Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Looking Outside: An Interview With George Mayer

George Mayer is the Vice President - Business Development for Kubik Maltbie, Inc., a 54 year old fabricator of museum exhibits based in Mount Laurel, NJ.

George began his career “on the boards” designing commercial interiors, architectural signage and commercial exhibits. For the past 29 years he has been involved in developing new business in the museum sector. He began his work at Maltbie in 1986, and left in 2002 to start up a museum business at Art Guild, Inc.  He returned to Maltbie (now Kubik Maltbie) in 2010. His list of major projects includes: Nauticus: The National Maritime Center, Fort Discovery National Science Center, and Gettysburg National Military Park and Visitor Center, but there are many more projects of a smaller scale that are just as significant.

He is a sometimes writer, sometimes conference speaker, and sometimes guitar player, but he is consistently passionate about developing new business and building successful, sustainable museum projects.

We are happy George was able to share his thoughts in this interview for ExhibiTricks.

What’s your educational background? I have a Bachelor of Fine Arts Degree from William Paterson University, Wayne, NJ.  My degree is in theatrical Scenic and Lighting Design. What that means (and any person ever associated with the theater life know this) is that I earned my degree by working nights and weekends fueled by coffee and Big Macs. You know how when you’re so enthralled by something that you can’t stay away from it? That was me in theater.  A great hands-on education that somehow resulted in a degree with honors.  

What got you interested in Museums?   I’ve been building things since I was a kid – forts, tunnels, log cabins, airplane models, miniature stage sets. Those interests led me to theater. During my later college years, I woke up one morning and realized how tough it was going to be to make a living in the theater, so I shifted my focus to exhibits.

I started my career as a designer of commercial interiors and trade show exhibits at first. I found that work to be quite unfulfilling, so I shifted my focus to museums. Museum exhibitions are a lot like sets – great design, cool lighting, and an audience (visitors). But museum exhibits are better than stage sets, because, aside from having achieved something artistic and creative, and three-dimensional, the educational component has the potential to make the world a better place by raising up people's awareness of the world around them.

What are the changes you see in how museums manage projects now compared to several years ago?  I’d like to say that I like the trend that I see, but it seems that almost every project that we see now is on such a short deadline that they are becoming harder to do.  When I first started in the fabrication of museum exhibits, most projects were on very do-able schedules, and I wonder if now there’s an inference drawn from the fact that we can send a document to someone in a millisecond and that that translates into doing their project in a millisecond.

What prompted you to help form Praxis Museum Projects Group?  Praxis began as a small business networking group about 10 years ago. There were four of us then, all working in the production or technical side of the museum exhibit business. We’d get together over lunch or dinner and shoot the breeze about the state of the industry, upcoming project opportunities, and other information.

During AAM in Seattle last year, I approached the others with the idea that we should consider making our group more of a real “thing”...a group that could offer a prospective client a full range of project services, just add design. We all agreed, and set about approaching people in other specialties who we already knew, or who we knew to be among the best at what they do.  After some months of defining what the group would do and be, we formed Praxis Museum Projects Group.

We’re still an informal entity, we don’t work exclusively with one another, but we do exchange information on best practices, on what our individual specialties are, on upcoming projects, etc. Our key watch-phrase is “where and when appropriate”, meaning that no one has to share trade secrets or betray a NDA in order to be in the group. Just bring your best game and contribute something that elevates the conversation about our business. For me, I like to have people to bounce ideas off of and Praxis is some of those people.

Tell us a little bit about how your “non-museum” skills/activities inform your exhibit fabrication work?  I’m always on the look-out for new ways of doing things, particularly as the exhibit world becomes more accessible and interactive. I find them in books, in hardware stores, in my grandkids toys (usually pretty engaging and “bullet proof”).

What are some of your favorite online (or offline!) resources for people interested in finding out about the intersection between movement and museums. I believe that museums themselves are the best resource that we can look to. We spend so much time looking at screens – for learning, for information gathering, for socializing. As professionals in the museum world, we have access to information that most people don’t.  But really, I would tend to look outside of our industry, and I would recommend that to anyone seeking any kind of information about anything – look outside, look away from what you do. Take in other information and process it and find ways to apply it to your own circumstances/situation.

