Monday, April 24, 2017

Which Stupid System Haven't You Changed Yet?


Not every system is a good system.  We set up procedures to more easily deal with recurring maintenance problems or customer service challenges or billing situations so that we can address things in fair and efficient ways, and then move on without another thought.

And then something like the horrible situation on United Airlines happens where, instead of employees thinking more carefully about a procedure or policy that has gone awry, they just blindly follow along until a paying customer gets dragged off an airplane, bloody and battered.

I was thinking about this just the other day when I dropped off an envelope at a local FedEx location on Long Island where I live. Inside was a visa application and my son's passport, so I was a little concerned, but the visa service company I was working with had provided a FedEx label for me to print out that was addressed to their offices in New York City.

Just a quick geography check here --- the FedEx store I dropped the envelope off at is located in Lynbrook, NY about an hour away by car or train from mid-town Manhattan (as you can see, on the map below.)


So you would think that a FedEx truck would pick up the envelope on Long Island, drop it off at a depot somewhere in Manhattan, and it would be delivered the next day, right?

Well, you might think that, but FedEx has a system that says when a package is marked "Express" it needs to first go to a regional FedEx location before it gets delivered. So instead of merely being driven from Long Island into Manhattan, my son's visa application merrily traveled from Long Island to Newark, New Jersey to King of Prussia, Pennsylvania to Memphis, Tennessee before being pointed toward an office building in the middle of Manhattan.  (Spoiler alert! The package did not get delivered the next day, but I did get to make the cool Google map at the top of this post showing its progress. )

In a modern world filled with algorithms, you would think something or someone in the FedEx system would have flagged this waste of time (and airplane fuel!)

While it's easy to shake our heads at the goof-ups of big companies like FedEx or United, what outdated or downright crazy systems are lurking inside our own smaller businesses?  And how can we get rid of (or change) those systems before we upset another customer, stakeholder, or loyal employee?


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Saturday, April 15, 2017

Hunting for Museum Easter Eggs



In honor of the season, here's an encore post about museum "Easter Eggs."  Enjoy!

Museum designers often add "Easter Eggs" to their work.  But not the brightly dyed or chocolate-y varieties --- these are more akin to the hidden "Easter Eggs" that you may stumble across (or deliberately search out) inside video games, crossword puzzles, or DVDs.

For visitors, it's fun to feel like you've found a little "secret" inside a museum building or exhibition, and for designers it's a little "trick" to reward visitors for carefully observing and examining things inside the museum.

"Exhibits as advent calendars" as Dan Spock has observed (to mix religious holiday metaphors a bit!)  So here are a few of my favorite museum easter eggs:

• The Hidden Cat: Starting with the picture at the top of this posting is the "cat" hidden in the atrium of the Science Discovery Museum in Acton, MA.  It's fun to point out to visitors, and it really reflects the playful nature of the building and exhibits inside.


• Secret Elves at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science: Artist Kent R. Pendleton worked on many of the Museum's dioramas, but supposedly he wasn't allowed to sign his name to his work.  Instead, Pendleton included little "elfin" figures hidden throughout many of the displays.  There's a great blog posting (with video) about Pendleton's retro easter eggs!






• The Magic House Mouse:  The "Magic House" Children's Museum outside St. Louis has some wonderful exhibits, but one of my favorite "hidden gems" is the tiny decorated mouse hole near the baseboards in one of the galleries.  If you were just whizzing around you might not ever see it, but if you're willing to get down on your hands and knees you might see (as in the photo below) a "presidential" mouse:





• The "Hidden Tunnel" at Casa Loma:  Casa Loma is a gigantic historic house outside Toronto that is filled with enough crazy details to keep even little kids interested during the self-guided tours.  One  of the things I remember from a family visit (nearly 40 years ago!) was the cool secret tunnel, nearly 100 feet long, that was hidden behind a pivoting wall section (just like in all those scary movies --- but this was real!)  that led to the Casa's underground wine cellar:




Of course some museums, like The City Museum, also in St. Louis, or the Museum of Jurassic Technology in L.A., are practically interlocking collections of "easter eggs" or in-jokes, but that's certainly one aspect that makes them so popular.

What are some of your most memorable "Museum Easter Eggs"?  Let us know in the "Comments Section" below!

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Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Review: The listening dimension


If Olafur Eliasson wasn't already one of the world's most interesting living artists, he would be my very favorite science museum exhibit developer.

