Archive for August, 2010

Busman’s holiday

Thursday, August 12th, 2010 by Wendy Pollock

Most of us in the exhibition field can’t stay away from museums, and quite a few reviews on this site were posted after holiday travelslike Eric Siegel’s review of Mind, which he contributed after his family visited the Exploratorium three years ago.

If you’re about to go on holiday, consider bringing back a review to share with your colleagues. When we surveyed members of the site earlier this year, we asked what kinds of reviews you’d like to see. There were nearly a hundred requests, from topics (like wetlands) to types of exhibitions (like those using green materials) to specific places. Anyone going to Te Papa? For those who’ve shared your experiences with family and friends (and your photos), many thanks.

A view from both sides of the fence

Tuesday, August 10th, 2010 by Wendy Pollock

ExhibitFiles members  Mike Levad and Chris Lee have worked for both museums and commercial exhibit firms and are now colleagues at Split Rock Studies in Minnesota. In this guest post, they reflect on the pros and cons of working on “both sides of the fence.”  (That’s Mike on the left.)

Hey Chris,

Having worked for museums for most of my career and now having worked for an exhibit design/build firm for the last two years I am noticing that there are some distinct things that I both miss about working for a museum and love about working for a firm. I was wondering if you had any thoughts about the matter now that you too are working for the other team?


I have. My career has been pretty evenly split between the two worlds and I’ve had a chance to see the best in both. I love working on the consultant side of the equation, I thrive in the variety of the work. But at the same time I miss being able to walk an exhibit floor and see how the things I’ve worked on are being used every day. I miss the instinctive sense of what will work in a specific space —and what won’t— that develops after you’ve changed it out a few times. And I miss having a constant supply of visitors just a few steps away that makes prototype testing much easier.

Maybe it all boils down to one thing—missing visitors. Every exhibitionist craves an audience, after all. Consultants don’t often have the opportunity to even see their finished work, let alone see how visitors use the exhibit over time. They compensate for that in several ways; taking pictures, reading summative evaluation reports, and seeking feedback from clients on how everything is working. But I do miss the shortened route to better exhibits that day-to-day involvement with visitors provided.

What do you say we fix that by throwing open the doors of the studio to the public? We could charge admission!

I miss visitors too. Working at a museum, your clients are your visitors. I liked helping the nervous father of a three year old find the bathrooms before something bad happened. I always enjoyed blowing something up for 300 screaming camp-in kids.

As an outside developer, your clients are the museum or park staff and the have very different needs than museum visitors. First off, they tend to know where their bathrooms are and generally explosions in the conference room are frowned upon. Secondly, as professionals they come to the table with a large amount of passion and knowledge about their topic and are hoping you can make the most of those two things within their often limited resources.

Limited resources are the dark, shadowy figure always lurking in the corner. I like to problem solve, mind you, maybe more than anything else—it’s how my brain is wired (in fact, I’ll go out of my way to make problems just to have something to solve!), and value engineering is problem solving at its most applied. But it’s always frustrating to see all the good ideas that wind up on the cutting room floor for the want of money. On the other hand, fortunately, some bad ideas wind up there too.


One big lesson that I have learned “the hard way” is that our clients are customers and not colleagues. When I was an in-house developer passionate—and sometimes rather loud—“discussions” about exhibit content and methodology were seen as an integral part of the process. Working for a firm has forced me to have a calmer, more reasoned, and frankly, a more professional collaborative approach when tough decisions need to be made.


Perhaps you were just ahead of your time and the competition-of-ideas model seems set to become a trend. All kidding aside, one of the interesting things about consulting is that you get to experience the trends that sweep through the museum world in something other than an academic way. In part because as a consultant you get to play a small role in how those trends play out in individual institutions. On the museum side those trends (and sometimes buzzwords) can occasionally turn into a course of action that may not be a great fit with that particular venue. When we’re lucky any mismatches between message, delivery, and money become clear and we get to re-direct those resources somewhere better.


Being an exhibit developer is the perfect job for me because I love learning new things. I am great at cocktail parties because I know a lot of useless information. The level of content diversity is a major difference in working at a firm. Not that I did not have the opportunity to work on a variety of subjects as an in-house developer, but it was nothing like working as a consultant. In my two years at Split Rock Studios I have developed exhibits about shipwrecks in the Great Lakes, a California slough, the loess hills of Iowa, a Michigan fen, and the environmental history of water in central Minnesota. As a former science museum staffer and self-described science nerd, I may read blogs about organic light emitting diode displays, but I tend not to seek out articles about schooners going down in Lake Huron in my spare time. Developing exhibits for these topics was a rewarding experience because I not only had to learn about these very specific stories, but then I had to create ways to make an array of engaging visitor-focused experiences to bring the stories to life.