What are the ways you think about making your projects accessible to the widest range of visitors?  Since we are not designers, we are usually in response mode. We build what others have designed or dreamed up. The good news is that we often have input into the technical engineering and final detailing of those dreams, so to a large extent some of the detailing and engineering decisions have a direct impact on issues such as longevity, durability, safety, and accessibility.  

What do you think is the “next frontier” for museums?  I don’t know what it WILL be, but I can say what I think would be great – that is finding better ways to get kids (and other human people) really engaged in their museum visits. Maker Spaces are a wonderful step in that direction, but to truly BE the scientist, or to BE the historian, or to BE the artist by offering more immersive and interactive environments and activities that provide a whole experience is what I’d like to have a part in creating.

What are some of your favorite museums or exhibitions?  Currently my favorite exhibition is one that we built. It’s the Behring Hall of Mammals at the National Museum of Natural History in DC. The designer (Reich + Petch) did such an extraordinary job of designing a contemporary, clean approach to viewing large mammals. It’s been open for 6 or 7 years and I haven’t seen anything like it anywhere else.

My next favorite is the First Division Museum at Cantigny in Wheaton, IL. The exhibits tell the story of the Army’s First Infantry Division in strikingly realistic and theatrical detail.  I was so impressed by the level of detail, the immersion into trenches and foxholes – it awakened the “theater” in me.

Can you talk a little about some of your current projects?  We are so fortunate right now to be working on a number of interesting projects, both domestically and overseas.

The “My Body” gallery at the Konya Science Center (Konya, Turkey) is a 5,000 square foot exhibition designed by LSC Experience Services and is about to ship and will be completed in early May.  We’re also working with Lee H. Skolnick Architecture + Design Partnership on the exhibits for Muzeiko – The Children’s Museum in Sofia, Bulgaria that will open this summer and includes about 15,000 SF of exhibits.

We are just about to open the North Wing Expansion at the Corning Museum of Glass, a contemporary glass gallery. And, we are just starting a small project in Northern Virginia – the Children’s Science Center LAB designed by Alchemy Studio. The LAB is being fit-out in a former Pizzeria Uno in the Fair Oaks Mall, Fairfax, VA, and is a kind of preview space for what CSC plans to build in the future. The DoSeum (San Antonio children’s Museum) designed by Argyle Design is in the final stages of installation and opens in June.

If money were no object, what would your “dream” exhibit project be?
I already have the outline and conceptual design for it, but money is not the object. The object is (drumroll please) …politics!  It’s a very large-scale traveling exhibition called The Beatles Anthology Experience! – 25,000 square feet of Beatles history with immersive environments and static artifact cases, but also interactive exhibits that teach about creativity, language (song writing), math (music is math), and tenacity.

Here’s some background: Over a period beginning in 1996, Apple Corps, Limited, the company that The Beatles formed in the late 60's, began releasing the Anthology series of media - first the CD's, then the DVD's, and finally the book in 2000. It struck me that, while this triad of media is fabulous, it is all very passive…listen, watch, or read.  There is no interaction, no engagement, and what it needs in order for Anthology to be a complete experience for fans was The Beatles brought to "life" and in three dimensions; an immersive environment that takes visitors on a complete journey through The Beatles' history from July 1957 when John Lennon met Paul McCartney at a church fair, through their last live performance on the roof-top of their Saville Row building in London. Nothing could have made any more sense as a name than The Beatles Anthology Experience!...the fourth part in a series of well-produced, spectacularly popular media by the band that is still the most popular act in history.

Despite having assembled a great creative team, access to funding, support from Apple Corps and thumbs-up meetings with Paul, Yoko, and Olivia Harrison, the project is…..sleeping, hence the dream.

Thanks George --- I hope we all get to visit your Beatles exhibition some day!  In the meantime, you can find out more about some of George's work at the Kubik Maltbie website or at the Praxis Museum Projects Group website.  (Full disclosure: I'm also a member of the Praxis Group.)

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