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 from 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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