Friday, June 14, 2024

Bringing Dark History to Light



In the past few months, I had two interconnected experiences related to Belene, a forced labor camp in Bulgaria.

Belene was a prison camp in northern Bulgaria on an island in the Danube River that was active from approximately 1949 to 1987.  Belene was one of the places where the Bulgarian regime would send dissidents or just about anyone who disagreed publicly with the policies of Bulgaria's socialist state.

This past March, I had the opportunity to tour with a local volunteer guide the site of the former Belene camp, a remote natural area filled with decaying buildings that are slowly being interpreted and restored.  It's a bit of a strange experience since a penitentiary still operates in the western part of the island, while the eastern part is a managed natural reserve filled with pelicans and other wildlife.




Of course, being in a place where so much human tragedy occurred is a deeply moving experience. But how do you interpret the stories from such a remote place? And how do you push against many people's reluctance to bring up such painful memories from Bulgaria's past?

Enter the Sofia Platform Foundationa non-governmental organization. One part of the Foundation's mission is focused on "promoting remembrance and dealing with the communist past through historical dialogue and education."

To that end, I recently visited a pop-up exhibition entitled “Belene—A Bulgarian Resistance Story” in Washington, D.C. The exhibition drew upon hours of video interviews with Nikola Daskalov, a Belene camp survivor. The exhibit experience provided visitors with the unique opportunity to have a "conversation" with Mr. Daskalov through an interactive AI-driven video system.


The exhibition is one part of the Belene Camp project < 
www.belene.camp >, an effort of the Sofia Platform Foundation, with the support of the America for Bulgaria Foundation, to preserve the memory of Bulgaria's totalitarian past using state-of-the-art technology.

And isn't bringing the past, even the painful and uncomfortable past, into the light of the present in new and engaging ways an essential part of our museum work?  

I urge you to visit all of the organizations' websites linked above to learn more about their important work, including opportunities to "converse" with Belene survivors via a Web interface.





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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, June 4, 2024

Being Braver


I have been studying Bulgarian for the last year or so with an excellent (and extremely patient) tutor based in Sofia, named Billyana.  The other day, during our Zoom lesson, Billyana reminded me to "Be Brave!"

For me, learning a new language as an adult is paradoxical.  You need to acknowledge, right upfront, that you will be making mistakes -- even if you don't want to make those mistakes.  It may be that to really learn a new language, you need to make LOTS of mistakes! And it is important to learn from those mistakes.

So, when Billyana tells me to "Be Brave," it's a shorthand way of encouraging me to dive in and do my best and make mistakes. можело!

Being "braver' carries over to other aspects of life, of course, including museum work. Your first attempt at creating an exhibition or museum program is unlikely to be "perfect." You'll likely need to encounter a few setbacks before you end up with a really great program or exhibit.

Maybe that's why I enjoy doing exhibit prototyping so much. Prototyping actually gives you permission to make mistakes, learn from those mistakes, and bring "brave" ideas and energy to your work.


I hope this post encourages you to be "braver" this week in your own creative work!

 
Благодаря Биляна!


 

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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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Saturday, May 25, 2024

Don't Forget Your Workshop Suitcase!


I recently helped present a workshop on prototyping and exhibit development at the annual InterActivity conference organized by the Association of Children’s Museums.

Ably assisted by my co-presenters, Joe Cook and Blake Wigdahl, the three of us touched on how to move from basic exhibit ideas to testing and evaluation to the creation of the finished products. I even got to reveal the connection between ELVIS and museum exhibit prototyping! (Check out this related post here.)



A great workshop not only requires careful planning, but you also need some “stuff “to help take your stories out of a PowerPoint presentation on the screen and into the real world. I always bring a suitcase full of prototype examples and exhibit pieces to pass around and to help illustrate my main talking points. That combination of "stories" and "stuff" really creates a memorable social learning experience for your workshop participants.

So, the next time you are thinking about how to share your stories during a workshop or presentation, don’t forget to pack some extra ‘stuff” for the road!




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Wednesday, May 15, 2024

Ouch! Dealing with the Unexpected


I'm on my way to present at the Association of Children's Museums annual InterActivity Conference in Madison, Wisconsin.  

Of course, I've done a lot of preparation for both my presentation and trip, but one thing I didn't anticipate was falling and breaking my shoulder the day before my departure. OUCH!

