Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Museum Design: Where's The Chairs?

Sit down before you read this. If you're at home, or even reading this on your iPhone, there's probably a seat nearby.

Unfortunately, if you're visiting a museum exhibition gallery, finding a place to sit and/or rest might be a lot more difficult. Art museums, perhaps because of their deliberately "contemplative" nature (or the advanced age of many of their patrons) do a much better job of providing seating in gallery spaces than other types of museums.

As I'm preparing a talk for the upcoming Association of Children's Museums conference for "emerging" museums, my mind has turned to chairs and seating, or the lack thereof, in all sorts of museums.

Paradoxically, the types of museums that we often think of as the most interactive, Children's Museums and Science Museums, often have the least seating available inside their exhibition spaces. One reason often given for the lack of seating is that "we want parents to play with their kids, not sit down!"

This is the sort of bogus, passive/aggressive, museum speak that really infuriates me. You can't "force" someone to engage with their children by taking away all the seats like a twisted game of musical chairs. An ideal museum visit will have a rhythm of activity --- sometimes quiet and contemplative, sometimes more mentally and/or physically active --- and museum designers should encourage, but not "force" people to engage in exhibit experiences in these different ways. Also, if you believe that eliminating seating options is going to coerce adult caregivers into stopping their young charges from racing around your museum or tearing up your exhibits, I've got a bridge in Brooklyn to sell you!

Leaving all that aside, what are some of the parameters to consider when selecting seating for any type of exhibition gallery? Personally, I think sturdy, movable seats, like stools or benches are your best bet. Flexible seating arrangements let visitors shift things around a little, and you might even learn a little bit about how visitors are using (or not using) your exhibits by watching how the seats get rearranged.

Here are a few suggestions regarding seating options for museums:

On the low end of the budget spectrum, IKEA (as I've mentioned in a previous post) provides simple, durable seating options. (Like the "Kritter" bench pictured above.)

If you have more money to spend, I really like the Alvar Aalto stools and benches. Clean design, and stackable. (If you get the stools, choose the more stable 4-legged option for museum use.)

Other good options for purchasing simple, durable seating are from Library furniture suppliers like Gaylord or Highland Park.

So, please consider your visitors, and think of ways to provide seating in your museum's exhibition spaces. (I'll sit down and be quiet now.)

UPDATE: Jonathan Katz from CINNABAR was kind enough to pass along this image of a "worm-bench" from the "Early Explorer's Cove" early childhood exhibition space in the Kimball Natural History Museum section of the new California Academy of Sciences project.

If you have images of interesting museum seating, feel free to pass them along! (Maybe we'll do a future "Son of Museum Seating" posting.)

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Friday, January 23, 2009

Hacking IKEA for Exhibit Design

Sometimes the best way to create an inexpensive exhibit component is to find an off-the-shelf item and twist or adapt it to your own purposes. Walking the aisles of your local hardware, auto supply, or toy stores can often provide great inspiration (and raw materials) for your exhibit installations.

I maintain the ever-expanding Great Big Exhibit Resource List on my website just to keep track of suppliers of such arcane materials as fake food or glow-in-the dark string.

Two of my favorite "big" stores to find adaptable exhibit supplies are Target and IKEA. So you can imagine how excited I was when I found the IKEA Hacker blog!

IKEA Hacker gives lots of great suggestions for "hacking" IKEA products as well as many step-by-step examples for how selected "hackers" completed their projects.

A recent idea featured on IKEA Hacker that could be easily adapted to museums is the "Artwork Hanger" pictured at the top of this posting.

Stephanie used an IKEA Deka curtain rod, which is basically two lengths of wire suspended between two small metal posts. Then she used the little clips that normally hold the curtains to fasten art projects to the suspended wires. This would be a fun (and cheap!) way to display children's artwork in a gallery, or as a simple holder for drying projects in an arts and crafts area.

So why not take a "field trip" to some of your local stores this weekend to see what sorts of "exhibit hacks" supplies you might be able to turn up. Let us know what you find in the "Comments Section" below!