Eliasson's elegant grasp of the connections between art and science are on display in his show entitled "The listening dimension" currently on view at the Tonya Bonakdar Gallery in New York City.

Eliasson says: “The listening dimension emerged against the backdrop of the 2016 US elections. At a time when oversimplification is everywhere, I believe that art can play an important role in creating aesthetic experiences that are both open and complex. Today, in politics, we are bombarded with emotional appeals, often linked to simplistic, polarizing, populist ideas. The arts and culture, on the other hand, provide spaces in which people can disagree and still be together, where they can share individual and collective experiences that are ambiguous and negotiable. At its best, art is an exercise in democracy; it trains our critical capacities for perceiving and interpreting the world. Yet art does not tell us what to do or how to feel, but rather empowers us to find out for ourselves.”



Each of the pieces packs a big visual punch starting with Rainbow bridge, a series of glass spheres that have sections of mirrored, colored, and back pieces placed so that balls of color shift and change depending on your position --- creating eclipses, rainbows, or mirrors.





Three room-sized reflective panels, The listening dimension  (orbit 1, orbit 2, and orbit 3) , form the centerpiece of the exhibition.  As you enter the room you see a set of what appear to be rings floating in space.




But as you approach the reflective walls and look behind, you realize that Eliasson has created a carefully-crafted illusion, and the rings disclose themselves as semicircular tubes mounted to frames behind the mirrored surface.  This aspect of "revealing the perceptual trick" is classic Olafur Eliasson, and one of the reasons I find his installations so appealing.



Behind the mylar

Upstairs, the artist continues to play with light and perceptions. 

Midnight sun creates a visual dialogue between intense light and a concave mirror to give the viewer a sense of peering into a portal to another world.





One of my favorite pieces in The listening dimension is Colour experiment no. 78.

As you enter a room bathed in a yellow sodium light you notice a series of vaguely monochromatic circles.  In the center of the room hangs a long cord with a round knob at the end.  When somebody pulls the cord, a large incandescent lightbulb hanging from the ceiling illuminates and instantly changes the circles to a series of different-colored paintings.


But what really changed?  Colour experiment offers a big Wow! followed by a quieter Aha! as viewers think about and investigate the experiment Eliasson has provided for us.  While the craft of the experience is completely evident, Eliasson also invests time and resources in working with scientists.  This particular piece is the result of Eliasson’s ongoing research into color phenomena, a process that began by working with a color chemist to create colors that match each nanometer of light in the visible spectrum. 



The last piece that Olafur Eliasson has put together is a room filled with point-source lights and the rings from a deconstructed Fresnel lens, of the type found in lighthouses.  Eliasson experiments with combinations and positions of light and lenses to create stunning effects of light, shadows, and spectra.



I really can't say enough about the impact of Olafur Eliasson and his art.  I encourage you to check out his website and to seek out opportunities to view his work in person at galleries or museums around the world.






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Monday, March 27, 2017

Add Numberphile to Your Creative Toolbox!


I've recently fallen down the rabbit hole of Numberphile, a great math-oriented website and related YouTube channel filled with all sorts of clever ideas that should be of interest to educators and exhibit designers alike.

One of the things I like best about the Numberphile videos is that each mathematician is so enthusiastic, you can't help but get excited and interested in things like "circle inversions" that you might not have even given a passing thought to before.

While I've honestly enjoyed every Numberphile presenter I've seen, some are particular standouts.

Tadashi Tokieda often relates his math talks to toys or familiar materials.  Here's a video (embedded below or on YouTube) that shows all the fun topological ways to play with a strip of paper, some paper clips, and rubber bands.



Hannah Fry is a funny presenter who often ties the mathematics of game theory to real life situations like winning Rock, Paper, Scissors (video below or on YouTube) or Secret Santa, or making the best online dating profile.



If you are a bit "math shy" or even an avowed mathphobe, click on over to Numberphile!  I'm sure you will find something to pique your interest there.



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Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Can Laughing Cups Help Libya?


My work brings me to many unexpected places around the world, but I just returned from what may be my most interesting trip so far --- working with folks from Libya, but in Tunisia!

So how did I end up in Tunisia?  Earlier this year, I was contacted by Professor Susan Kane of Oberlin College.  Susan told me about her project through the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, U.S. Department of State to work with Libyan educators, scout leaders, and museum folks.

