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 greenexhibits.org 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!