Ellie Byrom-Haley is the founder and chief creative lead at Gecko Group, a leading environmental graphic design firm in the Museum, Aquarium / Zoo, Heritage and Tourism marketplace. Gecko Group designs interactive exhibits, wayfinding systems, placemaking experiences and environmental projects that educate and inform.
For more the 25 years, Byrom-Haley has provided creative direction, inspiration and design services on numerous exhibits and wayfinding projects, ranging from the SEGD-profiled wayfinding project at The Adventure Aquarium, NJ and award-winning interpretive project, Range of the Jaguar at Jacksonville Zoo, and complex wayfinding solutions for major developers, including Steiner + Assoc. Inc.
Recent Gecko Group projects include The Meadow Garden at Longwood Gardens, The Dell Music Center rebranding and placemaking, and A Growing Story – Lake Erie and the Concord Grape exhibit. Ellie was kind enough to answer a few questions for this ExhibiTricks interview below:
What’s your educational background?
I studied painting and photography and pursued fine arts as a student. I never took a practical look at what I would do post-college. I worked in photography for a number of years before I had the opportunity to get involved in some graphics projects. I really liked the graphic design opportunities and decided to pursue a career in communications design which eventually lead to interpretive and exhibit design. I had always planned and designed spaces as an aside to my fine arts projects so it was a natural transition professionally.
What got you interested in Museums?
My earliest recollection of a museum visit is to the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha, Nebraska. I was probably 5 years old and overwhelmed by the scale of the building and the presentation of artifacts and art. I find museums to be places of reverence. They feel sacred to me and I am always excited by the opportunity to learn and to experience authentic works one on one. MOMA is my Vatican!
What really has kept me interested in and committed to museums is learning. I like to learn and museums provide some of the most valuable and fascinating ways to do that. There are always AHA! or WOW moments in museums and I love that.
How does working with teams to create exhibits inform your design process? (Or does it?)
Working collaboratively is in my opinion the best opportunity to conceive and design an effective exhibition experience. The input from multiple disciplines and points of view is invaluable to creating a work that is about the content and not about any one person's perspective or design intent.
I am not sure that working with teams changes my process but I have found that one may need to shift the details around to accommodate multiple working styles, and of course clients. Working as a team also allows design processes to meld to create a better solution and outcome. I think it keeps me open to other ways of thinking and creating.
Teamwork is one of the favorite parts of my career – I really enjoy working with others. It is great fun to share successes with colleagues.
Tell us a little bit about how your art and graphics skills inform your exhibit design work?
Designing an exhibit with the knowledge of other disciplines such as graphics and making things – such as art - helps me plan better and use the 3 dimensional and the 2 dimensional spaces more harmoniously.
My fine art keeps me thinking more creatively (I hope) and of course puts an artistic spin on my approach in regards to materials and solutions. I also tend to think in terms of “how would I build or make this” which may not always be the best approach. Sometimes it is better to leave those details to your fabrication partners or other experts.
Artists tend to create work that provokes thought or emotion and I think those considerations translate to exhibit design and designing for the visitor experience.
What are some of your favorite online (or offline!) resources for people interested in finding out more about exhibition development?
I follow numerous postings about exhibition design and development. ExhibitFiles is a good one to follow. In addition, I find some of the conferences to be beneficial in keeping up with new trends. And of course I am a member of NAME which publishes a fantastic publication called The Exhibitionist that is targeted to exhibition design and development.
One of my favorite resources is SEGD magazine. It is less about development but the case studies and stories really talk about how design teams get to the visitor experience. They do an excellent job of profiling projects both national and international.
There are numerous books published on the subject and I often refer to them for refreshers such as Serrell’s book Exhibit Labels and I enjoy Nina Simon’s book on The Participatory Museum, and Kathy McLean’s work.
Additionally, workshops are a great way to refresh or catch new trends and I think the best resources are peers in your field. Just ask….peers are usually open and happy to share their knowledge.
What advice would you have for fellow museum professionals, especially those from smaller museums, in developing their exhibitions?
I suggest they follow a full and strident process to developing the messages and content before they start any design work. As they say…”if it’s not on the page…it’s not on the stage”. We find all too often that content has not been fully developed or thought out and that makes it very difficult to translate into a captivating experience with meaningful interpretive design.
My firm has done many projects for small museums on extremely tight budgets and we find it very rewarding to create exhibits that work by thinking differently on how to approach fabrication and implementation. What makes a great exhibit is the content and how it is delivered, not the fabrication budget.
