Friday, November 15, 2019

Don't Stop



Working in the museum world can sometimes feel overwhelming. Days filled with administrative trivia, visitor complaints, and endless "to-do" lists can, at times, wear even the most dedicated museum workers down.

Don't stop.

In solidarity with colleagues and citizens around the world -- where cultural history has been destroyed by accident, by neglect, by violence --

Don't stop.

Find one thing today, even a little thing, that will make your museum work better, and that will make you feel better about doing that work.

It could be a Social Media post about a fun new Education program.  A tweak to an exhibit to make it move from good to great.  Ordering a new entry mat to replace that worn-out old one by the front door. Sincerely complimenting a co-worker on a job well done. A phone call to reconnect with a community partner.

Don't stop.

All those little things add up --- for you, and your visitors.  There will always be things to rebuild, things to improve, but take time to look back at how far you have come, what you have built and accomplished, not just what is left undone.

Don't stop.

The world is better for your efforts.



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Paul Orselli writes the posts on ExhibiTricks. Paul likes to combine interesting people, ideas, and materials to make exhibits (and entire museums!) with his company POW! (Paul Orselli Workshop, Inc.) Let's work on a project together!

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Thursday, November 7, 2019

Museum/Exhibit/Design Toolbox: Wilkening Consulting's Data Stories





Susie Wilkening provides outstanding museum audience research services through her company, Wilkening Consulting.

Susie also provides "Data Stories" in a free downloadable format on the Wilkening Consulting website -- a great resource for the field. (An example of a Data Story is at the top of this post.)

Data Stories are punchy infographics that tell stories based on Wilkening's research with museums and people who visit museums.  The Data Stories provide a great way to summarize important information on topics ranging from young adult museum-goers to empathy and curiosity in museums. The format is perfect to share with staff, donors, and community stakeholders.

The information is drawn from research with thousands of museum-goers from across the country, and did I mention they are provided for FREE?

So click on over to the Wilkening Consulting website to learn more, and while you are there find out how your museum can participate in the 2020 Annual Survey of Museum-Goers in collaboration with the American Alliance of Museums.



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Paul Orselli writes the posts on ExhibiTricks. Paul likes to combine interesting people, ideas, and materials to make exhibits (and entire museums!) with his company POW! (Paul Orselli Workshop, Inc.) Let's work on a project together!

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Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Supporting Museums As They Transform: An Interview with Charity Counts


Charity M. Counts is an experienced museum exhibit director and producer, creative team leader, project manager, exhibit tour agent, and fine artist. Charity discovered her passion during undergraduate school and later received an MA in Museum Studies from IUPUI. She currently serves as the executive director of the Association of Midwest Museums. Prior to leading AMM, Charity was the Associate Vice President of Exhibits at the world-renowned Children’s Museum of Indianapolis. Charity was kind enough to provide this interview for the ExhibiTricks blog.


What’s your educational background?
I studied drawing at Ball State University, and I followed my heart precisely because my mom convinced me that I should. My mom was career military and could have suggested a more practical and certain career path for me, yet she didn’t. That encouragement set me on my journey to where I am today.

After I landed my first full-time museum job, I realized that I needed to learn more about museums and went back to school. I was fortunate to work and study at the same time, and I received my MA in museum studies from Indiana University at IUPUI in 2008.


What got you interested in Museums? And what has been your trajectory working in museums?   While an art student at BSU, I was invited to participate in a community project at the Virginia Ball Center for Creative Inquiry. A team of interdisciplinary students worked with a local museum – Minnetrista – to research, develop, design and build an exhibit about Indiana in a single semester. I served as a curator on the project, fell in love with the notion of working in creative teams at museums, and then applied for a part-time job at Minnetrista right before I graduated.

When I started working in museums, I told myself that I would be the director of an art museum someday. At the time, art museums were the only museums I had any experience with and as I focused on my career, it seemed natural to aim for the biggest job those museums had to offer. As my career advanced, I found my goals shifting from “lead an art museum” to “transform museums” to “share what I know to help museum people” to “support museums as they transform.” Today, I am happy doing whatever people need me to do to ensure success for museum professionals and for the museum field.  


