Thursday, April 26, 2012

Occupy AAM?

I must admit I've become extremely ambivalent about the annual AAM Conference.

As time has gone by and the strictures (on methods and modes for presentations) and control (especially of the former "Standing Professional Committees") from AAM have increased, I often question the value (to me, at least) of attending the AAM Conference.

For those of you in the 1% (or thereabouts) of the museum profession who will be attending the festivities in the Twin Cities, I hope you'll take some time to think carefully about, and press AAM leadership on, whether changes to the Standing Professional Committee structure and representation (for example) are truly for the benefit of the 99% of the museum profession, or merely to consolidate control for the AAM administration.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Designer Toolkit: 100 Things Every Designer Needs To Know About People

Author Susan Weinschenk has put together a great reference for every type of designer called "100 Things Every Designer Needs To Know About People."

Inside this pithy volume, Weinschenk gives 100 examples of the psychology of design and why some design choices work better than others.

Dividing her 100 examples into thematic sections such as "How People See" and "How People Remember" the author not only provides illustrated examples of design approaches but provides links to research, websites, and online talks that let you explore specific design topics in more depth.

For example in item #12 "The Meanings of Color Vary by Culture" Weinschenk references the work and "Information is Beautiful" website of David McCandless and a "color wheel" that shows how different colors are viewed by different cultures.

This book is filled with the sorts of ideas that will immediately get you thinking more deeply about your design decisions.

You can get a copy of the book at Amazon or other online outlets.

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Thursday, April 12, 2012

The Convivial Museum (and a CONTEST!)

"The Convivial Museum" is a favorite book of mine because it touches on so many important aspects of the entire museum-going (and museum-making!) experience.  So I was delighted to be able to review the book by Kathleen McLean and Wendy Pollock for the current issue of Exhibitionist, the journal of the National Association for Museum Exhibition (NAME.)  My review first appeared in Exhibitionist (Spring 2012) Vol.31 No.1, and is reproduced below with permission.

To share my enthusiasm for both Exhibitionist and The Convivial Museum, I've decided to run a little CONTEST for ExhibiTricks readers --- I'll be giving away a copy of The Convivial Museum to one person and copies of the latest issue of Exhibitionist to two other winners. 

All you have to do to be eligible to win is to either leave a comment describing your most "convivial" museum experience in the "Comments" Section below OR to sign-up to start receiving ExhibiTricks updates via email (by clicking near the top right of the blog home page) before Friday April 20th, 2012.  I'll choose one random winner each from the new email subscribers list and the Comments Section for the copies of Exhibitionist, and award the copy of The Convivial Museum to the best comment overall.

So without further ado, here's my review of "The Convivial Museum"

What does it mean to foster a “convivial” museum?  Co-authors Kathleen McLean and Wendy Pollock have answered that question masterfully in The Convivial Museum, a book that every museum worker should keep on a shelf nearby (or better yet, in the bag or briefcase you carry with you to work).

I found the book interesting from both a visual and structural standpoint. Rather than ticking through a checklist of convivial “dos and don’ts,” Pollock and McLean have instead packed their book with evocative black and white photographs as well as short text passages and quotations that serve as landmarks rather than mile markers to contemplate along the road to more convivial museums.. (Here each picture is certainly worth a thousand words!)

The Convivial Museum begins with a discussion of conviviality itself, then moves into broader sections of “Welcome, “ “Comfort,” “Being Alive Together” and “Convivial Practice.”  Each one of these main sections addresses key components of conviviality in the form of “Entry” or “Seating,” as aspects of “Comfort,” for example. Every page offers words and images to help you consider (and reconsider) your own notions of conviviality in a museum context.

Early on in the book, the description of a dinner party effectively helps illuminate ingredients of a convivial social experience --- making people feel welcome and comfortable, and seeding interesting conversations. This social/food analogy is a good one since it emphasizes sharing and finding ways to entertain and delight guests.  It sets up the notion of allowing museum visitors the time and space to approach things in a way that makes sense to them,  to offer surprises, and to reward contemplation. This rather than setting visitors trudging along a path of knowledge in between paying their admission fees and exiting through the gift shop.

So what sorts of things make for a more “convivial” museum?  Let’s take a brief walk through some of the key aspects that McLean and Pollock highlight in their book.


Let’s start with “Welcome,” the place where every museum visit begins, even before you walk through the front door. As The Convivial Museum indicates, a museum with legible signs on nearby highways, a ramp for strollers and wheelchairs, a clear entrance, is truly open to all. There are thoughtful nuggets to consider here: Christopher Alexander says that if a grand museum building is not thoughtfully oriented to its surroundings, it will become “socially isolated, because you have to cross a no-man’s land to get to it.”   This is followed up with a series of images showing a variety of   approaches to museums, both inside and out.. While all these physical welcome sequences are different, they are all accessible with clear signage and orientation. Convivial.

Ways to soften the often monumental stairs and entrances of the classical “Temple of the Muses” approach are featured in the “Welcome” section as well: a long bench in front of the sidewalk entrance to the Tenement Museum, or entrance doors for cyclists during “Bike Night” at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. There are no “right answers” or dreaded “best practices” here, just good ideas to pick and choose and adapt.


