Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Happy Holidays and Happy 2009!

We'll be taking a little break until January, so here's wishing a happy Holiday season as well as a healthy and prosperous New Year to all our ExhibiTricks readers!

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Happy 1000 ExhibitFiles!

ExhibitFiles now has 1000+ members, as reported on the ExhibitFiles Blog today!

ExhibitFiles is a great site that lets anyone post reviews or case studies of exhibitions. This is especially important for exhibitions that may only be on view for a short period of time, or are displayed in a far-flung part of the world, and then "disappear" forever. Thanks to partial funding from the National Science Foundation, ExhibitFiles provides a forum for people to share their insights about exhibitions and museums from around the globe (including Antarctica!)

In this happy holiday season, why not give a "gift" to the museum business by posting your own exhibition review or case study? (That's a New Year's Resolution that's easy to keep.)

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Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Darkest Evening of The Year

The Winter Solstice always reminds me of two people, one you probably know, Robert Frost, and another you may not, David Taylor.

Dave Taylor was the long-time Director of Exhibits at the Pacific Science Center. David was always filled with good humor and great ideas, and he was always willing to share with colleagues. One small legacy left behind is Dave Taylor's collection of museum and exhibit photos from his travels, still hosted on the Pacific Science Center's servers.

I was lucky enough to receive David's annual "Winter Solstice card" for many years before he passed away. David's card always reminded us about another year passing and the promise of the new year upon us. These seem like "dark evenings" for the economy and the museum business, but we do all have "promises to keep" as well.

And with that, I leave you with the word's of Mr. Frost:

Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound's the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Museum Design Toolbox: Picnik

Picnik is a great free on-line photo editing tool. See my quick (and geeky) neon filter effect above.

Picnik is perfect for museums on a budget, or for volunteers or staff that can't afford a software program like Photoshop on their home computers.

Check out the Picnik website to give the tools a spin, and jazz up your next label or newsletter.

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Sunday, December 14, 2008

"Book" That Exhibition! (But Only if There's a Movie or TV Tie-In.)

When I saw the recent notice that a 10,000 square foot exhibition containing the "iconic" props and costumes from the Harry Potter films will premiere at Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry, I didn't know whether to laugh or cry.

I'm not sure how much "science" is in the exhibition, but I have to admit that Warner Brothers is very "industrious" in getting major museums to shill for their films and licensed merchandise. As far as I can tell, this exhibition is nothing more than a gigantic three-dimensional ad for the Harry Potter franchise.

So what is The Harry Potter exhibition doing gracing the halls of MSI? To quote from the exhibition's press release, “The Harry Potter series has captivated the imaginations of children and adults throughout the world,” said David Mosena, President and Chief Executive Officer of the Museum of Science and Industry. “We are delighted to be working with Exhibitgroup/Giltspur and Warner Bros. Consumer Products to bring this wonderful exhibition to life as it embodies our Museum’s mission of inspiring the inventive genius in everyone.”

No news yet on all the items available to "inspire" visitors in the inevitable Harry Potter themed gift shop(s).

This is just the continuation of a trend for museums turning popular books into exhibitions --- but only after the books have been turned into a movie or kids' TV show with major marketing machines behind them. (In the children's museum world, Arthur, Clifford, and Magic School Bus are a few examples of book properties that have been given the traveling exhibition "treatment" even though the books themselves may have been around for decades before their TV shows, and exhibitions, emerged. But they're all on PBS, so they must be educational, right?)

On one hand, it is incredibly shrewd for museums to piggy-back (piggy-bank?) onto big-money advertising campaigns that come attached to movies and TV shows. But it would be much more satisfying if the resulting exhibitions were better, and the reasons for museums hosting the shows were more honest --- "It doesn't really have anything much to do with our core mission, we just want to boost admissions numbers and revenue with a "name" that will draw visitors in."

A current example of the pretzel-logic that museums will employ to justify mounting certain exhibitions is the Teacher's Guide for "Narnia The Exhibition" based upon the C.S. Lewis books, but more importantly, the Disney movie franchise based upon Lewis' books. Who would have thought that "Narnia" is actually an exhibition about science, including "climate science"? You might as well claim that the Curious George exhibition is about saving the rainforests.

Are there museums able to present books as the subject for temporary exhibitions without sacrificing artistic quality or institutional integrity? Definitely! Recent examples of familiar children's books characters and/or authors being turned into very popular exhibitions include "From The New Yorker to Shrek: The Art of William Steig" at the Jewish Museum, which also included interactive elements and immersive environments based on several of Steig's award-winning books. "Drawing Babar: Early Drafts and Watercolors" at the Morgan Library has also been an extremely successful exhibition, in addition to racking up jumbo admissions and attendance numbers.

What do you think? Should temporary exhibitions directly relate to a museum's mission, or in these tricky economic times, is any topic that spins the turnstiles fair game? Sound off in the "Comments" section below!

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Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The Green Museum: An Interview With Sarah Brophy

Sarah Brophy is a writer, museum consultant and a LEED Accredited Professional. She works with museums and historic sites to develop sustainable institutions through grant funding, green practice and mainstreaming.

She is co-author of the new book The Green Museum: A Primer on Environmental Practice and author of Is Your Museum Grant-Ready? Assessing Your Organization’s Potential For Funding.

She grew up in Rochester, NY, and worked at the Genesee Country Museum & Village for her first museum job. She has a B.A. in American Studies from Sweet Briar College, VA, and an M.A. in American History from the College of William & Mary with a certificate in History Administration from Colonial Williamsburg. For nearly 20 years she lived and worked in New England; now she and her family live on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. She works, speaks and writes for organizations in the United States, and increasingly in Canada and the United Kingdom.

Sarah was kind enough to answer some questions regarding green museums and green design for ExhibiTricks:

Tell us a little bit about your background and how you came to write "The Green Museum" with Elizabeth Wylie?