What prompted your switch from working in museums to becoming the head of AMM?

I had several motivations for the switch. It boiled down to:


1.   Family. By the time my son was 3, I began to feel the lack of balance in my life between work and home. I had been conditioned to believe that I could only succeed by dedicating long hours to my institution and responding to every email or request with the highest of urgency. That simply wasn’t sustainable. (In fact, it was just plain wrong.) I needed to shift gears, and the role with AMM allowed me the flexibility to do this without relocating my family.

2.   Goals. After 14 years in the field, I was asking myself what I wanted to be when I grew up. The goals I had set when I started no longer applied. I loved working in the exhibits/experience field, but after a rapid climb up the career ladder, there was nowhere left to go at my institution. I thought about the aspects of my job that brought me joy and set my sights on leadership roles that provided those same opportunities. AMM was a new challenge, and it made me feel entrepreneurial to take on the work. 

3.   People. I was inspired by the wonderful people serving on the AMM board. The chance to work with leaders like Whitney Owens (Cincinnati Museum Center) and Melanie Adams (now director of Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum) was a big plus for me.


Can you talk about the process that brought about AMM’s recent policy change concerning salary ranges on job postings?   AMM is a member-focused organization, and we regularly seek input from members to inform decision-making. We have seen a growing need for diversity, equity, access and inclusion (DEAI) resources and training, and started exploring ways to support our members in these areas.

During this same period, we started receiving appeals to require salary information in listings on our online job board. We understood how pay transparency could support salary equity in our field but felt that any such change needed to involve the AMM community for it to have lasting impact.

We started with a member study in 2018 to learn more about the existing practices and policies at museums in the network, and to get a sense for whether a change in AMM’s policy would impact on their use of the job board. Nearly 20% of our member institutions responded to the survey, and the results removed any concerns we had for implementing a new policy. Many participants also suggested resources we could provide to support them if we were to proceed.

In the year that followed, we continued to share our desire to change the policy with members and listened to their concerns. Their feedback informed the language of the policy, and we have developed a plan for implementation that is inclusive and flexible as a result. (Salary/wage information can come in many forms.) We also started compiling and sharing the resources they requested and recruited sessions for the 2019 conference for continued education.

We invited members to endorse the policy change in a live public vote at the Annual Meeting. It passed with 108 votes in favor and only 1 against. The new policy will go into effect on November 1st.  



What's next for AMM?  You can’t talk about changes in the field you serve without also looking inward. When we announced changes we were making with the job board, we also shared that AMM is due for some improvements in the areas of diversity and inclusion. 

For example, the board is quite diverse in terms of institution types and disciplines but does not yet represent the demographics of the professionals within our community. We hope to shift that balance over the next couple of years.  

We also want to be more inclusive in our planning process for the annual conference. Milwaukee 2020 is really our first conference that we will get to try out our desired process from start to finish, so we’ll see how it goes!  

AMM will continue to evolve and grow with museums in our region and I am so appreciative of the members who have supported us on our journey.


What advice would you have for fellow museum professionals who want to become more involved in their regional or local museum organizations?
Local and regional organizations have programming that addresses field-wide needs or issues, and along with those resources, it’s important to know that they also provide valuable connections. You can meet with people who share a common, sometimes geographically based, set of challenges and needs. 

I often hear people say that they prefer to attend state or regional conferences because they offer a more intimate setting for building relationships with peers. And, let’s face it, there are probably just a few degrees of separation between you and your next boss. It’s best to network whenever and wherever you can, and local conferences make it super easy (and less expensive) to do just that!


What do you think is the “next frontier” for museums?
I think that the future of museums lies in community relationships and local partnerships.

