Friday, June 27, 2008

Exhibit Design Inspiration: Olafur Eliasson

I first read about the artist Olafur Eliasson in a review on the ExhibitFiles website of his exhibition called "Take Your Time." Clearly, everyone who saw and commented on Eliasson's work was enthusiastic, if not blown away.

Well now I know why.

I was fortunate enough to see the version of "Take Your Time" on display at MoMA in New York with my 13 year old son, and we both were delighted, amazed, and yes, blown away. Most of the installations in the exhibition were rooms or small spaces that used elements of light, color, optics, and geometry that really forced you to "take your time" (in a pleasant way) to appreciate truly magical and subtle effects.

Afterwards, I couldn't help comparing these high-profile ART pieces with phenomenological exhibit pieces I've made for, or seen in, science museums. (For instance, I loved the piece called "Ventilator" --- it was sort of like a funky, technological version of a Foucault Pendulum except that the pendulum bob was replaced by an electric fan that created ever-changing arcs.)

The majority of Olafur Eliasson's pieces were more subtle, and inpired a sort of hushed reverence in visitors, than most science center exhibit components. Also, to be quite honest, the unprotected nature of expensive (and hot!) lighting equipment just made me cringe. I even told my son at one point, "This stuff would last about 5 minutes in a science center before it got destroyed."

But maybe those of us who design exhibits and experiences in the often frenetic, high-tech, super saturated world of science centers could take a page from Mr. Eliasson and strive for ways to create more intimate exhibit environments that whisper, rather than shout, our messages.

But, don't take my word for it, search out Eliasson's work to experience in person. And ... take your time.

If you'd like to read further about some thoughtful efforts to think about shifting the design of both exhibit components and museum environments to increase visitor engagement, I could not more highly recommend the book, "Fostering Active Prolonged Engagement: The Art of Creating APE Exhibits" available from ASTC.

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Monday, June 23, 2008

What Can Museums Learn From Disney? Mickey's 10 Commandments

Many folks in the Museum World have a lot of animosity toward Disney. Personally, I see lots of good reasons for both museums and theme parks to exist. In fact, I think Museums can learn many useful things from the likes of Disney, Six Flags, and Universal.

With that in mind, here are "Mickey's 1o Commandments" as outlined by Walt Disney Imagineering President Marty Sklar:

1. Know your audience - Don't bore people, talk down to them or lose them by assuming that they know what you know.

2. Wear your guest's shoes - Insist that designers, staff and your board members experience your facility as visitors as often as possible.

3. Organize the flow of people and ideas - Use good story telling techniques, tell good stories not lectures, lay out your exhibit with a clear logic.

4. Create a "weenie" - Lead visitors from one area to another by creating visual magnets and giving visitors rewards for making the journey.

5. Communicate with visual literacy - Make good use of all the non-verbal ways of communication - color, shape, form, texture.

6. Avoid overload - Resist the temptation to tell too much, to have too many objects, don't force people to swallow more than they can digest, try to stimulate and provide guidance to those who want more.

7. Tell one story at a time - If you have a lot of information divide it into distinct, logical, organized stories, people can absorb and retain information more clearly if the path to the next concept is clear and logical.

8. Avoid contradiction - Clear institutional identity helps give you the competitive edge. Public needs to know who you are and what differentiates you from other institutions they may have seen.

9. For every ounce of treatment , provide a ton of fun - How do you woo people from all other temptations? Give people plenty of opportunity to enjoy themselves by emphasizing ways that let people participate in the experience and by making your environment rich and appealing to all senses.

10. Keep it up - Never underestimate the importance of cleanliness and routine maintenance, people expect to get a good show every time, people will comment more on broken and dirty stuff.

I'd be happy to give a new exhibit designer or developer a copy of Mickey's 10 Commandments. In fact, I think even the "old pros" could benefit by reminding themselves of the importance of knowing the audience, keeping things simple, and applying as much effort to upkeep as creation.

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Saturday, June 14, 2008

Fun Museum Resource: Food Safety Music Videos

Dr. Carl Winter is the Director of the FoodSafe Program and an Extension Food Toxicologist in the Department of Food Science and Technology at the University of California at Davis. He has assembled a hilarious set of animated music videos about food safety (and lots of other great information) on his Food Safety Music website.

Dr. Winter's videos can also be seen on YouTube.

Good stuff for health-related exhibits or programs in museums!Publish Post

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Exhibit Designer Toolbox: The Sticky Subject Of Tape

Tape is one of those things that you often use, but rarely think about.

