Monday, June 1, 2015

Museums as Magic Places: An Interview with Carol Bossert

Carol Bossert is owner and principal of CB Services, LLC a consulting practice that helps cultural institutions, government agencies and corporations tell their stories in museums, visitor centers and community venues.  She is an interpretive planner, content researcher and writer. CB Services also manages the details of organizing archives, selecting photographs and objects, and coordinating internal and external experts to support exhibition development.

Carol is also the host of Museum Life, a weekly talk show that showcases leaders in the field who provide perspective on current issues as well as creative thinkers who are impacting the future of museums. Join the conversation every Friday at 10 a.m. Eastern time, 7 a.m. Pacific time on the Voice America Variety Channel.

Carol was kind enough to take part in this interview for ExhibiTricks readers:

What is your educational background?  I have a liberal arts education with a bachelor’s of arts degree in zoology from DePauw University and a doctorate in molecular biology from University of Texas-Dallas.  I began my career at The Newark Museum and I attended the Getty’s Museum Management Institute (MMI). 

What got you interested in museums?  I have always thought of museums as magic places. I have great memories of visiting the Field Museum of Natural History and Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago with my mother.  She grew up near Chicago and she wanted to share “her museums” with me. I was nine the first time she took me to Chicago. She was so excited.  I saw my mother transformed into a little girl just like me when she and I looked at Colleen Moore’s doll house together.  That’s magic.

As a family, we also went to national parks, particularly Civil War battlefields. I tromped around the battlefields with my dad as he described the battles and military strategies in enthusiastic detail.  It made me feel special that he wanted to share something he loved with me.  I develop museum exhibits because I want all children to experience that special magic with the adults that love them. 

How can museums become more responsive to their communities? By changing their internal dialogue. The way a museum talks about its community is incredibly revealing.  I recently heard Bill Booth speak to a room full of museum professionals and ask “How are you working with instead of for your community?”  That semantic shift was powerful and stimulated a great discussion.

Working for the community assumes a transactional relationship. It clearly defines the role of museum as provider and community as consumer. This model limits discussion and possibilities.  A museum that sees itself working with its community assumes that the community has something to offer beyond passive consumption.  This changes the nature of the relationship and opens up greater possibilities and opportunities. 

Tell us a little bit about how your “non-museum” skills/activities inform your exhibit design work?  I was trained as a research scientist and for me this meant learning how to ask good questions.  I ask a lot of questions during a project.  I don’t make assumptions about what I know about a subject, a museum or its community. At the beginning of a project I want to understand everyone’s expectations, concerns and dreams. I want to know about the little known facts or surprising information that will make the exhibit content memorable and I want to understand the museum’s current audience and the audiences the museum wants to engage. I keep asking questions throughout the project to make sure expectations, concerns and dreams are being addressed. Asking questions also promotes dialogue and I'd much rather be talking with people than at them.  

What are some of your favorite online and off line resources that are influencing your thinking about exhibit development?  I have been profoundly affected by Leslie Bedford’s book, The Art of Museum Exhibitions. Leslie identifies imagination as one of the important elements in an exhibit experience. To paraphrase Leslie, “what if” is as important as “what is.” It has reminded me that what takes place within the visitors’s mind is as important as what they see, hear and do in the physical exhibit. I know that my interest in microbiology came from looking through a microscope and using my imagination to construct the life inside a cell.  I have revised some of the tools that I use as an interpretive planner to make sure we leave room for the visitor’s imagination.

As for online resources, I follow ExhibiTricks of course and I have been following the Incluseum where Aletheia Wittman and Rose Paquet Kinsley have created a site to talk openly about the challenges that museums face in terms of being truly inclusive.  

What are the ways in which you think about making your projects accessible to the widest range of visitors?  I think about accessibility in terms of creating a sense of welcome. People want to feel safe and smart in an exhibit, but first they need to feel welcome. Bi- or multi-language labels, orientation and educational materials create that sense of welcome and I’m glad to say that I am working on more projects that use multiple languages.

I have also been influenced by the work of Paul Gabriel and Beth Redmond-Jones who have identified qualities in an exhibit that affect the experience of people with ADHD, dyslexia or who are on the autism-spectrum.  Sometimes it is a matter of creating an accommodation to open the museum early when it isn’t crowded. But I think we could all do a better job of examining our design decisions from graphics to lighting and case layouts to see if we might be able to make the exhibits themselves less distracting and more enjoyable for everyone.  

What do you think is the next frontier for museums?  I’m thinking that the next frontier for museums is to reclaim their unique contribution to society.  Museums are “in the moment” experiences. For a while I think the discussion about the future of museums was shifting away from one of their most distinguishing characteristics—the objects. Many research areas from neuroscience to sociology are pointing to the importance of looking at things in physical space rather than on a screen to foster creativity and well-being.  I don’t think this diminishes the value or impact of online collections and social media opportunities for museums, but I find it exciting to think that museums may finally be acknowledged as places essential for learning in the 21st century.

What are some of your favorite museums or exhibitions?  My favorite museum is the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto.  It has a fabulous collection of shoes and it conveys the human desire to make even the most utilitarian things beautiful. I love wandering the halls of the American Museum of Natural History in New York because I always find discover something new and I enjoy finding those out-of-the-way museums when I’m traveling.  

Can you talk about some of your current projects?  I’ve been doing quite a bit of work in Saudi Arabia, including a corporate visitor center, government briefing center, an exhibit promoting environmental literacy, and a children’s exhibit about city planning.  Working across cultures is intriguing and challenging.  It makes me think about all the assumptions I have about audience and interpretation.  As you and I have discussed, we can’t assume that our western approach to exhibit development will work in exactly the same way in another culture.  But I’ve enjoyed my work in Saudi Arabia and have met many people who are committed to increasing transparency through public exhibitions. 

If money was no object, what would your “dream” exhibit project be?  I don’t think it is a matter of money, but I would love to work on an exhibit about the women in science that have won the Nobel Prize.  Each of these women tells a fascinating story, sometimes just because their lives seemed so ordinary yet they made extraordinary contributions to science.  I also think they would serve to put real faces on specific scientific achievements and this would help make science more accessible and interesting to many.

Thanks again to Carol for sharing her thoughts and insights with ExhibiTricks readers!  To find out more about Carol's museum work, click over to the CB Services Web site.  To find out more about the Museum Life radio program, click over to the Voice America Web site.

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