Saturday, October 29, 2011

The Green Exhibit Checklist

I'm an advisor on a wonderful project designed to create tools for the museum/design industry that help to foster more sustainable project development and exhibit production.  Or in simpler terms, helping exhibit folks to be more thoughtful about the broader ecological impacts of our work .

The project is headed up by the fine folks from OMSI (Oregon Museum of Science and Industry) with funding from the National Science Foundation.

One of the "in-process" products that I'm most excited about is "The Green Exhibit Checklist"

The Green Exhibit Checklist is a tool to evaluate the environmental sustainability of exhibits. The goal of the Checklist is to inspire exhibit/design teams to plan exhibits with environmental considerations in mind. It awards points (along the lines of the LEED process) for five key strategies for reducing the environmental impact of exhibit production:

• Reducing new material consumption
• Using local resources
• Reducing waste
• Reducing energy consumption
• Reducing products with toxic emissions

Rather than focusing on a dogmatic list of “dos and donts” or a list of “must use” green materials, the Green Exhibit Checklist considers sustainable design as an institution-wide, evolving process.

If you'd like to find out more about OMSI's Promoting Sustainable Decision Making project, you can click on over to the website called "Exhibit SEED" or better yet, click here to download a PDF of the most recent version of The Green Exhibit Checklist, so you can start using it yourself!

As a side note, I'll be speaking at the upcoming NEMA (New England Museum Association) Conference in Hartford during the Exhibits Luncheon on Thursday, November 17th on just this topic.

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Tuesday, October 25, 2011

ReWind: Sugru is great stuff!

Sugru is a great addition to the toolkit of any hacker/fixer/maker/artist.

I've been working on a few projects recently to stick exhibit-y things together or to make small replacement parts that need to be flexible and strong, and Sugru really does the trick.  So I thought I'd ReWind this posting. Enjoy!

In fact, "Hacking Things Better" seems to be the company motto!

Plus Sugru has a great story --- creative young woman works with two materials scientists to develop a better (silicone-based) material to fix and improve things.

As you can see on the Sugru website there are lots of clever ways to repair and/or improve even everyday items. 

What's your favorite museum/exhibit/design "fixit" material?  Tell us about it in the "Comments" section below!

Don't miss out on any ExhibiTricks posts! It's easy to get updates via email or your favorite news reader. Just click the "Sign up for Automatic ExhibiTricks Blog Updates" link on the upper right side of the blog.

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Thursday, October 20, 2011

Back to Basics: Reflecting on the ASTC 2011 Conference

Over 1700 people from around the world converged on Baltimore recently for the ASTC (Association of Science-Technology Centers) conference.  It truly was an international affair with delegates coming from Africa, Asia, Australia, Latin America, the Middle East, and North America.

I was fortunate to attend and be part of two sessions, so here are some of my takeaways on this year's get-together:

If there has been one overarching conference "theme" (there was an official conference theme, but I couldn't tell you what it was ...) that I've been thinking about since I've returned from Baltimore, it's "Back to Basics".

Many of the sessions, conversations, and most striking things in the Exhibit Hall really seemed to be getting back to science center "fundamentals" like exhibit development, evaluation, community engagement, and pure scientific phenomena.

Starting with the science phenomena first, the folks from the Superconductivity Group in the School of Physics and Astronomy at Tel-Aviv University were demonstrating what they called "Quantum Levitation" using powerful magnets and thin sapphire wafers coated with a very thin ceramic layer of yttrium barium copper oxide cooled with Liquid Nitrogen.  You can see the YouTube video below.  If you think it looks amazing in the video I can tell you it was really AMAZING in person, and it was the hit of the Exhibit Hall.  (Also the video has gone viral with over 3 million views!)

One of the other popular areas in the Exhibit Hall was the NASA area.  Even though the last Space Shuttle has left the launchpad, NASA is doing incredible science, and is quite willing to share their educational resources with museums and the public.  (I like to imagine all my tax dollars going to NASA and NSF instead of some the less beneficial and interesting things the government does ...)

As far as sessions, it was interesting to note the sheer volume of presentations geared toward engaging the public with "real" scientific information and research (as opposed to "bogus" information like immunization conspiracy theories.)  One of the best examples of this was the keynote presentation by author and reporter Michael Specter. 

Mr. Specter delivered many of his talking points from his recent book "Denialism" and provided a vigorous defense of both science and reason by excoriating everyone from Michele Bachman and her irresponsible statements about the HVP vaccine to "raw" milk fanatics. Good Stuff!

As for the conference sessions, I really enjoyed the "nuts and bolts" topics the most.

I participated in the "Knowledge that Works for Small Science Centers" session where the entire range of operational concerns like evaluation, fund raising, education, marketing, and exhibits for small(er) museums was addressed.  Some common threads were that museums need to build sane and sustainable operations, while continually thinking about how to increase their internal capacity.  The double session was well-attended and judging from the comments and conversations, there is a real need for this type of info.  (You can download our session notes and resources from this web page.)