The point of this particular project being to bring together Libyans from different parts of the country who work with young people to help foster national reconciliation, and to create a greater appreciation for the importance of Libyan cultural heritage --- both tangible (think historic structures and archaeological sites) as well as intangible (things like music, dance, and poetry.)

Now we need to stop the story to fill in a couple of important details.  First off, given shifting events and unrest in Libya over the past few years, our U.S. Embassy to Libya is currently located in neighboring Tunisia, not Libya (see map below.) So that's why a State Department workshop with participants from Libya was happening in Tunisia.  (Also U.S. citizens are currently advised not to travel to Libya.)



Secondly, why ask ME to give this workshop that, at least partially, concerned itself with cultural heritage and Libyan national reconciliation?  Several kind museum colleagues pointed Susan in my direction, and together we crafted a plan to share my ideas about open-ended activities for children, quick and cheap exhibit prototyping, and developing pop-up or temporary museums in schools and community centers with the workshop participants.

After the initial excitement of traveling to Tunisia wore off, I honestly began to worry --- would my information and activities with simple materials actually be useful to Libyans concerned with reconciliation and cultural heritage? I continued to think about this from the time I started planning activities and gathering materials in the U.S. all the way until I arrived at the hotel on the outskirts of Tunis where the workshops would be held.

Fortunately, the Libyan men and women in my workshop were very enthusiastic and welcoming.  It was clear (once we got into the groove with our helpful translators!) that everyone at the workshop was hungry for activities to share with the students, scouts, and children they worked with.  I deliberately chose topics and activities that I thought could be used in a wide range of situations.



For example, I introduced a number of activities that dealt with the topic of "Structures."  In dealing with open-ended design challenges involving structures we could easily discuss History, Architecture, and Engineering among other subjects.  We created bridges and buildings out of simple supplies like paper, tape, straws, and paper clips.  The workshop participants excitedly shared their own embellishments for activities with each other, and also remarked on the symbolic value of a topic like "bridges" when discussing with children how to work together to create a more united Libya.  (Given the current political climate, maybe I should introduce more bridge-building activities for my workshops in the United States!)



Together with the workshop participants we spent one day focused on how to develop open-ended design activities and another on testing and prototyping ideas. Along the way, I also introduced fun activities like "Laughing Cups" that could quickly engage children and then lead into a broader discussion of cultural heritage topics like Music. (My new Libyan friends in the workshop called these sorts of activities Mr. Paul's "tricks.")

Our last workshop day together dealt with the development of Pop-Up (or temporary) Museums. These sorts of temporary displays or exhibitions are great ways to engage with communities and lend themselves to being set up inside non-museum spaces like schools or community centers (or even under tents outside.)  So we ended our workshop by creating a Pop-Up Museum!



Several workshop participants brought objects from home to share for the Pop-Up Museum, while others put displays together from materials available on-site.  One of my favorite examples of "instant exhibitry" was from Intisar, the director of the Children's Museum in Tripoli, who created a display about the different types of historical tombs found in Libya (clay for lower class, glass for upper class) using leftover chicken bones from lunch and an ashtray from her hotel room!



As with every class or workshop I lead, I learned a lot from the participants and our work together. Perhaps foremost in Tunisia, I learned that the Libyans I met (like all people around the world) want a better life for their children, and a safe and secure place to live.

So can Laughing Cups help Libya? In the hands of the thoughtful and dedicated people I met in Tunisia, I'm sure, in a small way, they can.



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Saturday, March 4, 2017

Design Inspiration: Paddy Bloomer


Paddy Bloomer is an artist inventor explorer and plumber based in Belfast. 

He has done projects in sewers and derelict factory chimneys, alleyways, and lamp posts. 


He has a knack for making interesting installations that either explode or are slightly dangerous (as you can see in the videos above and below.)



It's really cool stuff worth checking out on his website or YouTube channel.


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Thursday, February 23, 2017

Add "Office Supply Ninja" to Your Exhibit Prototyping Resume


Thomas Edison said,  "To invent, you need a good imagination and a pile of junk."  His reference was to inventing, but he could have also been speaking about prototyping.

To me, prototyping is an iterative process that uses simple materials to help you answer questions about the physical aspects of your exhibit components (even labels!) early on in the development process.  

As I mentioned in a previous post, it's always a bit discouraging to hear museum folks say "we just don't have the time/the money/the space/the materials to do prototyping ..."  (By then I'm usually thinking "So how is setting an ill-conceived or malfunctioning exhibit component into your museum, because you didn't prototype, saving time or money?"  But I digress...)

