Friday, June 29, 2007

Paul Orselli in The Wall Street Journal!

Yes, even before it may be sold to Rupert Murdoch, I got a small mention in today's Wall Street Journal (Friday, June 29th)

Carl Bialek, WSJ's "Numbers Guy" wrote a piece about how "countdown clocks" are used (or misused) in museum exhibits and other public venues.

If you read down to the end of the article, you'll notice my comments as they relate to museum exhibits.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Beach (or Airplane) Business (mostly) Books for Exhibits People.

Here's a set of books for your Summer list that I've read or re-read recently.

The first set of books are primarily from the "business section" but I've found great lessons for idea generation, better collaboration, and ways to leverage tools like the Internet to make better exhibits (and let people know that you make better exhibits!)

The last couple of books are excellent novels by two gifted writers.

Seth Godin's Free Prize Inside! is a quick read that lobs lots of great ideas your way. The main idea being that making great products is the best form of advertising.

The Black Swan The author stresses how our brains are wired for narrative -- to tell stories. We look for order and repeatability, even though the "odds" are on the side of randomness.

Rule The Web Think you know everything there is to know about the Web? Guess Again ... and learn some new tricks from this book!

Made to Stick The two brothers who researched and authored this book set out to discover the common traits of "ideas that stick." Ideas, like "The Great Wall of China is the only human-made object visible from outer space", even when they are shown to be incorrect, maintain a life of their own, and keep getting repeated because their ideas "stick" with people.

While the traits the authors come up with seem fairly obvious (Sticky Ideas usually have aspects of Emotion and Unexpectedness embedded in them...) the examples and questions the brothers Heath raise provide a good checklist to shift merely good ideas or exhibits into "sticky" ones.

The Creative Priority Jerry Hirshberg shares his experiences as founder and president of Nissan Design International and imparts some great lessons in how to motivate everyone in an organization to make creativity their priority.

A Death In Belmont From the author of "the Perfect Storm" comes this account of how Junger's family intersected with Albert DeSalvo, the presumed "Boston Strangler" during the 1960's in Belmont, a suburb of Boston.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay If you've never read anything by Michael Chabon, this book is a good place to start. Weaving threads of reality and fiction as he outlines the lives of those creating "fictional reality" in the golden age of comic books in NYC.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Making a "Little Sky" in Big Sky Country

I've just returned from beautiful Helena, Montana where I've been working with the fine folks from ExplorationWorks! (an emerging museum of science and culture) set to open later this Fall of 2007.

Aside from their wonderful community-built "green" building next to the cool Montana-themed Great Northern Carousel downtown, we've been working together over the past few visits to help ExplorationWorks find its unique voice, rather than just replicating things they've seen in other museums.


Which brings me to the topic of perennial favorite exhibit themes for start up museums like "grocery stores" or "mini hospitals." As I've said before, I'd be quite happy never to see another "grocery store" exhibit inside a museum! It's not that I have any problem with these "exhibit chestnuts" per se, but rather the idea that having a mini grocery store is a substitute for doing the real hard and creative work of finding your own "institutional voice." I realize it may be tempting to get the local grocery chain to donate money to outfit a space with kid-sized baskets and bins of plastic fake food, and their logo plastered all over everything (naturally!) but is that really the best possible use of your valuable exhibit space? Personally I'd say you've just created an "entropy exhibit" rather than a grocery store exhibit.

And, don't get me started, on all the amazing learning about nutrition, "cultural diversity" ("we have plastic ethnic food in our store") and the like, that's supposed to occur in these spaces. Little kids like to take things out of containers and pile them up or put them into other containers. PERIOD. I have a toybox in my living room that my kids use for this purpose, but I wouldn't call it an exhibit!


But, getting back to our friends in Helena...I almost had an existential exhibit developer crisis when Suzanne Wilcox, the Director at ExWorks said she wanted to change some things around in our initial design for their Early Childhood Gallery (called "Little Sky Country") and include a mini Post Office and set of stores. HORRORS! Was I going to be forced to give up my strongly held beliefs in the name of making a living? Fortunately not, and I think the resolution we came to in Montana could be useful for other museums considering mini "anythings" in the exhibit galleries.