The other session I participated in was entitled "Exhibit Evaluation: Useless bureaucratic hurdle or valuable tool?"   As you might gather from the title, there was lots of frank discussion and audience participation.  How can you not love a session that name checks Mary Poppins, Frank Oppenheimer, and The Spanish Inquisition?

From my perspective, the good news is that people are passionate about figuring out what "works" in exhibit and education programs in museums.  The bad news is that there are many different ideas about what makes for useful and effective evaluation, and it seemed that many of the evaluation folks felt that the exhibits folks just "don't get it."

All that being said it was interesting and spirited. Emily Schuster from ASTC gave a fair and detailed recap in this blog post from the ASTC website.

One of the last sessions I attended "Are Your Exhibits Safe? A Walking Workshop" was an important look at an often neglected topic --- that of safety.   Exhibit fabricator extraordinaire, Charlie Shaw (pictured below) took us on a "walkabout" through the Maryland Science Center where we took apart and opened up exhibit components to study both the good and bad design features in regard to safety. A super important topic and usually not something that comes up at an ASTC conference --- so kudos to the presenters!

Off course, like most conferences, many interesting conversations happened outside the "formal" presentation times (did I mention there was a Tinkerers' Ball at the American Visionary Art Museum?)  I'll certainly be mulling over my ASTC 2011 experiences to share in future ExhibiTricks postings.

Don't miss out on any ExhibiTricks posts! It's easy to get updates via email or your favorite news reader. Just click the "Sign up for Automatic ExhibiTricks Blog Updates" link on the upper 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!)

Friday, October 14, 2011

Off to ASTC 2011

I'm off to Baltimore for the annual Association of Science-Technology Centers (ASTC) conference.

I look forward to meeting up with colleagues from around the world, as well as having the opportunity to be part of two interesting sessions.

The first session, "Knowledge that Works for Small Science Centers" will be a "nuts and bolts" session on a variety of topics of interest to small(er) museums --- from marketing and evaluation to educational programs and exhibits.  I'll be doing a bit of double duty speaking about both exhibits and using social media.

The great part of this double session is that we'll have concentrated "break outs" at small tables for an opportunity to discuss specific topics in more detail.  Come join us on Sunday, October 16th from 2:15 to 4:45 PM in the Convention Center!

The second session is entitled  "Exhibit Evaluation: Useless Bureaucratic Hurdle or Valuable Tool?"  The title probably gives you the clue that this will be a no holds barred session with lots of audience participation.  Evaluation is a topic that is hard to be neutral about so I expect some great discussion. Come join us on Monday, October 17th from 10:45 AM-12:00 PM, also in the Convention Center.

I'll also try to give updates from the conference --- session recaps, exhibit hall updates, and the conversations in-between.  So stay tuned to ExhibiTricks, or check out my Twitter feed (@museum_exhibits) as well.

Don't miss out on any ExhibiTricks posts! It's easy to get updates via email or your favorite news reader. Just click the "Sign up for Automatic ExhibiTricks Blog Updates" link on the upper 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!)

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Two Exhibit Doctor "Cases"

My post a short while ago about some new ExhibiTricks features has gotten a good response.

Here are two pending ideas for The Exhibit Doctor that I'd like to start to dig into (and also like to receive comments and input from ExhibiTricks readers!)

First off, Mary Jane Taylor from the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia is on the lookout for ways to collect and display information in "flip books" or notebooks.  Here's part of her email:

"In twenty years as a museum professional, and longer as a visitor, I've never seen anyone come up with an attractive, cheap, durable and easy-to-use system of having a flip book of text or images available in an exhibit.  Solutions range from the bulky and impossible to use (thick mountings for pages with heavy-duty grommets and rings) to ugly, disposable three-ring binders from Staples.

"Notebooks" of source material, photographs, and diagrams are a basic in all kinds of museums, so it seems like a problem that somebody should be able to solve!"

I've got some initial ideas that I've been gathering for Mary Jane, but if you've seen an elegant way to gather and display this type of exhibition information feel free to drop me an email or share your "exhibit flip book" ideas in the "Comments" section below.

The second idea in the Exhibit Doctor hopper was submitted by Mary Anna Murphy, and this is from her email:

"This isn't a very knotty problem, but I've run across it again and again in installing 2D works in a non-traditional gallery setting such as a mall, an office that worships its walls, or even the Russell Senate Office building rotunda.  None of those places have walls that want nails or hangers.  I'd be interested in seeing how other folks have managed to make their displays.  Oh, and it always has to be low budget."

If you've got some ideas to share on Mary Ana's question, again drop me an email or share your comments below.