Five years ago Elizabeth asked me to write a grant proposal for a client of her architectural firm. The topic was an energy assessment and green design solutions. When I finished we both said: “Why they heck aren’t museums doing this?” So we pitched an idea for Museum News. Being Green: Museums in the Green Movement came out in Fall 2006.

From that the Building Museums Conference folks asked us to give a plenary session in 2007; while we were there AltaMira asked us to write a book. Elizabeth and I have both been in museums for years in Massachusetts, she as a curator and director, while I have been a development person and director. Since we share some experiences, and have different interests, too, I think that makes the writing partnership much stronger. We push each other and build on each other at the same time. As we were finishing the book, The Green Museum: A Primer on Environmental Practice, we wrote The Greener Good: The Enviro-Active Museum for the new Museum magazine, and now we’re finishing one for AAM on energy and the future of collections care.

What has prompted your interest in "green" design and materials?

As an independent professional helping museums raise grant money, I was desperate to find ways for my museum clients to do more with less, and to build more ‘oomph’ into their projects to make them the most competitive ones in the proposal pile. My rule is that money has to do more than one thing – Hope Alswang, now of RISD, gave me that ‘aha’ experience. Green is EXACTLY that – saves money, achieves the central purpose, works well AND is good for the environment all at the same time. Sure, critics will find the expensive parts of green and complain, but folks who want to find smart green choices will easily discover those that cost the same or less than traditional ones, are easy to implement, and add value to the physical plant and the educational program.

I love that green materials and design just make sense and are so lovely to see and touch. Kresge Foundation staff will tell you that they support integrated design methods because they produce the best result, and gosh darn if the best result doesn’t repeatedly turn out to be a green one!

The bottom line is that I believe green is a moral imperative for museums. That doesn’t mean a museum has to be all-green and all-green now. It means that we have a responsibility to thoughtfully, energetically, learn about green and begin strategically implementing its principles in our work and operations. I believe it is a moral imperative because museums are:

• charitable institutions of public benefit
• stewards of objects, animals, plants and environments
• and educational institutions with very deep, broad connections to the community IN the environment we’re trying to save.

What are some of your favorite online (or offline!) resources for people interested in finding out more about eco-friendly design or materials?

The Consumer’s Guide To Effective Environmental Choices: Practical Advice from the Union of Concerned Scientists. It’s written by Warren Leon and Michael Brower. It’s nearly 10 years old, but it ages well, remains one of the most popular environmental books out there, and – get this – Warren Leon used to work at Old Sturbridge Village. His wife Cynthia Robinson now runs the Tufts Museum Studies Program – so it comes from good stock. The book is a great primer for how to make green choices. From that basis you can move on to museum decisions.

Offline, of course, there’s the opportunity to touch, see and feel. If you’re in Boston, The Green Roundtable's Showroom Nexus, is a great way to see for yourself what the options are, and then adapt them to your personal needs, or take the ideas to your designer and say ‘hey, what about these materials?’. Check with and see if you the local chapter can direct you to show rooms or sites where you can see and handle a variety of green materials, research the materials and their providers, and learn about how to use them best.

Online, the best resource is The Green Design Wiki out of UC Davis under Tim McNeil’s auspices. I see you’ve interviewed him on your blog. (Click here to see our ExhibiTricks interview with Tim.) He is part of the strategic planning committee of AAM’s new professional interest committee PIC Green and we’re delighted to have him.

And for those who need a good introduction to green exhibits The Green Exhibits Checklist on the ‘Rethink’ page at Madison Children’s Museum’s site is a good primer on what to think about. Learning to think green is a critical first step folks often overlook. They think that if they just go buy the right materials, that it’s good enough. Green is a process, a concept, not a ‘thing’.

What advice would you have for fellow museum professionals, especially those from smaller museums, in developing more eco-friendly exhibitions?

First, start with your local hardware store or home store, your paint and glue supplier. You’d be amazed how many different items come in low/no-VOC varieties now, and staff can quickly direct you to them. These days they often cost the same, or nearly the same as traditional products, so don’t use cost to hide behind!

Second, think reduce, reuse, recycle. The less you throw out and build new, the less you add to the landfills, pay for, and inflict on the environment through painting, printing chemicals. Small museums already have good environmental habits developed from penny-pinching; use them to your advantage:

• Reuse cases, pedestals, platforms and movable walls, and share them amongst colleagues in the area.
• Think about designing so components can be reused as is, or only somewhat remodeled to fit the next design.
• Paint smaller: you don’t have to paint a whole wall for a full effect – the area around the exhibit area, or individual objects can be even more effective

Can you tell us more about the Green Museums Wiki?

The Green Museums Wiki is starting to pick up speed. It’s not nearly as slick and handsome as is the Green Design Wiki of Tim McNeil, but for a collaborative site, it works. I created it so that everyone out there quietly ‘doing green’ can ask their questions or share their experiences. Anyone can join and post. That’s the value of it: green is moving so quickly, and so many folks are doing exciting green things, that print books and magazines can’t fill the need. Your readers should feel encouraged, nay begged, to go to the site, add pages, add comments, ask questions, post images and videos, and use it to brag about their work so that others can join in the movement!

Have you come across any obvious examples of overselling or "greenwashing" in any particular areas of exhibition design or materials?

I know this more from a whole-building construction perspective. Some museums’ plans to build green did not materialize to the extent intended simply because construction folks didn’t keep an eye on the green details, or the building committee let some green aspects be engineered out.

Other museums came to green part-way through the building process, so they missed some opportunities, yet are still considered green. Well, they are green, and let’s give them credit for what is honestly green AND ask them for proof – real data like the nutrition facts boxes on food. I’d like to see those for exhibits, buildings and operations. It’s incredibly important to focus on the positive – what green we do do, be specific it about it, and then let the market and our internal compass direct us ever more toward green.

