Friday, April 29, 2016

Tinkering and Building Things: An Interview with Clifford Wagner

Clifford Wagner started his Science Center career in 1980, and since then has created interactive exhibit components and traveling exhibitions for countless museum visitors.  Over 35 years later,  he still loves trying to come up with great visitor experiences.

I was delighted that Clifford took the time to share his thoughts with ExhibiTricks readers in the interview below:

What’s your educational background?  I’ve got a Degree in Art and Design.  But you could say my education started with my mother being a teacher and my father an engineer.  She always encouraged creativity. My father passed along a lot of his knowledge to me with the tinkering and building things in the basement we did together. 

What got you interested in Museums?  Truth to tell, I stumbled into it.  I did a couple of years of custom furniture making.  Then in 1980 I got hired as a cabinetmaker at the Franklin Institute Science Museum.  Immediately I was building hands on interactive exhibits and that is what I have been doing ever since. I was the chief interactive device designer/prototyper when I left the Franklin eleven years later, to jump across the street to Please Touch Museum for Children as Director of Exhibits.  The Science museum work focused me on creating the best possible interactive experiences for our visitors.  The children’s museum work got me to be more playful. 

How does actually building your own exhibits inform your design process?  I make my own mechanisms and cabinetry, so I have a good idea of what is workable.  This hands-on knowledge informs my design process at every stage.  Whether I’m working on my own projects or with another museum or science center, the process starts with brainstorming.   At the beginning,  don’t rule something out because it seems impossible to achieve.  Who knows? It might be doable. One of my favorite lines I use in brainstorming is “And the luxury version of this device would be….” Quite often  the final, doable device can incorporate much from the pie in the sky version.

When I design and build interactives I pay very close attention to where our eyes go when we are looking at something for the first time.  An interactive can be confusing to visitors if the sequence isn’t logical.  I’ve seen text, just six inches away from where it should be. Because it is not in an intuitive place, for the visitor it might just as well be on the other side of the moon. I do this eyetracking as a mental process but now eyetracking hardware can be had for as little as $500.  I can’t endorse this because I haven’t used it, but it does exist.

Tell us a little bit about your current thinking about traveling exhibitions?  When we make  a traveling exhibit we must ensure that visitors are going to have a meaningful response to it, whether that response is humor or emotion or pure delight or relevancy to their lives. Every component that makes it into my traveling exhibits is there because it has a high probability of the visitor reacting to it by pulling over their friends  “Come here, you’ve got to see this!” Are your exhibits doing that? If not, tweak them until they do.

What are some of your favorite online (or offline!) resources for people interested in finding out more about exhibition development?   Museum conferences are great. This is when all of our virtual colleagues turn real. Go and talk to everyone doing the same sort of work you are doing.  Do not be shy. For me there is nothing more valuable than being at a host city museum with other people whose lives are creating exhibits and being able to ask them: what do they think? What do they think of the exhibit that you both are standing in front of? Ask, talk, listen, learn and teach.

What advice would you have for fellow museum professionals, especially those from smaller museums, in bringing more variety into their exhibitions?    Museum professionals have a lot to learn from each other. Science Centers can learn a lot about playfulness from Children’s Museums. Children’s museums can learn how to engage adults as well as kids. Art Museums can enhance visitor experiences by having more hands-on devices. For variety from a purely design point of view, a good interactive has both hooking and holding power. It has to attract the visitor’s attention, and then keep that attention. One way to get variety into an exhibition is to have as many different kinds of hooks as possible. An unexpected way to control the action. A mirror so people can see their own faces. A sign with an interesting question.

What do you think is the “next frontier” for traveling exhibitions?  Science Centers have been exploring timely and relevant topics for quite a while, since pioneering exhibits such as Darkened Waters about the Exxon Valdez oil spill. When we produce an exhibit we are asking for our visitors' time and attention.  Are our exhibits worthy of their attention?  Are we putting all this time and energy into illuminating things that inspire visitors and help our civilization continue to flourish? Children’s museums have to make sure that any traveling exhibition they bring in works for the adults as much as the kids.  Adults are 50% of your audience.  Giving adults good stuff will make them want to come back.

What are some of your favorite museums or exhibitions?   I love the extraordinary playfulness of the City Museum in St. Louis. I also love the questions raised by the exhibit and book called Massive Change by Bruce Mau.  How is this for an opening statement in an exhibition:  “Whether we realize it or not, we live in a designed world. The question is: will this be a design for destruction or for a sustainable new world that we can safely hand down to our children and our children’s children?”   How’s that for relevancy?

Can you talk a little about some of your current projects?  Earlier this year,  I built five interactives  for The Discovery Museum and Planetarium in Bridgeport, Connecticut based on The Fostering Active Prolonged Engagement (Project APE) exhibit book produced by the Exploratorium.  A couple of them I built much as described in the book with minor improvements, others like the Thermal Camera exhibit I redesigned and added on to provide more opportunity for visitor engagement.  

I was happy to give The Discovery Museum an extra device I developed  for the thermal camera.  It is a 4 pane rotatable window. Two of the panes are clear to our eyes but opaque to the thermal camera and two are clear to the camera but opaque to our eyes. It is so cool to see visitors react to this counterintuitive effect showing the camera seeing what we can’t.  That’s the hook in this - the unexpected- and it’s a really good hook.     

I’m also building theatrical props, including some that are on tour with Cirque du Soleil.

If money were no object, what would your “dream” exhibit project be?  I’d love to put together a team to make an exhibit that helps people really think about their place in the world and how we can help achieve sustainable well being for all people and for the planet.  I sincerely believe we have the knowledge to do so.  It wouldn’t be an easy exhibit to create—it’s a tough topic.  But I can’t imagine anything more important.

For me, the most important question of all is  How are you helping?  How are you helping all of us have quality lives?  For us working in museums, the way we help is to make things that enrich our visitors’ lives. We help visitors understand science phenomena, we make creative spaces where kids  play and grow.  The work we do is so important.  So thank you all for what you do. 

To find out more about Clifford Wagner and his exhibit work, click on over to his website!

Speaking of Clifford's exhibit work, he will soon be retiring some of his most popular and visitor-tested traveling exhibitions after very successful tours --- but he would like to find good homes for all those exhibit components!  So if your museum is in the market for some top-notch exhibit components (or entire exhibitions!) at incredible prices, check out these PDFs featuring exhibit descriptions, images and prices for Garden of Gizmos, Color Play, and Contraptions A to Z.  These exhibitions are well built and in great shape, so much so that Clifford is providing a full one year warranty on every exhibit component purchased.

As a BONUS to ExhibiTricks readers, if you purchase any components from the traveling exhibitions mentioned above before May 30, 2016 and mention "ExhibiTricks" you'll get a 5% discount! 

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