Maybe it's just me, but I can't imagine anyone fabricating an exhibit component without trying out a quick-and-dirty version first.  So in today's post I thought I'd lay out the simple steps I use to show how quickly and inexpensively prototyping can be integrated into the beginning of any exhibit development process, and how you too can become an Office Supply Ninja!


STEP ONE:  Figure out what you want to find out.

In this case, a client wanted me to come up with an interactive version of a "Food Web" (the complex interrelationship of organisms in a particular environment, showing, basically, what eats what.)  We brainstormed a number of approaches (magnet board, touch screen computer) but finally settled on the notion of allowing visitors to construct a "Food Web Mobile" with the elements being the various organisms found (in this particular case) in a mangrove swamp.  The client was also able to provide me with a flow chart showing the relationships between organisms and a floor plan of the area where the final exhibit will be installed.

The two initial things I wanted to test or find out about from my prototype were:

1) Did people "get" the idea conceptually?  That is, did they understand the relationships and analogies between the Food Web Mobile and the actual organisms in the swamp?

2) Could they easily create different sorts of physical arrangements with the mobile that were interesting and accurate?


STEP TWO: Get out your junk!



As in the Edison quote above, it helps to have a good supply of "bits and bobs" around to prototype with.  You might not have the same sorts of junk that I've gathered up over years in the museum exhibit racket, but everyone should have access to basic office supplies (stuff like paper, tape, markers, index cards, scissors, etc.)  And really that's all you need to start assembling prototypes. (The imagination part is important, too.)


STEP THREE: Start playing around with the pieces ...


Before I even start assembling a complete rough mechanism or system I like to gather all the parts together and see if I like how they work with each other.  In the case of the Food Web Mobile prototype, I used colored file folders to represent different levels of organisms.  I initially made each color/level out of the same size pieces, but then I changed to having each color be a different size.  Finally, I used a hole punch to make the holes, and bent paper clips to serves as the hooks that would allow users to connect the pieces/organisms in different ways.


STEP FOUR:  Assemble, then iterate, iterate, iterate!


This is the part of the prototyping process that requires other people beside yourself.  Let your kids, your co-workers, your significant other, whoever (as long as it's somebody beside yourself) try out your idea. Obviously the closer your "testers" are to the expected demographic inside the museum, the better --- ideally I like to prototype somewhere inside the museum itself. 

Resist the urge to explain or over-explain your prototype.  Just watch what people do (or don't do!) with the exhibit component(s).  Take lots of notes/pictures/video.  Then take a break to change your prototype based on what you've observed and heard, and try it out again.  That's called iteration.

In this case, I saw right away that the mobile spun and balanced in interesting ways, but that meant that the labels would need to be printed on both sides of the pieces.  Fortunately, my three "in-house testers" (ages 6, 11, and 13) seemed to "get" the concept of "Food Webs" embedded into the Mobile interactive, and started coming up with interesting physical variations on their own.

For example, I initially imagined people would just try to create "balanced" arrangements of pieces on the Mobile.  But, as you can see below, the prototype testers enjoyed making "unbalanced" arrangements as well (which is fine, and makes sense conceptually as well.)   Also, we discovered that people realized that they could hang more than one "organism piece" on the lower hooks (which was also fine, and also made sense conceptually.)



STEP FIVE: Figure out what's next ... even if it's the trash can!

Do you need to change the label, or some physical arrangement of your prototype?  Using simple, inexpensive materials makes that easy.

Do you just need to junk this prototype idea?  Using simple, inexpensive materials makes it easier to move on to a new idea, too. (Much more easily than if you had spent weeks crafting and assembling something out of expensive materials from your workshop...)  It's not too surprising to see people really struggle to let a bad exhibit idea go, especially if they've spent several weeks putting it together. Quick and cheap should be your watchwords early on in the prototyping process.

In this case, I sent photos of the paper clip prototype and a short video showing people using the Food Web Mobile to the client as a "proof of concept."  They were quite pleased, and so now I will make a second-level prototype using materials more like those I expect to use in the "final" exhibit (which I'll update in a future post.)  Even so, I will still repeat the steps above of gathering materials, assembling pieces, and iterating through different versions with visitors. 

I hope you'll give this "office supply ninja" version of exhibit prototyping a try for your next project!

If you do, send me an email and I'd be happy to show off the results of ExhibiTricks readers prototyping efforts.