I'm interested in green aspects of printing and graphics for exhibitions. Do you have any pointers you could offer in that area?

Be creative; search, search, search for better green options; and pressure your suppliers to help you find the greenest options. Whether or not you get a really green option for paints, inks and graphic materials, be vigilant about using as little as you can to still produce the exhibit you want, and then think about the end use of the materials.

For Green Graphics - I have the greatest pain when I see those banners outside museums and along whole streets advertising a show. Before you go that way, plan for the end use of those materials, and if you have an end use – a re-seller, an auction, a bag maker, etc., then find someone like Green Banners to talk to about making what you need. Ask questions, though – they say the materials are recyclable…well will they take them back, or do you have to go to heroics to recycle them? That’s where your end-game comes in.

BetterWall will give you a portion of the sales income for your banners. You get a little cash, someone gets a wall covering, and you delay the trip to the landfill; better yet, put recycling instructions on the banner.
Relan can remake your banners into items for your gift shop. The Walker Art Center uses them.
Timbuk2 is getting ready to offer their popular messenger bags made out of reused exhibit banners.

For walls and exhibit furniture - when you use paint and ink, if you can’t use or find water-based (which is even better for the environment than some soy-based inks) use a vendor who re-uses or recycles the leftovers, or you should have a plan to do so yourself. Actually, any vendor should have that plan and be able to describe it in detail.

Last year Montserrat College of Art Gallery had a great program where people dropped off their used paint. The students sorted it all and re-mixed a line of colors that they packaged to give gave away to exhibit visitors. They kept some to use on campus and in the gallery – awfully creative.

For print collateral – no question, just figure out how to do it on 100% post-industrial or post-consumer waste paper, with green printing techniques, and a plan for recycling. Limit the amount you print and distribute. Better yet, create gallery cards that visitors reuse and leave at the museum, so nothing goes home and then into the landfill.

What new green exhibit techniques/materials look especially promising?

I’m amazed by the speed of improvements in energy-efficient lighting. That’s where museums will save the most and do the most good for the environment. Bill Gilmore at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum has great relationships with lighting vendors. He tests their materials free of charge and learns about what works best for his uses. The rate of change in the lighting industry is impossible to keep up with unless you have this kind of partnership. The Rosenbach Museum & Library in Philadelphia worked with EwingCole to improve their energy efficiency in exhibit lighting. They are so happy with their first lighting re-installation that they’re scheduling more.

Don’t listen to the traditional complaints about energy efficient lighting where bulbs don’t give you the colors you need, the dimming you want, or the price you hope for. Prices are dropping rapidly and more and more types of bulbs are becoming dimmable. As for light colors - set up a blind test for yourself. See if you can really tell any difference. Often it’s an assumed difference, not a perceptible one for most viewers. And keep rethinking your lighting sources. By the time you plan your next exhibit all that you learned last time will have changed.

I worry we’ll see some fall-out from disappointment in some green exhibit materials, fall-out because we don’t see miracles in a product or we didn’t use the product properly. Those errors will cloud the prospects for more green exhibit components. This is a very new area and there is a lot of trial and error to go through –let’s embrace the opportunity to try new things, educate the public and ourselves as we explore new areas, and then build on what we learn. Museums are places of learning for the public AND the staff – why be shy about that? Tell the public an exhibit is also a test case for green practices …they’ll eat it up.

What are some of your favorite museums or exhibitions?

I’m a sucker for any museum, so the list is long. For green museums:
The Green House, at The National Building Museum, was a major one for me.
I can’t wait to get to the NBM’s new Green Community exhibition or to President Lincoln’s Cottage at The Soldier’s Home and its Robert H. Smith Visitor Education Center. The VEC is a LEED Certified renovation.

But I’m most at home in an open air museum. My recent visit to Strawbery Banke, where I recently took a garden tour and learned about all their green initiatives was a real inspiration and remains a highlight.

For not-necessarily-green museums: During our family’s sabbatical in England in 2004-2005 (with a few trips to France) I loved and was fascinated by the experience of watching the public worshipping great collections in The Louvre and the British Museum. My personal exploration into all things Roman, particularly Bath, and taking part in the early stages of a dig on a Roman Villa in Kent, was a treat.

Most recently, two of my top-ten museum experiences were a personal best-tour-I’ve-ever had, and it was led by a volunteer who offered the tour when he overheard my questions at the exhibit entrance, at the Naples Art Museum, FL, and my October visit to the Pointe-à-Callière, Musée d'archéologie et d'histoire de Montréal during the Quebec Museums Society conference. The Archeology Museum in Montreal is a good example of an exhibit experience that has a ‘hook’ for the public – a sound and image introduction that marvelously recreates four centuries, populates it with human beings, and tells a great story in an efficient and engaging way. It satisfies the younger generations, while preparing any visitor for the stunning experience of the underground visit to the dig site and the foundations of early Montreal.

My next focus, when green becomes the norm, will be mainstreaming museums. Mainstreaming is making our museums part of daily public consciousness, making them a natural part of daily life. But first, we have to renew the public connection to museums, and the Archaeology Museum in Montreal is an example of a classy way to create that bridge to excite museum-going.

Can you talk a little about some of your current projects?

I worked with the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in St. Michaels, MD, to offer a free workshop for area nonprofit organizations on greening their campus.

I’m helping the Maryland Historical Society raise the money for HVAC system upgrades that will reduce their dependency upon a single provider for steam, improve efficiencies, and seriously reduce the break-downs and system damage from poor steam.

With Connecticut Landmarks, I am working with Bill Hammer of HKT Architects to help CTL green their historic properties and develop a program to help other historic sites in the region become more sustainable.

I’ve just become an Advisory Board Member for Tusculum Institute at Sweet Briar College where I was an undergraduate. Tusculum Institute will be a great resource for exploring and promoting historic preservation and sustainable practice.

