Thursday, February 28, 2008

Design Inspiration:

I love people who design wonderful things with limited resources. I really think that when you have to struggle a little, you come up with better, more creative solutions (instead of just throwing money at problems in an effort to make them go away.)

One of my new favorite museum design inspirations in this regard is the AfriGadget blog. Most of the AfriGadget postings outline how an African entrepreneur or tinkerer used simple materials to address a problem facing their local community. So you'll find out about such items as bamboo bicycles and low-tech energy generation devices.

AfriGadget reminds me of an excellent exhibition that I saw in NYC at the Cooper-Hewitt Museum, Design For The Other 90%, that I reviewed for ExhibitFiles.

What other sites or resources do you use to make "more from less"?
Post your answers in the Comments section below!

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Exhibit Maker's Toolbox: United Nuclear

As a follow-up to my "Dangerous Science" post, several folks asked about United Nuclear.

Once you get past their ominous sounding name, the folks at U.N. can provide just about anything a budding mad scientist could desire: GIANT neodymium magnets, check. Radioactive materials, check. The types of chemicals that create wonderful explosions, check!

Naturally, all of these materials are to be handled judiciously, but aside from the inherent "cool" factor, United Nuclear is worth supporting on general principles since the Office of Homeland Security (among others) have tried to shut them down for making "dangerous" materials available to people.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

The End of Dangerous Science?

This clip from WIRED Science laments the decline of "dangerous" science toys and experiences for kids. They visit the Chemical Heritage Foundation (with its own historical collection of chemistry sets!) to show how wimpy science toys have become. Case in point: a "Chemistry Set" with NO chemicals!

Perhaps toymakers fear of liability lawsuits has helped contribute to the 60% decrease in chemistry graduates since the 1960s.

Of course, science museum exhibits are often just as guilty of the "wimpiness" factor. Safety first (or second, or third) of course, but are there ways to let visitors get involved in experiences that are a little messy and/or risky? That is, more like real science?

Do you have any good (or bad) examples of messy/risky/dangerous science exhibits to share? Let us know in the Comments section!

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

COSI Toledo: Act 2?

I just received word that the fine folks at COSI Toledo, which "officially" closed at the end of 2007 (see this previous ExhibiTricks post) have decided to keep in the game by offering a suite of outreach experiences to area schools. It's my understanding from personal communication and news reports that the museum facility remains closed to the public, and that all of the exhibits have been wrapped up and stored.

I wish the folks in Toledo luck. Perhaps now that they are starting from "square one" (in the sense that many museums first operate as a facility "without walls" providing outreach programs, etc. before they gain a permanent home) COSI Toledo may be able to garner important community and political support and reopen in a revitalized form.

If not, I sure hope all the exhibits find good homes!

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Disneyland 2.0: A Lesson for Designers?

This interesting article in the New York Times outlines the plans for upgrading Disney's California Adventure park, which one critic characterized as having a “cheap strip-mall stucco aesthetic" into a more polished, and participatory, experience for visitors.

The article details the costs and plans for creating a new interactive Toy Story ride that lets visitors compete against each other with video game type elements.

While most museum designers will never encounter the enormous budgets employed in this project, there are several key lessons that apply to any new museum project:

1) Make sure you don't "cheap out" on initial construction and materials. Try to use project resources to create environments that use materials that provide long-term value and maintainability. The NY Times article highlights how much more expensive it has been, in time and money, to go back after the initial construction. It would have made better long-term sense to have taken the time and money to do things right the first time. Too many museums are guilty of this "we'll make it better once it's open" mentality.

2) Prototype, prototype, prototype! The article gives a nice snapshot of the lengths Disney goes to in testing out people's reactions to every aspect of the new Toy Story ride. (My favorite is the description of the down and dirty plywood ride vehicle in front of a projection screen used to gauge visitor response.) Why should Museums "prototype like the mouse?" Because its a lot cheaper to fix or modify things at the plywood and duct tape stage than after the fact.

3) Let visitors be part of the action.The article points out that not even Disney can get away with just pretty "eye candy" for paying customers to gawk at. Customers, especially those who have grown up with MTV, video games, and the Internet, demand more opportunities for interactivity and instant gratification. (There are some interesting details about how many different types of resources Disney is employing to keep people happy while they are waiting in line.)
Museums should always ask "how can I create another opportunity or design element to help visitors engage with this exhibit? "

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Windbelts: Great Energy Exhibit Idea!

Shawn Frayne, a 28-year-old inventor based in California, got the idea for his innovative "Windbelt" technology while thinking about the way wind and vibrations caused the infamous Tacoma Narrows Bridge collapse. (See YouTube video at the end of this post.)

While working in Haiti, Shawn saw the need first-hand for an inexpensive way to generate electricity. Unfortunately, wind turbines were not very efficient when scaled down, had inherent safety issues for anything that got caught in the spinning blades, and all the copper wire required to create most types of turbines was expensive.

Shawn then came up with the elegant Windbelt approach and formed a start-up company called Humdinger Wind Energy, LLC.