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Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Does Your Makerspace Really Need a 3D Printer?


I have a new article out in the latest issue of the Association of Children's Museums journal, Hand to Hand.

The theme of the issue is "The Maker Movement" and my article is entitled "Do You Really Need a 3D Printer, and Other Essential Questions You Need to Ask about a Museum’s Makerspace."

You can download a PDF version of the article via the Free Exhibit Resources section of my POW! website, but here are a few excerpts about Makerspaces (and other design-focused spaces) that I shared in my article:

• I love the idea of 3D printers, in a Jetsons/Sci-fi/World’s Fair type of way. The promise of using a tabletop device to create absolutely anything out of any material (even food!) is pretty amazing. The reality, however, is you can spend hours designing a widget the size of a quarter that then takes even more hours to print successfully on the 3D printer… only to often find out that it hasn’t. When they work, they’re magic, but they’re not that simple to operate.

• Forming creative partnerships with makers in the communities around your museum can be mutually beneficial. This could be as simple as recruiting artists/tinkerers to showcase their work and how they make it to your visitors. You could also recruit retired tool and die makers, seamstresses, or NASA scientists.

• The focus on flashy high-tech gadgets exemplifies how the development of makerspaces in organizations can be susceptible to a “Ready, Fire, Aim!” mentality. Makerspaces are perceived as cool and eminently fundable, but often museums start planning spaces and purchasing equipment (Laser Cutters! 3D Printers! Robot Kits!) without considering what a makerspace is all about, and what the qualities of the most successful spaces are.

•  An unstaffed or unfacilitated makerspace is a wasted space. The best interactions in a good maker space will certainly involve staff and visitors learning together. Does the stuff (tool and materials) you provide help foster those human connections?

•  Many makerspaces have adopted a rough, workshoppy, “toys for boys” aesthetic that can be off-putting for many people (male or female) who are unsure of their making skills and interests. Why not mix up the look and feel of different areas in your space so you don’t stop potential makers dead in their tracks as they peek through the door?

I hope you'll download my entire article by clicking here, and also check out the ACM website to learn how to obtain the entire "Maker Movement" issue of Hand to Hand. 


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Sunday, February 5, 2017

Reflecting on North American Museum Work Through a German Lens


I recently returned from Germany where I was invited by Hüttinger Interactive Exhibitions in Nuremberg to present workshops to their staff and then visit museums in Berlin for coordinated staff training and learning activities.

I think my experiences in a European country with different ways of approaching museums and museum work are worth sharing, so here are my thoughts about some of the things I did and saw and how they relate to museum work here in the U.S.


Hüttinger Company Approach

First off, I was very impressed with Hüttinger --- their large staff and facilities, as well as their in-house range of fabrication capabilities, were all outstanding.  However, what continues to strike me the most is the Hüttinger company commitment to their employees.  In addition to the staff training and learning excursion that I was a part of, I was very interested to hear about the company's profit-sharing program with their employees, and an intra-company Wiki system of documents that every employee has access to --- so that Hüttinger stands as a very open and transparent company.  In my experience, this sets Hüttinger apart from many of their competitors, not only in Europe but in North America as well.

Exhibits in one of Huttinger's workshops


Berlin Museum Experiences

In Berlin I had the opportunity to explore three places with Hüttinger staff, two museums and one corporate exhibition space.

The first museum we visited was Science Center Spectrum, which by some claims is (historically speaking) the oldest Science Center in the world.  The current Spectrum facility was completely revamped in 2013 and consists of thematically-arranged exhibits (Light, Sound, Heat, etc.) spread out over four floors.  The vast majority of Spectrum's exhibits are produced in-house and so the components themselves are made in a fairly straightforward way using familiar materials.   

Spectrum Exterior

I enjoyed my visit to Spectrum, although many (but not all!) of the exhibits were familiar Science Center classics.  One of the things about Spectrum that stood out for me was its simplicity and accessibility.  None of the spaces or experiences were meant to overwhelm the visitor (as it so often seems to be the case in mega-Science Centers in North America or elsewhere in Europe.)

Coupled-pendulum swing

The second museum we visited in Berlin was The Museum of Technology (actually situated right next to Spectrum.)  I would consider The Museum of Technology an "old school" museum in the sense of a big museum with large, yawning exhibition galleries filled with equally large artifacts like locomotives, machinery, and models. 