And I’m teaching a green museum course in George Washington Universities Museum Studies program next spring, and starting January 8th I’m doing another three-part webinar for AASLH on green at historic sites and museums.

What I’d really like to do, too, is start a membership roundtable where a dozen or so museums banded together to learn together about green, and to implement new practices while sharing what they learn. It’s so hard to spend the time to research options, and test them, why not have a group that designates a green advisor who will do the research for you, then the group can test the ideas they like and share the results? It shortens the learning curve for everyone, saves money on staff time, and pools knowledge to make us all more efficient. Green practice is now the expectation for museums and museum staff, but there’s a lot of learning we all have to do to keep up.

Thanks again to Sarah for her insight on green design issues!

Special for ExhibiTricks Readers!
Just join the Green Museums Wiki between December 10 and midnight December 31st and you’ll be automatically entered to win a free paperback copy of The Green Museum. Simply provide your real name and contact information when you join.

One lucky winner will be announced on January 1 on the Green Museums Wiki homepage.
And – if you already have The Green Museum and would prefer a copy of Is Your Museum Grant-Ready? instead of a second copy of TGM, just let Sarah know that if you're the winner.

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Sunday, December 7, 2008

Free Exhibit Idea: 61 Trees Per Person

NPR recently did a story on the research of Professor Nalini Nadkarni of The Evergreen State College in Washington.

Basically, using satellite data from NASA, Professor Nadkarni was able to calculate that in 2005, there were 400,246,300,201 (more or less) trees on our globe! (You can read about the technical details on the NPR website.)

So how many trees per person are there? Nadkarni looked up the world's human population as of Dec. 31 and found that on that day, we numbered 6,456,789,877 (again, very more or less). Punching the figures into her calculator, she figured that the world supports 61 trees per person.

I think this story and the details about how the NASA data was crunched would make a great exhibit. If someone provides the venue, I'd be happy to work on it with them!

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Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Dollhouses and Dioramas: The First Museum 2.0 ?

I'm doing some work with the Nassau County Museum of Art on their funky free-standing annex building they have called the Tee Ridder Miniatures Museum. (I'll report on some of the design modifications and "tweaks" we're coming up to make what is now a bit of a "fussy" collection more visitor-friendly, in a future posting.)

For background, Tee Ridder was a lady who collected and displayed miniature rooms (what most people would call dollhouse rooms) and the Tee Ridder Museum is entirely devoted to these miniature rooms, a "million dollar dollhouse" (actually a very large scale model of a castle) and related displays. Even the gift shop sells dollhouse furniture and related "miniatures" paraphenalia!

Working on this project got me thinking again about the incredible drawing power that miniature environments, and on the opposite end of the scale, dioramas, have on visitors.

Both of these "old school" exhibit techniques are for the most part dead art forms.

[UPDATE: As several people have rightfully commented and emailed me, museums are still creating dioramas and immersive diorama environments. Take for example the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center. Sorry for the hyperbole --- please resume reading your regularly scheduled blog posting...]

Preparing classic wildlife dioramas was never humane (killing animals deliberately for display would rightfully never be tolerated today) and the people with the esoteric skills needed to create these displays have largely vanished as well. Most natural history museums no longer employ (or can afford to employ!) staff taxidermists and artists like the master Carl Akeley (Check out this NY Times article about the "New" Way of Making a Stuffed Animal Lifelike from 1917!)

Leaving all that aside, I still marvel at how visitors will become completely absorbed in finding little details like a miniature box of Cornflakes in the dollhouse kitchen at The Long Island Children's Museum, or the hovering dragonflies in a pond diorama at The Field Museum in Chicago. Why do these anachronistic gems still entrall people, even within the context of museums filled with multi-media marvels and cool hands-on gizmos?

I think part of the answer lies in an appreciation, if not awe, of the art, and craft, involved in creating these facsimile worlds. But I think another aspect of the power of dioramas and miniature scenes is the ability for every visitor to somehow mentally insert themselves into these artificial worlds and to create their own stories and realities within.

And in the end, being able to find personal, emotional connections with objects and displays is still one of the most important, and singular, strengths of museums.

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Saturday, November 29, 2008

Exhibit Design Inspiration: The Glue Society

The Glue Society
is a group of writers, directors, and designers based in Sydney and New York.

As you can see from the example of their work entitled "Chair Arch" in the video above, and the image of the melted ice cream truck entitled "Hot with the Chance of Late Storm" they really know how to put creative twists on familiar materials and environments.

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Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Museums and One Laptop Per Child

ExhibiTricks reader Sean Hooley asked for some space to express his enthusism for the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) program and its applications to the museum world, so take it away Sean:

This spring I started doing some work with One Laptop per Child (OLPC) as I transitioned from working in interaction design back to the museum exhibit field. While not involved in deployments or the learning team, I have seen the enormous potential of the XO (the '$100 laptop') including talks by volunteers about the great educational opportunities afforded by the laptop.

OLPC just restarted the Give One, Get One (G1G1) program, where people/organizations in the US can pay for 2 XOs and get one, while the other is donated to a child in the third world. So, it seemed like a good time to get museum people talking. Here is an interesting use of the XO, at a science club in Washington, DC:

I feel that the museum world would benefit from working with XOs (and vice versa) so I am trying to get people thinking about ways for museums to participate in the US (OLPCs mission is to deliver them to children in the third world). OLPC is making the XO available again in the US (and probably for longer than the 2 months it was for sale last year.) This could allow more opportunities for museums to get involved with the XOs.

Therefore, I created an outline for a section in the community media page of OLPCs wiki for museums and hope that people will edit /add to it. You can also email me or check out some of the links below.

Some ideas were:

1. Museums acting as local XO community centers where XO users can get together, taking advantage of the social aspects of the XO (this is happening at the MIT museum, but why not more?)

