Sunday, May 8, 2011

Look for the Verbs: An Interview with Rachel Hellenga

Rachel Hellenga has spent over twenty years working for museums big and small, East, West, and in the middle, including The Computer Museum in Boston, The Tech Museum in San Jose,  the Chicago Children’s Museum, and most recently at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, where she served as the Creative Director for Science Storms, a 26,000 square foot exhibition on the topic of physics and chemistry.  Rachel is currently serving as the Director of Program Services at the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center in Skokie, IL, where she oversees the Exhibits & Collections, Education, and Marketing departments.  

Rachel was kind enough to share her insights for the interview below:

What’s your educational background? 
I got a B.A. in Psychology and Social Relations from Harvard, with the emphasis on Social Relations! I learned as much from the other students as I did from the professors. People were doing so many ambitious things that I was inspired to embark on adventures I might not have tried otherwise—like spending a summer in a commune in Mexico endorsed by B.F. Skinner. I went there to study the dynamics of a “Walden Two” simulation and it was quite an experience.

I still have a lasting interest in behavioral psychology which has helped me with exhibit planning and evaluation. It comes in handy in data collection and analysis, but more broadly, it helps me to strategize how to evoke specific behaviors from visitors in a gallery based on design choices. The psychology studies also led me to value multiple learning styles—I try to avoid falling into the trap of thinking, “well if this exhibit appeals to me it will work for everyone else.”

What got you interested in Museums?
I grew up in a town with barely 30,000 people and no museums, unless you count Carl Sandburg’s birthplace. When I was ten my Dad spent a sabbatical at the University of Chicago and we lived directly across the street from the Museum of Science and Industry for a year, back when admission was free. I pretty much lived there after school and knew the place like the back of my hand. It was good timing, as that’s about the age when girls typically get turned off to science.

I didn’t give any thought to working in a museum until I graduated from college and landed an interview at The Computer Museum through the “old boy network”—one of my former college roommates had an older brother who had also been at Harvard, and his roommate was looking for a research assistant. I landed a job working on an exhibit about the history of computers and never looked back.

How does working with teams to create exhibits inform your design process ? 
I can think of a few individuals who are so creative they could sit alone in a cubicle and generate amazing ideas like laying perfectly formed eggs. My approach is more of a magpie strategy, gathering shiny ideas from all over and weaving them together.  I loved the movie The Usual Suspects, in which the protagonist (Kevin Spacey) spins an incredible yarn based on scraps of ideas printed on coffee mugs and pinned on bulletin boards. Some of the best exhibits I’ve worked on came out of brainstorming sessions where there was so much back and forth you really couldn’t point to one person in the room and assign credit for the idea.

I’ve also seen great exhibits and programs come out of sessions that veered into silliness and had us laughing till tears ran down our cheeks. Where there is humor, creativity is not far behind. One rule improv artists live by is to accept the propositions of their partners no matter how crazy—and great exhibit teams work along similar lines. Instead of critiquing the last person’s suggestion, build on it and take it somewhere new. Sometimes you have to get really far out and then reel things back in again to land on a viable idea.

Tell us a little bit about how your “non-museum” skills/activities inform your exhibit design work?  I put a lot of energy into learning several languages while living in Italy (in high school on another of my Dad’s sabbaticals), Mexico (that summer in the commune) and France (as a nanny after college).  It’s been very satisfying any time I get to use those languages on the job, whether it’s something small like sitting in the sound booth coaching a bilingual narrator or something big like traveling to Italy to negotiate the loan of artifacts from the Museo Galileo. I have been a very strong advocate for bilingual multimedia on all of my projects because I believe in showing respect for other cultures by doing what we can to be accessible in other languages.

What are some of your favorite resources for people interested in finding out more about exhibition development?   Getting to Yes by William Ury, and all of his books, really—they can be extremely helpful in the exhibit design process. Negotiating with colleagues, managing creative conflicts, respecting different communication styles, working to understand points of view that at first make you want to say “that’s the stupidest thing I ever heard”—all of that can be just as valuable as the mastery of specific content knowledge or design skills when you’re planning an exhibition.