How can we best deal with the unexpected in our museum work and in the rest of our lives? Two main things stand out, I think.

1) FLEXIBILITY It's okay to acknowledge that you may have to shift from your original intentions. It's good to come up with a workable "Plan B" ( or C or D). 

2) SUPPORT SYSTEMS  The people around you (whether coworkers, project partners, or family members) are there to support you.  Don't be afraid or too proud to ask for their help.

Here's hoping you get to show your flexibility and flourish with support when the unexpected arises -- and in a less dramatic way than a broken bone!



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Saturday, May 4, 2024

Is Your Museum In A Rut?


Why is there such a desire to touch things in an art museum? Does all that concentrated looking create a pent-up demand to use our other senses? Or do we long to get a better sense of how an artist created something and the materials they used? 

I was thinking about these things after a recent Art Museum visit.  But then I took a step back and wondered why so many Art Museums and galleries are so often composed of repeating "white boxes" for their displays.

I don't mean to pick on the Art Museum in question, but the galleries there (and in many other art-oriented museums) often seem to lose track of the intellectual and design values of variety in their exhibit environments. Visitors to Art Museums are often faced with the classic "pure white box" style gallery repeated over and over. Within each pure white space, artworks are arranged linearly or in grid patterns on the walls or floors. Couldn't an occasional gallery wall be painted red or blue? 

Different genres of museums tend to get into these stylistic and design "ruts."

My children once remarked on a History Museum exhibition as being a "bunch of old brown things" because the furniture, textiles, and documents on display were all old and brown! The visual rhythm of "brown" and "old" became a sort of unvarying rut that overwhelmed the designers' ultimate content goals. Each object in every glass case was also set on sepia or earth-toned backgrounds.

Have some museum genres become like particular radio stations for both exhibition designers and visitors?  Tune into pristine white spaces on the Art Museum channel and the dimly lit galleries full of "old brown stuff" on the History Museum station?

Are the typical design "ruts" of many science centers -- filled with bright colors and wildly varying architectural forms really conducive to thinking deeply about scientific content?

How can we, as exhibition creators, push ourselves out of the ruts and vary our exhibition design approaches to create more interesting museum spaces and content-driven experiences for our visitors?


Please share your own experiences or examples of "rut-breaking" exhibition spaces in the "Comments" section below!



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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, April 25, 2024

On the Road Exhibit Inspiration


I'm currently on the road in the Bay Area of California, but wanted to give a quick tip of the hat to the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco for a super interactive element in their "Color of Life" exhibition.

Sets of colored strings are strung in front of video monitors. When you pluck one (or more) strings, you immediately get a visual burst of colored dots on the screen behind the strings accompanied by some musical tones.  Shortly after that, a graphic with a brief text message shares some interesting information about how the single color (or color combination) you created by twanging the correspondingly-colored string shows up in Nature. 

(See the image below and check out this YouTube video link of my wife playing with the exhibit .)



Frankly, I loved everything about this interactive.  It created an unusual interface with tactile, visual, and auditory feedback.  It was intuitive and inspired experimentation (what if I pluck more than one string simultaneously?)  It offered a phygital (physical+digital) interactive component that actually made sense in the context of the exhibition theme.  It also offered bite-sized and interesting pieces of content, and it was FUN!

What more can you ask for from an interactive museum experience?

So, BRAVO Cal Academy!  If you'd like to find out more about the "Color of Life" exhibition, check out the exhibition webpage and this "Creating a Colorful Exhibit video.




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Wednesday, April 17, 2024

"Have To" Conferences vs. "Want To" Conferences



I've recently returned from the Museum Association of New York (MANY) annual conference.  It was a fun and fulfilling event, filled with interesting people, strong session content and keynotes, and a solar eclipse!

It made me think of how often I hear colleagues grudgingly describing some other museum conferences as ones they "have" to attend, as opposed to conferences they "want" to attend.

So what are some of the qualities of conferences (like ACM's InterActivity or ECSITE) that I enjoy, learn from, and WANT to attend?

Size Matters
In my opinion, there is such a thing as a conference that is TOO big. I don't like the feeling of constantly being engulfed in a sea of attendees madly rushing around.  Also, it's often hard to find people in a big mob. I prefer the much less overwhelming regional conferences or the smaller national/international events.