Mostly we realized that the specific "wrapper" for different exhibit components was not as important as promoting a flexible design architecture that could support the content and desired visitor behaviors such as role-playing, sorting, decision-making, etc. So rather than trying to create a miniature urban "mini Main Street" in the midst of a nature-themed early childhood space, we created a single flexible structure with a Foresty facade whose signage and "props" could be changed and experimented with. (A few initial ideas include "Ma Nature's Cafe" to explore what animals eat, and "The Nest Depot" to discover what sorts of materials animals use to build their homes.)

I'm really excited about what POW! (in collaboration with DCM Fabrication in Brooklyn) has in the "works" for the big ExplorationWorks grand opening of Little Sky Country in late Fall 2007!

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

London (Exhibits) Calling

A recent report of a mention of the Exhibit Cheapbooks by Ian Russell during the recent ECSITE Conference in Lisbon, Portugal got me thinking about the differences between museums and exhibit development, here in the US, and "across the pond" in the UK.

"Boffins" are greatly appreciated in the UK. Museum and exhibits people, like the chaps at Science Projects in London, really love to tinker and prototype, and it shows in their exhibitions. Here in the US, many museum folks talk about prototyping, but I'm not sure how much of it actually occurs.

Exhibit meetings, just for the sake of having a meeting, seem to be disdained in the UK. Unlike the US Exhibit Development process, which seems to thrive on meetings. In the UK, BIG, The British Interactive Group, runs regular Fabricators' Weeks where exhibit folks crash around with each other in workshops filled with materials to create as many working prototypes as they can before a big public showing on Friday. Sort of like a Science Fair for adults. (Except with pubs and pints thrown in.)

Many museums in the UK tend to approach things in a simpler, more playful way than US Museums. (except the Science Museum, with its bridges made of glass, looking like the NYC Apple Store. Although even there, the older exhibits like Tim Hunkin's exhibition called "The Secret Life of the Home" are excellent. I guess they have more twee designers in charge, and less boffins, there now.)

Perhaps museum visitors are more "polite" in the UK than their US counterparts. There seems to be a less obvious presence of guards and protective barriers in all types of museums in the UK, even surrounding "valuable" objects. It makes me wonder if environmental cues in museums don't help reinforce expectations of visitor behavior. (It is always comical to see how visitors delight in "foiling" the protective barriers around exhibits by shoving bits of trash, oft-times printed material provided by the museum, inside. It's almost as if each piece shoved inside is saying "HA! you tried to keep me out, but I got in anyway!" Unfortunately, the protective barriers are often such a pain to remove that the poor museum staff must leave the junk inside for long periods at a time, detracting from the exhibit objects.)

The UK Interactive Museum Community has had the advantage of learning from the triumphs (and failures!) of the older US Interactive Museum Community. Rather than trying to recreate models formed in the US, museum folks in the UK have put their own distinctive twist on things, gathering things to use from colleagues around the world, and creating their own distinctively UK museum and exhibit models. One example in the Science Center field is Techniquest , located in Cardiff. For a US visitor familiar with Science Centers, poking around TQ is a strange and wonderful experience, both like and unlike a US Science Center at the same time.

So I say "Cheers!" to our museum colleagues in the UK. You all have a reason to be "chuffed" about your work.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

POP! goes the Exhibit Design

Museums, being the notoriously cheap places that they are, can often benefit from helping their exhibit makers discover interesting and inexpensive new materials to use for their own devices.

One interesting resource in this regard is the world of POP Design. (I'm just a kid from Detroit, so when I hear the word "pop" I always think of a cold carbonated beverage like Faygo Redpop.)

But in this case, POP stands for "Point of Purchase." Think about all those shiny (sometimes motorized or moving or lit) displays near the chips or cold tablets or ball point pens that you see in all the stores you go to. Now multiply that single display for Doritos by thousands (or millions!) of copies worldwide and you'll begin to get a small sense of the scale of the POP industry.

So, what does this have to do with developing museum exhibits? Just this: once any material has been manufactured in sufficient volume (to be used in POP Displays, for example) the unit price goes way down. Low enough for museums to become interested in using color-shifting plastic, inexpensive digital audio repeaters, or scented laminates(!) in new exhibit components.

What other unusual trade organizations or groups could we in the "Exhibits Biz" learn from?

Thursday, June 14, 2007

The RFP Issue of NAME's Exhibitionist

I'm the Guest Editor of the most recent issue of The Exhibitionist
(The National Association for Museum Exhibition's twice-yearly professional journal.)