In both these current Exhibit Doctor cases, and in future ones as well, I'll be gathering information from all the sources and resources I can, and then I'll write up a full report (with images and references here feasible) to share (for free of course) here on ExhibiTricks and also on my website.

So if you can help out with this first set of queries please do!  In the meantime, if you have other Exhibit Doctor questions or would like a crack at the ExhibiTricks SoapBox feel free to contact me about that too!

Don't miss out on any ExhibiTricks posts! It's easy to get updates via email or your favorite news reader. Just click the "Sign up for Automatic ExhibiTricks Blog Updates" link on the upper 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!)

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Putting Visitors First: An Interview with Beth Redmond-Jones

Beth (at far right) with her family in Teton National Park

Since 1988, Beth Redmond-Jones has developed, designed, and project managed exhibitions for museums, interpretive centers, zoos, and aquariums, including Carnegie Museum of Natural History, the National Aquarium in Baltimore, Bay Area Discovery Museum, the Alaska SeaLife Center, Exploratorium, California Science Center, National Park Service, and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Her expertise lies in creating multi-layered visitor experiences that include graphics, text, low and high-tech interactives, live animals, media, theater, and immersive exhibit elements. Her in-house experience includes Director of Exhibits at the Aquarium of the Pacific, Assistant to the Director of Public Programs at the Exploratorium, and Assistant Registrar at the Tucson Museum of Art.   

Beth was kind enough to answer a few questions for ExhibiTricks readers:

What’s your educational background?
I have an MA in Museum Studies from John F. Kennedy University and a BA in Art History with a double minor in studio art and biology from University of New Hampshire. I grew up in a family of architects and spent a good part of my childhood watching (and helping) my family flip houses. The design and construction aspects I feel have helped me to become a better conceptual designer, and to consider all aspects of how an exhibit could work and create an effective environment.

What got you interested in Museums?
My mom and dad were really good about taking me to museums and zoos when I was a kid. My favorites were the Cincinnati Zoo and seeing the white Bengal tigers. The other was the Natural History Museum in Cincinnati. They had this amazing immersive experience where you walked through a cave, and there was a waterfall, and it was wet and cold. I was transformed into a spelunker. I would go through it multiple times during each visit. I was also fascinated by the museum's taxidermied specimens. They were amazing.

Then, when I was seven, my mom told me we were going to have lunch with a friend of hers at the Cincinnati Art Museum. At that point in time, art museums were boring to me, and the thought of having lunch with her and one of her friends at a boring museum was "a total drag" (one of my favorite expressions when I was seven.) What she didn't tell me was that her friend, Millard F. Rogers Jr., was the Director of the Cincinnati Art Museum, who ended up serving as Director for 20 years.

Well, that lunch began my love of museums. Millard took me behind the scenes to show me collection storage and when we walked in, staff were opening a crate to reveal a Greek sculpture (I hated Greek sculpture then, but it was still a cool thing to watch) and they began discussing how to remove it from the crate and how it was going to be displayed. Seeing that sculpture in its crate, and listening to their conversation, was all it took. I was hooked.

Given your varied background, is your approach to exhibition development different in the context of different museum types?   No, not at all. Visitors always come first. Working for Kathy McLean for so long taught me the importance of putting visitors first: determining their base line knowledge of a subject, their assumptions, and their misconceptions, then evaluating concepts throughout the process.

The challenge I sometime find with the exhibition development process, however, is getting the rest of the team on board of talking with and listening to what visitors have to say all through the process. Some of my past clients did not have experience working with and including visitors in the exhibition development process, so this has been where I've had to refine my approach—getting the team on board to take visitor input seriously and create an experience that achieves the goals of the team while responding to the needs and interests of their visitors.

I really like the ambiguity of the process. Letting things sit, simmer, percolate, whatever you want to call it. Yet, I know it can frustrate others. Many of the team members I have worked with over the years want to make a decision and call it a day. I think it's important to put ideas on the board, move them around, refine them, keep some, toss others. It's an iterative approach, one that I think creates a better experience.

On occasion, I have used the IDEO method cards which are a fun way to spark new kinds of design conversations with non-designer team members. It has led to some very insightful and fun discussions which led them to come up with some innovative design concepts for exhibits.

Does being a parent inform your exhibit design work?
Definitely. I have two girls and they couldn't be more different from one another, and they are also eight years apart. So their interests, attention level, and desired experiences are really different from one another. They are constantly giving me their input on an exhibition I'm working on, whether I want it or not. But I really love that—they want my exhibitions to be engaging as well.

At various times over the years, both of them have looked at fonts for readability and read labels out loud for understandability. They are often my first level of evaluation. Most recently, my youngest was looking at typefaces and logo treatments for a children's exhibition I’m working on. She picked out problem areas that no one else on the team noticed. It was really helpful.