There’s this ongoing issue of relevance for museums, and I believe that the organizations that will thrive are those working collaboratively with their local governments, colleges and universities, schools, service organizations, and cultural centers to improve the lives of the people in their communities. That’s what helps an organization standout as a resource, as an anchor or even as an essential service.

We can see this today in the new public high school at Grand Rapids Public Museum, Making the West Side programs at Jane Addams Hull-House Museum, Milwaukee’s Museum Week collaborative, Cincinnati Museum Center’s bounce back after a 2 ½ year closure, and the transformation at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History under Nina Simon’s leadership.

I’m writing this while still thinking about a recent presentation at our conference by Nina Simon regarding OF/BY/FOR ALL. If everyone starts rowing in that direction, the “museum of the future” will be a radically different, highly relevant, and sustainable place. Museums will be poised and ready for whatever changes may come.


What are some of your favorite museums or exhibitions? I’ve been privileged to visit so many museums in my career, of all kinds, and the most impactful experiences were the unexpected ones. I think of the time I wandered into my first Yayoi Kusama installation (You Who Are Getting Obliterated in the Dancing Swarm of Fireflies) at the Phoenix Art Museum, or the content testing/prototyping space at The Museum of World Culture in Gothenburg, Sweden. Of course, The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis holds a special place in my heart too.


If money were no object, what would your “dream” museum project be?  Honestly, I’ve always wanted to create an Alice in Wonderland experience that really immersed visitors in that trippy world using a variety of media. I’ve seen an exhibit or two that scratched the surface but didn’t really fold in the powerful messages of those stories. For example, what if you could climb into a dirt-filled rabbit hole? What if someone used Yayoi Kusama’s immersive tricks (mirrors, lighting, etc.) to create an otherworldly feel? What if we could all have an opportunity to reach beyond what others expected of us and discovered the courage within to conquer the riddles and roadblocks thrown up in this strange land, just like Alice?

If anyone wants to make this happen with me, let me know. I’d love to work on it!



Thanks again Charity for your thoughtful and inspiring responses.  If you'd like to find out more about the Association of Midwest Museums, click over to their website here.



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Paul Orselli writes the posts on ExhibiTricks. Paul likes to combine interesting people, ideas, and materials to make exhibits (and entire museums!) with his company POW! (Paul Orselli Workshop, Inc.) Let's work on a project together!

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Monday, October 21, 2019

Help The Inclusive Historian's Handbook Grow



The Inclusive Historian's Handbook is an online resource co-sponsored by the American Association for State and Local History (AASLH) and the National Council on Public History (NCPH). It aligns with AASLH’s and NCPH’s goals of building diversity and inclusion across the historical community. 

From: the IHH Website:

"The Handbook is for individuals and groups engaged in historical work in a wide range of settings—not just paid professionals or academic scholars. It is intended to provide community groups, educators, museum professionals (paid and unpaid), students, scholars, activists, historical societies, preservationists, archivists, and others with easy-to-find information that is directly applicable to inclusive history practice. We hope that the content is accessible to all people who are doing historical work, including those who may not identify as historians."


The Handbook is a new resource (introduced in August 2019 at the AASLH Conference in Philadelphia) that will continue to grow -- and that's where YOU come in!

Share the link to the IHH Website and encourage peers in your network to contribute articles. Or better yet, check out the range of existing IHH entries so you can submit a suggestion or article of your own.

The Inclusive Historian's Handbook is already off to a great start and the broader museum and history communities can help it grow!


Paul Revere House, ca. 1900, showing local children and Filippo Goduti, the proprietor of the cigar company that rented space in the building from 1898-1901.
Photo credit: Paul Revere House.


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Paul Orselli writes the posts on ExhibiTricks. Paul likes to combine interesting people, ideas, and materials to make exhibits (and entire museums!) with his company POW! (Paul Orselli Workshop, Inc.) Let's work on a project together!

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Thursday, October 10, 2019

Designer's Watch List -- "Abstract: The Art of Design" on Netflix


Netflix recently launched the second season of its documentary series about designers and design called Abstract: The Art of Design.

