Archive for the 'About ExhibitFiles' Category

Creating ExhibitFiles – looking back, looking ahead

Friday, December 9th, 2011 by Wendy Pollock

As the National Science Foundation grant that supported development of ExhibitFiles comes to an end,  Kathleen McLean and I share some reflections.

Opening ExhibitFiles in April 2007 was like opening a public park. There was a vision and a setting—but until people began to arrive, this community website for the exhibition field was almost literally empty.

ExhibitFiles site architecture in March 2007We had projected that perhaps 100 people would join and contribute 30 exhibition case studies. Five years later, membership exceeds 2,000 and continues to grow, with 390+ case studies and reviews posted to date. Instead of the projected 1,000 visits a month, the site regularly exceeds 5,000.

When we received National Science Foundation funding to develop ExhibitFiles in January 2006 (with ASTC as grantee organization, Ideum as designer/software developer), we conceived of the site as part archive and part community. It would be a place to preserve and share experiences and build reflective exhibition practice. The site—including its architecture, software, user interface, and what we came to think of as its human system—was designed to be a work in progress.

We have been able to extend a three-year grant to cover six years of work, three rounds of evaluation, and two major redesigns. Although the NSF grant ends in December, program officers have come to speak of ExhibitFiles as part of the “infrastructure” that supports work in informal science education, and we are grateful that ASTC remains committed to maintaining the site.

As with many other design experiments, along the way there have been insights and unexpected delights as well as some dilemmas still unresolved. With the benefit of evaluation findings and critical review by friends of the site, we share here some observations and reflections on what might happen next.

We have delighted in watching ExhibitFiles grow into an international and interdisciplinary community of practitioners who join together for inspiration, knowledge building, and critique. Members come from 57 countries and a wide variety of museums, academic institutions, and other organizations. Evaluation tells us that while some members post case studies and reviews to raise their professional visibility, more altruistic motivations—like contributing to their professional community—are at least as common.

Discovery Room, National Museum of Natural History, Washington, DCMany case studies have been about science exhibitions, 26 of them NSF-funded, including classics like the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History’s Discovery Room in Washington, D.C. (Judith White), and more recent award-winners like the Huntington Botanical Garden’s Plants Are Up to Something in San Marino, California (Karina White). But over time, we have seen more posts about art galleries and offbeat museums like St. Louis’s City Museum (Jason Jay Stevens). The site provides us with both delightful and haunting glimpses of places near and far—from Austin, Minnesota’s Spam Museum (Dan Spock) to the Choeung Ek Genocide Museum near Phnom Penh, Cambodia (Mary Marcussen).

ExhibitFiles includes both thorough pieces by museum elders and first attempts at review by museum studies students on assignment. The sense of camaraderie, common purpose, devotion to the larger museum field, and sometimes even celebration is evident in contributions and comments. In addition, participants have told project evaluator Carey Tisdal why they value the site. “I love, love, love the case study forum,” said one participant. “That alone provides insight into design and exhibits that is invaluable to designers who don’t have large travel budgets. It is great for inspiration as well as critical reflection.”

We have also identified some areas where ExhibitFiles could be improved. As content builds beyond original expectations, findability becomes more important. We have added open tagging and a browse page. But search functionality is still not what we wish it would be, and evaluation suggests this contributes to a sense that the site is slowly getting bogged down.

People want places to discuss issues and listen in on important conversations. But we wonder whether the current format of ExhibitFiles will be sufficiently adaptable given how much has changed since early 2006. Back then, Facebook wasn’t in general use and Twitter was just on the horizon. It’s now so easy to start a blog or create an online presence that the role of centralized gathering places is an open question. What happens, then, to a devotion not only to my online profile but also to our common field?

What now?
Although the media landscape has changed in recent years, the need for shared experience, reflection, and inspiration has not. The fact that people continue to join ExhibitFiles—even though some may hesitate to disclose details of their own experience or venture a review—seems to us evidence of a continuing thirst for what communities at their best have to offer.

What might help ExhibitFiles remain of service to the exhibition community? Here are some things we hope the site and its community will accomplish in the coming months and years:

  • Welcome. Much of the richness of ExhibitFiles comes from its embrace of the whole museum exhibition community, not just science centers. Members of the site have recommended that ExhibitFiles be more explicit in its inclusion of all sectors of the museum field. We agree.
  • Remember. From the beginning, we hoped ExhibitFiles would be hospitable to both new discoveries and old traditions. As the site has evolved, however, current reviews and recently completed projects have tended to take center stage. But there is much wisdom in past experience. We want to see more reviews and case studies of older, classic exhibitions. One of Kathy’s first posts on ExhibitFiles quotes Canadian designer Bruce Mau: “Growth is only possible as a product of history. Without memory, innovation is mere novelty. History gives growth a direction.”
  • Take risks. Every exhibition is an opportunity to see the world in a different way and tempt people beyond their comfort zones. We want to see more criticism and deep reflection on ExhibitFiles—that’s what other members have told the evaluator, too. We wonder: What would have to happen to make ExhibitFiles more congenial for conversations that wake us up and shake us up?

We are grateful to NSF for taking a risk with this project and to our collaborators, the Ideum programming and design team led by Jim Spadaccini, and evaluators Randi Korn (front-end studies) and Carey Tisdal (remedial and summative studies). And we are grateful to our Core Contributors who were the first to venture into the new and empty public park—and to every one of you, for making it your own. We look forward to continuing our own participation—and to contributing our own pre-internet memories and provocations.

Wendy Pollock was director of research, publications, and exhibitions at ASTC until 2009 and principal investigator (PI) of the NSF grant that supported development of ExhibitFiles. Kathleen McLean, principal of the museum consulting firm Independent Exhibitions, was co-PI. Wendy now lives in Evanston, Illinois, mostly working these days with urban and community forestry projects.