Besides working on new topics, I am learning different exhibition techniques than the ones I used working in a science center. Smaller museums and nature centers require us to create more durable exhibit components because the sites generally don’t have any exhibit maintenance staff. At first I saw the lack of electro-mechanical interactivity as a serious limitation. Now I view it as a creative constraint that can lead to a more innovative solution.


The last point you made is interesting because it points to one of the biggest benefits of there even being a consultosphere—cross pollination. Collection/location-based museums and idea-based science centers are fairly different worlds. Consultants often move back and forth between them and can bring over methods, materials, and even concepts that improve both. So it’s not just project variety that makes consulting rewarding (though I am a huge novelty junkie), but also being able to foster those kinds of exchanges.


What about the benefit of working on a topic more than once? In a museum you probably will only do an exhibit on a given topic one time. Working for a firm one develops a repertoire of successful delivery devices that can be used in different ways depending on the content. When you are working on your third or fourth nature center and they want to do a food-web device you have a variety of methods to choose from. The animals and their connections might vary from region to region but the way visitors interact with the content is similar. This does not mean that we are using off–the-shelf solutions but rather adapting known mechanisms to best match the content.


What’s interesting to me about that is how we can still create a unique experience even though some elements in an exhibit may be repeated. I think that in some cases a recognizable delivery system, like a flip label, can help people begin to navigate and feel comfortable with an otherwise unfamiliar environment. In fact, if we don’t provide some familiar delivery devices I think we actually run the risk of frustrating visitors. In part this is because visitors are bringing expectations that are formed over time from their previous interactions with similar devices. For example, how many times have you seen someone tapping the glass of a computer monitor that wasn’t actually a touch screen?


Ah, yes. I believe I’ve actually done that once or twice.

Another benefit I’ve noticed working at a smaller organization such as a design firm is that I am able to go directly to the CEO with any concerns or opportunities. When I worked for a large science center there were two layers of management between the CEO and me.


I agree that a flatter organization is more nimble and more open to opportunities, especially ones that come from unexpected places. Those layers serve some purposes, of course, but just as often they get in the way of you and the boss knowing what each other thinks. As contractors though, we have the luxury of being free to focus on just the exhibits we’re developing. Museum departments and staff have to wade through many competing internal demands on their resources. That makes it challenging for them to develop new exhibits at the pace they would prefer.


Finally, along with a much flatter structure, one thing I appreciate about this firm in particular is the level of transparency in the way things are done. I can look up the job tracking information on any job we have ever done. This helps us learn from our experiences and eventually serve our customers better. The most important thing is to remember, no matter if it is designed by in-house staff or a firm, every exhibit should feed the “muse” and inspire the visitors that we are so lucky to serve.

This exchange first appeared in the March 2009 issue of Legacy magazine and is shared here with their permission.

How did you get here – and will you come back?

Monday, August 9th, 2010 by Wendy Pollock

Word of mouth: That’s how most members found out about ExhibitFiles.  Others stumbled upon it while searching the web. That’s by design: the site uses a number of strategies to make it likely profiles and posts will show up high on search results.

Once people have joined, why do they come back? For inspiration and help with a new project are two big reasons. But email from the site is number one – a reminder to come back and see what’s new.

That’s why we’ll be relaunching the newsletter soon. We’re looking forward to seeing members come back often, and contributing more.

These findings are based on a study carried out earlier this year by Carey Tisdal of Tisdal Consulting, St. Louis, Missouri.

Who belongs to ExhibitFiles?

Monday, August 2nd, 2010 by Wendy Pollock

Who belongs to ExhibitFiles? About 1,600 people from around the world have joined the site since its April 2007 opening – including our newest members, from the Chicago area and Kuala Lumpur, who joined in the last week.

Primary work responsibility of ExhibitFiles members, February 2010When we asked earlier this year, most ExhibitFiles members said they were experienced (54.7%) or senior (25.0%) professionals. Another 14.7% considered themselves “entry level,” and some (4.7%) were students. (Fewer than one percent called themselves “retired.”) Members are involved with exhibitions in a wide variety of ways. Most listed as their primary responsibility exhibition development (33.5%) or exhibition management (13.0%), but we also have members who work primarily in new media, visitor studies, and fabrication and maintenance. (See right.)

Science centers and museums are the type of organization or context in which the largest single group of members work.Primary organization or work context of ExhibitFiles members, February 2010 That’s not surprising, because the site was started by ASTC with funding from the National Science Foundation. But from the beginning, the site has been open to everyone in the museum exhibition community, including independent firms and consultants, the next largest group (17.2%). (See left.)

These findings are based on a study carried out earlier this year by Carey Tisdal of Tisdal Consulting, St. Louis, Missouri. Methods included a February 2010 survey of ExhibitFiles members (N=286, a response rate of 22.2%); in-depth interviews with users with high, medium, and low levels of participation (N=15); and analysis of the ExhibitFiles member database. We’ll be reporting more findings in future posts – and letting you know more about the changes we’re making in response.