Here's a simple set of instructions to make your own Windbelt-related project from that would be a great part of an Energy or Green Materials exhibition!

Friday, February 8, 2008

6 Questions To Ask
Museum Exhibit Designers

6 Q u Bead Letter E S T I Pastry Cutter O plain card disc letter n Vintage LEGO Letter S

Here’s a short list of questions that can help you get a sense of whether an exhibit designer might be a good partner for your museum’s next project:

1) How do you prototype exhibits?

Every aspect of an exhibition, including labels, can be tested out with visitors before the “final” version is produced. This does not have to be a horribly expensive or time-consuming process. As a matter of fact, masking tape, markers, and cardboard can go a long way in creating simple prototypes.

Avoid anyone who says things along the lines of: “We test out everything in the shop...” or “ We don’t need to prototype, because our stuff never breaks.” You need to turn real visitors loose on exhibit prototypes to avoid the dreaded “I never thought they would do that with our exhibit!”

You can find a free downloadable article on the exhibit prototyping at the POW! Website.

2) What’s your favorite exhibit?

If your response to this question is either a blank stare or a glib sales pitch --- RUN! Ideally, the designer can report on why specific aspects of an exhibit component or entire exhibition interested them or moved them in some way.

For example, I loved a large-scale interactive based on one of the scenes from a children’s book by William Steig. There were magnet-backed creatures and plants that multiple visitors could move around a room-sized jungle scene. This was part of a larger exhibition of Steig’s drawings in a normally “hands off” museum, The Jewish Museum in Manhattan. It was clear through this area, and a few others in the Steig exhibition, that the designers wanted to provide some colorful, open-ended experiences for families.

3) Will you let us directly pay subcontractors?

Money changes everything, doesn’t it? The financial aspects of your exhibit process should be as transparent as possible. The best designers allow you to see “the books” so you can be assured that the maximum amount possible of your project resources are being spent on items that will show up in your exhibit galleries.

Beware of too many miscellaneous fees or excessive charges for things like FedEx and faxes. It is reasonable for any designer to cover their overhead charges, but it is just as reasonable for you to ask to contract directly with specialists serving as subcontractors to avoid excessive “markups”.

4) Can we use green materials?

No, I don’t mean Kiwi Corian! Your exhibit designer should have an increasing familiarity with environmentally friendly materials. Even if your potential design partner is not a “green expert”, they should be willing to work with you to create designs, and employ solutions, that are “green.”

A great resource is the website.

5) Have you ever worked in a museum?

While this is not a complete deal-breaker, a design solution from someone who has actually had to fix an exhibit after 600 fifth graders have pummeled on it carries a lot more weight with me than a beautiful computer rendering from a recent design school grad.

Don’t be afraid to ask practical questions like, “How will this work with large school groups?” or “Will this computer interactive automatically reboot if it freezes up?”

6) Who are some of your repeat customers?

At the end of every crazy exhibit project and installation, after everyone has had a few days to obtain the requisite amounts of food, sleep (and showers!) you ask yourself an important question: Would I ever work with (fill in the blank) again?

The people whom you continue to work with, and who continue to work with you speaks volumes about your work ethic and the ability to get the job done. The mark of a great museum exhibit designer is how they overcome unexpected challenges related to timing or finances or the other hundreds of things that could cause a project to become unhinged.

What are some of the questions you ask potential design partners? Feel free to comment below!

Or better yet, contact me so we can start working on YOUR next project!

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Museum Design: Just Let Me In!

When does a museum visit start? Some people might say, "after I pay my admission and enter the exhibit galleries."

However, there are two initial points of contact that come earlier for most visitors: your museum website and your admissions area.

Put yourself in your visitor's shoes and consider what are the simplest ways to complete the desired informational transactions? Are you making pretty nested webpages and slick (but slow-loading) Flash animations that are impossible to click past when most visitors just want hours, admissions, and directions?

Similarly, do your admissions prices, levels, and options make for quick and simple transactions, or just frustrate and annoy visitors, especially first-time visitors?

The American Museum of Natural History in New York City is the all-time champ for confusing admissions prices and options, not to mention a crazily ineffective computer-based admissions system. For example, half of the computer terminals at one of their admissions areas are only for non-member transactions. So even if everyone in line is a member, three admissions personnel (on average) just stare into space or repeatedly tell annoyed members that "this computer is only for non-members."

Also, members are supposed to receive free admission to special exhibitions --- except when the museum makes exceptions and charges extra for special exhibitions. Does this make for great customer satisfaction? Not in my case! After repeatedly running the AMNH admissions gantlet, I gave up and canceled my family membership!

So think about the "visit" that starts before your visitors start enjoying the first of your exhibit spaces.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Kaossilator: Cool Gizmo for Music Exhibits

The monkey boys at Think Geek are selling a cool mini-synthesiser by Korg with the nutty name of Kaossilator. For 200 bucks though, it seems like a great deal for a fun electronic box of possibilities for music/tech educational programs and/or exhibits.