Saturday, March 26, 2011

Three Intersecting Circles: An Interview with Brad Larson

Brad Larson (that's him on the left, above, with his Neanderthal "alter ego" from his installation with Chedd-Angier-Lewis at Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History...) has been developing technology installations for family audiences in exhibits for over 20 years, first at Boston Children’s Museum and then on his own. You can read his blog, Museum Techmuse, or follow him on Twitter.

What’s your educational background?
I received an undergraduate liberal arts degree from a small school in Minnesota, St. Olaf College.  I majored in psychology, focusing especially on the psychology of learning, and almost got a minor in computer science. The ironic thing is that I hated the computer sciences courses I took – I would complain to the professor that the programming assignments were taking too much of my time to the detriment of my education.

Things turned around for me the summer of my junior year when I got a job with Atari computers working as a computer instructor at a Club Med resort in the Dominican Republic -- yes, that was my introduction to the working life.  But it also got me thinking that computers could be integrated into some pretty novel environments in interesting ways. After taking time off for travels, I went back to school and got an EdM focusing on interactive technologies from Harvard Graduate School of Education.  I was able to cross register for classes and do an internship at the MIT Media Lab…and that swept me into Boston Children’s Museum.

What got you interested in Museums?
I had no idea I would end up working in museums. But I had laid some groundwork ahead of time.  One of the biggest learning experiences for me was an extended period of travel I took, first with a group of students, then on my own, through Egypt, India, Taiwan, Japan and a number of other countries.

And when I was pondering what I might do with my life while still at St. Olaf in Minnesota, I drew a diagram with three intersecting circles: “technology”, “human development”, and “intercultural learning”.  I created a questionnaire out of this and kept giving it to people whose work I admired. (I highly recommend this).  Curiously, no one ever suggested “museums”, but it opened me to thinking about a wide range of careers.

When I saw the job posting for someone to be a “Technology Developer” at Boston Children’s Museum in 1988 at a time when this was still a very new field, I knew this was exactly what I wanted to do. There was no doubt.  I didn’t apply for any other jobs.  I just knew that had to be it, and that was the start of a decade for me at the Museum.

How does working with digital technologies to create exhibits inform your design process?
The biggest factor is simply that this is all new ground. The tools are developing faster than we are. This can be stressful when you want to hang out in the field for more than a few years – there’s not much time for coasting. But it also means that there’s no set way to do things, and that if you look for the big ideas like “storytelling” or “family learning” or “post-visit action steps”, you can latch technologies into these ideas to create something new.

How has creating storytelling/narrative opportunities in museums informed your exhibit design work?  I’ve always felt that the most interesting part of exhibits is the interaction people have with the friends and family they come with.  Comments, jokes, stories, even just fragments of these are the gold that we’re looking for.  So I’ve been interested in my StoryKiosk work to develop frameworks that encourage visitors to verbalize their experience. Record their stories, email them home, upload to YouTube or Facebook – all of these things build on the visitor’s own experience and ways of sharing that experience.

What are some of your favorite online (or offline!) resources for people interested in finding out more about exhibition development?  I admit I often go into hibernation and ignore (avoid) Twitter and Facebook for weeks at a time.  But then I pop up to see what’s going on, and I think these are great ways to tap into resources.  Start with someone you know in the field (you could follow my Twitter account for example), see who they follow, and quickly tap into a wealth of resources out there. Facebook also has a community of exhibit developers, with a little more personal touch.  And, of all the organizations out there, NAME is my favorite for connecting up with a community of people in the field – especially any local in-person events where you get to meet up and talk.

What advice would you have for fellow museum professionals, especially those from smaller museums, in bringing “appropriate technologies” into their exhibitions?  Social media really is the best “bang for the buck” out there.  Invest in staff who are comfortable with it, make it part of someone’s job to create and update a Twitter feed.  You can consolidate your social media efforts – for example I pull my twitter feed into my status updates in Facebook (there’s a Twitter app in Facebook that allows you to do this). Then you have a couple social media access points for one effort.  If someone has time to maintain a blog, great, but it should be based on someone’s genuine passion and interest and updated at least once a week or so.

What do you think is the “next frontier” for museums?
I like Elaine Gurian’s concept of the “essential museum” – a museum that is woven into the fabric of a person’s life and experience in a way that it becomes a necessary resource and tool, and is visited frequently for the answers it provides in daily life.  (It’s been a while since I’ve read her paper and am paraphrasing, but I think that’s the gist). Also, in the same way museums are becoming more “visitor-centered” they are becoming more “community-centered,” reaching out to serve their local communities.

One example I’ve seen in the Web world is MOMA’s “MeetMe” project, using their collections as a platform for serving people with Alzheimer’s disease.  In that way, the “next frontier” is thinking creatively about new connections to needs within local communities.

What are some of your favorite museums or exhibitions?
I like quirky unique exhibits and museums that grow out of a particular person’s passion.  The City Museum in St. Louis is just a lot of fun, crawling through unique and scary tunnels – it’s the only museum I’ve ripped my pants in and enjoyed it!  Also the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore has such unique and personal exhibits – I remember one with paintings made by people who had been (or felt they had been) abducted by UFOs. Totally compelling, respectful, thought-provoking.

So you’re writing a book -- what’s that about?
I’m writing a book on uses of technologies in museums from a “visitor-centered” perspective.  Over the years I’ve worked with a variety of museums, including children’s museums, science museums, history and art museums, and I see them all angling toward a more visitor-centered approach to exhibits, each with their own take on it.  My goal is to pull together a wide variety of examples and draw out some of the “best practices” in the field.  (I also intend to make this a participatory process, testing out themes and getting feedback on my blog, so, please, check it out and contribute!)

If money were no object, what would your “dream” exhibit project be?
Since the three intersecting circles that drew me into the field were “technology”, “human development,” and “intercultural learning,” something that pulls these strands together.  I have a few dream plans for an international network of story-based installations at museums that encourage cultural connection, shared plans, and good natured humor among families.  Wouldn’t need to be that expensive really, just takes a bit of focus and organization. (Email Brad if you have similar goals, especially if you’re reading this outside the U.S.!)

Thanks again to Brad for offering his insights to ExhibiTricks readers!  You can find out more about his work by visiting the Brad Larson Media website.

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