Saturday, April 25, 2015

Activated Sound: An Interview with Steve Haas

Steve Haas, owner of SH Acoustics, is the leading specialist in acoustics and audio for museums, exhibition galleries and themed entertainment venues. Steve works with architects, exhibit designers, multimedia producers and systems integrators to achieve optimum quality and control of sound in many types of spaces. In his projects, he addresses room acoustics, sound isolation, noise control and audio delivery for performance spaces, interactive exhibits, multimedia theaters, public event spaces and many other areas common in museum facilities.

Steve took a moment from his travels to provide this interview for ExhibiTricks readers:

What’s your educational background? I’ve been involved in sound and music most of my life, but knew that I wasn’t talented or disciplined enough to make it as a full-time professional musician, so I went to school for mechanical engineering at Cornell. Halfway through, I became not so interested with thermodynamics and heat transfer, and knew that I had to do something with sound for my career. That’s when I discovered the world of acoustics, which offered me the perfect blend of sound and engineering. I remained at Cornell, but created an independent study program for myself in acoustics.  

What got you interested in Museums? Truthfully, I never thought much about sound in museums as a kid, nor had any special museum-related interests, other than the typical field trips with school to all the museums in the Cleveland area, which is where I grew up. It was not until I started my career after college at a major acoustical consulting firm that I was first assigned to be part of a museum project. It happened to be the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, so it was a great opportunity to “cut my teeth” with a prominent facility and top-level designers. I definitely learned a lot and, as they say, never looked back since!  

Can you tell us more about your acoustics work with museums? My firm and I address all aspects of sound quality and sound control within museums and exhibit spaces. This means that we not only design the physical aspects of a gallery or theater, as they relate to sound, but also the audio delivery methods to ensure that there is great synergy between the way sound is delivered and how the space receives it. Our work compliments that performed by AV designers and integrators, since we primarily focus on how the sound behaves in a built environment.

We also go even further and interface with the media producers to help them understand how their audio content will perform in the actual gallery space, and then guide them to optimize the recording and mix accordingly so that everything works well when it is time for us to calibrate the installed sound programs.

Tell us a little bit about how your “non-museum” skills/activities inform your museum work? Besides pulling relevance from all of the challenges that I have faced and overcame over the last dozen years just by being a small-business owner, the one thing that my wife and I both are very good at is studying how people behave in public spaces and interact with the environments around them. This awareness actually has allowed me to develop our overall process and design philosophies relative to the sonic experience even further in our projects, simply by better predicting how patrons would listen to a particular interactive exhibit or react to a blend of immersive sound programs. 

What are the most interesting audio technologies changing museum installations today?  From an audio delivery standpoint, the growing number and improved sound quality of focused speakers is encouraging. About 15 years ago, my mentor for all-things-audio in museums – the late Bill Lobb – and I pioneered the development of the first electronically focused 2-dimensional steerable array for museum applications, which is still being manufactured and sold worldwide by multiple companies.

Other manufacturers have ever-improving devices that use ultrasonic frequencies to create tight containment of audio. One final category of technology is what we call “activated sound”, involving the transformation of architectural and exhibit surfaces into virtual loudspeakers. Our extensive use of this technology has allowed for better integration of sound into objects such as display cases, multi-touch tables and more without aesthetic compromise.

What do you think is the “next frontier” for museums? I think the next frontier is already here – continuing to find ways to make museums more appealing to a broader range of people, when there are so many other “experiences” competing for their time and money. While media technology certainly costs money, we are all so accustomed to having great videos, interactive games and music/sound right on our phones that we carry everywhere. Yet, many museums still seem to ignore this fundamental fact and create underwhelming interactive experiences that seem more like a throwback to 10-20 years ago, in terms of sophistication.

What are some of your favorite museums or exhibitions? Well, because of my background as a musician and love for music history, I tend to like exhibits that focus in that area and am happy to have been part of the creation of a number of institutions that continue to tell the story of different genres and cultures of music. Beyond that, now that I am a new father again after a long time, I am sure that this will give me more reason to visit a wide range of historical, science and other museums beyond just the projects I work on.

Can you talk a little about some of your current projects? We have a nice blend of museum and exhibit projects right now, including the National Museum of African American History & Culture and the Museum of the Bible, both in DC. Also, the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia and the new Air & Space Center at the California Science Center in LA. We just recently finished the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg and are in the midst of wrapping up the USA Pavilion at the World Expo in Milan, Italy.