I think it's a must-watch show for designers and non-designers alike.  Each episode features a deep dive into a particular designer's process and personal background that gives a strong sense of what drives that person and their design practice.

Each episode of Abstract is a self-contained mini-documentary that reflects the personality and approach of each designer (ranging from costume designers to typographers to toymakers) so every show has its own unique flavor.

I especially liked the shows from the current season that featured toy designer Cas Holman and one of my favorite modern artists, Olafur Eliasson.  Highly recommended!

You can view the Season 2 trailer of Abstract below or on YouTube.




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Paul Orselli writes the posts on ExhibiTricks. Paul likes to combine interesting people, ideas, and materials to make exhibits (and entire museums!) with his company POW! (Paul Orselli Workshop, Inc.) Let's work on a project together!

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Wednesday, October 2, 2019

10 Things I Learned As a Fulbright Specialist in Bulgaria


I recently returned from a wonderful extended trip to Bulgaria as part of the Fulbright Specialist Program.

During my work in Bulgaria, I engaged with staff and community partners at Muzeiko, the first children's science museum in Bulgaria (and the entire region, for that matter.)

While my primary purpose was to help build internal capacity at Muzeiko -- related especially to exhibit development, prototyping, and engaging with community partners, I also learned (or re-learned!) some things I think would be useful for anyone working to develop better exhibitions and programs at museums.


1) It helps to like the people you are working with enough to disagree with them
The core group of people I worked with (pictured at the top of this post) included museum staff from various departments at Muzeiko, community partners (including architects and specialists in "Escape Rooms") and Joe Cook, a lead exhibit developer fro the German fabrication firm Huttinger.

We had fun together and worked hard bashing ideas around every day, but even though I was the ostensible "leader" of the process, there were a number of times that we were all not in lock-step agreement with how best to move forward.  And those disagreements (driven by passion for the work we were all doing) were an important part of the process.



2) Blocking off your calendars makes a big difference
Whenever I share my goals and expectations for a workshop, museum folks often say something along the lines of  "I don't think we will be able to do all that ..."  However, the fact that people have deliberately blocked off time on their calendars to meet with someone from the "outside" provides the luxury of large blocks of time uninterrupted by phone calls, emails, and the many tiny distractions that normally bog down a museum worker's day.


3) "Quick and Dirty" prototyping with simple materials (like paper and tape) is a great icebreaker!
People often resist the notion of prototyping by saying they don't have the time or money to prototype -- to which I instantly reply, "if you don't have time and money to prototype your exhibits, will you have time and money to fix your mistakes once you've installed your exhibits?"  Also doing fast and simple prototyping exercises with just paper and masking tape is a nice way to "break the ice" by introducing prototyping as a tool for building internal capacity.




4) Bring examples of prototypes, exhibits, and materials to the workshop!
When I travel to give workshops (even faraway to Bulgaria!) I usually pack two suitcases, one for my clothes, and one for my workshop materials, including prototype exhibit examples.  If a (PowerPoint) picture is worth a thousand words, an actual prototype device or exhibit material sample that workshop participants can touch and try out is worth at least ten thousand words!




5) Get out of the workshop room and out onto the exhibit floor!
More action, less talk about how to change/make/improve exhibits.  I learned a new Bulgarian word during this trip -- the Cyrillic spelling would be: Можело. (The English pronunciation would be: Moj-e-lo.)  Basically, my sense of the word is "we can do this!" or "this can be done!" Exactly the right attitude for prototyping!




6) Get feedback early and often from visitors.
Forget about what you and I may think about these exhibit ideas, what do visitors think?  The only way to find out is to get your ideas and prototypes in front of visitors as soon as you can.




7) Don't forget the index cards (and whiteboards, and scissors, and tape ...)
Prototyping is a way of "thinking with your hands." But if you don't have some materials to think and tinker (thinker?) with your creative momentum will often stall -- so connect with your workshop hosts to make sure you have good access to tools and materials (even if you have to pack your own index cards!) 



