos!)

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Creative Design Toolbox: PAINT!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Check out his Rainworks YouTube video below:

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

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

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

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

Don't miss out on any ExhibiTricks posts! It's easy to get updates via email or your favorite news reader. Just click the "Sign up for Free ExhibiTricks Blog Updates" link on the upper right side of the blog.

P.S. If you receive ExhibiTricks via email (or Facebook or LinkedIn) you will need to click HERE to go to the main ExhibiTricks page to make comments or view multimedia features (like videos!)