"My" People
Does it feel like the people you meet during a conference have similar interests and concerns?  Or does it feel like you might have wandered into an event where everyone is in a different business than you are?  Some conferences are geared more toward directors, while other gatherings feel more diverse.  I relish reconnecting with trusted colleagues, but I also want to attend an event to expand my network and meet new like-minded folks.

Content is King
In addition to the social aspects of conferences, I want to learn new things and expand my professional knowledge. Are the sessions filled with new and challenging ideas presented by a range of practitioners?  One nice feature of the MANY Conference is that they convert the highest-rated sessions to online presentations so people who couldn't attend the physical conference can still access high-quality content.

Who Cares?
Last but not least, are you left with the feeling that the event organizers actually care about you and your conference experiences?  I've stopped attending some professional gatherings <cough> AAM <cough> where I've felt like the interests of directors and large museums take precedence over exhibit folks and independent museum professionals.


What do you think?  What are the things that make you WANT to attend a conference?  Let us know by leaving a comment below!



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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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Saturday, April 6, 2024

Learning About Creative Partners in Bulgaria!


I've just returned from Pleven, a city in northern Bulgaria, where I helped lead a week-long series of professional development workshops (called MUSE Academy) for Bulgarian colleagues working in museums and allied cultural organizations across the country.

One of the things I've been thinking about after this most recent trip to Bulgaria is how to recognize the four qualities that make great Creative Partners.

For me, the best Creative Partners are the ones that 1) Have Fun; 2) Think Big;  3) Work Flexibly; and 4) Get Stuff Done.  Below are some of the ways that the MUSE Academy fostered Creative Partners, and the four qualities below are important indicators to keep in mind when working with partners on any creative and challenging project.


1) Have Fun
My memories of working with my two MUSE Academy co-instructors, Christina Ferwerda and Jamie Lawyer, are filled with laughter.  We all really believe in working hard during our trips to Bulgaria, with extensive planning ahead of time. And yet, our work is enjoyable because we have fun together.




2) Think Big 
Our creative partners at the America for Bulgaria Foundation sponsor the MUSE Academy, and we are so lucky to have Nadia Zaharieva and Yuliana Decheva as the point people from the Foundation driving everything forward.  Nadia and Yuliana push us to "think bigger" and to create more opportunities for the MUSE Academy participants, in turn building even greater capacity in the Bulgarian museum and cultural sectors.




3) Work Flexibly
Unexpected events occur in every project I've worked on. Our time in Pleven was no exception, as a few "Bulgarian surprises" came up during our week there. Despite this, I was sure that my Creative Partners would be flexible and figure out ways to overcome any challenges rather than complaining or pointing fingers.




4) Get Stuff Done 
Можело is a Bulgarian word meaning roughly, "This can be done!"  We strive for a spirit of Можело during our week together with MUSE Academy participants -- to push against the notion of "This is not possible" and to accomplish a lot together and challenge ourselves creatively.





Here's hoping you can find wonderful Creative Partners that meet all four of these criteria when you put together your next project!






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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, March 26, 2024

Museum Video Conversations on YouTube


Over the past few years, I've been fortunate to chat with museum professionals from all over the world on my POW! YouTube channel.


There is a growing library of over 100 videos to choose from, so why not browse the POW! YouTube channel and discover the latest conversations with museum colleagues?  And if you have recommendations for people I can bring to YouTube (maybe even yourself?) please let me know!




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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, March 18, 2024

Back to Bulgaria for MUSE Academy 3!


I'm super excited to be heading back to Bulgaria in just a few days to kick off the THIRD edition of the MUSE Academy program sponsored by the America for Bulgaria Foundation (ABF).

The MUSE Academy will equip Bulgarian professionals from museums and other cultural organizations with the tools to create compelling exhibits and tell powerful stories that will keep visitors returning for more.

I am doubly excited to share the MUSE Academy teaching stage with colleagues Jamie Lawyer and Christina Ferwerda!

Check out this recent article from the ABF website, which shares more information about my work and the MUSE Academy. Also, follow me on Twitter (X), Facebook, and Instagram, where I will post live updates from Bulgaria!

Right after we return from Bulgaria, Christina, Jamie, and I will present a session about our work in the Balkans at the annual Museum Association of New York (MANY) Conference in Albany titled "Six Things that Three Americans Learned About Museum Capacity Building in Bulgaria."



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Thursday, March 7, 2024

Small Museum Spaces = Big Visitor Experiences



On a recent visit to the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) in Boston with my family, I was impressed by not only the big exhibition galleries and art but also some smaller, more intimate exhibition spaces.

