Tuesday, December 20, 2011

More Voices at the Table: An Interview with Chris Burda

Chris Burda is Senior Exhibit Developer with the Science Museum of Minnesota (SMM). She translates science concepts for lay audiences through art, narrative and creative learning experiences. Over 25 years at SMM, Chris has had a hand in the development, design, production and management of many exhibits and public programs. Chris is currently lead developer on an SMM team charged with inventing engineering exhibits for the new Perot Museum of Nature and Science in Dallas.

While doing graduate work in San Francisco in 1985, Chris was employed as an assistant graphic designer and exhibit builder at the Exploratorium. The experience piqued her continuing interest in the physics of natural phenomena and honed her ability to communicate difficult subjects. In 1992 she joined staff at the Minnesota Children’s Museum to help develop their programmatic master plan and lead the development of a science gallery for young children. Chris is a regular presenter at museum conferences and consults with non-profits in exhibit and project planning. As a community activist and volunteer, Chris applies her talents to climate change education and action. She looks forward to skating and cross-country skiing. 

Chris was kind enough to answer a few questions for ExhibiTricks readers: 

What’s your educational background? 
I have a Bachelors degree in art education from UW Madison, which was an interesting place in the 70s. I keep my K-12 teacher's certification current.

In the mid-80s I took time out for a Masters degree in museum studies at John F. Kennedy University near San Francisco. I tailored the program to include several internships at the Exploratorium. My thesis examined techniques science museums use to communicate controversial issues. Parts of this project included an evaluation of the Science Museum of Minnesota’s Bionics and Transplants exhibit and a survey of all ASTC museums. It should have been a doctorate degree!

I’d like to note an excellent Project Management course I picked up some years back from University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, taught by Best Buy’s lead project manager.  Assignments immersed participants in team-based reality projects that addressed current situations in local and regional businesses. Post-it notes were a ready staple, which only fed my worsening addiction.

What got you interested in Museums?
What drew me to the museum field, rather than any heart-felt interest, was a tip from a friend who knew of a job opening in the fabrication shop at the Science Museum of Minnesota (SMM). Exhibits Director Terry Sateran, who came from the theater world, hired me on the spot. He was building a new museum and needed folks with diverse skills. I came with experience in art, theater, education and fabrication. I learned they all come together in creating public spaces and visitor experiences.

Flashback to elementary school. Field trips introduced me to the Chicago giants—the Shedd Aquarium and Brookfield Zoo, Adler Planetarium, Field Museum of Natural History, Museum of Science and Industry, and the Art Institute. The little gems around town were never on the itinerary.

Early museum memories include a real submarine, suspended airplanes and an amazing model train; a theatrical immersion deep into a coal mine; and cave people dioramas. I can’t forget the dinosaurs and mammoth; the mysterious Foucault pendulum (which I never understood); a series of nine pickled human fetuses; and Colleen Moore’s elaborate Fairy Castle. Seeing live zoo animals—swinging monkeys, leaping dolphins and pacing wolves—was interesting, but I always felt sorry for them. Also memorable were smelly lunchrooms, crowds and long bus rides.

Akin to museum experiences of my youth were annual family excursions to Marshall Field’s to see their Christmas windows. The displays magically animated scenes from a story, with mechanical characters and props enacting a tale that unfolded as you walked along State Street. (Over years they became less animated and, finally, useless.) A visit to Santa capped off this holiday tradition, along with lunch in the Walnut room, sitting next to the crackling wood fire and the multi-story Christmas tree, which gawkers glimpsed through the clerestory as they rode the escalators.

Being raised by a first grade teacher helped set the stage. Her classroom was a museum, full of treasures from nature, Native American culture, her own family history and the livelihoods and hobbies of her students’ families, who regularly did show-and-tells. She was like Ms. Frizzle in the Magic School Bus, often role-playing characters in costume. I helped illustrate murals and posters for her bulletin boards. Readying her room was a family project. It was our entrĂ©e into object-based learning, entrenched in personal story making.

How does working with local communities to create exhibits inform your design process?
It’s a wake-up call. I’m due for another jolt. Working with communities keeps me in touch with reality. The real-world work of community groups out there in the field reminds me that science museums hardly have a corner on informal science education.

In working with community groups to plan, develop and design exhibits and other projects, I learn how important it is to capture everyone’s ideas along the way. People need to feel heard. I use an active listening process, recording, grouping and connecting ideas visually at the same time, sketching little pictures to animate the emerging storyboard. People are often surprised to see their ramblings taking some form in real time. Visualizing the process helps folks focus, make decisions and prioritize their work.

It’s been several years since I’ve worked with Twin Cities Area community-based science organizations (CBSOs), but the impact lingers. As part of the Community Partnerships Serving Science initiative I led five six-week-long project development workshops for 75 CBSOs, inviting in guest museum specialists to assist. CBSOs are groups of impassioned folks, usually unpaid, engaging their local audiences in every science topic you can imagine, from breeding daffodils to advancing renewable energy, inventing robots or brewing beer. They’re often reaching audiences that museums simply miss.

The CBSOs would come to the Museum for workshops; I met them at their respective sites for strategic planning sessions and to coach them in writing project or exhibit proposals. They all received $600, and it was amazing to see what they could accomplish with such small stipends. A few more substantial monetary awards allowed a tight SMM team to collaboratively work with four CBSOs to build small traveling exhibitions. When I meet these folks at events about town, they say that their work with the museum honed their message and broadened their visibility in the community, which increased their membership. It’s rewarding to hear.

I’ve always enjoyed collaborative, community-based projects and find energy in facilitating the group process. Old Mickey Rooney movies are my inspiration. Pooling meager resources, he and his high school friends—including Judy Garland, of course—always managed to create a rip-roaring show in someone’s borrowed basement, barn, garage or the school gym.

