Saturday, March 26, 2011

Three Intersecting Circles: An Interview with Brad Larson

Brad Larson (that's him on the left, above, with his Neanderthal "alter ego" from his installation with Chedd-Angier-Lewis at Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History...) has been developing technology installations for family audiences in exhibits for over 20 years, first at Boston Children’s Museum and then on his own. You can read his blog, Museum Techmuse, or follow him on Twitter.

What’s your educational background?
I received an undergraduate liberal arts degree from a small school in Minnesota, St. Olaf College.  I majored in psychology, focusing especially on the psychology of learning, and almost got a minor in computer science. The ironic thing is that I hated the computer sciences courses I took – I would complain to the professor that the programming assignments were taking too much of my time to the detriment of my education.

Things turned around for me the summer of my junior year when I got a job with Atari computers working as a computer instructor at a Club Med resort in the Dominican Republic -- yes, that was my introduction to the working life.  But it also got me thinking that computers could be integrated into some pretty novel environments in interesting ways. After taking time off for travels, I went back to school and got an EdM focusing on interactive technologies from Harvard Graduate School of Education.  I was able to cross register for classes and do an internship at the MIT Media Lab…and that swept me into Boston Children’s Museum.

What got you interested in Museums?
I had no idea I would end up working in museums. But I had laid some groundwork ahead of time.  One of the biggest learning experiences for me was an extended period of travel I took, first with a group of students, then on my own, through Egypt, India, Taiwan, Japan and a number of other countries.

And when I was pondering what I might do with my life while still at St. Olaf in Minnesota, I drew a diagram with three intersecting circles: “technology”, “human development”, and “intercultural learning”.  I created a questionnaire out of this and kept giving it to people whose work I admired. (I highly recommend this).  Curiously, no one ever suggested “museums”, but it opened me to thinking about a wide range of careers.

When I saw the job posting for someone to be a “Technology Developer” at Boston Children’s Museum in 1988 at a time when this was still a very new field, I knew this was exactly what I wanted to do. There was no doubt.  I didn’t apply for any other jobs.  I just knew that had to be it, and that was the start of a decade for me at the Museum.

How does working with digital technologies to create exhibits inform your design process?
The biggest factor is simply that this is all new ground. The tools are developing faster than we are. This can be stressful when you want to hang out in the field for more than a few years – there’s not much time for coasting. But it also means that there’s no set way to do things, and that if you look for the big ideas like “storytelling” or “family learning” or “post-visit action steps”, you can latch technologies into these ideas to create something new.

How has creating storytelling/narrative opportunities in museums informed your exhibit design work?  I’ve always felt that the most interesting part of exhibits is the interaction people have with the friends and family they come with.  Comments, jokes, stories, even just fragments of these are the gold that we’re looking for.  So I’ve been interested in my StoryKiosk work to develop frameworks that encourage visitors to verbalize their experience. Record their stories, email them home, upload to YouTube or Facebook – all of these things build on the visitor’s own experience and ways of sharing that experience.

What are some of your favorite online (or offline!) resources for people interested in finding out more about exhibition development?  I admit I often go into hibernation and ignore (avoid) Twitter and Facebook for weeks at a time.  But then I pop up to see what’s going on, and I think these are great ways to tap into resources.  Start with someone you know in the field (you could follow my Twitter account for example), see who they follow, and quickly tap into a wealth of resources out there. Facebook also has a community of exhibit developers, with a little more personal touch.  And, of all the organizations out there, NAME is my favorite for connecting up with a community of people in the field – especially any local in-person events where you get to meet up and talk.

What advice would you have for fellow museum professionals, especially those from smaller museums, in bringing “appropriate technologies” into their exhibitions?  Social media really is the best “bang for the buck” out there.  Invest in staff who are comfortable with it, make it part of someone’s job to create and update a Twitter feed.  You can consolidate your social media efforts – for example I pull my twitter feed into my status updates in Facebook (there’s a Twitter app in Facebook that allows you to do this). Then you have a couple social media access points for one effort.  If someone has time to maintain a blog, great, but it should be based on someone’s genuine passion and interest and updated at least once a week or so.