2. Museums can create educational activities (applications) for the XO to add to the community (both in the US and abroad), based on their subject knowledge as well as their experiences with informal learning

3. Educating the public about the open source software movement and OLPC's work in developing countries through exhibits/programs, etc.

4. Learning tools for Children's Museums, often within the exhibit halls

This is the wiki page where I just started (still pretty empty and rough) putting museum resources down. I expect to put goals/ideas and other info about museums and the XO, and wanted others in museums to add to and start a discussion about this.

To participate in 'Give One, Get One’:

General OLPC Info:

Thanks to Sean for bringing up many interesting ideas about the OLPC program!

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Saturday, November 22, 2008

Exhibit Design Resource: Think Anatomy

For those of you who work in more traditional natural history museums (with lots of mounted skeletons and specimens floating in jars) you'll love the new anatomy-based portal called Think Anatomy.

Put together by their sister site Street Anatomy, Think Anatomy has assembled a great collection of web-based resources for learning about, as well as gathering content information on, all things anatomical.

Some of my favorite resources so far are the Anatomy Arcade games and the dissection videos from the University of Michigan. (WARNING: not all of this material is good for those with weak stomachs!)

Come to think of it, beyond natural history museum folks, both Street Anatomy and Think Anatomy provide great resources for anyone developing classroom, outreach, or teacher-training programs as well.

Do you have a favorite online resource to share? Let us know about it in the "Comments" section below, or send us an email.

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Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Good Experience: Uncle Mark Gift Guide and Almanac

I'm not sure when I first came across the "Uncle Mark Gift Guide and Almanac" put together by Mark Hurst, but I've found it a great resource, and something to look forward to as another year draws to a close.

In addition to the other creative ideas Mark puts forth to the public under the "Good Experience" umbrella, I'm also a fan of his "Good Experience Games" site that keeps a running list of fun internet-based games, and I hope to attend the "Good Experience Live" or GEL Conference (especially since it happens in NYC) one day.

Thinking about "Good Experience" --- whether it is customer experience, user experience, or any other type of human experience is essential whether you work in the for-profit or non-profit spheres. But more about that in a future post!

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Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Exhibit Design Inspiration: Interactive Mirror

Here's a video of an "interactive mirror" conceptualized by Alpay Kasal of Lit Studios and Sam Ewen of Interference Inc. This would be fun in any museum's bathroom --- or my own bathroom!

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Saturday, November 15, 2008

Exhibit Design Toolbox: Cast Bird Feet

I've been working with the fine folks at The North Museum of Natural History in Lancaster, PA on a fun project involving evolution (directly) and birds (indirectly.)

As part of gathering together materials, Sarah Clarke from The North showed me these great cast bird feet made of pewter and armature wire. The cast feet are sold by a company called Fur and Feathers Woodcarving, and are primarily used by woodcarvers and decoy makers.

That being said, the cast feet are really cool (and cheap!) and could well be utilized for a number of exhibit purposes, especially in the natural history or nature center realms.

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Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Exhibit Design Toolbox: More Tape!

Perhaps this posting should be called, "Son of The Sticky Subject of Tape" in honor of our prior posting concerning specialty tapes that exhibit designers should know about.

Claire Pillsbury from The Exploratorium was kind enough to offer some additional suggestions concerning cool, useful, and unusual types of tape, and here they are:

Vet Wrap
A "self-clinging" wrapping material that does not require tight compression.

Instant-bonding Glue Dots
Adhesive "dots" that require no drying time, are clean and easy to use, and work on a variety of materials. Glue Dots bond instantly to any surface.

Terrifically Tacky Tape
This is double-sided craft tape with red liner that is super strong. (The bond actually increases after the first 24 hours it is applied.)

This is the same kind of ultra-thin, very sticky tape as "3M 4910 VHB Tape" but TT tape comes in shorter-length rolls so it is less expensive.

from Benchmark.
Use on crates for traveling exhibitions so you don't mix 'em up!
(Benchmark sells lots of other interesting exhibit and mount-making supplies as well.)

3M Dual Lock Reclosable Fastener System

Clear self-mating reclosable fastener with clear acrylic adhesive on the back. This is the "mushroom" topped style, rather than hook and loop, so it fastens to itself and doesn't collect fuzz like the "hook" half of velcro.

Colored Plastic Vinyl Floor Marking Tape
Great for outlining areas on floors or walls. These tapes are highly adhesive and resistant to water, oil, fungus and chemicals, have a semi-gloss finish, and can be written on with permanent markers.

1/4"-wide Colored Plastic Vinyl Tape
Also from Identi-Tape, these 6-mil vinyl adhesive tapes are available in a 14 colors plus clear in 36-yard long rolls. These tapes are ideal for constructing lines and tables on dry erase boards, identification of small tools, decorative striping, etc.

A tip of our taped-up topper to Claire for her sticky suggestions!

Did we miss any of your favorite sticky supplies? Let us know in the "Comments Section" below!

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Friday, November 7, 2008

Before You Start A Museum, Read This.

We've written previously about the closing of COSI Toledo (here and here) and the issue of sustaining a museum once it opens.

I'm happy to report that on the third try, the voters of Lucas County have passed a 5 year tax levy to provide support (read cold hard cash) to COSI Toledo.

This gives the fine folks at COSI Toledo (that's the current name, but it sounds like that might change soon, as they distance themselves from COSI Columbus) a little breathing room to restart and continue building ties to the local businesses and schools.

However, this tax levy brings up a dirty little secret about museums: they don't, or can't, generally support themselves on earned income --- museums need constant infusions of cash (via endowments, tax levies, generous donors, government grants, or winning lottery tickets.)

Well, o.k., the lottery tickets are a slight exageration, but really the odds of starting a museum that continues to grow, expand, and thrive (as opposed to constantly struggling and becoming shabby) strictly on earned revenue, are high odds indeed.