For now, I thought I'd highlight some unusual tapes for you to add to your exhibits (and prototyping!) toolkit:


"SOLAS" stands for "Safety Of Life At Sea" and it is super-durable reflective tape that was designed originally to be used by the Coast Guard. It's strong. It's shiny. What more could you want? It may also be useful outside your exhibit pursuits on bikes, backpacks, or cars.

Available here

Gaffer's Tape

If you think duct tape is useful, try Gaffer's tape. You can think of Gaffer's Tape as duct tape without the sticky residue. It's the standard tape in the film and theater worlds. Best of all, the adhesive is designed to not rip off paint. You can leave Gaffer's tape stuck to a wall for days, and then remove it without tearing up the wall surface or leaving sticky gunk behind.

Available here

Vypar X-Treme Tape

X-treme tape is a non-adhesive, self-bonding wrap. It's not really "tape" since it's not sticky. But it really grips and wraps around wet stuff or slimy stuff --- think water exhibits, hoses, bubble exhibits, etc. Once it's in place -- it is NOT coming off! You just pull on the tape and it fuses to itself under tension. As a bonus it comes in a range of colors as well.

Available here

And now, two variations on good old reliable duct tape:

Gorilla Tape

Gorilla Tape is like regular duct tape on steroids. Sure, it's much stickier, but it also adheres to uneven/rough surfaces.

Available here

Clear Duct Tape

From the creative minds of 3M comes "clear "duct tape! It is less noticeable than standard duct tape, but more importantly, 3M claims it lasts 6 times longer than the standard variety, having been engineered for extreme temperatures and UV exposure.

Available here

Any discussion of tapes, and especially duct tape, would be incomplete if we didn't mention the annual "Duck" brand duct tape "Stuck At Prom" Scholarship Contest. Duck makes duct tape (a little confusing, I know) and holds an annual contest for couples to create a complete set of prom outfits using duct tape! (You can see one example at the top of this blog posting.) Also check out the completely mind-boggling array of past contest entries at the Duck Tape website.

Have any favorite tapes that we've missed? Leave us the info in a comment below!

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Saturday, June 7, 2008

Museum Exhibit Design: "Unexhibitable" Topics?

The question about "taboo exhibit topics" recently came up on the ExhibitFiles Blog: "Are there topics you, or others you know, consider “unexhibitable”? The AAM’s National Association for Museum Exhibition (NAME) wants to hear about them. The Fall 2008 issue of the NAME journal, Exhibitionist, will consider this and related questions, and the editor, Gretchen Jennings, and Boston Museum of Science exhibit developer Maureen McConnell are looking for comments and reflections..."

Personally, I think any topic, if handled thoughtfully, is "exhibitable."

I recently came across many wonderful examples of just about any topic being fair game for an exhibition while judging the final projects of the graduating students from the Fashion Institute of Technology's Graduate Exhibition Design program. The students created proposals, models, and graphics packages for topics ranging from "Cheese" to "Air and Giving Birth" to "Chopsticks". All of the presentations were excellent!

While one might think that sensitive topics involving sex or human cruelty would be difficult to exhibit, there are of course entire museums on Sexuality, Medical Oddities, and The Holocaust that disprove such a premise.

What do you think? Let us know in the Comments Section below or check out (or add to!) the very interesting comments and discussion on the ExhibitFiles Blog, or contact Gretchen Jennings directly (Her email is: if you would like to contribute your thoughts to the upcoming issue of Exhibitionist.

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Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Sustainable Museums Part 3: Goodbye Mark Twain House?

I've written previously of the tricky business of not just opening, but also sustaining, museums in posts about COSI Toledo.

A recent article in the NY Times describes how Mark Twain's historic home (and museum) in Hartford, CT may now be in danger of closing due to lack of funds. This is a shame since I know from visiting Twain's home that it is beautiful and obviously of historic and cultural importance.

However, reading between the lines of the Times article, one has to wonder if the museum designed by "starchitect" Robert A.M. Stern (which cost $19 million, almost double the initial projections!) needed to be as large and grand as it ultimately became. Also, if your museum was losing money and cutting staff, would you eliminate key marketing and development positions?

There is also something unseemly when museums play the same sort of "chicken" game that the owners of sports stadiums pull --- "if you don't give us more money, we'll close the place down!" The Cradle of Aviation Museum on Long Island, which was funded largely by Nassau County, recently tried to make a similar argument.

The leadership in Nassau County told the Aviation Museum to "go fly a kite" and forced them to change their top management as well as institute a more aggressive fund raising plan.

It will be interesting to see how the greater Hartford community responds to the financial crisis at the Twain House and Museum.

(On a somewhat related note, I am offering a prize to anyone who can point me to a complete and definitive list of museums which received "earmarks" in the most recent Federal Budgets.)

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