In particular, the Musical Instruments gallery was a perfect "right-sized" museum experience.  As you can see by the section of the museum map from the MFA below, the space is barely bigger than the nearby ticketing desk area.



However, while small, every aspect of the Musical Instruments gallery was polished to jewel-like perfection.

To begin with, the space was slightly off the main entrance and easily missed if you were rushing into some of the special exhibition galleries.  Unlike most of the galleries in the MFA, Musical Instruments was sealed by a heavy glass door that blocked out the sound from the rest of the museum.  This was highlighted by the soft music playing inside the gallery --- very appropriate considering the subject of the gallery's contents!

The instruments on display were unusual and interesting (like the ceremonial trombone pictured at the top of this post). Because the space was small, with only a few other people inside, it rewarded careful observation and concentration. Minute details that might otherwise be glossed over in the hustle and bustle of larger MFA galleries were instead admired and appreciated.



The Musical Instruments gallery experience felt like an exhibit oasis in the middle of the MFA.  As a visitor, I appreciated the respite and felt recharged to explore some of the bigger, busier galleries.

So here's to small museum spaces!  How might you add a small or quiet moment to your museum or to your next exhibit project?




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Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Exhibit Design Inspiration -- Decisions, Decisions!


Sometimes as part of a museum exhibit experience, we'd like the users to make a choice of some sort -- "Which historical figure do you want to find out about?"  "Choose one of these six minerals to test ..." "Did your animal survive the winter?" and so on.

While these kinds of decision points as part of an interactive experience can be handled by a digital/computer device or (gasp!) some sort of Artificial Intelligence application, I'm a big fan of a decidedly more "old school" analog approach -- incorporating the devices used in board games (dice, spinners, flippers, carnival wheels, etc.) to provide different content or experiential choices for museum visitors.

Why use things like dice or spinners in an exhibition instead of a randomized digital equivalent?

Here are a few reasons:

SOCIABILITY 
Watching a spinning carnival wheel or having several people throw dice to make a choice in an exhibition is inherently a more social experience than one person hunching over a touch screen.

SUSTAINABILITY
Spinners or dice don't need to be plugged in.

ACCESSIBILITY
Physical selection devices can be used by people with a wide range of abilities.  For example, all these "old school" game devices can be set up so that users with low or no vision can still participate.

SCALABILITY
Game elements can also easily scale up or down. Large-scale game elements add to the "sociability" factor mentioned above.

Check out this example below from a nature game (about geese!) I saw during my last trip to Bulgaria.



TESTABILITY
Simple selection devices can be easily mocked up when testing exhibit prototypes, or just by doing a quick Google or Amazon search for "game piece suppliers," you can find lots of good places to buy all sorts of pieces to use for testing or in finished exhibit components.

In that regard, while researching this post, I came across a great website boardgamegeek.com. In addition to having all sorts of information about, and reviews of, board games, the site also has this handy webpage that provides an alphabetical listing of online outlets that sell game pieces and related materials. 

FAMILIARITY
Most, if not all, of your museum visitors will automatically know how to use a carnival wheel or set of dice.

MAINTAINABILITY
Last but not least, these low-tech items are very durable and easily maintained or replaced.  Even better, all of these items can be self-contained -- that is, without loose parts.  Even dice can be put into spinning cages or the awesome Pop-O-Matic, so they don't go astray.



So, why not take a chance (roll the dice!) and incorporate some "old school" physical game elements into your next exhibit design or prototyping session?






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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, February 18, 2024

Successful Imperfection



The other day one of my sons wanted to cook up a little surprise for our family.  He worked hard to make some onion bhaji based on a recipe that one of his college friends taught him.  (You can try making some of your own bhajis by following this recipe.)

Everyone enjoyed the special appetizers and found them quite tasty, but I noticed my son was a little upset, and I asked him what the problem was.  He was disappointed that the bhaji hadn't turned out exactly how he had hoped and had actually thrown some of them away because he didn't think they were "good enough" to serve.

We are often our own worst critics, and many times the fear of "less than perfect" paralyzes our work. 

Sometimes parts of an exhibition or a new program won't be 100% complete or be *perfect* on opening day -- and while that might gnaw at us as creators, our visitors are usually focused on enjoying the new exhibits or programs we've created.