That's the part of the story that never comes up when the feasibility documents with the rosy budget and attendance figures are passed around. That doesn't mean that new museums shouldn't get created, but you better make sure your source(s) of outside cash are firmly in place.

What do you think? Should anyone try to start (or restart!) a new museum in today's economic climate? Let us know in the "Comments Section" below.

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Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Museum Exhibit Design: The "New" Detroit Institute of Arts

As a followup to my recent posting about interactive experiences (or lack thereof) in art museums, I thought I'd share two different points of view about the "reinvention" of The Detroit Institute of Arts (or the DIA as it's known to locals.) For context, the DIA has reopened last year after completely reconfiguring its galleries and its institutional approach toward the visitor experience.

The first (immediately below) is a report from the radio show Studio 360 that details an interactive "virtual dining" experience that serves to highlight some of the DIA's decorative arts collection.

Personally, as someone who was born and raised in Detroit --- I count the DIA as one of my favorite museums --- I can't wait to get back to Detroit to see the "new" DIA. The dining interactive sounds like a wonderful way to engage visitors in a difficult, but interesting, area of the collection.

Clearly not everyone feels the same way. Enter art historian Christina Hill, who wrote this opinion piece for one of Detroit's alternative newspapers, The Metro Times.

Ms. Hill comes off as a bit of an art snob, in my opinion. As an art historian she may well have the education and experience to take away "volumes" of information from every encounter with a work of art, but I doubt that every visitor (or potential visitor) to an art museum has the same capacity. I'm at a loss to see the downside of thoughtfully integrated interactives in an art museum.

What do you think? Should art museums remain purely temples to art? Are interactives in an art museum condescending to the primary audince? Are interactives just a "cheap trick" or do they "dumb down" the primary experience? Add your own thoughts in the "Comments" section below.

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Sunday, November 2, 2008

Exhibit Aphorisms Deck Contest Winners

We have our two winners of the Exhibit Aphorisms Deck Contest:

• Sona wins the first deck for her quote: "The display should catch the eye, the content should catch the mind."

• And randomly selected from the new ExhibiTricks email subscribers, Tim C. takes home the other deck.

Congratulations to both Tim and Sona, and thanks to everyone who entered a quote and/or subscribed during the contest.

Because of the positive response, we'll be having another ExhibiTricks contest with exhibit-related prizes coming up soon, so stay tuned!

Friday, October 31, 2008

MagPie Time

A new show called MagPie Time is coming out to show kids (and their adult friends) how to make crafty projects using recycled and reused materials. Their plan is to show step-by-step instructions for every project featured. MagPie Time will be a great resource for museum folks looking for project ideas.

MagPie Time looks like a cross between Pee Wee's Playhouse and MAKE magazine. In fact, some of MagPie's team were involved with the original Pee Wee show. Check out the talking ball of yarn!

For more info, click to view the MagPie Time website as well as the teaser video above.

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Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Green Design Resource:

One aspect of the emphasis on "green design" that is often overlooked is how to properly recycle scrap or waste exhibit materials that cannot be reused.

For example, many museums are switching to more energy-efficient lighting like Compact Fluorscent Lights (CFLs). However, even CFLs burn out eventually, and each bulb contains a small amount of mercury, so CFLs shouldn't just be pitched into the dumpster.

Similarly, even the empty cans from low VOC (Volatile Organic Componds) finishes need to be properly recycled.

The problem is that it's not easy to know where to properly recycle every type of product or container.

That's where a site like comes in! Besides being packed with lots of great tips about living and working greener, there is a handy form at the top of the homepage that lets you enter the type of stuff you'd like to recycle and your location to find the nearest recycling facility that accepts your particular leftover materials or scrap.

(By the way, most Home Depot locations now accept used CFLs for recycling, even if you didn't buy them there originally.)

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Saturday, October 25, 2008

Why Can't Art Museums Have More Interactive Exhibits?

And why can't Science Museums and Children's Museums (the traditionally "hands-on museums) have more "hands-off" (minds-on?) artworks on display?

I started thinking some more about this since I recently opened an exhibition entitled "The Animated Artwork of Laura Vaccaro Seeger" at The Nassau County Museum of Art here on Long Island. (It's up until January 4th, 2009, so if you're in the area, come take a look!)

The exhibition includes interactive exhibits and installations that naturally dovetail with themes like light and color, metamorphosis, and negative space that show up in the award-winning children's books that Laura writes and illustrates. This would definitely NOT be a big deal if I was designing this sort of show at a "hands-on" museum, but this was the first time that NCMA had put on a show with so many deliberately interactive exhibit pieces. Initially the museum staff were even a little freaked out by having loose books in the gallery (in a show by an author!)
so we compromised by mounting the books on "reading shelves" attached to the walls.

Shows like the art museum show, "Take Your Time" by Olafur Eliasson, incorporate stunning pieces that, with a little tweaking, could make equally amazing science museum exhibits. But since Eliasson's pieces are "art" they are not meant to be touched, or interacted with physically, at least inside of an art museum.

At issue seems to be the context that people (with or without young children in tow) approach different types of museums. The atmosphere in most art museums is on the level of a library --- hushed tones, silent contemplation, and guards occasionally telling people to settle down. One of the complaints from guards (but not visitors!) in the Laura Vaccaro Seeger show is that some of the interactive pieces make noise, or cause the visitors to make noise!

Of course most science centers and children's museums often seem like a cross between a fun house and a race track --- frenetic busy activity, and experiences that seem to invite chaos more than contemplation. So is it possible to introduce contemplative experiences into such active spaces?

I remember speaking with Bernie Zubrowski about a piece that he developed and displayed at The Exploratorium, entitled "The Ghost of Amelia Earhart". The piece incorporated a silky piece of fabric (Amelia's scarf?) immersed in a tank of water being gently swirled by currents. There are interesting moire patterns caused when the fabric overlaps, as well as mysterious shadows formed by the lighting inside the tank.

