Thursday, September 8, 2011

Why We Do What We Do: An Interview with Sean Duran

Sean B. Duran was the Vice President for Exhibition and Design at the Miami Science Museum before his untimely death in April 2016. Before that, Sean held a progressive series of positions at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia where he was the leader of content and design development teams for exhibitions and public programs that interpreted the research of the Academy’s Center for Systematic Biology and Evolution.

I've kept this interview in place as both a memorial to, and a record of, Sean's thoughtful contributions to the museum field.

Sean's exhibition projects include Moving Things, a light hearted look at how things move; serving as co-PI on Charlie and Kiwi’s Evolutionary Adventure, an NSF-funded research and touring exhibition project; Heart Smart, a science research project and personalized, trilingual exhibition experience where the exhibition components record data about the health of individual museum visitors; the NSF funded Amazon Voyage, a touring exhibition that has been seen nationally by more than one million visitors; and The Dinosaurs of China, a massive twelve thousand square-foot collaborative exhibition partnership with the Beijing Museum of Natural History.

A particular focus of Sean's work is bilingual communication in exhibitions and he has been core to the development, testing and implementation of bilingual design protocols for all visitor-oriented projects.  Sean’s attention is now turning to the growing momentum behind the development and construction of the new downtown Patricia and Phillip Frost Museum of Science, a 250,000 square-foot science museum and aquarium scheduled to replace the small, aged, though well-loved, current museum.  Sean lives in Coconut Grove, Florida with his wife, a trained chef and informal educator, and daughter, who is in second grade and loves the ocean.

What’s your educational background?
I went to Saint Vincent College and Seton Hill University where I did a BFA, and University of Pittsburgh where I studied history, science and museum studies.  Dr. Paul Chew was the president of a small regional art museum and my advisor. He hired me part-time at the Westmoreland so I was thrown sink-or-swim into how museums do what we do.  I’m so sorry he’s now passed on because I often think I’d like his current view on things.

What got you interested in Museums?
I think museums are in my DNA. My dad was a staff taxidermist at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh and I have a certain fondness for the smell of naphthalene wafting through a workspace.  Some earliest memories are of sawdust-covered museum-basement floors, stacked sauropod bones and the decayed Viking ship at the thoroughly old-school 1970’s era Carnegie.

How does working with teams to create exhibits inform your design process?  (Or does it?)
People bring much of themselves to the design process, and Miami is an incredibly diverse place so I work with community members and colleagues from quite literally all over the world ­ as many of us in exhibition work do. So there is great strength in that diversity.  Most museums are not on track to become welcoming to all.  Non-whites veer away from museums and this trend isn't new and not likely to change until Latinos and African-Americans cease to be so rare on museum staff - or better yet, are commonly running museums.

On the bright side, Museum magazine quoted John Zogby who called the millennial generation the first "globals" and they have embraced diversity so thoroughly that distinctions of race, gender and sexual orientation are fading into the background. If museums engender the kind of participatory experiencers they seek, maybe the barriers won't be so severe.

Tell us a little bit about how your “non-museum” skills/activities inform your exhibit design work?  Non-museum activity? Can watching baseball at 9:30 at night inform exhibit design work? I guess not, that’s just recharging batteries.  My 7 year-old daughter is probably been the best non-museum-activity-museum-activity I’ve ever had. Its not a very diverse focus group but it puts a face on why we do what we do. It’s simply humbling to create museum experiences that may inspire a young person's interest in science and critical thinking. We get the government we deserve and if she grows up to vote from the position of an informed critical thinker, that’s success on both axes.

What are some of your favorite online (or offline!) resources for people interested in finding out more about exhibition development?   I think volunteering is a great way to find out about exhibition development.  Everyone has something they can contribute and museums are hungry for the help.  And through online networks, exhibition teams can include anyone interested in participating in the development and design of an exhibition. I like what Liberty Science Center did in this way with their Cooking exhibition.