My first collaborative design project with community happened in Marshfield, Wisconsin back in the 70s. I taught high school and, as Senior Class Advisor, coordinated and facilitated projects with teens. One year we found two downtown business owners willing to let us transform the clerestory between their buildings into a theatrical streetscape. Everyone brought their skills to the table, including bricklaying knee-walls, designing and lighting shop windows, painting murals, woodworking and scrounging for benches and street lamps. The kids, parents and business folks all came out. It was a blast.

What advice would you have for fellow museum professionals, especially those from smaller museums, in bringing more community input into their exhibitions?
Try anything that brings more voices to the table at every stage of your exhibit or project. Here are three strategies:

-       Stage a community workshop. Early in a project, convene key community stakeholders (school teachers and principals, librarians, board members, local supporters, critics and naysayers) to help clarify your problem and brainstorm strategies. Don’t be afraid. Pay them a stipend and, before they leave, ask if they’d be willing to come back as volunteers. Bring them and others back to test ideas, serve as advisors, interpret exhibits or, as groups, actually manage exhibit activity areas.

-       Identify community-based science organizations in your community.  Get to know them and you’ll find all sorts of ways to work together. Visit them where they congregate, go to their meetings to meet their audiences and host meet-ups at the museum. Invite them to advise on projects, lead workshops or participate in museum events. Write them into grant proposals; ask them to write you into theirs.

-       Showcase local work in your exhibits. Get to know creative people in your community. Search out area artists, crafters, trades people, entrepreneurs and youth leaders. Find them on the Internet, through person-to-person contacts or through their associations and organizations.  Commission work or purchase pieces that help convey your exhibit themes; credit them and invite them to the party. Art pieces—practical (like lighting or seating), contemplative or interactive—lend a personal, creative twist that appeals. I’ve found that the State Fair is a good place to shop.

What are some of your favorite online (or offline!) resources for people interested in finding out more about exhibition development?  I’ll suggest six books that I use for ideas and inspiration:

• Alexander, Christopher and Ishikawa, Sara and Silverstein, Murray (1977) A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings and Construction, London: Oxford University Press

[Instructs reader in a humanist approach to design, using a sequence of 600 design problems and solutions, from planning a city to planning a bedroom]

• Whyte, William “Holly” (1980), The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces, New York: Project for Public Spaces

[Book and accompanying film document iconic human behaviors exhibited by people using New York public spaces—sidewalks, street corners, markets, parks and plazas]

• Zumthor, Peter (1998) Thinking Architecture, Switzerland: Lars Muller Publishers

[Walks you through a diary-like personal reflection and instruction on observation and design]

• Tufte, Edward (1997) Visual Explanations: Images and Quantities, Evidence and Narrative, Cheshire: Graphics Press

[Shows ways graphics and illustration can convey dynamic processes without words]

• Underhill, Paco (1999) Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping, New York: Simon & Schuster

[Reveals the psychology in attracting and holding potential customers)

• Gurian, Elaine (2006) Civilizing the Museum: The collected writings of Elaine Heumann Gurian, London; New York: Routledge Taylor and Francis Group

[Explores ways to make museums more central and relevant to society]

What are some of your favorite museums or exhibitions?
Etiquette of the Undercaste, by Antenna Theater, is an interactive performance installation; a maze of thirteen rooms that use simple theater props and techniques to put you in the shoes of a homeless person. You die and are reborn into hopeless poverty. The show triggers gut-felt empathy for the disenfranchised. I felt changed in a more positive way by videos of people with disabilities that we developed for Bionics and Transplants: the World of Replacement Medicine—a mind-bending exhibit staged here at the Science Museum of Minnesota.

The City Museum, St. Louis, makes you a player in their adventure reality show. I entered the place as chaperone for a group of teenagers, but found myself facing my fears alone most of the time. Curiosity coaxes you into unthinkable situations—like dropping down into mysterious holes in the floor—that test your courage and survival skills. Strangers encourage each other through often dark, artfully created mazes, slides and tunnels. Experiencing all of the funky outdoor climbing structures at night is particularly cool.

In these times, watching immigrants under siege, I recall being moved by two Smithsonian exhibitions: A More Perfect Union revealed the discrimination against Japanese interned during WW II.   From Field to Factory told a memorable story of the continued persecution of freed slaves as they moved north. They displayed an actual contract that would have been signed by Klu Klux Klan members --- it was a shocker.

If money were no object, what would your “dream” exhibit project be?
That would take some thinking. Here are a few ideas.

- Develop dynamic interpretive help centers and connecting wayside attractions that immerse travelers in a sense of place and help facilitate their journey. Nova Scotia does a nice job.

- Work with regional coordinators across the country—maybe the world— to increase the capacity of community-based science organizations to mobilize their audiences. Call it a revolution.

- Build an energy-efficient, accessible home in my neighborhood. I’ve started this process; we’ll see how it goes. Along the way I’d like to move Minneapolis to establish a housing development policy that requires new homes to be visitable or accessible to folks using chairs. Baby boomers are their money in the bank.

- Help develop community art and science centers around the world that reflect local culture and help address real human needs, like health, food, clothing and shelter and the creation of meaningful work. It’s uncanny to see copies of the same exhibits populating museums and science centers everywhere without adaptation to specific places and situations.

- Develop an engaging urban space. I’m an enduring fan of Project for Public Spaces, a New York organization committed to placemaking to build stronger communities, and am drawn into this kind of effort in varied contexts, such as museums, my neighborhood park and my church. Most recently, I’m jazzed to help pull together a focus group convened by Forecast Public Arts, a St. Paul organization that connects the talents and energies of artists with the needs and opportunities of communities.

Thanks to Chris for taking the time to share her thoughts with ExhibiTricks readers!

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