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Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Museum Design Inspiration:

"Pessimism is a luxury of good times... In difficult times, pessimism is a self-fulfilling, self-inflicted death sentence." ~ Evelin Linder

Maybe it's the start of the New Year, maybe it's the new President, but I feel paradoxically optimistic about the future. We all (including museums) have important roles in making the world a better place. And, oftentimes, the best ideas for making the world better come during adverse circumstances.

Perhaps this is why the group Worldchanging (and the TED video above from one of Worldchanging's founders, Jamais Cascio) appeal to me so.

Worldchanging looks at global challenges and asks, "How can we make this better?" "What resources can we mobilize to address these challenges?" It's always easy to point out the problems in any given situation, but much more difficult to offer meaningful solutions.

I'm going to try my best to find the positive solutions in my design practice and my personal interactions with the world at the start of this New Year. How about you?

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Saturday, January 17, 2009

POW! in the NY Times

Here's a review of the "Babar's Museum of Art" exhibition at the Nassau County Museum of Art that will officially open at the museum on January 18, 2009.

If you're in the Long Island area, please stop in and see Babar!

The Envelope, Please ... On another note, I'd like to congratulate our two winners from the recent Exhibit Cheapbooks contest. They are Christine Farris, from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and Joyce Cheney, from Focus Communications.

Both Christine and Joyce will each receive a three-volume set of the ASTC Exhibit Cheapbooks.

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Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Artful Design: An Interview with Lynne Friman

Previous ExhibiTricks postings about interactivity in Art Museum exhibitions and the "reinstallation" of the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) got such strong responses, so it seemed like a great time to interview Lynne Friman, the designer who was the project manager for the reinstallation project at the Detroit Institute of Arts, and who is currently the project manager for the reinstallation project at the University Of Michigan Museum Of Art.

Lynne Friman is the Principal at Envisions Design, Ltd. 27 years ago, she began her museum career in New York City. Lynne moved from NYC to Detroit to Head the Exhibition and Design Department for the Detroit Historical Museums. After several years there, she moved to The Henry Ford Museum. While at The Henry Ford, Lynne held several positions including Head of Design and Production, Creative Visual Services, Facility Development and Senior Experience Designer. Lynne has also served as the President of NAME (the National Association for Museum Exhibition).

Recently, Lynne was kind enough to respond to a few questions from ExhibiTricks:

What’s your educational background?

I have a BFA in graphic design and illustration from University of Illinois. I interned through Parsons School of Design and then took post-grad courses in industrial design, while working for an architect. But most of my direct museum education was through apprenticeship… learning from Architect Adam Tihany and former Metropolitan Museum of Art Designer, Lucian Leone.

What got you interested in Museums?

It was never a career path I directly pursued, but I’d grown up in the Chicago area going to all of the great ones there --- loving the Field, Shedd and the Museum of Science and Industry. The Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art was a favorite because it was so fanciful. In Junior High I was labeled an “alternative learner” and put into a program called the “Floating Classroom.” We learned by going out to places rather than reading about them. I remember a project at the Art Institute where we selected an artist and created projects around their work based in science, math, social studies and literature. I chose Calder and learned so much about the world.

What are some of your favorite museums or exhibitions?

The most moving exhibition that I recall was going to the “Sixth Floor” exhibit in Dallas during AAM with a small group of museum designers. By the end we were all teary eyed and moved beyond words. It was a well done exhibit, but the most important thing was that designers, Staples and Charles, allowed the sense of place to really be the star… that was the most important artifact and it was honored. I stood at the window and looked out at the grassy knoll, it was very emotional.

Recently I went to Ottawa to the Museum de la Civilization. I’d heard about John Jacque Andre’s installations for years and seen other attempt his style elsewhere, to less affect. On one level it was a time capsule for 1980s exhibit design, but it held up. The interpretives were good hands-on/ minds-on and there was much to be engaged with. For some reason, I was really taken with the lighting in the village on the 3rd floor. I’ve been through lots of museums with pseudo villages, but the mood it evoked made us want to explore every nook and cranny (and there were lots).