Most of the interactive experiences I encountered, whether mechanical or screen-based, seemed very didactic and oriented towards carrying very specific content messages.  Even in collections-heavy museums in the U.S. I am used to seeing more open-ended messaging and interactive experiences. 


Nevertheless there is still something special about being in the presence of authentic objects in a social space, and in that sense, The Museum of Technology did not disappoint (although I have probably seen enough ship models to last me for the rest of 2017!)

Sail-making display in the Ship Section

The last place I visited in Berlin was called DRIVE.  It is part corporate showroom, part auto show, part interactive exhibits gallery put on by Volkswagen inside of a large commercial space located in one of the shopping districts in Berlin.  DRIVE was free to enter and when I was there showed VW products and exhibits centered around electricity and electrical vehicles.  It was an interesting combination of traditional science center exhibits (in this case borrowed from Phaeno Science Center in Germany, and including some components made by Hüttinger) along with some custom-made touchscreen devices.  

DRIVE entrance

There was also the science museum standard of a large Van de Graaff generator that you could get a picture of yourself with, having all the hair on your head standing up in the air.)  I think this "hybrid" approach of free corporate showroom exhibition galleries integrated into downtown areas is an interesting approach not really seen in North America.





Nuremberg Museum Experiences


Since I had never been to Nuremberg, when I had a free day to explore the city, I wanted to see as many things as possible. Not only did I get to walk around the Imperial Castle grounds, but I also got to visit the Toy Museum, Albrecht Dürer's House, and, most importantly, the Documentation Centre Museum at the former Nazi Party Rally Grounds.
The Toy Museum was primarily a fairly standard static collection of historical toy displays, and a small "Children's Room" with simple activities, not directly connected to the collections. This seemed like a missed opportunity, not only because the subject of toys naturally lends itself to interactive exhibit areas, but also because Nuremberg has a history as a "Toy City" and continues to host an annual international Toy Fair.  I think the Toy Museum could really benefit by teaming up with design students or emerging museum professionals to expand the museum's repertoire of interactive experiences.


Albrecht Dürer's House was a delightful blend of a historic house of one of Nuremberg's most famous citizens, as well as a combination of different interpretive techniques, including a very good audio tour, meaningful touchscreen interactives, and participatory elements like a printing press room where visitors could make their own prints. All of these elements worked well to give a strong portrait of the famous Renaissance artist Dürer.

Clear LED touchscreen display on artifact case in Durer House

In all honesty, before visiting Nuremberg in person, my main association with the city was the famous war crime trials that happened after World War II. My hosts thought it was important that I see the Documentation Centre Museum and I'm very glad I did.

The Museum is situated outside the Old City, at the former Nazi Party Rally Grounds. Because of Nuremberg's relationship to the Holy Roman Empire, Hitler and the Nazi party constantly used the city as a backdrop for rallies and as a justification for German "purity" and the Third Reich.  The experience of visiting the Museum is completely linear and led by an audio tour that very carefully brings you through the history of Hitler's rise and the importance of Nuremberg in that rise.

Old Nazi Rally Grounds exterior

Because the museum cuts through the old Nazi Party Rally Grounds buildings, you are literally walking through history in an extremely place-based way.  It's hard to describe how upsetting it was to go through the Documentation Centre Museum and learn in excruciating detail about the activities centered around Nuremberg and the rise of Hitler and not find striking parallels to what President Trump and his advisors are doing right now in Washington. I'm ashamed of my historical ignorance regarding the Nazis and Nuremberg, but I'm even more ashamed of the behavior of President Trump that appears willfully unconcerned with historical parallels in Germany.



It seems easy for us in the United States to carelessly toss around words like "Nazi" and "Hitler" when talking about someone you disagree with politically. But I urge ExhibiTricks readers of all political stripes to learn more about what happened in Nuremberg (through the Documentation Centre Museum website and other sources) to compare that history to current U.S. events.

All in all, it was a fascinating trip to Germany, that helped me not only reconsider my museum professional practice, but also my place in our interconnected world.  Thanks again to Hüttinger Interactive Exhibitions for giving me such an opportunity!


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Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Off to Germany!


I'm delighted to have been invited to speak about exhibition development and to also critique exhibitions in Nuremberg and Berlin with the staff of Hüttinger Interactive Exhibitions in Germany this week.

For the past several years, Hüttinger Interactive Exhibitions has been doing a professional development program with their staff. Once a year, their staff climbs into a bus for several days of exhibition critiques. First they visit one institution for which Hüttinger has worked, and then another museum for which their respected competitors have produced exhibits. This year we will be visiting museums in Berlin.

