Saturday, February 28, 2009

Serendipity and Design: The REAL Periodic Table

Sometimes beautiful things result from simple misunderstandings.

Serendipity has resulted in amazing things like the "discoveries" of Penicillin, Velcro, the microwave oven, and even chocolate chip cookies, as outlined in the book, Lucky Science: Accidental Discoveries From Gravity to Velcro.

Serendipity also helped in the creation of Theodore Gray's Periodic Table. Table as in piece of furniture.

Except that Mr. Gray created a piece of furniture for his office containing a sample of every element found in the scientific Periodic Table. Table as in a set of facts and figures.

While reading Oliver Sack's book Uncle Tungsten, Gray misunderstood a passage describing Sack's childhood remembrances about the Periodic Table display in the Kensington Science Museum. Even after he realized his mistake, Mr. Gray set out to create his marvelous table (pictured above with Oliver Sacks.)

As the saying goes, "Mighty oaks from tiny acorns grow... " After realizing his scientific office furniture ambitions, Mr. Gray created a suitably impressive website concerning the Periodic Table and its constituent elements was created, with links to resources where you can purchase Periodic Table posters, individual element samples, or even an entire Period Table museum display if you should so desire.

So the next time you're messing around with an idea or a project and you make a "mistake" don't be too hasty in discarding it. You may be onto a serendipitously wonderful idea that you might never have discovered otherwise!

RELATED POSTING: "The Periodic Table of Videos"

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Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Exhibit Design Inspiration: Write On!

We're kickin' it "old school" at ExhibiTricks today by highlighting one artist's creative "twist" on letter writing, and how that can serve as a bit of exhibit design inspiration for all of us.

The "World's Smallest Postal Service" is a project started by Lea Redmond of Leafcutter Designs.

Basically, you send Lea a short letter, and she transcribes it and miniaturizes it into a teeny-tiny letter and sends it along with a magnifying glass inside a larger glassine envelope to your specified recipient.

Lea has taken a very familiar process --- letter writing --- and put a clever design twist on it, as well as embedding a sense of process into the final miniature missive.

I love exhibits that give visitors a sense of process, rather than just the end product or final idea.
Giving visitors a sense of how a particular artwork was produced, for example, would probably cut down on the "My kid could have made something better than that!" comments in art galleries by at least 50%.

Also, there is a natural bit of whimsy in Lea's notion of the World's Smallest Postal Service, as you can see by the picture of her creating letters below. To me, that's the other takeaway for exhibit developers: loosen up! I know most of our work ends up in stodgy museums, but that doesn't mean we can't inject a bit of humor into our exhibits here and there.

A great example of humor employed in what otherwise could have been a deadly dull topic, is Tim Hunkin's brilliant work in the "Secret Life of the Home" gallery at the Science Museum in London. On the surface a gallery filled with vacuum cleaners, door locks, and toilets sounds like a real snore, but Tim manages to actually get visitors to become interested in learning about these utilitarian items, and to have fun doing it!

What are some of your favorite exhibits that show off process, or fun, or a bit of both?
Share your thoughts in the "Comments" section below.
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Saturday, February 21, 2009

Free Advice For Science Museums: Don't Make Your Visitors Feel Stupid!

The question "How can Science Museums better serve their adult visitors?" came up at a recent Reach Advisors event that I was part of. My flip response was that "The best way for science museums to serve their audiences is to NOT make them feel stupid!"

I certainly don't believe that people who work at science museums (I'll include science centers and natural history museums in this category) purposely set out to make their visitors feel dumb, or frustrated, but that's often the end result --- and that's not a great recipe for building visitor loyalty or repeat visitation. Let alone helping visitors learn about science, and leaving the museum feeling positive about the impact of science on their lives.

I'm afraid some science museum folks really don't think visitors are up to the task of learning about "hard" science. After the New York Times reported that many visitors to the Rose Center for Earth and Space Science at the American Museum of Natural History left feeling confused by the exhibits, Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium, was quoted as saying "We knew in advance that everybody was not going to get everything. If everybody got everything, then the level of the exhibits would be so low that we would be a different kind of museum."

Ouch! And what kind of museum would that be? One that actually didn't blame visitors for not understanding the exhibits? Or one that didn't condescendingly suggest that the information they were presenting just couldn't be understood by some folks?

A common response I get from people when I tell them that I make exhibits for science centers (among other types of museums!) is a variation of a story about a disappointing visit they made to a science museum with their family. They wanted to have a good visit, but somehow they were thwarted.

And that's just sad.

Science, and science-focused museums, can offer so many opportunities for learning and enjoyment to their visitors.

So what are some reasons that anticipated visits to science museums often turn sour? Here are the two main things that I would try to change to improve visitors' experiences if I ran a science-focused museum:

1) Focus on Science, not just Fluff.

Honestly, what is an exhibition of Harry Potter movie props doing in a science museum?

Similarly, what does the latest 3D IMAX super hero film have to do with your museum's mission?

