Enter the outdoors

June 21st, 2011 by ExhibitFiles

Many thanks to designer and artist Maria Mortati for her solstice post about taking museums outside.

Outdoor Exploratorium PrototypeLast fall, I was on a panel that discussed exhibits on the waterfront, and Wendy thought it might be good if I shared some of that info here. I thought it might be helpful if I expanded upon some of that thinking for this audience.

My background is in exhibit development and design, and I spent a couple of years at the Exploratorium working on their Outdoor Exploratorium (OE) project during an r+d phase. We created a conceptual framework and developed strategies for siting exhibits on the streets of San Francisco, while building and testing prototypes. The final OE was installed long after I left and can be found here. In addition, I began an informal (and occasional) exhibit platform called the San Francisco Mobile Museum. Most of our exhibits take place outside in the city.

The opportunities and complexities of developing exhibits outdoors are as big as….well, you get the drift. So I won’t attempt to cover it all. Typically though, audience, duration, and partnerships have the biggest impact on any public outdoor project. In the center of that axis lie some possibilities.

San Francisco Mobile Museum - Dolores Park Free yourself from permanence
One approach I have found to yield fairly quick results from a public, maintenance, and political perspective is to take a tack of “ritualized temporary” vs. permanent (especially at a waterfront). Ritualized temporary means that you’re putting something up in the same framework – be it location or time – and changing it out regularly. These can be just as impactful as a permanent installation, and create delightful change.

Why else might this work? Your audience’s appetite for change, and…
When working outdoors, oftentimes you may be dealing with an audience that sees it everyday. So accommodating some form of change is good. Think of anything such as a tidal indicator to Anish Kapoor’s “Cloud Gate” (a.k.a. Millennium Bean). These objects reflect, frame, or rely upon the inherent change in the outdoors as their primary interactive aesthetic.

… your funders, naysayers, and just plain big teams
It’s much easier to get buy-in, sign off, or the big OK from a temporary installation than a permanent piece. Really. It’s also a great way to get a new partner, group, or space to make room for something new if it’s not going to be around forever (even thought sometimes it ends up that way).

It’s a growing experience
In the rare event I’ve been too subtle, it’s extremely complex and consumes a lot of resources to develop outdoor exhibits. However, I believe in any museum it’s important for exhibit teams (and individuals) to have experiences that offer them opportunities for practice. So using strategies such as a ritualized temporary approach ensure that happens. It helps grow institutional competency and can also broaden your reach.

Note: Here is a very rough list of notes and resources I have found inspirational and useful when looking overall at developing for the outdoors. As you can imagine, I’m far from the last word on the topic, so please feel free to suggest additions – it might be nice to flesh it out further and perhaps post it here!

Maria Mortati

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