The deal with their staff is simple: Hüttinger pays all expenses and the staff donate a full day of their free time, and there is no obligation for anybody to participate. Prior to the Berlin museum junket, I will lead Exhibit Development Workshops at Hüttinger's headquarters in Nuremberg. Previous internationally respected speakers for this workshop series have included Peter Anderson, Elsa Bailey, and Ian Russell.

While I'm away in Germany, I thought now would be a great time to post an essay previously featured on ExhibiTricks by Managing Director Axel Hüttinger.  Click here to read "What is Innovative Exhibition Design?" 



Don't miss out on any ExhibiTricks posts! It's easy to get updates via email or your favorite news reader. Just click the "Sign up for Free ExhibiTricks Blog Updates" link on the upper right side of the blog.

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Tuesday, January 17, 2017

The Amazing World of Dinosaurs: An Interview with James Kuether


James Kuether is an award-winning artist whose paintings and photographs hang in galleries and private collections around the globe. He is an amateur fossil hunter and a life-long dinosaur enthusiast. His natural history art has appeared in numerous publications and enhances natural history museum displays in the United States and Europe. 

His book, "The Amazing World of Dinosaurs" features a collection of more than 160 original illustrations and was published by Adventure/Keen in October 2016. James is a member of several professional artist organizations as well as the Society for Vertebrate Paleontology. In addition to creating artwork, James has been a corporate executive, an executive coach, and a consultant to nonprofit organizations and Fortune 500 companies. He makes his home in Minneapolis, MN.

Jim was kind enough to answer these questions for ExhibiTricks readers.  As a bonus, we'll be giving away autographed copies of "The Amazing World of Dinosaurs" to two lucky ExhibiTricks readers, so read on for more details!



What’s your educational background? I have a non-traditional education. I worked in the financial services world for 25 years. During that career, I studied art, going on to become a fairly accomplished watercolorist. That experience provided a grounding in art principles and theories. At the same time, my interest in dinosaurs had me subscribing to academic journals and buying every book on the topic I could get my hands on. So regarding the disciplines of art and paleontology, I’m mostly self-taught.


What got you interested in dinosaurs and dinosaur illustration? My grandparents had a ranch just outside of Rapid City, South Dakota. One of my earliest memories is of my grandmother taking me to the South Dakota School of Mines Museum in Rapid City where I saw a mounted skeleton of the duck-billed dinosaur Edmontosaurus. Right from there, we drove up to Dinosaur Hill where there were life-sized reconstructions of dinosaurs. I think I was 5 years old, and from then on, I was hooked. 




Regarding art, throughout my career as a watercolorist, I painted “respectable” subjects like landscapes, still lifes and traditional figures. Then about 10 years ago, 3D computer graphics became accessible and affordable for home computer systems. I began dabbling, and it was then that my passion for both dinosaurs and art really came together.


What informs your design process? First and foremost it is the scientific accuracy of both the dinosaur’s anatomy and its environment. The species of vegetation that existed during the time of dinosaurs are different – in some cases very different – from those we’re familiar with today. It’s important to make sure that the plants in the images lived at the same time as the depicted dinosaurs.

In addition, the same factors that influence traditional art –color, value, composition – inform the image. It’s not enough to plop some cool-looking animals into a scene. I give a lot of consideration to the behaviors of the animals and how to compose them within a scene that is not only pleasing to look at, but also feasible and consistent with current scientific knowledge. All that being said, imagination still plays a huge role in determining the coloring of the animals and the design of the landscapes. The dinosaur imagery I create is a unique combination of science and imagination.


What’s your favorite dinosaur, and why? I have to admit to having a real love/hate relationship with that question. I love the question because it always sparks great discussion – especially with young people – but I hate it because, for me, it’s so hard to answer. There are currently more than 1,000 valid genera of dinosaurs, and most of those have been described in only the past 15 – 20 years! So favorite for me changes constantly. But I will say this – I always end up rooting for the underdog. So the herbivores – especially the hadrosaurs – tend to be my favorites. Edmontosaurus isn’t a flashy dinosaur. It doesn’t have big teeth or horns or spikes. But its form and design had an elegance that I find fascinating and quite beautiful.