When I saw Bernie's piece at The Exploratorium, I loved it. Unfortunately, I was one of the very few visitors to take the time to pay attention to its subtle pleasures. Despite being a treasure trove of art and science exhibits, The Exploratorium wasn't really conducive to a piece like Bernie's which required quiet concentration from the viewer. However, "The Ghost of Amelia Earhart" would have been very well received in an art museum or gallery show.

So how can we get art museums to "loosen up" on their approach to exhibits and visitor interactions, or should we?

What about more getting "interactive museums" to provide more contemplative spaces and opportunities?

Or are all types of museums trapped by the genre classifications that they have worked so hard to foster and create?

UPDATE: Here's an interesting article on the subject concerning the "Act/React: Interactive Installation Art" exhibition that will open in Milwaukee in January 2009.

What do you think? Should we just let art museums be art museums, and hands-on museums be hands-on museums, or have you seen exhibits or exhibitions that help blur the lines? Put your thoughts into the "Comments Section" below!

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Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Our First Contest!

In our recent interview with Harry White ("Science Centre Consultant" at TechniQuest Science Center in Cardiff, Wales) we discussed his card deck of Exhibit Aphorisms.

Harry started collecting these quotations, jokes, and provocations about exhibits and exhibit development to use in a university course in Science Communication based in a Science Centre.

Here are two random examples:

"If they had to read the label the exhibit designer blew it."

"Bad exhibit ideas get more complex, good exhibit ideas get simpler."

I found out at the recent ASTC Conference in Philadelphia that Harry has officially "published" a full deck of 54 cards (52 + 2 Jokers) each with a pithy insight into the exhibit development process on the face.

And now two lucky ExhibiTricks readers will each win one of these limited "first edition" decks. (See picture above.)

Here's how to win: between now and the end of October, simply enter into the "Comments Section" below your favorite quote (either "original" or "borrowed") about the exhibit development process OR become an email subscriber to the ExhibiTricks blog (just use the handy box along the right side of the blog to sign up.) We'll choose one person from the commenters, and one from the new email subscribers, and we'll notify the two winners in the first week of November.

Get started, have fun, and good luck!

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Thursday, October 16, 2008

Exhibit Design Inspiration: Nikon Small World 2008

Nikon has an excellent website listing the winners of their 2008 "Small World" photomicrography competition (and those from previous years as well.)

Check out the gallery page of the Small World 2008 website to see some of the amazing images, such as the view of Convallaria majalis (Lily of the Valley) shown above created by Albert Tousson.

You can also check out the schedule for the Nikon Small World Museum Tour to see the twenty winning Small World photomicrographs at a museum near you.

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Wednesday, October 15, 2008

ASTC 2008 Annual Conference

This year's ASTC Conference is in Philadelphia from October 18–21, 2008.

This year's conference will be a bit of a departure for me since I won't be presenting, nor will I be attending many sessions either.

Instead, I'll be happily ensconced in Booth #140 on both Saturday and Sunday showing off my version of the Giant Newton's Cradle. (See YouTube video above.)

If you're attending ASTC this year, come by and say hello!

Monday, October 13, 2008

Exhibit Design Inspiration: Jeremy Mayer

Jeremy Mayer is an artist who creates sculptures from typewriters.

Visit his excellent website to experience the range of his work.

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Thursday, October 9, 2008

Raisin Brahms!

As a quick follow-up to yesterday's post on museum and arts funding and the U.S. Presidential Election, check out this funny PSA (above) created by the Leo Burnett agency for Americans for the Arts to promote Arts Education.

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Saturday, October 4, 2008

Exhibit Designer Toolbox: Ponoko Photomake

is a cool company (and website!) that allows you to upload designs that are then fabricated using laser cutters and materials (like various types of plastic and wood.) It would be excellent if we all had access to tools like laser cutters, but until then, companies like Ponoko help fill the void.

Now, Ponoko has made the remote design/fabrication process even easier by creating a process called "Photomake."

Basically (as the video at the top of this posting illustrates) Photomake eliminates the need for using complicated design software by allowing users to simply draw out their design(s) on paper and then take a digital photograph of same. You submit you digital image(s) via the Ponoko website's interface, choose the material(s) you want the finished version to be created in, and you're good to go. In a short while, Ponoko send you your finished project(s).

I am still very interested in collaborating with a museum (or museums) to set up a "drop in" Design and Fabrication lab that visitors could use to create their own "stuff" with tools like laser cutters and desktop CNC machines. Anyone interested in creating such a space? If so, let me know.

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Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Exhibit Design Inspiration: Alice Chess Set

The "Alice" Chess Set designed by Yasmin Sethi makes use of two interesting lighting materials, LightPoints and Mirona, created by SCHOTT North America, to create its effects.

Inspired by Lewis Carroll's "Alice" stories, the pieces on the chessboard appear or disappear depending on where they are placed.

Sethi made use of LightPoints (a type of glass with wireless LEDs embedded into it) to create the board and Mirona glass for the pieces. (The Mirona glass mirror appears opaque until light is shined upon it.)

What other types of exhibit applications could LightPoints and Mirona be used for?

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Friday, September 26, 2008

Giant Newton's Cradle

I'll be at Booth #140 during the upcoming ASTC Conference in Philadelphia showing off my latest incarnation of the Giant Newton's Cradle.

Check out the YouTube video above to see the GNC in action!

If you have any questions, or better yet, want to purchase a shiny new model for your museum contact me at or via the POW! website.

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Sunday, September 21, 2008

Exhibit Design Resource For Lenticular Graphics

For my most recent exhibition project, "The Animated Artwork of Laura Vaccaro Seeger" at the Nassau County Museum of Art, I had a need for a simple lenticular sign.

