Sunday, April 27, 2008

Exhibit Inspiration: Hacking The Wii With Johnny Lee

Johnny Lee is currently a Graduate PhD student in the Human-Computer Interaction Institute at Carnegie Mellon University who, amongst his other projects, has been sharing ways to "hack" (in the positive, original sense of the word) the Wii Remote (Wiimote) to create amazing low-cost projects like digital whiteboards and desktop Virtual Reality displays.

Johnny is sharing his computer code in a totally open source way and also uses YouTube to disseminate his projects and research! Check out his "Procrastineering" blog as well.

What does this have to do with museums? Well, Exhibit Developers, Museum Educators (and Visitors!) constantly struggle with creative and appropriate uses of technology in museums. (Which when most people use the word "technology" in an exhibit context, inevitably means "computers".) This is especially true given the scary statistic that school-age children in the United States spend on average 44 hours per week using "screen based" (TV, GameBoys, Computers, etc.) technologies, but only 30 minutes engaging in outdoor activities! Do we really need to provide more screen time for young visitors to museums?

From the standpoint of both cost (Wiimotes run about $40, and the other materials Johnny Lee uses for his hacks are of the Radio Shack variety) and creativity (even thoughtful computer software is not nearly as engaging as messing around with a "cool" technology like the Wii remote to make new creations) consider how you could replace some of the staid technology in your museum with a place to hack Wii remotes!

What are some of your favorite "non screen-based" uses of technology in museum exhibits? Let us know in the Comments Section below!

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Thursday, April 24, 2008

Exhibits 101: Always Keep A Spare!

I'm on the road in beautiful Denver, attending the ACM (Association of Children's Museums) Conference.

I'll recap the conference and my impressions next week, but in the meantime one of my favorite Exhibit 101 credos: "Always keep a spare!"

NOT spare exhibits, but spare parts (or spare consumables) to ensure that your beautiful $10,000.00 exhibit is not shut down for a week because it needs a 50 cent replacement part.

As you can see in the picture above, it's also nice to include spare parts storage inside the exhibits cabinetry itself where possible. (As noted by Kim Wagner, in a recent post at her Ms. Exhibits blog.)

Have any great techniques for keeping exhibit spares handy? Let us know in the Comments Section below.

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Monday, April 21, 2008

Want Better Museum Conferences? How About Pecha-Kucha Or "A Day Without PowerPoint"?

Soon two of the big museum conferences, The Association of Children's Museums (ACM) and The American Association of Museums (AAM) will be taking place in Denver. And many, if not most, of the presenters at both these conferences will be packing a laptop loaded with PowerPoint presentations.

Even if each of these PowerPoint presentations is able to start smoothly without technical glitches involving projectors, connectors, and software, usually a big IF, I'll ask the question many of the folks trapped in the conference rooms will be thinking: "Why are some of the most creative people in the world using such powerful computer technology to present such boring, non-interactive speeches?"

Honestly, when is the last time you did something more at a conference presentation than sit on your fanny and stare at the screen and speakers on the dais for 75 minutes or so before the moderator apologizes for running long and leaves only time for one or two audience questions, if any? Most of the time, the talks could have easily been given, and often greatly improved, by eliminating PowerPoint.

Couldn't we just BAN PowerPoint from Conference Presentations?

Lest you think I'm a raving Luddite, I happily embrace computers and technology in all facets of the museum world, but I just think that the staid PowerPoint approach stifles creative presentations and dialogue between conference participants. (And, after all, even such eminent thinkers as David Byrne and Edward Tufte have wildly different takes on the topic.)

Even if you don't believe the museum world is ready to go "cold turkey" on PowerPoint, there are less drastic alternatives.

