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!

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