Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Exploring The World: An Interview With Dan Spock

Dan Spock is the Director of the Minnesota History Center Museum (MHS). Over the course of his 26-year museum career, Dan has worked as an exhibit designer, an exhibit developer and a program administrator.

Exhibits developed by Dan and his team at MHS have ranged from multidisciplinary, high immersion, interactive and media-rich approaches designed for a general family audience, to intensive community-based collaborations, to site specific interpretive centers and trails, to art or photography shows.

Dan was kind enough to share some of his thoughts about exhibits and museums in this interview.

What’s your educational background?

I have a BA in art from Antioch College. I set out to be a painter and printmaker, though I was a dabbler in many other interests as well. My point of entry into the museum world was doing exhibit and marketing graphic design, which I imagined would be a way to support my art making. It took me four years to discover that I preferred working in creative exhibit teams to the solitude art required of me. I was learning so much from other people, more than I thought I could learn from any introspective artistic process.

I’m an administrator now, but I think one thing I’ve retained from art making is that sense that when you encounter something that makes you anxious, instead of avoiding it, you deal with it by engaging with it creatively. I want to be responsible, but I try not to make decisions based on fear.

What got you interested in Museums?

Well, I’m kind of dyed in the wool on this. My father was a museum professional of some repute, having been the director of the Boston Children’s Museum during its transformational time in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s. I was a witness to that as a child and experienced very directly the excitement of each new development as that process was unfolding.

As a family we spent a fair proportion of our leisure time visiting museums, zoos, city, national and state parks, all sorts of cultural events and places. Virtually all of our family vacations included this kind of tourism. There was Sturbridge Village and Plimoth Plantation. We went to the 1964 New York World’s Fair and Expo ’67 in Montreal which were very memorable and had a profound impact on me. My grandparents were New Yorkers, so we did all of the biggies there. There were mind-blowing visits to the Exploratorium and the Ontario Science Center when those places were new. We weren’t too snobby either, we also went to Disneyland, Sea World, Universal Studios, wax museums, amusement parks and tourist traps.

The ethos was to get out and experience the world. I was encouraged to explore things on my own too, so I did a lot of stuff by taking public transportation with my posse and just knocking around the city, exploring the museums, sites and libraries. I liked old graveyards and abandoned industrial sites, all the little nooks and crannies around the Boston area. I began to develop a sense of pride of ownership for these places and the skills I’d developed by using them in my own ways. I also retained a sense of how pleasingly tantalizing and surprising the museum exploration and discovery process can be, but also how that isn’t that different from our experience of exploring the outside world.

Is your approach to exhibition development different in a Historical Museum context?

Yes and no. I got my early training at the Boston Children’s Museum and the mentors I had there had a huge impact on how I saw exhibit development as a process. For one thing, there was a highly participatory team approach and participation was not limited by seniority or roles in any strict sense, so everyone could contribute. The exhibit developer role was really being created there at the time. Designers, production and content people all worked closely together. It could be messy and contentious, but it was very instructive for someone with limited experience, a real apprenticeship. We did a tremendous volume of new exhibit work while I was there too, so the challenges came quickly which was good practice.

The other thing was how there was a culture of respect for our audience that was deeply suffused through everything we did. This wasn’t some kind of idealized kumbaya notion either, but a hard-headed pragmatism about what kids are really like, what they’re liable to attend to and how, what they’d do that you’d wish they wouldn’t, anticipating those things, but also checking your work through experiments, prototyping and the like. We lived with our work and learned from our failures and successes quickly because in a children’s museum these things become obvious right away. There was an acceptance of risk, but also a commitment to making things really good. Part of my job was to repair stuff, so you could see which things were “well-loved,” as we used to say. I learned the value of persistence and a tolerance for ambiguity. So I came out of BCM as an exhibit designer/developer with those values pretty deeply ingrained.

I was lucky to wind up at a history museum, the Minnesota History Center (MHC) which was already pretty far down the same road through the leadership of my predecessors Paul Martin, Barbara Franco and Maureen Otwell. In fact, that’s really why I wanted to come here. Though MHC didn’t have developers yet, it did have curators who were dedicated exclusively to exhibit development, not to collection specializations, and some of them came from the living history sites, not from museums. This tradition gave MHC a certain flexibility in thinking about the museum as an experience that could go beyond words and objects. MHC had a track record of prototyping interactive and media rich exhibit elements and already had a rep for innovation when I arrived. So I have to say that the process has been more similar than not, in spite of the discipline difference.