If money were no object, what would your “dream” exhibit project be? One of two things – either an exhibit involving the history of music performance, where virtual reality-based sound, video and motion technology can take small audiences back in time to be part of some of the most memorable music concerts ever performed – or a museum of superheroes that portrays the evolution of many of the major characters in comics, TV and movies with lots of supporting media and soundscapes included!

Thanks Steve for sharing your insights with ExhibiTricks readers!

You can find out more about Steve's company, SH Acoustics,  by visiting the SH website.   Steve is also a member of the Praxis Museum Projects Group, a collaborative group of professionals striving to improve museum practice. 

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Friday, April 17, 2015

Popular But Not Good (PBNG)

At a restaurant in Pittsburgh recently, the waitress described some items as "popular" and others as "good."  There was something about the way she used those words that made me want to dig a little deeper into her descriptions when we were actually ready to order.

It soon became clear that most of the "popular" items at this particular restaurant were actually mediocre.  In some cases, the waitress wasn't even sure why people kept ordering those particular items over and over again.  (The waitress was kind enough to suggest an off-menu combination of a veggie tempura taco with added shrimp that was awesome!)

Being that I was dining with fellow museum folks, I couldn't help remarking that there are also many things in museums, or in museum practice, that are "popular" but not "good" (or PBNG for short.) One example of PBNG is the continued, and often thoughtless, recycling of old exhibit warhorses (especially inside Children's Museums) like mini grocery stores or dig pits. Piles of wooden blocks thrown onto a table are not a smartly designed building exhibit!  (I've written previous posts about why grocery store exhibits are not just bad for museums, but bad for the planet.)

It's not that these types of exhibits are inherently bad, or can't be done in creative ways, but the basic frameworks just seem to attract clichéd ideas and lazy design approaches.

The second PBNG idea that impacts every type of museum and every type of museum designer is the RFP (Request For Proposals) process.  If ever there was an overly onerous procedure designed to ostensibly help museums separate the wheat from the chaff, the RFP process is it.  It is so often unfair and unrealistic to proposers that a selection process involving throwing darts at a grid of names seems brilliant by comparison.

So now that I've outlined how popular, but not good, some types of exhibits and RFP processes can be, what suggestions for improvements or substitutes can I offer?

By happy coincidence, I will be speaking at sessions during the upcoming AAM (American Alliance of Museums) Annual Meeting and the ACM (Association of Children's Museums) InterActivity Conference that will be addressing both these PBNG topics head-on.

First up, in Atlanta The Museum Group will be hosting a series of Conversations on a range of interesting topics.  I'll be part of the Conversation entitled, "Writing and Responding to RFPs: The Dance Everyone Can Do Better" which will take place at the Glenn Hotel on Monday, April 27th from 2:00 - 3:15 p.m.  Hope to see you there!

Then in Indianapolis, during ACM's InterActivity, I'll be part of a fun session called "Material Matters: Thoughtful Choices for High-Impact Visitor Engagement" in Marriott Ballroom 10 on Wednesday, May 13th starting at 3:00 p.m.

I'll be recapping the action at both conferences, so follow along on my Twitter feed @museum_exhibits and on my POW! Facebook page

If you'd like to schedule some time to chat about working together on new projects, or just to catch up over a drink during either conference, please drop me an email so we can compare calendars!

Last, but not least, I'll be giving away FREE STUFF! --- copies of some great research and exhibit journals and publications I've written for recently.  So look for me in Atlanta or Indy and ask for your free museum swag (while supplies last!)

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Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Designer Toolkit: Ergi App

How high should I hang this picture?  How wide should I design this worktable?  How tall should I make that bookshelf?  These are the questions that an app called Ergi helps you answer.

Ergi makes use of official government standards to create a simple, attractive interface that allows designers to either reference common benchmarks, or to enter specific criteria about the age, gender, and relative height (short, tall, average) of the clients they are creating things for.

Ergi does one thing and does it well.  The app is an excellent tool for designers to use while actually designing or to share with clients while moving through the design process.

Ergi is a bit pricey relative to other apps, but you only have to use it once to resolve a design issue with a client (or to avoid an embarrassing error!) and Ergi will have already paid for itself.

You can find out more on the Ergi website.  Ergi is currently available for iOS only.

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Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Collecting Authentic Experiences: An Interview with Carolynne Harris

Carolynne Harris currently focuses on organizational, strategic and concept planning, exhibition development, operational planning, project management, and construction integration for new museums, renovations and expansions. Her clients have included the U.S. Capitol Visitors Center, Fernbank Museum of Natural History, Earl Scruggs Center: Music & Stories of the American South, College Football Hall of Fame, the National Museum of Wildlife Art, NASCAR Hall of Fame, the Department of Energy’s Solar Decathlon, National Building Museum, and the Center for Puppetry Arts.

