Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Turn the Content Around and Around: An Interview with Lyn Wood

Lyn Wood founded Hands On! in 1984 as a tax-exempt 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation for “the promotion and expansion of science education opportunities through the development of participa­tory science centers and youth museums,” particularly in communities that do not have such resources for children and families. Shortly after its founding, Hands On! teamed with the Junior League of St. Petersburg, Florida, to co-found Great Explorations, the Hands On Museum, and helped operate it for several years.

That accomplished, she spun off Hands On! to apply her knowledge of exhibition design, visitor behavior and operational sustainability to more than 50 projects all over the world. Projects range from helping museums that are in the process of re-imagining their institutions to small start-up museums to expansions of major science centers.  Lyn is pictured above in a Hands On! exhibit at the Don Harrington Discovery Center in Amarillo, Texas. Photo: © Oscar Williams.

Lyn was kind enough to share her thoughts with ExhibiTricks readers:

What’s your educational background? 
My Bachelors degree is in Industrial and Environmental Design from the Rochester Institute of Technology.  I think I was the only native Miamian in school there.  Experiencing cold and snow for the first time caused me to stay indoors and attend classes or spend long hours on projects in their wonderful shops.  I was able to score a great first job doing commercial exhibition design back in Miami, but by then my heart was (perhaps always was) strongly leaning toward the museum field.  I received my Masters in Museum Education from George Washington University and was slightly less cold than when in Rochester.

What got you interested in museums?
My family is a tribe of adventurous travelers, and we marked time abroad pre-travel tour days. Pan Am and Eastern Airlines were doing a booming business from us then.  My parents always took us through museums, and they all seemed fascinating and strange to me.  I don’t think I actually encountered an American museum until I was a young adult and, by then, I was marinated in the eccentric collections and presentations I had seen while growing up and traveling.

You can imagine me in graduate school with all kinds of enthusiastic questions about these new-to-me American museums.  And let’s just say, back then when I was taught, children’s museums and science centers were not yet on the syllabus—not quite accepted into the hallowed halls of museum academia.  So, of course, I developed an immediate thirst to learn more about what, at the time, seemed forbidden.  This ultimately led to the founding of Hands On! Inc.

How does working with museums worldwide to create exhibits inform your design process?
Given that I already had a healthy amount of exposure to different cultures, it has been relatively easy to work on the fantastic variety of projects that have come our way.  I think that having such basic curiosity about the world inevitably makes great questions come up, causing delightful explorations that can then lead toward interesting solutions.

Tell us a little bit about how your industrial design skills inform your exhibit design work?
I am very open to what I don’t know as a designer, but if you can ask good questions, then a new universe of design answers open up.  Getting to good design solutions really is mostly about opening up the possibilities.  That being said, if I were not surrounded by a host of smart, talented people, then I would not get the added benefit of different voices, skills and knowledge to help drive a project to an interesting and rewarding conclusion.

What are some of your favorite online (or offline!) resources for people interested in finding out more about exhibition development?
I am not someone who spends a great deal of time online, and the literature I tend to read is, well, literature.  I think I gain more information about exhibition development from talking to people in the field.  I find that our field is really quite generous about sharing information, and we try and do our part in sharing things we have learned as well.  I like the camaraderie and earnestness that is a big part of our field.  

What advice would you have for fellow museum professionals, especially those from smaller museums, in bringing a broader “worldview” into their exhibitions?
I am thoroughly convinced that just about anything can be turned into something interesting and worthy of inspection.  You just need to turn the content around and around until it has a compelling twist or angle to it. If you can see the content as something beautiful or even strange, then perhaps you are on to something that will intrigue visitors. 

What do you think is the “next frontier” for museums?
I am a fan of the basic core of what I see our field can do.  Life can be tough, so if we can inspire, help folks get a fun taste for learning and maybe even facilitate bringing someone into a lovely state of wonder, that’s so important.  I am attaching my NYC sister’s letter to me just after 9/11 that touched on just this thing.  It doesn’t get more basic than that.

What are some of your favorite museums or exhibitions?
The Hamar Bispegaard Museum designed by the beloved Norwegian architect, Svere Fehn.  The building, delicately suspended over medieval ruins, serves as structure for both preservation and a grand space for exploration.  You can take in the ruins of this 12th century cathedral while perusing early Norwegian artifacts presented in utterly the most handsome way I have ever seen.  Now there was a designer who wasn’t constrained by any precedent of exhibition design whatsoever!  Here are a couple of my photos plus some links.

Here’s an artifact lovingly presented (top image on this blog): http://iitcoa3rdyr.wordpress.com/tag/sverre-fehn/

Here'a a Flickr set of the building: https://secure.flickr.com/photos/53521870@N06/4970197411/?q=hamar%20bispegaard%20museum

Can you talk a little about some of your current projects?
Imagine walking into an Enchanted Physics Forest.  Well, that is exactly what we are making right now for Kidspace Children’s Museum in Pasadena!  An arroyo will soon replace the empty plot of land.  The trees will be going in soon.  Mixed in with the forest will be plenty of different-scaled interactives to explore and contemplate.  A family might just sit down under the shade of a tree for a while.  We are absolutely thrilled to be working on our first major outdoor exhibition and environment.

And all this we get to do with the wonderful scientist Dr. Mike Brown, the CalTech professor of Plantetary Astronomy (and author of “How I Killed Pluto and Why it Had it Coming”), who is a board member at Kidspace.  This generous and gifted (funny too!) scientist has been such a pleasure to work with as we have developed the Enchanted Physics Forest.  He can hardly wait to play there together with his 5-year-old daughter.

If money were no object, what would your “dream” exhibit project be?
If money were no object then we might as well place it in Paris where we all would be required to meet often for lunch at a café while brainstorming how to reach the incredible vision that our client has laid out to our crack team.  You would be there, of course, Paul.  And, aside from all my pals here at Hands On!, I would also want bring back from the dead my favorite architect Sverre Fehn to include his sensibilities.  The artist Theo Jansen would be with us too. Perhaps it is a museum/laboratory on biophilia.  We all would be required to have an extended stay at our client’s country home in Brittany to do extensive prototyping, and Theo would bring his Strandbeests.

Thanks again to Lyn for her thoughtful responses!  To find out more about Hands On! check out their website.

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