Next we follow the convivial path to consider the importance of “Comfort” in a museum-going experience. How do you make everyone in your museum, from senior citizen to babe in arms, feel “at home”?  No small task, but it is surprising how often simple elements, like seating, are glossed over, or worse, deliberately eliminated from museum spaces. The call to arms (or bottoms) in this section of The Convivial Museum may well be “more places to sit, please!” 

No matter how well designed an exhibition space may be, or how carefully cultivated the “vibe” of a particular institution, McLean and Pollock rightfully point out that no single space, however well designed, will meet the needs and preferences of everyone. So another takeaway from the section on “Comfort” might be to emphasize the need to vary or even change up the rhythms and types of spaces, even within the same institution. These types of possible variations are explored through words and images that ask the reader to consider where concepts such as “Ambience,” “Light,” and “Sound” fit into the convivial mix.  It is interesting to consider how much emphasis museums and exhibit designers may focus on lighting while often being deaf to the cacophony inside exhibitions that detracts from the overall experience.

Being Alive Together

In the final broad section of The Convivial Museum, the authors take up the social construct of museum experiences, the notion of “Being Alive Together.”  As McLean and Pollock posit, “It is not enough to bring people together. There are plenty of places where people congregate, socialize, and talk. Convivial museums deepen the conversation and foster a genuine meeting of minds by offering up somethird thing as a focus of common interest or concern.”  

In a way, this part of The Convivial Museum asks the reader to move back and forth (like a visitor) between the “active” experiences and objects in the galleries, to the “interstitial” spaces like lounges and cafes that hold the entire convivial experience together. How can we encourage active participation or deep contemplation in our museums, but still offer places for a “time out” ? There’s lots of good stuff to consider here.

Convivial Practice

The Convivial Museum ends with a coda of sorts, by offering up its final section, entitled “Convivial Practice.”  And here Pollock and McLean help us consider, and wrestle with, aspects of museum and exhibition practice that might well be “baked in” challenges to conviviality, like the notion of admission. If we as a field are truly willing to consider Elaine Gurian’s premise that “... general admission charges are the single greatest impediment to making our museums fully accessible...”(2006) what do we do about it? How do we unspool or recast a huge institutional and cultural notion to become more truly convivial?   Again there are no clear prescriptions here, but there are examples and thoughts to help us consider such roadblocks (or merely speed bumps?) on the road to more convivial museums.

The section on “Convivial Practice” ends by acknowledging one of the primary difficulties in becoming a more convivial practitioner, or of helping to foster or create more convivial museums: running out of time. While every museum job description seemingly includes the phrase, “and other duties as required...,” The Convivial Museum asks us to step back from our sometimes overwhelming quantitative concerns and to slow down, try things out, and talk things over. In our headlong rush to “keep our numbers up” we need to acknowledge that the qualitative aspects of our jobs and institutions are essential as well.

The Convivial Museum is very much a work that asks you to take the time to consider these qualitative properties of our museums. This book makes you think and ponder. Like a satisfying museum experience, it sets the stage carefully for contemplation and rewards your patience and consideration. Pollock and McLean help you remember the types of museum experiences that got you into this business in the first place. And what could be more convivial than that?

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Thursday, April 5, 2012

ReWind: Museum "Easter Eggs"

In honor of the season, we repeat our homage/post to museum "Easter Eggs."  Enjoy!

Museum designers often add "Easter Eggs" to their work.  But not the brightly dyed or chocolate-y varieties --- these are more akin to the hidden "Easter Eggs" that you may stumble across (or deliberately search out) inside video games, crossword puzzles, or DVDs.

For visitors, it's fun to feel like you've found a little "secret" inside a museum building or exhibition, and for designers it's a little "trick" to reward visitors for carefully observing and examining things inside the museum.

"Exhibits as advent calendars" as Dan Spock has observed (to mix religious holiday metaphors a bit!)  So here are a few of my favorite museum easter eggs:

• The Hidden Cat: Starting with the picture at the top of this posting is the "cat" hidden in the atrium of the Science Discovery Museum in Acton, MA.  It's fun to point out to visitors, and it really reflects the playful nature of the building and exhibits inside.

• Secret Elves at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science: Artist Kent R. Pendleton worked on many of the Museum's dioramas, but supposedly he wasn't allowed to sign his name to his work.  Instead, Pendleton included little "elfin" figures hidden throughout many of the displays.  There's a great blog posting (with video) about Pendleton's retro easter eggs!

• The Magic House Mouse:  The "Magic House" Children's Museum outside St. Louis has some wonderful exhibits, but one of my favorite "hidden gems" is the tiny decorated mouse hole near the baseboards in one of the galleries.  If you were just whizzing around you might not ever see it, but if you're willing to get down on your hands and knees you might see (as in the photo below) a "presidential" mouse:

• The "Hidden Tunnel" at Casa Loma:  Casa Loma is a gigantic historic house outside Toronto that is filled with enough crazy details to keep even little kids interested during the self-guided tours.  One of the things I remember from a family visit (nearly 40 years ago!) was the cool secret tunnel, nearly 100 feet long, that was hidden behind a pivoting wall section (just like in all those scary movies --- but this was real!)  that led to the Casa's underground wine cellar:

Of course some museums, like The City Museum, also in St. Louis, or the Museum of Jurassic Technology in L.A., are practically interlocking collections of "easter eggs" or in-jokes, but that's certainly one aspect that makes them so popular.

What are some of your most memorable "Museum Easter Eggs"?  Let us know 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.

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!)