Tell us a little bit about the "reinvention" of the DIA and your role in that?

I started work on the DIA in 2001, designing a couple of exhibits as the museum moved the collections around to work on the facility. Then I was hired as project manager for the reinstallation project. Early on I facilitated teams of curators, and other staff to organize their thoughts around their big ideas.

My job really was to keep the process flowing with my Excel spreadsheets, listing all the parts and my Microsoft project charts, telling me where we were and where we needed to go. I went to San Francisco and was trained as a facilitator at Interaction Associates. I coordinated the teams and the production of all the cases, graphics and more. I also was involved in the hiring of approximately 15 different design and production firms.

The reinvention of the DIA is really focused on reinterpreting the collection—grouping things differently, telling stories where previously there had only been the most basic information. Using high tech interpretives was done sparingly, I think to great effect. The most talked about one is the “dining table” where you sit down at a table and have an 18th century French “meal”, using the serving pieces that surround you in the gallery. It was a subtle contextualization that gave the static pieces some life. There are simple “eye spy” devices in the galleries for children, but we know the adults use them just as much.

Why do (as a generalization) history museums and art museums seem so resistant to interactive exhibits?

I don’t think history museums are resistant to interactive exhibits. 10 or 15 years ago when I was really focusing on history exhibitions we were trying to learn (sometimes steal or borrow) everything we could from science and technology museums and make it relevant to historic content. History museums have come a long way to bringing interactivity to museums. Soon I will embark on a project where the goal of the project is hands-on and minds-on learning. Not always at the same time, but balanced throughout the site.

Art museums may be a tad more resistant to interactivity. But then it depends on what you mean by the word interactivity. Art museums very much want visitors to have an interactive experience with the art they display. However, their goals are different from other museums. There is a certain level of contextualization that I have yet to see in an art museum.

We pushed the envelope at the Detroit Institute of Arts, in developing high tech, low techs and no tech interactives. There are dozens throughout the museum, perhaps 2-5 in each gallery. Some people feel that is too much, many visitors still want an unmediated experience where you can just experience the art. But we found through audience research that the average visitor needed a little help in order to appreciate the art. Anecdotally, people who have little art museum experience feel the interpretives are helpful.

What are some of best/favorite examples of interactivity in history and art museums?

At the ROM (Royal Ontario Museum) there used to be an exhibit called “Planet Earth.” It won the exhibition competition several years ago. You sat in a volcano and experienced the evolution of the earth. My young son was fascinated and so was I. We both learned a lot—it was a cool environment that was done very well.

I really enjoy the dining table at the DIA, that I mentioned earlier. It is designed by Pentagram Associates. The experience is engaging, it gets people talking and sometimes they even connect to the art around them. While I enjoy this, I’ve also heard other people describe this as soulless, with little connection to the art. But for me, it draws you in and meets the goals and big idea for that area.

The other interepretive that I like very much, at the DIA, is a simple set of flip panel that sits in front of 5 Picasso paintings of women. The panel shows you photographs of 5 women. It asks you to pair the “real” images with Picassos. It is about looking through Picasso’s lenses. It gave me a nice little aha moment.

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

I am deeply in the midst of installing the University of Michigan Museum of Art, set to open in March 2009. This museum has a very different audience and mission from the DIA but is also working towards a greater level of interactivity. As I am installing right now, ask me more in a few months!

In addition to the museum projects, I have been working on a Master Plan for my regional arts alliance. I am also Chair of the local Arts Council. These are labors of love that connect me to my own artistic roots.

How do you think museums will be different 10 years from now?

I can’t hazard a guess. 10 years ago I thought they would all be a lot more hands on than they are. Then again, it is in funny quiet moments that I often make the most connections when I visit a museum. But it is often some contextualization or interpretive device that allows me to make the leap.

What technologies/techniques do you think are underutilized currently in museums?

I think the use of technologies are working their way into all areas of our museums. I don’t think they are underutilized. They often cost a lot, so sometimes they are the early cut in a project.
It isn’t for lack of conceptualizing. Fortunately there are a lot of ways to get an idea across.