Let's continue to learn from our failures, but let's also take time to savor our "imperfect" successes.



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Thursday, February 8, 2024

Do You Need Walls to be a Museum?


Do you need walls to be a Museum?

It's a question worth asking again, as the Rubin Museum of Art recently announced that it would be closing its New York City museum building later this year -- essentially becoming a "museum without walls."

There are many instances of emerging museums starting out as "museums without walls," with the ultimate aim in those cases to end up inside a permanent museum home rather than reversing the sequence as the Rubin is doing.

But really, what are the essential qualities of a "museum"?  I would say that strong museum experiences are defined by three S words: Stuff, Stories, and Social. (Note that "Structure" isn't one of those S words!)

First, you need some kind of "STUFF," whether artifacts, collection objects, or exhibit elements.  Even completely digital museums, like the Girl Museum, still emphasize the notion of thematic exhibitions, albeit through purely online installations.

Secondly, you should have strong STORIES to share.  The FREE THE MUSEUM project works to share stories and place their installations in and around communities in places like parks, streets, or community gathering places rather than museum buildings.

And lastly, museums must be SOCIAL places, providing opportunities for people to gather and interact with each other.  The "new" Rubin Museum aims to provide such social opportunities for people to interact with new installations related to Himalayan Art by working with creative partners around the world.

So I would say you do NOT need walls to create strong and memorable museum experiences. 

However, it will be difficult for "wall-free museums" to shift the natural perception of so many members of the public who immediately think of permanent, physical buildings when the word "museum" comes up and consider museum buildings the mark of institutional legitimacy.






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Wednesday, January 31, 2024

Why "Best Museum" Lists are the Worst!



I hope your museum is better than chasing after some hokey "best of" list.

USA Today regularly publishes multiple categories of these "Best Museum" lists.

The whole process starts with an incredibly bad premise -- how can you compare two completely different museums, say the Museum of Modern Art and the American Museum of Natural History, and claim one of them is the "best"?

The people who most often seem interested in these "best museum" lists are executive directors or board members begging you to vote (multiple times!) for their institution or museum marketers looking to churn out another breathless press release.

Do we really need our work recognized by giving ourselves flimsy PR bragging rights because of some bogus "best of" list?

You don't actually get to claim the title of "the best" for your museum with some cheesy marketing stunt -- instead, you need to try every day to create amazing experiences so that your visitors keep coming back to your museum, again and again, and telling their friends and family to do the same.








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Tuesday, January 23, 2024

Cool Tool: KEEPa Magnetic Clip


My brother-in-law recently told me about KEEPa -- a cool multi-function magnetic clip/strap device.

A durable polyurethane strap has two super-strong magnets encased at each end, surrounded by small ridges to reduce sliding or skidding.



KEEPa is the perfect kind of multi-purpose tool -- the more you use it, the more new ways you come up with ways to put it to use.

Find out more about KEEPa on their website or see people putting it to use on the KEEPa Instagram page.





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Tuesday, January 16, 2024

The "Three List" Trick




As I continue coordinating my plans for 2024, I'll often be relying on my trusty "Three List" trick.

Despite the "best-laid plans" for our museum and exhibit projects, things often do go awry.  Whether it happens during the initial stages of value engineering (often providing neither "value" nor "engineering") or just before the opening of a new building or exhibition, the harsh realities of schedules and budgets often squeeze our hopes and dreams like a vise.



In an effort to shake myself out of the funk that often accompanies different parts of the exhibit/museum development process, I've taken to creating three lists for myself and suggesting that clients do the same.

What are the aims of those three lists, you ask? 

1) Things that MUST happen before opening

2) Things that would be NICE to happen before opening

3) Things that ABSOLUTELY WON'T HAPPEN until after opening

Exactly which things you put on your lists will vary from project to project and situation to situation.  (It's a pretty sure bet your new museum will need working front doors on your first day, but if a few staff office chairs arrive a week late, it's probably not a reason to cancel the opening gala.)  But to proceed otherwise, as if everything on all the punch lists and wish lists and to-do lists will happen before opening, is, at best, a rookie mistake or, at worst, a one-way express ticket to Burnout City.

So pause a moment to process the bad news you just got from your General Contractor (or Director or Fire Marshall or Lead Designer ...), then take a deep breath and gather your team together to start updating your three lists.

Your project (not to mention your health and sanity) will be better for it.






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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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