I really like using whiteboards for workshops more than those big paper easel pads -- they're reusable and taking pictures of each whiteboard before they are erased provides easy images to drop into follow-up reports (or blog posts!)





8) You can prototype graphics and labels, too.
In my opinion, you can prototype anything in your museum -- not just exhibit components, but also educational programs, computer games, graphics ...





9) Cast your nets wide.
Look for ways to amplify and spread your message during your workshops.  In my case, I was fortunate to also be able to present a workshop to museum professionals from all around Bulgaria, while in Sofia.




10) Learn from people and places outside your workshop rooms!
I have been fortunate to visit Bulgaria several times -- I'd happily suggest a visit there to anyone! (Raise your seats and stow your tray tables, because this is the travelogue section of this post.)

During my most recent trip, I spent some time in Plovdiv, Bulgaria's second-largest city.  Plovdiv is a cool combination of a modern city, a beginner's parkour course (tons of steps, hills, and steep slopes) and restored Roman artifacts and structures -- all intermixed with each other!



While I was in Plovdiv, I got to visit the construction site of a massive Roman Basilica project filled with amazing mosaic floors from the Fourth Century! I imagine after the project opens it will be a candidate to be named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.




To finish up my trip with a massive dose of culture shock, I attended ComicCon in Sofia it was amazing to see worldwide pop culture viewed through a Balkan lens!




One last picture (and tip!) "Eat where the locals eat!" Here I am with some of my Bulgarian friends at a Turkish restaurant inside a Bulgarian truckstop.




THANK YOU, THANK YOU, THANK YOU to both the Fulbright Specialist Program and my excellent colleagues at Muzeiko for making my trip and workshops possible!



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Paul Orselli writes the posts on ExhibiTricks. Paul likes to combine interesting people, ideas, and materials to make exhibits (and entire museums!) with his company POW! (Paul Orselli Workshop, Inc.) Let's work on a project together!

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Sunday, September 22, 2019

Searching for Index Cards in Bulgaria


I recently returned from a trip to Bulgaria as part of the Fulbright Specialist program (which I will report on in more detail in a future ExhibiTricks post!)

But for now, I want to talk about index cards.  In the U.S. these small rectangles of card stock (examples pictured above at the top of this post)  help people organize everything from recipes to doctoral dissertations.  So I thought nothing of it when I asked my Fulbright project partners at Muzeiko in Sofia to order some index cards for us to use during our staff development and exhibit training workshops together.

It turns out that index cards are not really a thing in Bulgaria. 

Even after exchanging a number of emails with pictures and links, my project partners at Muzeiko reported that if I wanted to use index cards for our exhibit development exercises, I would have to bring my own.

So I put a large supply of index cards into my suitcase and we happily used those cards to sort through exhibit ideas and possibilities together in Sofia.


The folks at Muzeiko immediately saw the advantage of these handy little tools and remarked that they were "better than paper slips" at organizing ideas because the index cards were durable and savable and could also be folded or punched through to help connect and express ideas.

Also several of the participants mentioned that they didn't really think about "chunking" ideas (or breaking complex ideas into smaller parts) when they were developing and designing exhibits -- perhaps because they didn't have a tool like index cards to work with?

All of this has me thinking about the tools we use, or don't use (or don't even know that exist!) when we are doing our work in museums.  Could there be some "index cards" out there that could be helping you do your own creative work in new and different ways?  Feel free to share your own favorite creative/creation tools in the "Comments Section" below.

P.S. In the spirit of international cooperation, I left my entire supply of index cards with my friends at Muzeiko.  I can't wait to see what new ideas they come up with by using them!



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Paul Orselli writes the posts on ExhibiTricks. Paul likes to combine interesting people, ideas, and materials to make exhibits (and entire museums!) with his company POW! (Paul Orselli Workshop, Inc.) Let's work on a project together!

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Thursday, September 12, 2019

Leave No Holes!