If money were no object, what would your “dream” exhibit project be?

Object theatre, creating environments that bring art, culture and history together in one place. Sometimes museums are so defined by their typology that there are things that you “can’t” do in one place or another. I like to break rules to create new relationships between artifacts and the visitor.

Thanks to Lynne for taking the time to share her thoughts with the ExhibiTricks readers!

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Saturday, January 10, 2009

Exhibit Design Toolbox: Evernote

Have you ever been working on an exhibit project and wished you could readily keep track of all your relevant websites, notes, or digital camera images, and then be able to access these inspirations easily from your computer, the Web, or your other digital devices?

If so, check out Evernote.

The folks at Evernote bill their product as your "external brain." They offer free versions of their software that work with Windows or Mac computers, in addition to web browsers and cell phones. Best of all, Evernote can effortlessly sync information between all of these devices. Evernote even interfaces with popular programs like Skitch and Jott.

I've just started using Evernote to keep track of all my various projects' paraphernalia, and I think I may have finally found a better solution than unmanageable web-browser bookmark files or overstuffed folders filled with scraps of paper, printouts, and torn-out magazine pages!

One feature that I really like is Evernote's ability to search for words that are part of images that were not originally entered as text --- a label from an exhibit, or a bottle of wine at a restaurant that you want to remember --- just snap a picture to put it into an Evernote folder.

The folks at Evernote just announced a successful round of funding that will allow them to add even more features like expanded sharing and collaboration. These enhancements promise to make Evernote an even better tool for exhibit and project development!

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Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Exhibit Design Inspiration: The Museum of Scientifically Accurate Fabric Brain Art

Intrepid ExhibiTricks reader Andrea Thies pointed out The Museum of Scientifically Accurate Fabric Brain Art, which is billed as "the world's largest extant collection of anatomically correct fabric brain art." (You can see an example, by developmental psychologist Marjorie Taylor, pictured above.)

As described in an article from Science Magazine, the structures of the human brain have inspired developmental psychologist Marjorie Taylor and psychiatrist Karen Norberg to produce their scientifically accurate fabric art.

The "curator" behind the MSAFBA website is Bill Harbaugh, a Professor of Economics from the University of Oregon. Professor Harbaugh also maintains a sister site, the Gallery of Wooden Brain Art. Who would have known that this all has a tangential relationship to neuroeconomics research?

"Building a brain with yarn and knitting needles turns out to follow many of the same pathways as actual brain development," says Norberg, who has a knitted brain on display at the Boston Museum of Science.

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Thursday, January 1, 2009

Doing More With Less, and Our First 2009 Contest!

Given the uncertain economy, and its equally uncertain effect on museums, one theme we expect to be revisiting throughout 2009 here at ExhibiTricks is "doing more with less."

In that spirit, here are are some of our favorite inexpensive (or free!) exhibit resources that we've posted about on ExhibiTricks this past year:

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.

• The fine folks at RWC Digital in Fort Worth, Texas produce lenticular graphics, and are willing to sell small quantities (even one or two!) RWC was easy to work with and delivered on time at a very reasonable price.

Ponoko is a cool company 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.

Think Anatomy has assembled a great collection of web-based resources for learning about, as well as gathering content information on, all things anatomical.

Picnik is a free online photo-editing tool. If you, or your museum, can't afford software programs like Photoshop, try Picnik.

And now the contest! Two lucky ExhibiTricks readers will each win a complete 3 volume set of the ASTC Exhibit Cheapbooks (edited by yours truly!) Each Cheapbook volume contains approximately thirty inexpensive exhibit ideas contributed by museum colleagues from around the world --- each volume a perfect resource for doing more with less!

Here's how to enter: Between now and January 12th, just share your favorite money-saving exhibits tip in the "Comments" section below this posting OR subscribe to ExhibiTricks via email (just click on the link at the top right side of the blog.)

After the 12th, we'll choose the author of our favorite money-saving exhibits tip, and randomly choose a new email subscriber. Both winners will receive a complete 3 volume set of the ASTC Exhibit Cheapbooks.

Good luck!