I keep multiple copies of two books on my shelf at work and ask all of my teams to read them: Try It! Improving Exhibits Through Formative Evaluation by Sam Taylor and Exhibit Labels by Beverly Serrell. In particular I point them to sections of the Exhibit Labels book that talk about using a “Big Idea” to guide exhibition development.

As for online resources, I find YouTube can be useful no matter what topic you’re researching, and if nothing else, it can add a little levity to your design process! An engineer on Science Storms used to send along serious missives claiming to present a new angle on a chemistry or physics topic and it would be some crazy explosion video from Youtube.

What do you think is the “next frontier” for museums?
Thinking about this in the context of science centers and children’s museums, I would say that one trend I would predict for the “next frontier” is a move away from computer kiosks in favor of more emphasis on stuff that visitors can see, hear, feel, smell and even taste (I’m thinking of the Liberty Science Center’s Cooking exhibition).

We can’t compete on interactivity alone, as families now have access to a level of home entertainment media that boggles the mind, from the quality of the graphics to the full-body interactivity to the sophistication of the physics underlying the game play. A typical game for a PlayStation, Wii, Knect, or Xbox retails for under $50 but represents hundreds of thousands of dollars in development costs. Nevertheless, people are still motivated to leave their high-tech family rooms to immerse themselves in a unique environment or to see something real.

In my current position at the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center (IHMEC) I see the emotional impact of standing inside an authentic German rail car after watching videos of local survivors who experienced the train journey to a concentration camp, survived the Holocaust, and eventually made their homes in the Chicago area. It’s a very different experience from looking at pictures or video of the same content the Internet. That’s why people are still willing to get off the couch and visit a museum. They value authentic experiences.

The late Peter Anderson, a friend and mentor who played leading roles in the Ontario Science Center, the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, and The Tech Museum in San Jose, used to say that people come to museums for “real objects, real processes, and unique environments.”  I believe that his philosophy is never going to go out of style.  In the next few decades, I think that a “back to basics” approach will be delivered with a new twist. I had the privilege to work on the Science Storms exhibition at the Museum of Science and Industry, where the architecture of the timeless building contributed to the overall appeal of the exhibition.

But the buzzing activity of the space is very different from the opposite wing of the museum featuring a series of impressive historic airplanes suspended overhead. Evidence Design led the design of this aesthetically gorgeous and immersive physics emporium replete with rainbows, lightning strikes, and a 3-story funnel of mist simulating a tornado, and it’s worth leaving the comforts of home to experience it.

Technology and interactivity are here to stay, but I hope to see the technology become more invisible and the interactivity become more authentic and substantive. During the Science Storms project I coined the term “hybrid exhibits” to describe components that give visitors the ability to manipulate and experiment with the physical environment but which are driven by technology that takes a back seat to the phenomenon.

Visitors can not only feel the mist and air movement as they stand in the tornado, but they can use a series of levers to manipulate fans that change the shape of the funnel. When they rotate an enormous prism to catch sunlight streaming through a skylight and create a rainbow, they are focusing on the prism and the rainbow, not the electronics making the experience possible. They use a touch screen to vary the amount of fuel feeding a live fire and to control the volume of water or mist interacting with the fire, but they are watching the fire and the water, not the screen.

Similarly, a touch screen is the tool visitors use to vary the length and amplitude of a wave with some precision before sending it across the length of a 30-foot tsunami tank, but the primary focus is the action in the tank. An explanation of the phenomenon is presented only after the visitor’s curiosity is piqued. I see the science center field moving away from computer kiosks with a primary function of delivering information, no matter how well-packaged, and toward technology that is almost invisible to the user as it plays a supporting role in their experimentation with things they can see and touch.

What are some of your favorite museums or exhibitions?
Reflecting on Peter Anderson’s push for real objects, real processes, and unique environments: to choose a unique environment, I would say the Butterfly Haven at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum is wonderful.  As for a real object, I was really struck by the Iron Lung on display at the St. Louis Science Center. A polio patient would lie prone inside this long, tubular machine pretty much 24/7 in order to breathe—talk about an evocative artifact. It creates such vivid imaginings about what life must have been like for the person and prompts conversations about the history of medical technology. Very memorable.