As a museum professional, and the father of four kids who like to visit museums, the only honest answer I can up with to the questions above is ... MONEY! Nobody likes to feel like a visit to a museum is a shakedown, so why are you shaking us down? That's another way for visitors to feel that the people who run museums think they're foolish (as in a fool and their money...)

I understand the need to generate revenue to keep the lights on and the doors open, but if you're spending more time thinking about the merchandising tie-ins for your thematic gift shop than the science activity and educational tie-ins to your latest exhibition, maybe you're in the wrong business.

Fortunately, using a pop-culture topic does not automatically mean a bogus museum exhibition will be the end result.

Star Wars: Where Science Meets Imagination was an example of an exhibition that successfully walked the tightrope between marketing hype and science learning. I was a little bit apprehensive when my middle son Peter wanted to visit the exhibition on a trip to Boston, but I was pleasantly surprised at the quality of the science in the exhibit activities. Both my son and I enjoyed it!

For a current example that balances science and marketability, CSI: The Experience, looks like a worthy successor to the Whodunit? exhibition, also created by the fine folks at the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History.

2) Let visitors "do" science, and interact with real people.

I love the "labs" at places like the New York Hall of Science, the Science Museum of Minnesota, or the Maryland Science Center. You get to mess around with science, and usually get to ask questions and interact with museum staff members who aren't just taking your money, or who are security guards.

I also like the open-ended nature of smaller science-focused museums like ¡explora! in Albuquerque, and the Science Discovery Museum in Acton, MA, outside Boston. Both of these museums don't shy away from loose exhibit components that can be combined in unexpected ways, or from making sure there are sufficient opportunities for visitors to ask questions of a nearby human (rather than a Web-enabled computer.)

All the places in museums that allow for truly open-ended experiences and meaningful human interactions are hands-down the highest rated in visitor surveys and evaluations, so why don't science museums capitalize on these types of experiences? The simple, if not simplistic, answer again seems to be MONEY.

Science museum administrators seem much more able and/or willing to make the case for flashy technologies, even if they're encased behind 1/2 inch thick acrylic casework, than they are for well-trained floor staff. Also, you can't use loose or consumable materials in exhibits if you aren't willing to provide the funding for staff to help facilitate these types of experiences. However given the popularity of ventures like MAKE Magazine and Etsy, I think museums are missing out on a vast untapped audience of DIY enthusiasts.

A science museum, indeed every type of museum, is all about stories (human interaction) and stuff (interesting objects and materials.) Working with cool items or seeing interesting objects or devices while having an opportunity to interact with other people is what makes museums special, and incidentally different and more marketable, than on-line experiences or other types of for-profit entertainment centers.

At the end of the day, providing interesting opportunities for visitors and museum staff to interact with "stuff" (and each other) is a sure way for visitors to leave your museum NOT feeling stupid.

And that's just a smart way to run a museum.

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Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Envisioning Dreams --- An Interview with architectureisfun

Sharon and Peter Exley are the dynamic principals of architectureisfun, Inc., an award-winning firm based in Chicago that specializes in "educative design."

They were kind enough to answer a few question for ExhibiTricks about their creative work:

What are your educational backgrounds?

Peter has degrees in architecture from the University of Newcastle upon Tyne and the University of Pennsylvania. Sharon started the architecture program at RISD but saw the light and transfered to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She has a BFA and a masters degree in art education from SAIC. Coincidentally, Peter is an associate professor at the [Art Insti] 'Tute.

What got you interested in Museums?

As a child growing up in Yorkshire, Peter's loved going to the Castle Museum in York to exploring its Edwardian Street reconstructions, and spent endless hours in the Bronte Parsonage Museum in Haworth.

The Pump Museum in his hometown of Harrogate had a sulphur spa. It stank. You could drink the water from it. They had a collection of titillating risque Victorian postcards (some of which transformed when backlit!)

Tell us a little bit about architectureisfun, and how it got started?

Architectureisfun began with a commission from Chicago Children's Museum to design their early childhood exhibit at their new Navy Pier location. Sharon and Peter had been volunteering at places that valued the things that their young daughter, Emma, appreciated. CCM was one of those places. Instead of garnering their first design project from a relative looking for young, enthused, affordable architects, Peter and Sharon's first client was a paradigm challenging, internationally respected museum for children.

Everything snowballed from there. Within a couple of years, architectureisfun had several exhibit projects in for museums throughout the Midwest - Louisville Science Center, kidscommons in Columbus Indiana, and a new building for the Exploration Station in Bourbonnais, IL among them.

What do you like to do when you’re not designing museums/exhibits?

Rock 'n roll. Travel. Footie. At the moment, Indian food is irresistible. Mention anything to do with Japan, and you have our complete attention. We seem to hang out in a lot of museums.

How do you bridge the interface between architecture and exhibit design?

We don't. In our perfect world, architecture would be a lot more collegial, collaborative, participatory, and community driven. We don't see our projects as architecture projects, or as exhibit design projects. We see them as educative design projects that realize the dreams and ambitions of a community. It doesn't matter whether it's a building, or some other interactive device. It's something that has relevance and meaning for the people that spend time with it.

What are some of your favorite online (or offline!) exhibits and design resources?