Prior to her consultant work, Carolynne applied an academic background in Anthropology, Museology and Urban Studies to the development of over 40 exhibitions, managing staff and projects at the Smithsonian Institution and Fernbank Museum of Natural History. She has been published in Curator, organized and presented sessions at national conferences of the American Alliance of Museums, has reviewed grants for the Institute of Museum and Library Services, and is a member of Praxis Museum Projects Group.

Carolynne was kind enough to share her thoughts in this interview for the ExhibiTricks blog.

What’s your educational background? I have a BA in Anthropology from UVA and a MA in Interdisciplinary Liberal Arts from Emory University. I also have a big personal interest in architecture, so I have had an informal immersion of sorts in architecture.

What got you interested in Museums?  I actually was Pre-Med, but since UVA doesn’t offer that as a major, I picked Anthropology, because it seemed interesting and in tune with my curiosity about the world… and right as I was planning to take the MCATs, I got swept up in cultural anthropology studies, and in particular the ideas of representations of the “Other.”

I ended up doing my senior thesis on the Smithsonian and what was then beginning to be termed “the politics of representation.”  So I bailed on the med school thing, much to the chagrin of my parents, and decided I had to work at the Smithsonian. So I moved up to DC, and waited tables until I got a job.

What are ways to rethink  “traditional” museum experiences (such as museums without collections) ?  I think that museums, or rather ‘visitor experiences,’ now include so many methods of engagement, and the business of museums has become much more savvy in how resources are allocated, that collecting and storing large troves of objects doesn’t always translate into the most effective model. Visitors still look for an authentic experience, and objects are an important way to convey that, but many institutions are using them more judiciously. This may mean more sparingly in some places, using fascimiles or more environmental design, or even designing the experience to have certain ‘beats’ that are object-intensive, while others are not.

I’ve noticed that many new institutions are not planning for collections, but rather are borrowing them, reproducing them, or integrating them into the experience in new ways to allow for greater ‘access’ – like visible storage, digital archives or interactivity. Of course, this means different things to different kinds of museums. I mean, Natural History museums have been displaying reproductions of fossils forever, so that they can study and preserve the artifacts  – and visitors rarely know, and don’t care – just being on display in a museum confers authenticity, if they are learning something about it. And Science Centers don’t have traditional collections, right?

Visitors’ expectations are changing and we’ve all been talking about the need for digital engagement and social elements, but not at the expense of the authentic experience, so what does that authentic experience mean now? That’s one thing I’ve been thinking about a good amount lately. We have such a great opportunity to spark dialogue and exchange through these means now. It’s all about balance. And what the institution is good at, and can manage so that their visitors come away with a good experience.

I had a colleague many years ago who used to say, “Viewing art is about PLEASURE” and not wanting to muck it up with lots of interpretive labels, while I would argue “No, the interpretation is important for those who don’t know how to look, why they should care.”  Of course, now I believe both are possible, and with all the tools in our quiver, it’s a fun time to find the balance.

Can you tell us more about the workshops you’ve formulated for potential new clients to come up with a vision and roadmap for planning, without having to jump into an expensive planning process?  I do a lot of planning work for new museums, renovations and expansions. A Master Planning process can be time- and resource-intensive. I’ve found that sometimes the client may not have a clear vision of what the project really should be yet, the experience goals, or their own operational capacity. They also are scared to drop thousands and thousands of dollars on a Master Planning team, but need to have a better idea of what they are developing in order to get the project (and fundraising) off the blocks.

With a colleague in Philadelphia, I developed a workshop that is a one-day creative dialogue pulling together an organization’s leadership, stakeholders, and some creative instigators, the outcome of which is a consensus for the key aspects of the visitor experience and facility. From that, I develop a set of recommendations for next steps, an overall planning road map and a crystallized a ‘big idea’ for the overall effort.

I feel like it is useful and different, because:

* It is focused, and facilitates assessing and crystallizing existing work regarding possibilities, and starts to evaluate the viability of options.

* It’s a crystallization instead of big strategic/master planning – to get the institution to define a strong vision, a strong set of goals and an understanding of assets and resources.

* Through different viewpoints and voices, the client can explore options, variables and challenges in early in the process, and develop consensus to inform future planning.

* It provides a plan for what would be required to execute the agreed-upon vision.

* And, most importantly, it’s a fraction of the cost of an extensive planning process, so the client doesn’t go down some rabbit hole before they have a solid idea of what they are pursuing.