I also suggest that smaller museums (and larger museums) not short sell graphics components of exhibits. All too often the graphics are the last consideration when developing and designing and they end up looking like an afterthought or not a budgetary priority.
What do you think is the “next frontier” for museums?
Good question. I believe that visitors will be able to set their own preferences for museum visits that address specific interests or learning styles. The widespread use of social media and the variety and abundance of smart, hand-held, internet-savvy devices is changing visitor mindsets and allowing them to participate and contribute to their own experiences in museums.
What are some of your favorite museums or exhibitions?
I love most museums but I am especially fond of fine arts museums.
I am an art fan - especially contemporary art so I like to visit museums with that filter. Immersive installation art is also a favorite – such as Bill Viola’s work. I stumbled across The Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam when it was presenting a fascinating exhibition of the American video-artist Bill Viola. For this exhibit the Stedelijk transformed into a media labyrinth, enabling extreme experiences of basic human emotion. It was extremely powerful and I was caught by surprise. I think catching visitors by surprise in any experience is a great achievement.
On the other hand, we design for interpretive experiences, so I always enjoy exhibits that are rich in content and interactivity. The more authentic the better. One of my favorite museum experiences is the Founders Hall at The National Constitution Center where the visitor walks among life size bronze sculptures of the founding fathers. Again this caught me off guard.
Of course, I also like hands-on exhibits that draw the visitor in and keep them captivated. Early learning experiences such as Children’s Museums always hold my attention. I really appreciate the tactile aspects of those experiences.
Can you talk a little about some of your current projects?
We are currently working on a couple of projects that are requiring us to think outside the walls and actually marry what some might consider public art with interpretation. This is an exciting challenge. We are obliged to interpret with authenticity but also to create unique formats and approaches that are artistic and sometimes counter intuitive to what a visitor might expect. Evaluation will be critical to inform us if it works.
A very exciting project on the boards now is for University Circle in Cleveland. We are interpreting the history and culture of the area through a variety of media and experiences. A number of large-scale interventions include participatory sculpture, musical instruments for visitors to engage with, a labyrinth that takes you through geologic time.
The Meadow Garden
We just finished the American Meadow for Longwood Gardens. This was a challenging project because we were tasked with delivering a lot of content without being invasive or over-signing the environment. Our approach was to interpret the Meadow through the lens of beauty and connect that beauty with artistic inspiration. We had the opportunity to engage artists to help communicate messages through illustration, photography and sculpture creating beautiful interpretation that integrated into the various structures in an unobtrusive way. Weaving interpretation into an expansive meadow experience has been an exciting challenge. Even more exciting has been watching visitors learn while they meander the Meadow.
The Dell Music Center
Hot off the drawing board and in fabrication is the Dell Music Center. This is a placemaking project that gives this music venue the street presence it deserves. A monumental entry sign with a light show, custom murals by the Philadelphia Mural Arts program and numerous enhancements from banners to directional signage has given The Dell a facelift that matches the state-of-the-art renovation on the interior.
Pequest Fish Educational & Interpretive Center
We are in the midst of developing and designing the exhibits for this new visitor center. This is an especially exciting project because it is a new build and we have been on the team working with the architects as they design the building. The end product will be a well integrated exhibit experience that starts outside of the building and weaves the visitor through interactive thematic areas that supports and promotes the mission of the New Jersey DEP Division of Fish & Wildlife through sharing stories, engaging, educating and informing the public about its work at Pequest Fish Hatchery and throughout the state. (And the most fun is working with Paul Orselli on this project!)
If money were no object, what would your “dream” exhibit project be?
One dream exhibit scenario would be to work with a small museum that traditionally has limited resources and has to find work-arounds or compromises due to budgets. It would be great to create a game-changing exhibit with no budget parameters where the sky is the limit.
I would love to create a comprehensive exhibit on color. It would address all aspects of color in nature, science, history, beauty and culture and as seen through the eyes of artists. It would educate visitors about the emotional power of color and its impact. Since my passion is art, I would like to create an exhibit that has an installation art approach with interpretive content that is partially visitor-generated and participatory. A possible activity would be to create your own color and name it. I am always amused by the names that paint companies give to their paint chips and think it would be a hoot to create your own.
It would include lots of theatrical effects with sound, light, smell, and texture. Multimedia, high-tech and low-tech interactives. Budget would be unlimited and it would culminate with a gift shop where everything is free!
Thanks Ellie, for sharing your thoughts with ExhibiTricks readers! If you'd like to find out more about Ellie's company, just click over to The Gecko Group website.
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