I would say that a “real process” on display was the bell curve exhibit in the Charles and Ray Eames Mathematica exhibit, which I remember from my days as a ten-year-old touring the Museum of Science and Industry. The exhibit dropped balls from a chute centered at the top of a pinball machine interface, and as they fell they piled up in the form of a bell curve. I was inspired to count M&M’s in each bag to see if I could find a bell curve in the data—which I did. Then I moved on to see if there might be a bell curve in the number of seconds between hiccups. I’m sorry to say that I never found out the answer, because for about five years, any time I got a case of the hiccups I was so excited at the opportunity to take data that the hiccups vanished.  I’d say that bell curve exhibit had a lasting impact!

What advice would you have for fellow museum professionals, especially those from smaller museums, in developing their exhibitions? Search for authentic connections to your exhibit subject, and avoid the temptation to convey lots of facts about your exhibit subject using computer-based trivia games or lengthy labels.  Over time I have learned to focus on verbs and personal stories, not facts.

When we were designing an exhibit about genetic technology at The Tech Museum, we looked for the verbs: what do experts in the field of genetic technology spend their time doing?  We wanted to engage visitors in replicating, as authentically as possible, the actions of these experts. We weren’t as concerned about conveying what experts know. One exhibit component lets visitors don lab coats and goggles and insert real DNA into bacteria. They can also stand behind a podium and deliver a speech for or against growing hearts in pigs for implantation in humans. Or they can play the role of a genetic counselor at an interactive station, running genetic tests and advising the parents—the visitors get very invested in the stories and outcomes. Exhibits do a better job when they engage the senses and the emotions, and when they engage visitors in experimenting or problem-solving—once you have their attention they will absorb just the facts they need to solve that problem or satisfy their curiosity. This was a dominant approach in Science Storms as well.

When transitioning from a science center to IHMEC last year, I sought out Dan Spock of the Minnesota Historical Society for advice. He told me to look for the personal stories, and to bring those out. As a matter of fact, IHMEC does feature a very compelling series of personal stories of survivors who settled in the Chicago area, woven throughout the permanent exhibition in the form of videos. I agree with Dan that history exhibits are more likely to make a personal connection and to be memorable if they focus on stories first.

To his advice I would add--look for the verbs. I’d like to see more opportunities in history museums for visitors to mimic the actions of historians, analyzing multiple sources of information that might corroborate or contradict each other. There are valuable skills and to be learned that way. I got a fresh perspective on the American Revolutionary War when I was asked to present a report about at my high school in Italy: my primary reference was a history book published in Britain, and the book’s version of events presented Americans as irresponsible subjects who just didn’t want to pay their taxes. It was the first time I realized that much of history is in the eye of the beholder!

I’ll give you one more example of verb vs. facts: when designing an exhibit about inventing at the Chicago Children’s Museum we took a similar approach— we didn’t pack the exhibit with facts about famous inventors or inventions. We identified what inventors do, then focused our energy on evoking inventive, problem-solving behavior from our visitors. For example visitors designing a flying machine that can stay in the air as long as possible when dropped from the top of a 50-foot tall conveyor belt. That was fifteen years ago and the exhibit turned into a classic—every once in a while I’m startled to turn a corner and find it in yet another museum when I’m visiting for a conference. Focus on the verbs and you’ll design a winner every time!

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

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!)


  1. Rachel is fabulous! Over the past few years in this field, we've been listening to the same 1-2 people. It's Rachel's turn. Listen to her more.

  2. Paul, thanks for this great interview with Rachel. Her advice about creating experiences that visitors connect with on an emotional level is so very apt. As a designer I have often been presented with interpretive plans that propose far too many facts and figures, and far too few truly meaningful connections. Her thoughts about electronic interactives are so true as well - museums cannot hope to compete with commercial videogames - why even try? I agree with the commenter above - we need to listen to this voice more.