What do you think is the “next frontier” for museums?
I like Elaine Gurian’s concept of the “essential museum” – a museum that is woven into the fabric of a person’s life and experience in a way that it becomes a necessary resource and tool, and is visited frequently for the answers it provides in daily life.  (It’s been a while since I’ve read her paper and am paraphrasing, but I think that’s the gist). Also, in the same way museums are becoming more “visitor-centered” they are becoming more “community-centered,” reaching out to serve their local communities.

One example I’ve seen in the Web world is MOMA’s “MeetMe” project, using their collections as a platform for serving people with Alzheimer’s disease.  In that way, the “next frontier” is thinking creatively about new connections to needs within local communities.

What are some of your favorite museums or exhibitions?
I like quirky unique exhibits and museums that grow out of a particular person’s passion.  The City Museum in St. Louis is just a lot of fun, crawling through unique and scary tunnels – it’s the only museum I’ve ripped my pants in and enjoyed it!  Also the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore has such unique and personal exhibits – I remember one with paintings made by people who had been (or felt they had been) abducted by UFOs. Totally compelling, respectful, thought-provoking.

So you’re writing a book -- what’s that about?
I’m writing a book on uses of technologies in museums from a “visitor-centered” perspective.  Over the years I’ve worked with a variety of museums, including children’s museums, science museums, history and art museums, and I see them all angling toward a more visitor-centered approach to exhibits, each with their own take on it.  My goal is to pull together a wide variety of examples and draw out some of the “best practices” in the field.  (I also intend to make this a participatory process, testing out themes and getting feedback on my blog, so, please, check it out and contribute!)

If money were no object, what would your “dream” exhibit project be?
Since the three intersecting circles that drew me into the field were “technology”, “human development,” and “intercultural learning,” something that pulls these strands together.  I have a few dream plans for an international network of story-based installations at museums that encourage cultural connection, shared plans, and good natured humor among families.  Wouldn’t need to be that expensive really, just takes a bit of focus and organization. (Email Brad if you have similar goals, especially if you’re reading this outside the U.S.!)

Thanks again to Brad for offering his insights to ExhibiTricks readers!  You can find out more about his work by visiting the Brad Larson Media website.

Don't miss out on any ExhibiTricks posts! It's easy to get updates via email or your favorite news reader. Just click the "Free Updates" link on the right side of the blog. P.S. If you receive ExhibiTricks via email (or Facebook or LinkedIn) you will need to click HERE to go to the main ExhibiTricks page to make comments or view multimedia features (like videos!)

Monday, March 21, 2011

POP! goes the Exhibit Design

(This posting is a slightly modified "encore" presentation from the ExhibiTricks vaults.)

Museums, being the notoriously cheap places that they are, can often benefit from helping their exhibit makers discover interesting and inexpensive new materials to use for their own devices.

One interesting resource in this regard is the world of POP Design. (I'm just a kid from Detroit, so when I hear the word "pop" I always think of a cold carbonated beverage like Faygo Redpop.)

But in this case, POP stands for "Point of Purchase." Think about all those shiny (sometimes motorized or moving or lit) displays near the chips or cold tablets or ball point pens that you see in all the stores you go to. Now multiply that single display for Doritos by thousands (or millions!) of copies worldwide and you'll begin to get a small sense of the scale of the POP industry.

So, what does this have to do with developing museum exhibits? Just this: once any material has been manufactured in sufficient volume (to be used in POP Displays, for example) the unit price goes way down. Low enough for museums to become interested in using color-shifting plastic, inexpensive digital audio repeaters, or scented laminates(!) in new exhibit components.

As you might expect the POP Design industry has their own journals, one of which P.O.P Design you can check out online.

What other unusual trade organizations or groups could we in the "Exhibits Biz" learn from?

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Saturday, March 12, 2011

Prototyping 101: Become an Office Supply Ninja!