I think the one big difference I perceive with history as opposed to other subjects, is how powerful a story-driven approach can become. Because history is so much a matter of people and their stories, you can really use narrative in ways that are super engaging to the public. You can even let narrative form the backbone of the interpretive approach entirely. This is not to say that you can’t do that with science or natural history, I think this is something those disciplines should look at more seriously. But stories are history’s inherent superpower and history museums still don’t flex that muscle nearly enough in my view. History museums are often the victims of self-imposed limitations, assumptions about how history museums are supposed to be. I see that changing in many places now, but we’re still behind the curve, which is what makes working in history so much fun, there’s so much you can do that’s still fresh.

A last thought on this is to say that I think history museums, since so many of them are localized in subject matter, may be especially well suited to work with community groups in collaborative partnerships. We’ve made a practice of this at MHC, taking different approaches depending on the project. History will have to work especially hard in the future to be more inclusive and responsive, because it’s the right thing to do, but also because the public demographics are so fluid and dynamic right now. New populations will need to recognize themselves in what we do and to do this our processes will have to include them in ways that aren’t merely symbolic, but show the voice, the hand of their involvement in meaningful ways in the products we create together.

What advice would you have for fellow museum professionals, especially those from smaller museums, in developing better stories for their exhibitions?

I say go with authentic stories. Resist the temptation to make stuff up. Primary sources are where it’s at. Dig out diaries, letters, newspapers for material if it’s not possible to get living people who are always the best possible thing. I think even the most prosaic objects are always more interesting if there’s a first-person voice attached to them. The authoritative, third-person curatorial voice, especially if it’s too preachy or academic sounding, is part of what gives history museum visitors the hives, if they ever even make it in the door.

If you can figure out a way to say some of the same things with a real and illustrative story, people find it much more engrossing. Dilemmas and conflicts of one sort or another are interesting. Learning is an emotional process, not merely a logical one. More than the why, when and the how, people really want to imagine what it was like. The closer you can bring them to that feeling, the more interesting it is. Authentic voices help make that come across. With design, try to work with theater people. Their trade makes them accustomed to being flexible, they can scale according to budget and they are comfortable communicating stories visually. They’re also often underemployed.

Another tip is not to be too daunted by the cost of things. The idea is not to spend a lot, but to make what you do spend really count. Sometimes you can create a compelling effect with just the slightest gesture and people use their imagination to fill everything in. I was in a little museum once and they had created a full scale diorama of a tiny ship’s cabin. The cabin had a porthole with a view to the shore and the view bobbed up and down very slightly creating a powerful impression of being on the water. A few sound effects of creaking wood timbers and squawking gulls completed the sensation, it really put you there.

The Museum of Jurassic Technology in LA is another excellent example of what an imaginative person with extremely limited resources can do—I remember noticing how all of the spotlights were made from auto headlamps held up with lab clamps! Evocation is the name of the game. I think people really appreciate seeing things in context, so the more you can situate objects in their surroundings, the more evocative they become. A visual realization is also a storytelling act. It’s useful to think about the kinds of experiences we have all the time that trigger memories and conversations. These will translate well into exhibit experiences. It’s incredible what you can buy on Ebay now. It’s also exciting that the tools and equipment necessary to do stuff are becoming cheaper and more accessible. My daughter did a History Day project last year on iMovie that rivaled some of the stuff we’ve done at the museum. OK, I’m a little biased, but you get my point.

Tell us a little bit about the Mill City Museum, and how it got started?

It’s a long story. The Minnesota Historical Society operates about 26 historic sites and museums around the state. One of them was a storefront operation in downtown Minneapolis which was a jumping off point for guided heritage tours of the then dilapidated industrial riverfront. It had long been a dream that an industrial history museum could help anchor a process of riverfront redevelopment and the city had been making substantial incremental steps in that direction through partnerships with the city park board and redevelopment authority, the county, the National Park Service, real estate developers, preservation groups, some interested architects and MHS. Those relationships took years to cultivate.

