Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Museum Design: Where's Your Workshop?

It used to be that every museum had an "exhibits workshop." An unsettling trend (to me at least) is the continuing wave of museums that have deliberately left exhibit workshops (staff access, not visitor access spaces) out of the mix.

Can any museum that features interactive exhibits, or really any type of exhibits, ever become great (as opposed to just good) without some sort of workshop?

Let me be clear, I don't think every museum needs a full cabinet-making workshop with full welding capabilities and paint booth. But if you don't have at least one place with a bench and basic tools to tinker, to prototype, or to just pull busted exhibits off the floor while you repair them, can your museum's exhibit program ever be living up to its full potential? Workshop spaces build and increase your museum's internal exhibit development capacity and create a tremendous staff feeling of "ownership." Especially as it relates to "we built that here" exhibits and the entire exhibit development process.

I'm afraid that if you don't have a funky space to create, and explore exhibit ideas, your museum will inevitably cede some (or all!) of this important exhibit development process and skill-set to outsiders. And outsiders, including many architects with exhibit developer aspirations, are often the ones most responsible for eliminating workshop spaces from new building plans. If your designers and architects don't give you a workshop space with convenient loading/unloading access to the outdoors they are starting you and your museum off at a disadvantage.

I'll never forget a visit a few years ago to a beautiful new children's museum. After walking around the space with the Director of Exhibits, I innocently asked to see the "exhibits workshop." He ushered me into a small rectangular office with a desk and chair wedged into the far end. One entire remaining length of wall was lined with deep shelves holding the cans for the 26(or more!) different colors of paint that the architect had used throughout the building. I was dumbfounded. I asked, "Where do you build new exhibits?" The answer: "We don't build new exhibits. We just hire other people to build them for us." Then I asked, "What happens if an exhibit breaks?" The answer: "Most of the time, we just put an "OUT OF ORDER" sign on the exhibit and call somebody to come and fix it." I worried then, and I worry now, about what the long-term effects of "workshopless" museums will be --- both for visitors and the museum field itself.

How do you handle exhibit workshop space(s) in your museum or in museum projects you've helped create? Are workshop spaces a neccessity, or am I just hopelessly "old school"? Let us know in the "Comments Section" below.

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