This look back at the creation of ExhibitFiles also appears in the January/February issue of ASTC Dimensions. A report on the evaluation just completed by Carey Tisdal will also be shared here in early 2012.

To learn more about ExhibitFiles or for assistance in posting a case study or review, contact Wendy Hancock (

How not to reinvent the wheel

Thursday, July 28th, 2011 by Wendy Pollock

Shaby Levy's 1977 Directory of Exhibits at Science and Technology CentersThirty years ago, people who developed museum exhibits had a lot more trouble finding out about exhibits in other museums, and there was practically no critical review of each other’s work. (A 1977 Directory of Exhibits at Science and Technology Museums, compiled by Shab Levy of the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, was one answer to the problem, left.) There were frequent comments from funders and others that museums were too often reinventing the wheel (or, as our funder, the National Science Foundation, put it, not “building on prior work”). ExhibitFiles was conceived as a way to change that, taking advantage of what were then (when we were funded, in 2005) new possibilities for sharing content online.

In a session about “Improving Our Practice” at the Visitor Studies Association (VSA) meeting in Chicago this week, Carey Tisdal and I shared some of the history, the fast-changing context, and the remedial evaluation that has helped the site identify areas for improvement. You can find our slides on a VSA wiki site. The remedial evaluation report is posted on

ExhibitFiles at the Visitor Studies Association conference

Tuesday, July 19th, 2011 by Wendy Pollock

Coming to Chicago next week for the Visitor Studies Association conference? Get an update about evaluation of ExhibitFiles during a session on Tuesday, July 26, 9:00-10:15 a.m., when Carey Tisdal and I will be talking about Knowledge, Identity, and Networks in the Informal Learning Community. There are many other sessions on the program which should also be useful to exhibit practitioners. Find out more here.

If you contributed to the ExhibitFiles evaluation by responding to a survey or agreeing to be interviewed about your perspective, we truly appreciate your help. You can find the report of the remedial evaluation on the InformalScience website. Carey will also post results of the summative evaluation that is now underway.

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.

New and improved

Friday, July 30th, 2010 by Wendy Pollock

We’ve listened to you. With your valuable feedback, we’ve been working on a new and improved version of ExhibitFiles, which opens today. Here are some of the features you may notice:

  • Bits – Those short posts we added a few months ago are now visible on the home page.
  • Profiles – We’ve added a tabbed section and place for you to pull in info from other social networking sites like LinkedIn.
  • Members page - We’ve added a sorting feature that highlights top contributors. Users without full names are no longer prioritized.
  • Search – Improvements include more targeted search and more result relevance.
  • Other improvements – We’ve improved browser compatibility and boosted speed.

Over the next few weeks, we’ll be sharing some of the results of the recent evaluation that helped us plan these and other changes still ahead. For now, many thanks to James Kassemi, Jim Spadaccini, and other members of the Ideum team; to Carey Tisdal, evaluator; and to our funder, the National Science Foundation.

Informal Science Education Summit 2010

Wednesday, March 3rd, 2010 by Wendy Pollock

ExhibitFiles contributors are among the 450 people who’ve gathered in Washington, D.C., this week for the biennial ISE Summit, organized by the Center for Advancement of Informal Science Education (CAISE) with support from the National Science Foundation.

NSF’s ISE program has funded a number of projects – CAISE,, and ExhibitFiles among them – that together are building what some have called an “improvement infrastructure” for the informal science education field. The 240+ case studies and reviews, and the growing number of Bits, contributed by ExhibitFiles members are an important part of the collective memory that’s supporting good work i our field.

ExhibitFiles Bits: a new way to share

Friday, February 5th, 2010 by Wendy Pollock

Always meant to post a case study or review but haven’t quite gotten around to it? We still hope you will – but meanwhile, there’s another way to share even a small bit of information or experience. It’s easy to upload an image, or link to our Flickr images or videos on YouTube and add a quick observation or question. You can respond to other Bits with your own images, too.

Along with Bits there are other enhancements to the site that will make it easier to use. Icons in the Comments feed on the main page help you quickly find the newest Bits, with their associated media files.

Let us know what you think. Many thanks to Ideum and to the National Science Foundation for the funding that enabled us to add this feature and keep this site commercial free.

1,000 members and growing

Tuesday, December 23rd, 2008 by Wendy Pollock

We celebrated the solstice by reaching a milestone: There are now 1,000+ members of ExhibitFiles. Welcome to all of our newest members!

Since the site opened at the end of April last year, word has spread, and the community’s grown – and with it, the collection of shared memories and experiences posted here.

There are other ways to share, from the more traditional channels like journal articles to personal blogs. But by contributing to ExhibitFiles, we’re building a collective resource that’s easily accessible, everywhere in the world. We’re glad to see that museum studies students have begun to use the site to post reviews and hope to see more; you’re acting as eyes and ears for the rest of us. And for those who haven’t yet shared your stories, we’ll all look forward to reading about them in the new year. For now, thanks to all for your contributions, and best wishes for 2009.


ExhibitFiles favorites

Wednesday, October 15th, 2008 by Wendy Pollock

If you’re a member of ExhibitFiles, and you haven’t yet “favorited” a case study or review, this would be a good time to start. Just a year and a half after the site initially opened, 69 members have taken time to post 137 case studies and reviews, helping to build a common resource for all of us who work with exhibitions.

But many other members are helping, too, by adding tags and comments, and by marking “favorites.” Over time, “favorites” help site users to browse by “popularity.”

We’ll be recognizing some contributions (and contributors) during the ExhibitFiles brunch at the ASTC conference coming up in Philadelphia. Hope to see some of you there.