As a parent, I've also been exposed to experiences that I may not have been exposed to if I hadn't had kids, such as Adventure Playground in Berkeley, CA, or even children's museums. Seeing how kids learn, engage, and behave in a variety of environments has allowed me to think about exhibit experiences that engage that younger audience in a different way.

What are some of your favorite online (or offline!) resources for people interested in finding out more about exhibition development?
The online museum resources I follow on a regular basis are the National Association for Museum Exhibition (NAME) list-serve and web site, ExhibitFiles, Nina Simon's blog,  Museum 2.0 and of course ExhibiTricks! I also check out IDEO's web site on a regular basis.

Other resources are books and magazines. First and foremost is Kathy McLean's book Planning for People in Museum Exhibitions, Beverly Serrell's book Exhibit Labels: An Interpretive Approach, and Sam Taylor's book Try It! Improving Exhibits Through Formative Evaluation. In my opinion, these are necessary items on any exhibit developers bookshelf.

Other favorites are Visitor Voices in Museum Exhibitions edited by Kathy McLean and Wendy Pollock, Nina Simon's book The Participatory Museum, and of course, Exhibitionist, the journal published by the NAME, and Curator magazine. I also read non-museum magazines like ID and Wired to see what's going on in design and technology outside museums.

There is one other resource that I have pinned on my wall. I'm not sure where it came from, but I know many exhibit developers who have it above their desks:

What Do I Do?

Visionary: Inspire the process.

Curator: Without the Ph.D. or the years of preparation, but with the pressure for accuracy.

Researcher: Compile background, interview experts.

Secretary: Listen to the Board, listen to the administration.

Thinker: Synthesize all of it to get the main message.

Warrior: Defend the main message.

Whiner: Complain when the main message is being ignored.

Translator: Turn words into a three-dimensional, interactive, exciting exhibit.

Teacher: Educate the designers who are too busy to learn about the content they’re exhibiting.

Evaluator: Speak with visitors.

Advocate: Speak up for visitors.

Project Manager: Make charts, write purchase orders, manage, make it happen.

Therapist: Make sure everyone feels a part of the process, that everyone’s ego is stroked.

Parent: Prevent squabbling from bringing down the house.

Laborer: Actually build the thing.

What advice would you have for fellow museum professionals, especially those from smaller museums, in developing their exhibitions?
1. Use real stuff. Use your collections. Put them in context. Tell your story. Be true to your institution.

2. Talk with your visitors, even informally.

3. Don't be afraid to experiment with new exhibit techniques. Try new ways to engage your visitors. I've seen very simple exhibits that activated the visitor conversations—some exhibit cases, a few good objects, a couple of engaging questions, and post-it notes for visitors to write a response and a wall to post them on.

What do you think is the “next frontier” for museums?
Who knows….museums are challenged by changing demographics and the economy. I think museums need to be true to themselves and create passionate experiences that resonate with audiences. We need to be places where people want to go and hang out, create things, and visit with their friends—not be a place to check off a list. Museums need to become an integral part of the community.

What are some of your favorite museums or exhibitions?
Some of my favorite museums are the American Visionary Art Museum (Baltimore, MD), Monterey Bay Aquarium (Monterey, CA), Pittsburgh Children's Museum (Pittsburgh, PA), The City Museum (St. Louis, MO), The Museum of Jurassic Technology (Los Angeles, CA), Minnesota History Center (St. Paul, MN), and the Bob Marley Museum (Kingston, Jamaica).

Can you talk a little about some of your current projects?
I'm currently the project manager and exhibit developer for a new exhibition M is for Museum at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, PA. This 8,000 square foot exhibition opens October 15, 2011 and is targeted for 5-13 year olds. It is based on the ABCs with each letter representing something the museum does or collects. For example, A is for Artifact, C is for Collect, F is for Fossil, L is for Look, and T is for Taxidermy. It is the first hands-on, kid-centric exhibition the museum has developed. It includes hands-on interactives, multimedia, and hundreds of artifacts and specimens from the museum's collection. We really wanted to focus on breaking down the wall between front-of-house and back-of-house.

One of my other clients is the Utah Museum of Natural History, the Rio Tinto Center. I'm working with them to develop interpretation that calls out the LEED aspects of their new LEED gold building that opens in fall 2011.

If money were no object, what would your “dream” exhibit project be?
My dream exhibit project would be an exhibition on mental illness or autism. Both of these conditions have had a huge impact on my life. There are so many stigmas and misinformation associated with these conditions, that I would like to create an experience that would allow visitors to have a better understanding of what it's like for an individual to live with these conditions. It would be an opportunity to bust the stigmas and open people's eyes to some of the amazing people and qualities that these conditions create.

Thanks again to Beth 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 "Sign up for Automatic ExhibiTricks Blog Updates" link on the upper 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!)