What are some of your favorite online (or offline!) resources for people interested in finding out more about dinosaurs? There are a lot of dinosaur dictionary and encyclopedia sites. Websites like Prehistoric Wildlife and Dinopedia offer a convenient resource for finding out about your favorite dinosaur. But my favorites are the ones that focus on exciting news in the field of paleontology and dinosaurs in general.

Earth Archives is a wonderful site that has lots of “breaking news” features and summaries of ground-breaking research that are presented without a lot of scientific jargon. Novataxa features the newest discoveries, not just of dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals, but of extant (living) animal discoveries as well.

For off-line resources, The Princeton Field Guide to Dinosaurs by Gregory S. Paul, and Dinosaurs: The Most Complete, Up-to-date Encyclopedia for Dinosaur Lovers of All Ages by Thomas Holtz is packed with Luis Rey’s great dinosaur images. I also keep a regular list of resources on the Resources tab of my own website, so people can check there as well.



What do you do when you’re not creating dinosaurs? I think about creating dinosaurs! It really is a bit of an obsession. In addition to my natural history art, I consult with non-profit organizations, specifically in Southeast Asian countries. My business background along with my passion for art and prehistory has provided me with an incredibly rich (I don’t mean that in the monetary sense) and varied life!


What do you think will be the “next frontier” for dinosaur discoveries? Wow. That’s a great question and an exciting one to consider. New tools that are available to scientists are allowing us to look deeper into the microscopic details of fossils and discover aspects of dinosaur physiology we never dreamed we’d have access to. Recent discoveries of actual soft-tissue remains that have been preserved in amber, and the discovery that certain soft-tissue remains that can be coaxed from fossilized bones are providing answers to some of the most fundamental and perplexing questions about dinosaurs, such as their relationship to birds and whether they were warm blooded, cold blooded, or something else altogether. As an artist, the work being done to determine the coloration of some dinosaurs is really amazing. That work holds a lot of promise for developing ever-more accurate reconstructions of how these amazing animals looked.


What are some of your favorite museums or exhibitions? It’s pretty tough to beat the American Museum of Natural History in New York. In fact, whenever I visit New York I stay right across the street from the museum so I can spend as much time there as possible! I also have a fondness for the Science Museum of Minnesota. Its dinosaur and prehistoric animal collection isn’t very well known, but it’s impressive (sporting the largest mounted Triceratops in the world!) It has a special place in my heart as my hometown science museum. It was key to developing and feeding my passion.





Can you talk a little about some of your current projects and your recently published book
This has been a fun year. I’ve had requests from several museums around the world to use my images to accompany their fossil displays. That’s been a huge honor. My artwork has also appeared in several publications, including major books by noted paleontologists. But certainly, the publication of “The Amazing World of Dinosaurs” by Adventure/Keen publications was the biggest kick. I was given the latitude to write the book I wanted to write – something that’s a rare gift in the publishing world. As a result, I was able to give voice to the things I feel the strongest about, including the importance of science education, the role of women in science and in paleontology in particular, and the amazing beauty and grace (in addition to the innate coolness) of dinosaurs.


If money were no object, what would your “dream” dinosaur project be? I love collaboration with smart, knowledgeable, passionate people, so it’s great to partner with experts to create natural history imagery. I get excited when I’m requested to change an image to match up to a specific fossil discovery.  Adjusting my work to more accurately fit the science or the client’s ideal of what an animal should look or act like is when I get really pumped up about the process. If I can do that, and if the results further the science or inspire someone (and not only young people) to want to learn more about dinosaurs and ancient life, then I'm living my dream.


Many thanks to Jim for sharing his thoughts with ExhibiTricks readers! You can find out more about his artwork by clicking over to his website.




AND NOW FOR THE CONTEST! If you'd like a chance to win one of the two free autographed copies of Jim's book, 
The Amazing World of Dinosaurs” that we'll be giving away, you can either subscribe to the ExhibiTricks blog by clicking on the link at the top right side of this webpage, OR send an email to me (Paul Orselli) with the subject "Dinosaur Book Contest" before January 31, 2017 to enter to win.

We will be randomly choosing one winner from new subscribers and the other winner from the email entries on February 1, 2017.  Good luck!


Don't miss out on any ExhibiTricks posts! It's easy to get updates via email or your favorite news reader. Just click the "Sign up for Free ExhibiTricks Blog Updates" link on the upper right side of the blog.

P.S. If you receive ExhibiTricks via email (or Facebook or LinkedIn) you will need to click HERE to go to the main ExhibiTricks page to make comments or view multimedia features (like videos!)