I have done a couple of these so far, and it seems to be well-received and valuable.

Tell us a little bit about how your “non-museum” skills/activities inform your museum work?
I am an avid bike-rider, swimmer, and yogi, as well as having played a lot of sports in my life. For me personally, the physical activity helps me think more clearly – I’m a kinesthetic thinker. Some people have ‘shower thoughts’ -- I often have great moments of clarity on mile 15 on my bike, or lap 18 in the pool. I’m not sure what that brings to the work I do other than hopefully making me more efficient and clear when I’m at the desk or leading discussions!

In addition to playing sports, I also grew up playing guitar. Both being in a band, and on a sports team, teach you teamwork, the power of supporting and setting up someone else to be the lead, and resilience. I think those are skills I pull on daily, are important to the sustainability of institutions in our industry, and influence how I think about certain kinds of visitor experiences.

The down side? I spend a LOT of time watching sports and going to hear music. But I’ve also been really fortunate to work on projects related to these interests, so having some knowledge has been helpful to those teams.

What are the ways you think about making your projects accessible to the widest range of visitors?   I constantly work with clients about integrating their visitor experiences and content with their public presence through the Web, social media, and on-site programs and services. So many institutions have these organizationally siloed, and lose great opportunities to make more robust connections with their visitors and potential visitors. For example, a museum should be able to have one set of data for ticket buyers, members, donors, event attendees, retail and on-site registration for things, all connected to social media accounts.

Things are moving in this direction, but our industry has been way behind on this, and the outreach to visitors can be so much more focused and potent if all of these functions are integrated both in the data set and within the institutions’ outreach messaging and mechanisms.

What do you think is the “next frontier” for museums?  Other than what we’ve already talked about, I’m not the greatest futurist.  I think that in general, many communities are realizing that cultural tourism is a big economic driver, and are starting to put a lot of resources behind it, which is great for our industry! Promoting unique history, culture and the arts of a region to bring people there is becoming more and more important in the economic equation. And this means more place-based public history and access to the arts in communities large and small.

The shapes and sizes and missions of the experiences being developed under the auspices of cultural tourism vary widely, but the whole movement is growing museums and other visitor experiences in places that are underserved, and that’s exciting to me.

What are some of your favorite museums or exhibitions?  This is the question I always suck at answering – I like certain things about a lot of museums and exhibitions. I will say, one of my favorite places to visit has been SFMOMA. I typically visit more art museums, even though I work more on other types of museums. I go to San Francisco at least once a year, and often find myself at SFMOMA (before it closed for expansion). I feel that they do really cutting edge exhibitions, that aren’t precious, but accessible even when it’s something like a crazy huge installation on Matthew Barney.

One place I love that isn’t a museum or technically an exhibit is the FDR Memorial in DC. I find it very moving, and using sculpture, water, and very few words, conveys its messages very effectively. And, it’s just a beautiful space. Having worked on a couple of outdoor exhibits, I appreciate how content and nature interact.

I like to go and watch people go through it, and also be reminded that design can be simple, beautiful and impactful.

Can you talk a little about some of your current projects?  I’m currently working with the Center for Puppetry Arts in Atlanta on a renovation and expansion. They have the largest collection of puppets from around the globe, and just received an enormous donation of objects from the Jim Henson Legacy, so it’s a fun project.

I’ve got some other projects that aren’t ready for prime time, but they range from historic sites, to cultural history, and another possible music project, so I'm looking forward to 2015!

If money were no object, what would your “dream” exhibit project be?  Do you mean I win the lottery, or a project comes fully funded with a blank check?  Either way, I’d love to establish a ‘museum lab’ that is part shared workspace, part incubator for new ideas and technologies, part display and program area, including for food and drink.

It would be a place where thought leaders from around the globe would come to share ideas, test new engagement and interpretation strategies, and host innovative projects of many disciplines. The food and drink brings people together, but also expands how it can be a springboard for cultural exploration and fun/play. Our industry is very collegial, but I think it could be doing some really cool things if we had a place to stir things up and put money behind good ideas as well as good failures.

So after I win the lottery, and take my family and 12 best friends on an island vacation, look for the Lab of Incredible, Authentic, Innovative Cultural Experience!

Thanks Carolynne, for sharing your thoughts with ExhibiTricks readers!  To find out more about Carolynne's consulting practice, click on over to her website.  To find out more about Carolynne's involvement with the Praxis Museum Projects Group, head on over to the Praxis website.

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 Free 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!)