What advice would you have for fellow museum professionals, especially those from smaller museums, in developing their exhibitions?  Don’t lock yourself in to any one approach or process as every project has its opportunities. If you only define success as perfectly following a specific flow of steps you’ll likely miss some opportunity to make something really special.

What do you think is the “next frontier” for museums?  Who can say… humans are innately experimental. We recently finished up an exhibition area with a fairly small footprint called "Room for Debate". The interactives in this room include a Snibbe infotiles wall, a nice feedback video kiosk by Brad Larson, a pair of carbon calculators, and other elements aimed at promoting discussion around visitor's lifestyle choices and resulting environmental impact.

The entire space was made from found materials (like magazines that were rolled and stacked to form a wall and repurposed cremation tubes that were lined up to form another) or, green materials (like wheat board, sustainably harvested woods, and recycled plastics). These were tagged with hanging labels so visitors could compare the merits or challenges of the different substances. Graphics were printed with soy inks directly on hunks of old shipping crates that had arrived at the museum for one reason or another. We are doing some remediation stuff now - adding more labels – even more comfortable seats - scheduling demos right inside the space - - no surprises.

I think the greatest challenge museums face as we venture into the “new frontier” is how to strategize the response to demographic shifts that are presently transforming the social landscape of the United States. Ethnicity (and age) will have the largest impact on museums as the definition of mainstream requires revision. Like, what we were shooting for in the “Room for Debate”, museums need to become places where people want to hang-out – not places they feel they ought to visit – so as demographics change, museums need to become places where all people do feel welcome, do hang-out, engage and contribute.

What are some of your favorite museums or exhibitions?
That’s hard to say, but I’m interested in exhibitions that trust their audience enough to employ humor as a delivery strategy. For example there was an exhibition at the Skirball in Los Angeles called “Jews on Vinyl”. … was a simple, not exhaustive exhibition and I think this supports a point that in terms of humor in exhibitions, risk is equable with scale suggesting smaller and less expensive stuff has a better chance of surviving the committee.

Non-museum people Josh Kun and Roger Bennett were the duo behind Jews on Vinyl. The Skirball allotted them about 600 square feet of light filled space where they arranged comfortable furniture, like a hipster’s ‘50s living room. There were ipod listening stations loaded with play lists. One was titled You Don’t Have to be Jewish – another contained 50 versions of Hava Nagila. ……and they hung the requisite  “wall of vinyl” . The space was welcoming; it feel comfortable; a place to laugh with others. I was so taken with this exhibition I called the Skirball and spoke to Erin Clancey. She had managed guest curators Josh and Roger and she confirmed that “welcoming” was in fact a core intent. They wanted visitors to be able to interact with the records as they would in their own homes.

Can you talk a little about some of your current projects?  
Long term, my near-full attention is turning to the growing momentum behind the development and construction of our new downtown Phillip and Patricia Frost Museum of Science, a 250,000 square-foot science museum and aquarium scheduled to replace the small, aged, though well-loved, current museum.

More recently we just completed the “Stingray Sea Lab” touch tank space and another new exhibition called "Moving Things", about exploring the most efficient way to move things from one place to another. The stingrays were especially fun because we repurposed an underutilized space - the museum's gift shop (we now do the same level of sales from a kiosk in the lobby). We opened it up to the elements by removing a metal and glass wall along one side creating a sheltered indoor/outdoor space. We used a light tube through to the roof to augment natural light to the algae tank and selected LED lights for all of the fixtures reducing the energy load. The algae in the tank is plumbed to do a portion of the work cleaning the water so we have also reduced some of the load on the filters by incorporating these natural elements.

If money were no object, what would your “dream” exhibit project be?
Since there is no such thing as an infinite sack of cash, I’d say my dream project is the one we’re doing right here developing and building the new Miami Science Museum.

Thanks again to Sean for taking the time to share his thoughts with ExhibiTricks readers!  You can follow the progress of the new Miami Science Museum on their blog.

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