Paul Orselli's wickedly helpful resource list! Oh and a few design blogs to keep us insightful (Crib Candy, Design Sponge) and many great relationships with our product representatives - tell them about what you do and see what they can find for you! We really nurture and appreciate the relationships we have with the collaborators (it doesn't seem very respectful to call them vendors) who bring great products to our attention.

We are very fortunate to have places like the Merchandise Mart close to us. Chicago is a magnificent creative resource. A lot of stuff is made, invented, or hits the ground running here. We try to make it our business to be the first to discover it and devour it Personal relationships enable that to happen.

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

Eco design is not real. Responsbility, stewardship, and advocacy are real. Set real goals. Establish realistic budgets and schedules. Realize the potential of good design to bring value to your mission. Learn that good design costs less than bad design and good sustainable, long-lasting,durable products often cost more upfront.

Make sure your designers are good listeners. Trust the experienced professionals you engaged to give you good answers to your hard questions. Good design has always been sustainable and responsible. Eco-friendly is more than LEED, a green roof, and stuff made from hemp.

What do you think is the “next frontier” for museums?

For a while, children's museums were the next frontier... The next frontier is shifting all the paradigms - bridging the gaps between school, museum, community, and child. We need to take calculated risk - there must be challenge, there must be interest. Museums must be accessible in ways we haven't dreamt of yet.

We aren't Davy Crockett anymore - there really aren't any new geographical frontiers. But we need to bring back the wilderness, the challenge, the risk, the interest. We need to create museums which are accessible in ways that would make Davy Crockett's head spin. Unfortunately, such concepts (along with undervalued "subjects" like art and design) make a lot of people in America a bit nervous. Perhaps the right brain is the frontier we need to rediscover.

What are some of your favorite museums or exhibitions?

Peter loves the Museum of Jurassic Technology. You can't go wrong with Museums in LA (get a load of the new LACMA addition) or New York. The Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago is fabulous, and has the best shop of any museum. The Tate Modern is wild. And all of the museums we have ever worked with. They're brilliant. Sir John Soane's House just round the corner from the British Museum is one of the most magical places there is.

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

We are helping Young At Art Children's Museum in Fort Lauderdale grow. They are about to prove to us all that Art is the Answer. We are working with a start up museum in Topeka. Beyond the museum world, we continue to work with libraries, churches, and other communities who value children and family. We have a project in Rio de Janeiro to design a park for festivals and parties for children. We have a lot of dreamy projects for dream clients.

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

It would be great to have a children's museum in our office or if we were some elaborate charter lab school, we could better develop and implement the ideas of a community with its constituents. In the meantime, our dream projects are those that entrust us to design pivotal places, spaces and experiences critical to building community - we love envisioning dreams and then turning the blue sky ideas into reality.

Thanks to the dynamic duo of Sharon and Peter from architectureisfun for sharing their insights with ExhibiTricks readers!

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Saturday, February 14, 2009

Creating Exhibitions 2009

Since I'm this year's Program Committee Co-Chair, I'd be remiss not to give a plug for this year's Creating Exhibitions Conference put on by the Mid-Atlantic Association of Museums. It's really going to be a great opportunity for learning, networking, and fun!

Creating Exhibitions will happen March 29-31, 2009 and will take place at the Liberty Science Center, at various museums around Manhattan, and conclude at the Fashion Institute of Technology with a keynote by award-winning author and creative thinker David Macaulay!

We've deliberately solicited sessions that will be participatory and engaging, not just a parade of PowerPoint presentations!

On Tuesday morning of March 31st, conference attendees will be able to participate in behind-the-scenes tours of some of the best known museums (as well as some of the hidden "gems"!) around NYC.

So what are you waiting for? Register today!

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Monday, February 9, 2009

Happy Darwin Week! Fun Evolution Education Activities

As a science-geek with an undergraduate degree in Zoology and Anthropology, how could I not remind ExhibiTricks readers that this week on February 12th will mark the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin?

For those of you looking for some fun evolution-related ideas, I'd like to highlight two websites
that can provide you some great activities to help celebrate both Darwin and the concepts behind the processes of natural selection.

The Epic of Evolution is your one-stop website for background, resources, and activities regarding evolutionary science. Check out fun activities like "Candy Cells" that helps explain how simple cells evolved through symbiosis.

The second evolution-related resource is the website of JJ Ventrella. Mr. Ventrella is a computer programmer/artist who has helped to develop many interesting simulation-type games. But, for the purposes of this posting let's highlight a computer game called "Gene Pool" that's a free Mac or Windows download via the Ventrella website. In Gene Pool you can watch digital beasties "evolve" (or tweak things a little!)

So on February 12th, have some evolutionary fun and give a big opposable "thumbs up" to Charles Darwin for helping us better understand ourselves and the world we live in!

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Thursday, February 5, 2009

Exhibit Technology Toolkit: Ideum's Multitouch Table

Here's a quick shout out to the crew at Ideum for the successful launch of their Multitouch Table.

If you're in the market for a cool new piece of technology for your exhibit floor, you can't go wrong with this multi-user touchscreen device.

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