Mary Case, of Qm2, put me onto a short WIRED magazine article (and video example, seen at the top of this posting) about a presentation technique called "pecha-kucha." As the article notes, pecha-kucha (Japanese for "chatter") applies a simple set of rules to presentations: exactly 20 slides displayed for 20 seconds each. That's it. Say what you need to say in six minutes and 40 seconds of exquisitely matched words and images and then sit the hell down. As a quick Google search indicates, pecha-kucha is catching on around the world. Why not give it a try at museum conferences to wean us off of bloated corporate-style presentations?

Another way to open up the conference format to alternative presentation styles may be as simple as "A Day Without PowerPoint". Pick one day during the conference that ALL presentations must be done without PowerPoint (or similar computer tools like KeyNote, for those trying to weasel around the ban!) Add a check box on the conference proposal forms that allows session chairs and participants to indicate their willingness to present sans PowerPoint and go from there. As a bonus, you get monetary and environmental gains from eliminating the projectors and associated technologies from the conference sessions for one day.

So, I beg all of you filling out evaluation forms at ACM or AAM to write "A Day Without PowerPoint" on each one you turn in, or better yet look for ways to eliminate PowerPoint from YOUR next talk!

Have some presentation tips or tricks you'd like to share? Let us know in the "Comments Section" below.

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Thursday, April 17, 2008

Exhibit Geek Paraphenalia: Spy Camera Sunglasses

It is disappointing when entering a museum exhibition to encounter an oppressively-worded sign warning you not to take pictures inside.

Certainly some objects should not be subjected to repeated hits from photo flashes, but often times these signs just seem like officiousness on the part of the museum (and bad public relations, to boot.)

Thanks to the fine folks at the ThinkGeek webstore, this problem is solved! Spy Camera Sunglasses contain a 1.3 Magapixel still camera that can be activated via a remote key-fob type device. Images can be conveniently downloaded to your computer.

So the next time you are ready to post an exhibit review for ExhibitFiles, make sure to pack your Spy Camera Sunglasses!

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Sunday, April 13, 2008

Museum Maker's ToolBox: ScreenKeys

Well, if a technology has shown up in Popular Science magazine, as well as the Science Museum of Minnesota's "Beyond the Button" blog, it must be good!

Ironically, given the title of SMM's blog, this new(ish) technology called ScreenKeys is a type of push button that embeds a programmable LCD screen into the surface of the button.

While it sounds like a wacky idea, the ScreenKeys website offers some interesting ideas for using the technology, including control platforms for a multi-camera TV station, or a multi-station conveyor belt control panel. (Check out the interactive demo on the website!)

Have you used ScreenKeys in an exhibit installation? Let us know how in the Comments Section below.

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Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Creating Exhibitions Follow Up: Communication and Remediation

I just got back from the first Creating Exhibitions Symposium in Philadelphia. I enjoyed the conference, and am looking forward to helping plan the 2009 edition!

While I was inspired by the individual sessions and keynotes I attended, I was struck by two common threads that connected many parts of the conference for me: Communication and Remediation

COMMUNICATION: It became clear during the discussions in many sessions that one way to create better results and relationships (Whether you're discussing Teams, Contracts and RFPs, or Insider vs. Outsiders) is to work to make sure that channels of communication are clear and provided to everyone (no information hoarding!)

Several great items involving communication came up during the session on RFPs: Why don't museums let respondents know which firms have made the short list? As George Mayer said during the session, if I'm invited to be in a race with a million dollar prize, and it costs me ten thousand dollars to enter, will I still want to enter if I know that Carl Lewis, the Olympic gold medalist, is one of the participants? The other thread involving communication was just the notion of being respectful of others. It is just good practice to let people know if they didn't get a job, not leave them hanging. While we seem to spend lots of time arranging teams or sweating out the details of contracts, it became clear during the conference that spending more time on communication would head off many problems.

REMEDIATION: During sessions ranging from education through exhibits to the prototyping process, I often found myself thinking "Why didn't they fix that?" or "How could that exhibit component have been improved?" Honestly, the answer I keep coming back to is "remediation".