Thomas Edison said,  "To invent, you need a good imagination and a pile of junk."  His reference was to inventing, but he could have also been speaking about prototyping.

To me, prototyping is an iterative process that uses simple materials to help you answer questions about the physical aspects of your exhibit components (even labels!) early on in the development process.  

As I mentioned in a previous post, it's always a bit discouraging to hear museum folks say "we just don't have the time/the money/the space/the materials to do prototyping ..."  (By then I'm usually thinking "So how is setting an ill-conceived or malfunctioning exhibit component into your museum, because you didn't prototype, saving time or money?"  But I digress...)

Maybe it's just me, but I can't imagine anyone fabricating an exhibit component without trying out a quick-and-dirty version first.  So in today's post I thought I'd lay out the simple steps I use to show how quickly and inexpensively prototyping can be integrated into the beginning of any exhibit development process, and how you too can become an Office Supply Ninja!

STEP ONE:  Figure out what you want to find out.

In this case, a client wanted me to come up with an interactive version of a "Food Web" (the complex interrelationship of organisms in a particular environment, showing, basically, what eats what.)  We brainstormed a number of approaches (magnet board, touch screen computer) but finally settled on the notion of allowing visitors to construct a "Food Web Mobile" with the elements being the various organisms found (in this particular case) in a mangrove swamp.  The client was also able to provide me with a flow chart showing the relationships between organisms and a floor plan of the area where the final exhibit will be installed.

The two initial things I wanted to test or find out about from my prototype were:

1) Did people "get" the idea conceptually?  That is, did they understand the relationships and analogies between the Food Web Mobile and the actual organisms in the swamp?

2) Could they easily create different sorts of physical arrangements with the mobile that were interesting and accurate?

STEP TWO: Get out your junk!

As in the Edison quote above, it helps to have a good supply of "bits and bobs" around to prototype with.  You might not have the same sorts of junk that I've gathered up over years in the museum exhibit racket, but everyone should have access to basic office supplies (stuff like paper, tape, markers, index cards, scissors, etc.)  And really that's all you need to start assembling prototypes. (The imagination part is important, too.)

STEP THREE: Start playing around with the pieces ...

Before I even start assembling a complete rough mechanism or system I like to gather all the parts together and see if I like how they work with each other.  In the case of the Food Web Mobile prototype, I used colored file folders to represent different levels of organisms.  I initially made each color/level out of the same size pieces, but then I changed to having each color be a different size.  Finally, I used a hole punch to make the holes, and bent paper clips to serves as the hooks that would allow users to connect the pieces/organisms in different ways.

STEP FOUR:  Assemble, then iterate, iterate, iterate!

This is the part of the prototyping process that requires other people beside yourself.  Let your kids, your co-workers, your significant other, whoever (as long as it's somebody beside yourself) try out your idea. Obviously the closer your "testers" are to the expected demographic inside the museum, the better --- ideally I like to prototype somewhere inside the museum itself. 

Resist the urge to explain or over-explain your prototype.  Just watch what people do (or don't do!) with the exhibit component(s).  Take lots of notes/pictures/video.  Then take a break to change your prototype based on what you've observed and heard, and try it out again.  That's called iteration.

In this case, I saw right away that the mobile spun and balanced in interesting ways, but that meant that the labels would need to be printed on both sides of the pieces.  Fortunately, my three "in-house testers" (ages 6, 11, and 13) seemed to "get" the concept of "Food Webs" embedded into the Mobile interactive, and started coming up with interesting physical variations on their own.

For example, I initially imagined people would just try to create "balanced" arrangements of pieces on the Mobile.  But, as you can see below, the prototype testers enjoyed making "unbalanced" arrangements as well (which is fine, and makes sense conceptually as well.)   Also, we discovered that people realized that they could hang more than one "organism piece" on the lower hooks (which was also fine, and also made sense conceptually.)

STEP FIVE: Figure out what's next ... even if it's the trash can!

Do you need to change the label, or some physical arrangement of your prototype?  Using simple, inexpensive materials makes that easy.