(Lenticulars graphics involve images, that when viewed from different angles, produce 3D or animated effects, like the image above. You've probably seen postcards, trading cards, or even Cracker Jack prizes that use lenticular images.)

As with many specialized print products, it was difficult to find a company willing to produce just one or two items at a reasonable price (and quickly as well!)

Fortunately I was able to work with the fine folks at RWC Digital in Fort Worth, Texas. They were easy to work with and delivered on time at a very reasonable price.

Check out the RWC website for more details or contact Ron ( directly.

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Friday, September 12, 2008

Exhibit Design Inspiration: touched echo project

Artist Markus Kison has created a "performative installation" entitled "touched echo" on top of the city walls of Dresden, Germany.

While today's scenic overlook is beautiful, Dresden was also part of a terrible bombing raid in World War II. As a way to get visitors to the city to contemplate the events of the past, the artist has attached sound conducting devices to existing metal railwork. Iconic signs on the rail direct visitors to place their elbows on the rail, and their hands on their ears in a contemplative pose
looking down at the river and buildings that were part of the bombing raids.

Sounds of bombers and explosions are conducted through visitors' bones to their ears. Unless you participate in Kison's piece, the area is silent. This is a clever and thoughtful piece of environmental art with an obvious historic twist.

There are extensive photos, and technical descriptions, of "touched echo" at the artist's website.

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Saturday, September 6, 2008

Sustainable Design Inspiration

I've been doing some design work for the Children's Museum of Indianapolis on topics related to water and the environment for their upcoming exhibition on modern Egypt.

I thought I'd share information about two organizations that are developing simple, even elegant, design solutions to solve literally life-and-death problems related to water use in developing countries.

The first is KickStart, a non-profit organization that develops and markets new technologies in Africa. I was especially impressed by their "micro-irrigation" technologies --- essentially simple, durable, easy to maintain people-powered pumps. Some of their designs are called "Money Maker" pumps to indicate that from a small initial investment rural economies can grow through increased farm profits and local jobs.

The second organization is PlayPumps International. As you can see from the video above, they have created water pumps that are powered by children at play. The PlayPumps are installed near schools, and double as a water pump for a local community as well as a merry-go-round for children.

The PPI approach is great on several levels: first, using kid-power frees up villagers (primarily young girls and women) from spending several hours every day on collecting safe water from remote locations. Secondly, the educational opportunities for girls increase since they now have time to go to school instead of getting water. Lastly, PlayPumps International has been creative and entrepreneurial in getting sponsors (and even mounting advertising on units!) in order to expedite the process of providing pumps and installation for interested communities.

Museums can support the work of PlayPumps and KickStart by showing off their technology, thereby making visitors aware of the work of such organizations (like the wonderful exhibition, "Design For the Other 90%" organized by the Cooper-Hewitt.) But perhaps, more importantly, museums can inspire visitors to consider the broader issues related to the intersection between sustainable design and basic environmental issues by making them aware of the need for such technologies in the first place.

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Wednesday, September 3, 2008

2009 Creating Exhibitions Symposium

As co-chair of the Creating Exhibitions Program Committee, I'd like to encourage all ExhibiTricks readers to check out the recently released info about the 2009 Creating Exhibitions Symposium hosted by the Liberty Science Center.

You can also download the Call For Proposals form via the website as well.

If you have any questions or need more info, please feel free to contact me directly.

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Friday, August 29, 2008

Cool Exhibit Design Tool: Spoonflower

The CoolTools website posted an article about an interesting new service-based web tool called Spoonflower.

Spoonflower gives individuals the power to print their own designs on fabric. The idea is that you upload a digital image to the Spoonflower web site and the company prints the design as a pattern on 100% cotton fabric.

You can see some real-life examples and read commentary on using Spoonflower via thaneeya's blog (like the side-by-side fabric and digital image comparison shown at the top of this posting) or get more nuts-and-bolts details on the Spoonflower blog.

Before you get too excited, Spoonflower is still at the invite-only beta stage, but you can get on the invite list via their website.

All in all, Spoonflower's services look like another interesting tool to add to the exhibit developer's repertoire --- I've already put my name on the Spoonflower beta invite list!

UPDATE: Spoonflower is now open for business to all. So what are you waiting for? Start designing fabric!

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Monday, August 25, 2008

Exhibit Design Inspiration: Cloud

The art and design group Troika was commissioned to create this amazing flip-dot sculpture, called "Cloud", for Terminal 5 at Heathrow Airport in the UK.

The surface of the five meter long sculpture is covered with 4638 flip-dots, similar to those found in traffic signs and train stations.

As you can see from the video above, Troika uses a computer to control the flip-dots to create the patterns seen on the surface of the sculpture.

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Saturday, August 23, 2008

Exhibit Design Toolkit: Cable Ties

Even the most ubiquitous exhibit tools, like cable ties, are not created equal.

In 1958, Thomas & Betts invented the Ty-Rap® cable tie to solve the problem of harnessing the hundreds of wires used in manufacturing aircraft.

Check out the Thomas & Betts website to revel in amazing cable tie-osity!

The variety of cable ties that T&B offers is pretty amazing. I am especially a fan of their "High Performance" wraps with stainless steel nibs that hold the cable tie in place (forever!) without the slip-prone plastic ratcheting mechanism found in cheaper ties.

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Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Become An ExhibiTricks Fan On Facebook

For those faithful ExhibiTricks readers that also use Facebook, could you please follow this link and become a "fan" of ExhibiTricks?

(I'm trying out the new Blog Networks application on Facebook.)

Many Thanks!

Friday, August 15, 2008

DIY Book Repair

Dartmouth College Library's Preservation Services has created a great website that details all the ins and outs of Simple Book Repair.

There's enough detail to get you through everything from simple cleaning procedures to repairing a book's spine.

I don't know about you, but I've got a big, fat old dictionary that's falling apart that I'm going to get to work on this weekend!

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