As parts began to fall into place, especially the opening of the Stone Arch railroad bridge to pedestrian and bike traffic, which quickly became the money spot for skyline viewing, attention turned to the nearby ruins of the Washburn Crosby A Mill which had been gutted by fire about a decade earlier. The mill was on the National Register, it once housed the parent company of what’s now General Mills, and it was also once the largest flour mill in the world, flour milling being the industry that put Minneapolis on the map.

It was hard work, but basically a complex combination of civic vision, partnerships and a strong economy created the zeitgeist necessary to get the new museum funded. We imagined a program that would be built on experiential variety – immersive storytelling shows, a tasting kitchen, a hands-on waterpower lab and other areas with interactives, an outdoor view over the riverfront from on high, new architecture that was sensitive to the original fabric of the mill, along with plenty of both nostalgic, but also brawny, flour industry-related objects. Storytelling and interactivity in particular seemed to be golden opportunities that other industrial heritage sites had missed.

We wanted regional and global scope, so agriculture and global trade impact were in there. We had research suggesting that flour milling would be a loser topic from a promotional and attendance point of view, so we had to make sure the visitor experience compensated for that by being as compelling as we could make it. We had a branding and publicity campaign that helped project the idea that this would be an exciting place to visit. Since opening we’ve sustained annual attendance at around 120,000, our original goal being about 90,000. In the meantime we’ve also seen the rest of the riverfront redeveloped, including new parks and the new Guthrie Theater, which filled the last undeveloped lot downriver from us a few years ago, so MCM helped blaze a trail for development other than just luxury condos.

What are some of your favorite online (or offline!) resources for people interested in finding out more about exhibition development?

I read the Exhibitionist and Curator pretty religiously. Kathy McLean’s writings have been useful to me for many years and now she’s got her own blog which I will follow. I really like ExhibitFiles for its range and variety. I like your blog and Nina Simon’s Museum 2.0.

The Center for the Future of Museums has a blog now that’s always provocative, though less exhibit-specific. I don’t do the Museum-L listserve much; it’s not pictorial enough for me; I get lost in it. There also seem to be a lot people on it whining about things I think are progressive.

There’s a new blog called Museopunk that’s kind of fun. Never could quite click with Museum News for some reason even I don’t understand, though I think it’s getting a little better lately. I have Google pull me a bunch of topical museum stories every day which I comb for provocative or weird stuff. I follow a lot of museum people on Twitter now, including you!

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

I resist the idea that there is one frontier. But I do think we know enough about how things are trending to talk about a framework within which museums will need to evolve. I just think that evolutionary process is liable to be very different from museum to museum and that’s a good thing. I take a biodiversity analogy. It’s better for the health of museums in aggregate if they stay resolutely differentiated, even if that means some don’t survive. The Center for the Future of Museums posted a good five point list recently: Green, Personalized, Comfortable, Interactive, Flexible, which neatly frames the areas of concern where innovation will need to occur.

To that list I would add what I said earlier about the increasing diversity of our potential audiences. In Minnesota our school age population is already more than 50% “minority.” Museums will need to ask themselves how they plan to respond to that reality. I also think there’s a lot of potential in doing interdisciplinary exhibits. The traditional academic categories around which museums were originally organized are beginning to prove inadequate for talking about the particular challenges we are now facing as a species on this planet—challenges people want to talk about. Exciting ways to understand these issues in relevant ways are going to be neglected if we insist on limiting our scope to one narrow discipline or another. I think designers could stand to think less about style and look more at communicating concepts visually through metaphor or juxtaposition—the way artists do!

What are some of your favorite museums or exhibitions?

I’m kind of polymorphously perverse, so it’s hard to pick even a few. I’ve already mentioned the Museum of Jurassic Technology and stuff that influenced me as a kid. I love the City Museum in St. Louis. The American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore is a favorite. I like all of these for the DIY ethos they represent.