The theme of the issue is RFPs (Request For Proposals.) How did I end up guest editing an issue of The Exhibitionist about RFPs?!?! I can’t stand most of the paperwork associated with the exhibits process – a lot of it seems devised by lawyers and bean counters to thwart creativity and excellent end products, not encourage them.

However, one thing that motivates me even more than my distaste for paperwork is the need to finish a project once it gets started. From the very start of the four years I served on NAME’s board, I kept hearing about a mysterious, unfinished document called “The RFP Cookbook.” I came to understand that over nearly 10 years some of NAME’s, and the museum field’s, most thoughtful and creative practitioners had been writing, re-writing, and trying to assemble this definitive tome regarding RFPs.

Well, for various reasons, The RFP Cookbook never seemed to be able to get off the ground, and frankly, after hearing about it for four years, I wanted to help pull the project together or drive a stake through its heart. After my fellow board members took the sharpened stick out of my hands, I became a somewhat reluctant, at least initially, editor of this collection of practical articles about the many facets of the RFP process.

I found during the editing, and reading and re-reading of the articles, that the RFP process can help focus fuzzy ideas and create excellent collaborative teams. However, like many other steps along the exhibition path, the RFP process can be handled poorly or adroitly. Often having complete information and being able to benefit from the experiences of peers makes the difference. 

Even if you aren't already a member of NAME (hint, hint) check out the downloadable examples. You never know when YOU might be called upon to put together an RFP!

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

"Food" for thought: Cultural Exhibits

Many museums are interested in creating or hosting exhibitions on "cultural" topics. However, many such exhibitions often run the risk of reinforcing cultural stereotypes, or focusing on the strange habits, customs, clothes, of "other" people. (Adding plastic pineapples and plantains to your grocery store exhibit does not mean you now have a cultural exhibit!)

Two wonderful books that may well provide interesting starting points for creating more thoughtful (and thought-provoking!) cultural exhibitions are:
Hungry Planet: What the World Eats
Material World: A Global Family Portrait

Monday, June 11, 2007

Some new "spins" on a familiar exhibit

Last month during the ACM and AAM museum conferences in Chicago, I had a booth in the ACM Marketplace. The fellow in the booth next to me was Steve Divnick. While I had never met Steve personally before, I certainly knew his product, the Spiral Wishing Wells, since I had purchased several of them over the years for museums I have worked for.

During the course of the day in the Marketplace, I overheard a lot of people talking about how much money their Wells have raised and how much they appreciate Divnick’s service. I really got a great sense for Steve’s enthusiasm for the Spiral Wishing Wells, and his sincere desire to help museums raise money in a fun way with a device that also demonstrates science. Also, I got to see the first public showing of his new and improved models including the “Seven Footer” Wells with eight launch ramps molded right into the funnel. If you haven’t seen the new Wells, you will be surprised at the innovations. (Click image above for a larger picture.)

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Paul Orselli and POW!

Paul Orselli’s interest in sharing ideas with people and creating interactive devices began when he was a child growing up in Detroit. While earning his B.S. in Anthropology and Zoology from the University of Michigan and his M.A. in Science Education from Wayne State University, Paul realized he could have a job making “cool stuff” by working in the museum business.

For more than 30 years, Paul has worked to create inventive science museums and playful children’s museums, including director-level positions at the Discovery Museums in Acton, Massachusetts, the Ann Arbor Hands-On Museum, and the Long Island Children’s Museum.

In 2002, Paul became President and Chief Instigator of POW! (Paul Orselli Workshop.) POW! was created to utilize Paul’s talents and collaborative resources to help museums and other cultural institutions develop innovative exhibit components, exhibitions, and educational programs.

Paul has consulted on museum projects throughout North America, Europe, and the Middle East. His clients include such notable organizations as the New York Hall of Science, the Exploratorium, the National Science Foundation, and Science Projects in London.

In addition to regular presentations at national and regional museum conferences, Paul has also been the editor and originator of the three best-selling Exhibit Cheapbooks, published by ASTC, and has served on the board of NAME (National Association for Museum Exhibition).

Paul lives on Long Island with his wife and “in-house exhibit testing crew” of four children.

Great Big Exhibit Resource List

For the past few years I've been gathering (and adding to) a resource list of Exhibit Supplies and Suppliers.

Check it out at:

If any of your "favorites" are missing, let me know and I'll add them to the list!