Monday, March 30, 2009

Building Internal Capacity

If there is one silver lining to the continually oppressive economic news, it's the opportunity for museums and other organizations to focus (or re-focus) on building their internal capacity.

It might sound funny for an independent museum professional like myself to advocate for museums being able to develop and create programs and exhibits internally, but I am a strong believer that all types of museums should build upon the strengths of their existing staff and other institutional resources, rather than automatically looking for outside help. (See my recent posting on the importance of in-house exhibit workshops, for example.)

One way for museums to stretch their resources in these tough times is to look for ways to increase such internal capacity.

Art Museums, as one obvious instance, are starting to think more carefully about how the items in their collections might be reinterpreted or redisplayed to create new exhibitions, or even "mini-exhibitions" of a few works, rather than booking traveling shows, or trying to mount expensive "blockbusters."

Any type of museum could benefit from taking a fresh look at their programs and exhibits to try and creatively, and economically, improve them. Is there a way to slightly change or reconfigure a troublesome exhibit component to make it more interesting for visitors? Can you rethink or revitalize an exhibit in storage, and bring it out of retirement? What about building upon a current news item to rapidly develop a combined education program and mini-exhibition on the topic?

These are the types of questions that a knowledgeable museum professional from outside the organization, with a fresh point of view, can help answer.

As a matter of fact, I'm about to formally announce the launch of a new service called the "Exhibit Dr." designed to help museum staffers, as well as independent designers helping museums, to stretch their existing resources, and to "prescribe" the answers they need to solve their knotty exhibit problems.

So stay tuned, as ExhibiTricks readers will be the first to find out when the Exhibit Dr. is "in"!

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Dangerous Things to Let Kids Do

As a followup to our previous post about the lack of play in kindergarten, please enjoy this video of a TED talk presented by Gever Tulley, the co-founder of the wonderfully named "Tinkering School" a weeklong camp where lucky kids get to play with their very own power tools.

(If you're getting this message via email or a news reader, you may have to click over directly to the ExhibiTricks blog page to see the embedded video.)

Maybe we need a little more "tinkering" during the school day!

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Monday, March 23, 2009

What About Play?

Museums and exhibit makers, feeling the pressure of losing school field trip revenue, are now encouraged to align their exhibits and programs with "school standards."

What are these "standards" other than an excuse for more testing? (And spending valuable classroom time with test-taking strategy sessions, setting up weekend test-prep sessions for students, and using limited school funds to purchase execrable test practice workbooks...)

This mania began after the "No Child Left Behind" laws (or as some people describe them, the “No Child Left Untested” laws) were passed, and have had the effect of causing school administrators to eliminate almost every aspect of the education day that doesn't show up on the standardized tests. Some districts have reduced or eliminated "nonessentials" such as Art, Music, Recess, and even "Play."

Enter the Alliance for Childhood, a non-profit organization that focuses on early education issues. The Alliance has just released a new report entitled Crisis in the Kindergarten: Why Children Need to Play in School. (The full version of the report is available on the Alliance's website.)

The report documents, in three studies commissioned by the Alliance, the radical changes in kindergarten education that have replaced play and playful learning with hours of instruction in literacy and math, and increasing amounts of standardized testing.

Researchers from U.C.L.A. and Long Island University found that, on a typical day, children in all-day kindergartens in Los Angeles and New York City spend four to six times as much time in literacy and math instruction and taking or preparing for tests (about two to three hours per day) as in free play or “choice time” (30 minutes or less). A third research team, at Sarah Lawrence College in New York, found that most of the activities available to children during choice time (a popular euphemism for playtime) are in fact teacher-directed and involve little or no free play, imagination, or creativity.

The report summarizes recent studies and reports showing long-term gains from play and focused, playful learning in early education. It also critiques kindergarten standards, scripted teaching, and standardized testing and makes recommendations for change.

David Elkind, author of The Power of Play, calls the research findings “heartbreaking.” In a foreword to the Alliance report, Elkind writes, “We have had a politically and commercially driven effort to make kindergarten a one-size-smaller first grade. Why in the world are we trying to teach the elementary curriculum at the early childhood level?”

Museums can be an antidote to this continuing mania for testing and "standards" by providing programs and exhibits that show the power of play, and playful learning.

Unfortunately, it is often difficult to make this argument to administrators, so thanks to the Alliance for Childhood, here are three studies to provide ammunition for your fight.

Now get out there and provide your visitors and field trip groups with some serious play!

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Thursday, March 19, 2009

A Different Kind Of Museum Stimulus Package?

Can artists and museums in economically stressed communities filled with empty storefronts do something to help improve that situation?

I'm not just talking about artists buying up $100 houses in Detroit. What about artists and museums helping to fill these empty storefronts with interesting stories and objects? (The empty storefronts are practically display cases after all.) I'm not talking about sticking the Mona Lisa in an empty display window, but surely there are interesting opportunities in this approach.

These "mini-museums" could really improve the looks (and outlook) of a community and forge, or strengthen, ties between all sorts of artists and museums and their local communities.

And who knows, such storefront projects may actually be eligible for government stimulus funds!

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Monday, March 16, 2009

The World's Best Museum?

"We want to build the world's best science museum."

That's what the leader of a group of board members from an emerging museum said to me several months ago during our first lunch meeting.

My immediate reaction was to start laughing. But because: a) I wasn't raised by wolves, and b) my consulting business supports my wife, and our four kids, I instead nodded, and asked, "Well, what do you mean by best?"


Silence and blank stares. It was like being in a meeting with an oil painting.

