Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Rocket Scientist: An Interview With Wayne LaBar


Wayne LaBar is the founder and principal of ALCHEMY studio, an experience and institutional development, design and consulting services studio located in Maplewood, NJ.  Alchemy Studio works with museums, science centers, boards, civic leaders, governments, NGO’s, filmmakers and others involved in the informal learning field.  

With over 26 years of museum experience and numerous papers and presentations, Wayne’s former roles include: Vice President of Exhibitions and Featured Experiences at Liberty Science Center (Jersey City, NJ), Director of Exhibits at The Tech Museum (San Jose, CA), Project Manager at Krent/Paffett Associates, Inc. (Boston, MA) and Project Manager at the Carnegie Science Center (Pittsburgh, PA). Wayne is currently the Vice President on the Board of the National Association for Museum Exhibition (NAME.)

We're happy that Wayne was able to share some time (in between jetting around the world!) to share some thoughts with ExhibiTricks readers.

What’s your educational background?   Rocket Scientist. Really. I have a Bachelor’s Degree in Aerospace Engineering from Georgia Tech. I also worked at NASA. After that, I began a doctorate in Planetary Sciences at the University of Pittsburgh… until I ran away with the circus, which is my euphemism for joining the museum/science center field.

What got you interested in Museums?   Well, on one hand, personally I’ve always loved going to museums. Some of my earliest memories are of visiting the American Museum of Natural History, and visits to places such as the Franklin Institute. These probably set the stage for what I think is your real question. How did I get into this business? Like most good stories, this involves a woman. In fact, one morning my girlfriend at the time in Pittsburgh mentioned that there was an ad in the paper for somebody with a biology degree  and for someone with an engineering degree  to join the Buhl Science Center and help develop the exhibits for a new science center (to be the Carnegie Science Center). We both applied as she was a biologist and I for the engineer position. I got a job and she didn’t. If you’re wondering, yes we broke up.

How does working with teams to create exhibits inform your design process?  (Or does it?)   All of my exhibit and design experience is one of a team process and approach. I think this is one of my favorite parts of the work I do. Learning, interacting, being inspired by others - all come from this process. While I believe that certainly there is usually a vision (for an exhibition down to a single experience) that must drive the process, it always takes the talents and abilities of team members to make an exhibition or exhibit sing.

Tell us a little bit about how your engineering background informs your exhibit design work.   I was once asked what I learned in college. After thinking for a bit, I said “I learned not to be intimidated by problems but to solve them.” It is that skill that I see most in my work. To earn that degree and solve those problems required thinking logically,  being imaginative, working with teams, doing research, being creative, being thorough and focusing on detail.  I use all of those every day.

What are some of your favorite online (or offline!) resources for people interested in finding out more about exhibition development?  Well first, a plug: visit my blog to see some of my personal insights and inspirations about exhibition development. Also, check in to ExhibitFiles, the NAME website and books such as Kathy McLean’s Planning for People in Museum Exhibitions.

Another great resource is the NAME journal: “Exhibitionist.” I would recommend that anyone interested in the museum exhibit business should subscribe.” Link: https://aam-us.org/ProductCatalog/Product?ID=11

I also go to several sites for inspiration which are not directly related to exhibit development. I suggest Fast Company, Wired, Gizmodo, and io9.

What advice would you have for fellow museum professionals, especially those from smaller museums, in developing their exhibitions?   I would examine what differences a smaller institution has over a larger institution and then leverage those to do something different, something that stands out. I would imagine that, at a smaller museum, there can be less bureaucracy, thus maybe allowing teams to be more nimble and experimental, trying things out more, open to more partnerships, probably more community-centered. Identify and use these attributes.

What do you think is the “next frontier” for museums?   Well, I think that museums, at their heart, focus on passion. What I mean is that whether it’s art, science, history, different collections, music or even memorial museums, they are a celebration of human passion for a subject - passions to study a subject, to collect, to understand the world, to create artistic expression, to connect across cultures, to inspire shared vision. The next frontier is for museums to embody the passion they are about. Too often museum organizations’ structures stymie passion in visitors and staff. Museums need to let go.

What are some of your favorite museums or exhibitions? 
The most recent can be seen on my blog.  Other places that are my favorites: House of Terror in Budapest, Science Museum of London, Melbourne Museum, American VisionaryArt Museum in Baltimore, the City Museum in Saint Louis and, of course, the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.

Can you talk a little about some of your current projects?   Yes, the studio is working on several projects right now.   We are deeply involved in bringing science centers to Saudi Arabia, and there are several science center or informal science learning projects that we are part of. In addition, we are helping an emerging children’s science center in Northern Virginia. Additionally, we are working with the Australian National Maritime Museum to help them think through and reimage their exhibit experience. 

We are also working on a giant screen/IMAX scale film about large-scale engineering projects. ALCHEMY studio has projects in several different mediums from the museum field – permanent exhibits, traveling exhibits, programming & curriculum, media, organizational strategy, master planning, operations, and pretty much anything and everything else related to dreaming about, launching, or running a museum.

If money were no object, what would your “dream” exhibit project be?

Well, certainly, if I could, I would love to do an incredible science/culture/art of cooking exhibition. Having a lot of design, research and ideas from previous work, it would be wonderful to do that project. For something completely different, I would love to an exhibition on the space station. One for astronauts!

Finally, it would be a joy to do a project about and for my two Labrador Retrievers – Reposado and Anejo. Yes, they are named after tequila which would also be a great project to do! Get me started and I’ll keep coming up with new projects!

Thanks again to Wayne for sharing his thoughts! You can find out more about Wayne and his work via the ALCHEMY studio website.

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