I saw a museum in Budapest a few years ago called the House of Terror that just blew me away. There’s a group in Switzerland called Stapferhaus Lenzburg which doesn’t have a permanent museum, but stages temporary exhibits in various locations that provoke encounters between strangers around topical issues. The Lower East Side Tenement Museum was a revelation when I first visited there. Dialogues in the Dark is an inspired, transformative exhibit. Bruce Mau’s Massive Change broke a lot of rules, but succeeded in being provocative by having a strong point of view.

Chicago History Museum
has done some really cool exhibits recently, the one on teens and their recent fashion exhibits were real standouts for me. The USS Constitution Museum is really breaking out right now with a combo exhibit and research project devoted to family learning. Connor Prairie has methodically and imaginatively transformed what a living history site can be. The Museum at Bethel Woods, which is on the site of the Woodstock Festival, is really well done.

The Rosenbach Library was doing some very innovative programming when Bill Adair was there and the Eastern State Penitentiary, which is also in Philadelphia, does interesting stuff with artist installations and other programming. The Monterey Bay Aquarium is the best anywhere. Fred Wilson’s "Mining the Museum" was significant for me as was "Art/Artifact" at the Museum for African Art in New York; they really changed how I think about museum tradecraft. I like some of these not because they are models to imitate, but because they really can’t be imitated, they’re completely unique. I’ve admired the kind of risks the designer Francois Confino takes with exhibits; he doesn’t use artifacts or labels. The International Museum of Humor by Confino was appropriately hilarious.

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

We’ve got a bunch of cool things we’re working on now. One is a major traveling exhibit on the year 1968 which has proven extremely challenging to fund but it will be really worth the effort. It’ll be about the lasting impact of one year’s events on the memories of a generation of young people and we’re using some social media approaches to build the project up and out. We’re working on another major effort which we call “reinventing the field trip.” We’ll be looking at some novel ways for making an exhibit that’s more responsive to a school group audience. It’s still too speculative to talk much about it yet, but we did get some funding in place so it feels very feasible in what is otherwise a really icky economic environment.

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

I’ve got tons of them in reserve, but the most impractical one I’ve always wanted to do is a combination museum and resort hotel where you’d get to live, sleep and eat in the museum. It would have guest rooms, lounges, restaurants, a pool, a bar, a day spa, all of which are a part of game-like exhibits you can party in around the clock with other guests. The museum could be about anything, but maybe it would be about a journey of self-realization. Something about the choices you make in life and where they lead you, a place where you can experiment with alternative paths and identities you’d never dare take in real life. Know anybody who’d like to fund it?

Thanks again to Dan for sharing his thoughts on the exhibit development process. (Feel free to forward his info to potential funders for the hotel/museum project!)

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  1. Nice interview on the whole, but there's one piece of it that I can't leave unchallenged. It's this bit:

    Your question: "What advice would you have for fellow museum professionals, especially those from smaller museums, in developing better stories for their exhibitions?"

    Mr. Spock's response: "I say go with authentic stories. Resist the temptation to make stuff up. Primary sources are where it’s at."

    Coupling the phrase "especially those from smaller museums," with Mr. Spock's response implies that small museums habitually "make stuff up."

    I work for a small museum and cannot tell you emphatically enough that we do NOT make stuff up. Not only would that be bad museum practice, rotten for our history, and unethical, we have no need to make stuff up. We have a large collection of primary sources that we draw upon in telling the history of our area.

    Because there are unknowns in history, we are careful about letting people know what we don't know.

    Mr. Spock's advice is good for museums of all sizes to heed.

  2. @Mary Warner,

    Thanks for your careful reading of Dan Spock's interview.

    The emphasis "on small museums" is/was mine.

    I include this type of question in almost every interview on ExhibiTricks because so many of the blog's readers and subscribers work at small(er) museums.

    My take on Dan's answer in this case was that every museum should focus on the amazing authentic stories they have to tell through primary sources --- which, as you indicate, is good advice for museums of all sizes to heed.

  3. Spock states that "In Minnesota our school age population is already more than 50% 'minority.'" According to the US Census Bureau, this is nowhere close to the truth. Their estimates for 2006-2008 show a bit over 1.25 million Minnesotans under the age of 18, of which a whopping 82% are white. Make no mistake, many museums could stand to do a better job reaching out to underserved audiences. But the demographic profile of the country is not going to be overturned in a generation.