Finally, one of the board members cautiously said, "We'd like to have all the newest high-tech exhibits, but we want ours to be unique." Another said, "We think we should have an IMAX theater. But we'd like ours to be the biggest, so we could have a good PR angle to drum up more funding support."

I tried to redirect the conversation to get the board members to discuss WHY they wanted to start a science museum in the first place, to try to uncover and understand their passions about their soon-to-be (hopefully!) museum, but we just kept circling back to making the "world's best" museum --- and worse, the terms "best" and "biggest" now started getting used interchangeably.

What about starting a small demonstration site to get things started? No, not "sexy" enough. They "needed" to start BIG.

What about learning to build up internal capacity, so that staff and resources could be allocated to be able to create things locally, both internally, and collaboratively, with folks from local communities?

A new round of blank stares.

I could see this was going to end in tears, so I gently suggested that their project might not yet be at the stage where I could help them. This group seemed destined to be spinning this project around for years without it going anywhere.

I thanked them for the (soggy) sandwich, and drove off into the sunset.

Even though as a consultant, my brain is usually for rent, here are a few lessons I took away from this experience that I'm happy to share:

• You can't claim the title of "world's best" for yourself before you even start something (or even after you start something, for that matter.) It makes you seem arrogant and/or clueless.

When your visitors start telling all their friends to go to your museum, and better yet, start referring to the place as "their" museum, you will have started down the road to success.

• Start small, and build thoughtfully from there. It's o.k. to stay small in order to maintain quality.

• Focus on building internal capacity by investing in staff, training, and tools appropriate for your situation. Paradoxically, I like to teach museums and their staff how to "fish" (metaphorically speaking) rather than having them always feeling like they need to buy "fish" from folks outside of their organization.

Starting a museum is tough, but making sure your museum continues to improve and evolve after it opens, is even tougher. Good Luck! (and if you need help with a museum project that you would like to grow into being one of the "best" , let me know.)

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Thursday, March 12, 2009

Creating Exhibitions --- Will You Be There?

Creating Exhibitions will be taking place at the end of this month. Will you be there?

I hope so, since we have a phenomenal program planned!

We'll start things off on Monday, March 30th in New Jersey at the Liberty Science Center with a great keynote by Ingrid Schaffner, and great interactive sessions throughout the day, including behind-the-scenes tours of LSC.

On Tuesday, March 31st, we'll take over NYC with special "field trips" to a dozen museums in the morning, then move to mid-town to visit co-host Fashion Institute of Technology for a fantastic culminating keynote by award-winning author David Macaulay!

Check out the Creating Exhibitions website for complete details, or click here to register on-line.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Museum Design Inspiration: Budget Graphics Edition

P16 O W exclamation mark !

A great graphic artist can really transform the look and feel of an exhibition. The work of artist Ray Troll in the Amazon Voyage exhibition comes to mind. But sometimes smaller museums, or in these cash-strapped times, even larger museums, occasionally need to develop some graphics materials in-house.

I've discussed one of my favorite design resources, Google's great free rendering tool, SketchUp, in a previous post, but here are three other graphics-related resources that can provide some budget-stretching inspiration. I list them in order of complexity:

1) Spell with Flickr is a neat application developed by Erik Kastner that interfaces with the photo-sharing service Flickr. Spell with Flickr does just what you might expect --- just enter words or phrases into a text box on the site, press the button, and your word is spelled out in different images of letters pulled from Flickr. If you don't like how a particular letter has been rendered, just click on it and the application will substitute a new Flickr image of the letter for the previous one. (The site also generates HTML code of your Flickr words as well. You can see an example at the top of this posting.)

2) GraphicRiver GraphicRiver is a website that provides low-cost Photoshop and other graphics files that can spice up simple print or exhibit graphics pieces. Not a substitute for a graphics person, but still, good stuff at good prices!

3) VectorTuts If you have been the "designated hitter" for graphics on your museum staff for awhile, you might like to sink your teeth into the the VectorTuts website.

"Tuts" is pronounced "toots" and is short for "tutorials." Here you will find step-by-step tutorials on how to create all sorts of effects using vector graphics programs like Adobe Illustrator.

As I mentioned earlier, there really is no substitute for working with a talented graphic artist, but the tools mentioned above can provide help and inspiration when that's not an option.

Have some of your own favorite graphics tools to share? Let us know in the "Comments" Section below.

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Thursday, March 5, 2009

Museums Worth A Special Trip

Which museum(s) would you recommend to friends as worth a special trip, and why?

I'm starting a list. A list that is a response to the bogus lists that cheesy magazines make of the "Top 10 Science Museums" or "The Top 10 Children's Museums."

A better list, because you will help me make it. (Shades of Museum 2.o! Hi Nina!)

So help me create the list of "Museums Worth a Special Trip."

In the "Comments" section below, name the museum, and most importantly, tell WHY you think it's worth a special trip.

I'll start with three suggestions of my own:

1) The Discovery Museums in Acton, MA
Pound for pound, still two (a children's museum and a science museum on the same "campus") of the most charming museum spaces around. Packed with simple and inventive exhibit ideas.

2) The City Museum in St. Louis, MO
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...

3) The Liberace Museum in Las Vegas, NV
I only had a vague idea of who Liberace was, but I was in Las Vegas, and I don't really gamble, so I thought what the heck. I am glad I went! More kitsch per square inch than Graceland. Collections of cars (mirror-covered Rolls Royce with candelabras, anyone?) pianos and costumes. (Along with the World's Largest Rhinestone.)

How about you? Please add your "Museums Worth A Special Trip" in the Comments Section below.

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