No matter how carefully you have prototyped and evaluated and crafted your exhibition process, once the exhibits are out on the floor and visitors are using them unexpected issues arise. What happens next is the difference between creating great museums and exhibitions or merely mediocre visitor experiences.

Have you deliberately left time and money in your exhibition process for thoughtful remediation, or are you launching headlong into your next exhibitions project and leaving a collection of exhibit orphans in your wake? It makes me cringe to look at an exhibit component that could be improved by one little "tweak", that clearly was never touched by the exhibition process, let alone remediation, ever again. So, be an advocate for remediation in your next project!

What are some of your tips, or lessons learned, regarding Communication or Remediation? Let us know in the Comments Section below!

Friday, April 4, 2008

Plastics 101: Free Online DIY Videos

Michael Flynn of Fun Exhibits was kind enough to point out this great set of free online instructional videos from TAP Plastics.

Included in the collection are videos showing how to make silicon molds, glue plastics, and make a plastic bender. Great stuff!

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Thursday, April 3, 2008

roBlocks for Museum Exhibit Design

roBlocks are a cool toy system described as "Legos with computers inside" by some of their creators at Carnegie Mellon University.

The roBlocks website outlines features and how the 'Blocks will be programmed.

While not yet available commercially (the roBlocks team is aiming for a December 2008 public launch --- just in time for holiday shopping!) roBlocks look to be a great potential addition to museum programming as well as exhibit prototyping. In that regard, the roBlocks team is soliciting suggestions for additional types of blocks so why not head over to their website!

Are you watching some interesting technology on the horizon? Let us know about it in the Comments Section below.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Green Toys from Toys "R" Us: Good Green Fun?

As if you need further evidence that eco-friendly marketing and green products are on the rise, Toys"R"Us announced in a press release the launch of an exclusive line of environmentally friendly toys that will be marketed under the Toys"R"Us brand. Exerpts from the release are quoted below:

"The first toys in the collection -- Natural Wooden Toys, Natural Cotton plush animals and Organic Cotton Dolls -- will be available exclusively at Toys"R"Us stores nationwide and online at by Earth Day, April 22.

The toy products promote "Good Green Fun." The toys come packaged in earth-tone colored boxes that bear a special "R" seal. This seal consists of a green version of the iconic Toys"R"Us reversed "R" logo with a green leaf, encircled by the words "Recycle, Renew, Reuse, Re-think," and signifies for parents that the toys are eco-friendly.

"We know that kids are becoming more environmentally conscious and are curious about how they can do their part to help protect the planet," said Karen Dodge, Chief Merchandising Officer, Toys"R"Us, U.S. "Going green is more than just a trend. It's becoming a lifestyle. This is just our first step in offering our customers the best selection of eco-friendly and organic products in all of our Toys"R"Us stores nationwide."

Crafted from natural materials, these items come in packaging that is made from no less than 70% recycled material. The Natural Wooden Toys are decorated using a unique wood-burning technique, which offers a classic look. The Natural Cotton plush animals and Organic Cotton Dolls are colored using natural or water-based dyes and are made with unprocessed, unbleached and untreated cotton.

In addition, the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified that the materials used to make the Natural Wooden Toys were sourced from well-managed forests, using a system of ten rules that define responsible forest management. Each wooden product in the collection is marked with an identifiable FSC logo.

The Natural Wooden Toys include a fire engine, utility crane, shape sorter, trailer truck, racing car, formula car, alphabet blocks wagon and stacking train."

What does all this mean for museums and exhibit developers? Well, if you have an early childhood gallery, you better stash the primary-colored plastic toys from Playskool!

On a more serious note, as mainstream companies like Toys "R" Us and Wal-Mart develop, market, and sell green products, both Museum Exhibit Clients and Museum Customers will expect to see exhibition galleries and design features that show green sensibilities.

Is some of this "greenwashing"? Perhaps, but if Toys "R" Us can Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, and Rethink, can't Museums and Museum Designers as well?