It's interesting to me how often in museums I visit  (especially places with lots of hand-on exhibits) that there are "holes" in their exhibits or exhibit galleries.

By this, I mean that some part of an exhibit (or an entire exhibit piece) was sufficiently annoying, or problematic to keep repairing, and so was simply removed -- without providing any sort of replacement activity or substitute exhibit component.

This often leads to extremely confused visitors looking for tools or parts of an activity referred to in an exhibit label that are no longer physically there.

Believe me, I know from hard-won experience how difficult it can be to maintain a large set of interactive exhibits, but for the sake of your visitors please LEAVE NO HOLES!



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Paul Orselli writes the posts on ExhibiTricks. Paul likes to combine interesting people, ideas, and materials to make exhibits (and entire museums!) with his company POW! (Paul Orselli Workshop, Inc.) Let's work on a project together!

If you enjoy the blog, please help support ExhibiTricks through our PayPal "Tip Jar"

Sunday, September 1, 2019

Don't Be An RFP Weasel


An emerging museum recently asked me to review an RFP document they were preparing. 

Unfortunately, a part of their boilerplate text outlined a number of tasks (basically "free work" like sketches, complete interactive exhibit descriptions, etc.)  that they expected RFP respondents to complete as part of their submission.

I immediately informed the museum's staff that not only was speculative work (especially included as a requirement for an RFP) inappropriate, but it was unethical.

Initially, the museum's response was defensive --  "we are just using verbiage that we copied from other RFPs."  My rejoinder was that making a copy of something that was bad to begin with, doesn't make the new document better!

Fortunately, the National Association for Museum Exhibition (NAME) (one of the Professional Networks of the American Alliance of Museums)  has posted an Ethics Statement on their website that clearly addresses this issue. Item #4 of the Ethics statement states:

No member shall solicit free or speculative designs or plans from independent designers or exhibit fabricators. Members should discourage the submission of speculative designs from these outside sources.


In this case, once the folks at the emerging museum read the "official" ethics document from NAME they did the right thing and completely removed the offending language from their RFP.

Unfortunately, requests for "spec work" still regularly show up in RFPs -- either by accident or design.  Sometimes respondents don't feel comfortable confronting (or ignoring) such RFP requirements/requests, but unless we help the folks issuing RFPs understand that speculative work is inappropriate (and also whenever possible calling out such RFPs) this practice will not change.

Maybe once we eliminate spec work requests from RFPs we can also get museums to drop the stupidly archaic (and decidedly non-environmentally friendly) requirement for multiple paper copies of RFP submissions in addition to digital documents. How about if you want paper copies, you just print a few copies of them out at your museum to share with staff? (And do you really need paper copies?)


While we're on the subject of RFPs, I'd be remiss not to point another great FREE resource (also courtesy of NAME) which is an entire online issue of articles (and "dos and don'ts") about RFPs including bonus downloadable documents related to the RFP process. Click on over to the NAME website to find the RFP Issue there.



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Paul Orselli writes the posts on ExhibiTricks. Paul likes to combine interesting people, ideas, and materials to make exhibits (and entire museums!) with his company POW! (Paul Orselli Workshop, Inc.) Let's work on a project together!

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Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Off to Bulgaria!

Muzeiko Building Exterior

Through an award from the U.S. State Department's Fulbright Specialist Program, I'll soon be off to Bulgaria to work with wonderful colleagues at Muzeiko, the amazing children's science museum located in the capital of Sofia.

My work in Bulgaria will focus on increasing internal capacity at Muzeiko, especially as it relates to exhibit design and development.

If you'd like to keep track of my trip and what I learn in Bulgaria, check out my Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram pages!



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.

Paul Orselli writes the posts on ExhibiTricks. Paul likes to combine interesting people, ideas, and materials to make exhibits (and entire museums!) with his company POW! (Paul Orselli Workshop, Inc.) Let's work on a project together!

If you enjoy the blog, please help support ExhibiTricks through our PayPal "Tip Jar"