Friday, December 21, 2012

Visitors Are Heterogeneous: An Interview With Erika Kiessner

Erika Kiessner is an Exhibit Developer and Prototyper who is passionate about great exhibit experiences and the wonders of the world we live in.  I'm so pleased that Erika was kind enough to agree to be interviewed for ExhibiTricks!

What’s your educational background?
I have a BASc in Industrial Engineering, where I focused on Human Factors, which I earned at the University of Toronto. I have an MFA in Media Arts, where I focused on Interaction Design which I earned at the Utrecht College of Arts (Hogeschool voor de Kunsten Utrecht) in Holland.

What got you interested in Museums?
I grew up in Toronto and always loved visiting the Ontario Science Centre (OSC.) My family also took yearly trips to Sudbury to visit both friends and Science North. But the clincher was participating in a program at the OSC called the Ontario Science Centre Science School. This program allows you to do one semester of your final year of high school in classes taught at the OSC
by educators from the OSC.

The program involved a lot of museum experiences, such as mentoring with OSC staff and running small carts on the floor of the museum with visitors. Seeing behind the scenes at the OSC was a magical experience. I loved everyone I met there. The people I met were all smart and enthusiastic about science. They were inquisitive and creative and they all seemed to love what they were doing.

I already had a love of the museum, but now I saw how great things were behind the exhibits and I wanted to be a part of that. I saw so clearly how this was a group of people sharing their passions with the world and that I could do the same thing. I’ve never lost the joy that I felt then even though I’ve moved on from the OSC.

Does working with teams to create exhibits inform your design process?
It absolutely does. I don’t think that creating exhibits is something one can do alone. Visitors are heterogeneous. So seeing things from multiple viewpoints is crucial to ensuring you reach your actual visitors rather than just people like you.

Plus, I find creative pushback very helpful in refining and improving ideas. Ideas rarely emerge fully formed and ready to go to production.

Tell us a little bit about how your tinkering and fabricating skills inform your exhibit design work?  I have interfaces on my mind all the time. When I am thinking about an exhibit concept or problem, the interface is the first thing I try to frame my solutions with. In that way the “what” of an exhibit is tightly linked with the “how” of it.  When it comes to a whole exhibition, I am thinking about what the theme is and how to give visitors access to its concepts through individual exhibits and experiences.

What are some of your favorite online (or offline!) resources for people interested in finding out more about exhibition development? I’m not sure that I have an answer to this. I think there is lots of great maker stuff in Instructables. There are interesting reviews in ExhibitFiles. But when I want to know more about exhibition development, I tend to talk to people about it.

I think that Human Factors is a rich area to mine for lessons about how people use things and interpret them. Also, there is an amazing amount of research in the design of retail spaces (Journal of Consumer Research and the like), which gets at the psychological impact of design. I am interested in learning theory, but people are so different from each other in the way that they learn.

What advice would you have for fellow museum professionals, especially those from smaller museums, in developing their exhibitions?
Test things out. I am personally often guilty of assuming that I know what visitors will know, or what they will want. But it is tricky to guess and it is easy to miss some really great elements thinking that way.

Even if the museum doesn’t have the resources to try out whole exhibits, there is lots of value in testing out just the text elements. It is cheap and easy to do, and it can give a lot of value to the exhibition.

What do you think is the “next frontier” for museums?
I think we are right on the cusp of an Augmented Reality(AR) breakthrough for museums. The tools for building exhibits that integrate AR are starting to reach a critical mass. Soon enough developers will get their hands on them and we are going to start to see some new ways of doing displays with them.

With smartphones becoming ever more common, visitors increasingly have the tools they need right in their pockets. I only hope that museums can agree on a shared platform so that the visitors do not need to download a new app every time they walk into a new institutions.

What are some of your favorite museums or exhibitions?
I love Science North in Sudbury for how it handles its live animals and makes use of its space.  Seeing Galileo’s telescope in the travelling “Galileo, the Medici and the Age of Astronomy” exhibit really blew my mind. I love the Louvre because it is impossible not to be blown away by the sheer density of it. The City Museum is this beautiful, amazing thing that really challenges all one's preconceptions about museums.

The Mill City Museum in Minneapolis is wonderful both for how it showed the old building and how it used the old elevator as a really unique theatre.  The Johnson Geo Centre in St. John’s Newfoundland is dug into Signal Hill and the exhibits are walled in by the rock of the hill. The Utrecht University Museum has an amazing cabinet of curiosities in it. But to be honest, it is hard for me not to love something about every museum I have visited. I have yet to visit one that didn’t have some real treasures in it.

Can you talk a little about some of your current projects?
The project I’m most excited about right now isn’t for a museum at all. We are building interactive set pieces for a modern dance company. It is a really challenging experience because the needs of dancers are very different from the needs of visitors!

If money were no object, what would your “dream” exhibit project be?
I would love to do a science exhibition about a city, embedded in the city landscape. I imagine walk-up exhibits on street corners and points of interest that draw your attention to something in the vicinity and give a science-based explanation for it. From architecture to wind patterns, local flora to material properties, there are elements of a city that are easy to take for granted even if there are fascinating explanations for them.

For example, in Toronto one of the big downtown office buildings has a cantilevered portion that suspends 13 stories over the sidewalk. An exhibit there might draw an area on the ground with the statement “Standing here there are XX thousand pounds of concrete suspended above you!” Then an explanation about how the building is constructed to support the structure overhead.

Thanks again to Erika for sharing her thoughts with ExhibiTricks readers! 

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