Do you just need to junk this prototype idea?  Using simple, inexpensive materials makes it easier to move on to a new idea, too. (Much more easily than if you had spent weeks crafting and assembling something out of expensive materials from your workshop...)  It's not too surprising to see people really struggle to let a bad exhibit idea go, especially if they've spent several weeks putting it together. Quick and cheap should be your watchwords early on in the prototyping process.

In this case, I sent photos of the paper clip prototype and a short video showing people using the Food Web Mobile to the client as a "proof of concept."  They were quite pleased, and so now I will make a second-level prototype using materials more like those I expect to use in the "final" exhibit (which I'll update in a future post.)  Even so, I will still repeat the steps above of gathering materials, assembling pieces, and iterating through different versions with visitors. 

I hope you'll give this "office supply ninja" version of exhibit prototyping a try for your next project!

If you do, send me an email and I'd be happy to show off the results of ExhibiTricks readers prototyping efforts.


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Saturday, March 5, 2011

Inspiration May be Hazardous to Exhibit Design

“You can't wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.”  ~ Jack London

As I was touring through a new exhibition at a very large museum recently, a person from the Exhibits Department complained to me that they didn't have enough time or money to prototype their interactive exhibits. 


"So how do you work out which ideas to put into your exhibitions?" I asked.  The Exhibits person admitted that they spent a large amount of time gathering exhibit notions together that the designers felt "inspired by" and produced those things to create the final exhibition --- generally leaving no time or money for remediation, if technical or content aspects fell flat.

I immediately thought of the Jack London quote at the top of this post, and considered how slippery the notion of inspiration is. And how the best exhibit components often come about from spending time with visitors and ideas and materials figuring out what works (and what doesn't) and stumbling onto serendipitous avenues that would never have been found in mind-numbing development meetings or the reveries of creating slick computer renderings to show potential donors.

I wonder if the oft-repeated plaint of "no time or no money" for prototyping and testing components/concepts/whatever (or for fixing things after an exhibition opens) is just a convenient excuse to cover the fear of the unknown.  Is waiting for the clouds to open and inspiration to strike  just a similar sort of excuse?


New ideas are fragile things, especially ideas centered around approaches that have never been tried before.  Doubts start to creep in: What if your ideas fall flat before your peers during a presentation meeting?  What if visitors don't like the ideas?  Many museums speed through, or try to short-change, the often messy and plain hard work of really trying ideas out even though the final exhibition is often better for these early uncertainties.  These museums want the inspiration, but they aren't willing to go after it with a club.

So here's an idea for your current (or next) exhibits project:  take one exhibit idea, even if it's not fully formed and truly "inspiring" and just try it out for at least 20 minutes with visitors inside your museum.  You can test or show your idea with paper, tape, and a pen (stuff you already have near your workspace) Ask your visitors questions. Let them make suggestions.  You do have time (20 minutes) and money (near zero) to do this!  


Who knows?  You might even get inspired. 


"The advice I like to give young artists, or really anybody who'll listen to me, is not to wait around for inspiration. Inspiration is for amateurs; the rest of us just show up and get to work. If you wait around for the clouds to part and a bolt of lightning to strike you in the brain, you are not going to make an awful lot of work. All the best ideas come out of the process; they come out of the work itself. Things occur to you. If you're sitting around trying to dream up a great art idea, you can sit there a long time before anything happens. But if you just get to work, something will occur to you and something else will occur to you and something else that you reject will push you in another direction. Inspiration is absolutely unnecessary and somehow deceptive. You feel like you need this great idea before you can get down to work, and I find that's almost never the case."   ~ Chuck Close

Don't miss out on any ExhibiTricks posts! It's easy to get updates via email or your favorite news reader. Just click the "Free Updates" link on the right side of the blog. P.S. If you receive ExhibiTricks via email (or Facebook or LinkedIn) you will need to click HERE to go to the main ExhibiTricks page to make comments or view multimedia features (like videos!)