Archive for the 'Design' Category

ExhibitSEED- Measuring an Exhibit’s Sustainability

Friday, June 28th, 2013 by ExhibitFiles

Kari Jensen, Senior Exhibit Developer, Oregon Museum of Science and Industry tells the story of a problem the team encountered and about how it influenced the team’s understanding of sustainable decision-making.

The Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI) and project partners were awarded a five-year grant entitled Sustainability: Promoting sustainable decision-making in informal education by the National Science Foundation (NSF) in 2009. Since then, the project team has developed and vetted tools including the Sustainable Decision-Making Tool and the Green Exhibit Checklist to help museum professionals create more sustainable exhibits that take into account social, environmental, and economic considerations. In 2012, was launched, and in the spring of 2013, five ExhibitSEED professional development workshops were held around the country to train exhibit developers, designers, and fabricators on developing more sustainable exhibits.

At the outset of OMSI’s NSF-funded project on sustainable decision-making, we intended to monitor an exhibit’s sustainability just like anything else—with a set of quantifiable indicators that we could measure at different points in the project to see if we were improving, and if so, by how much. In order to achieve this seemingly straightforward goal, we devised a set of indicators to measure and assess the sustainability of our exhibit development process over time. These indicators would measure social sustainability, economic sustainability, and environmental sustainability of the project.

We created an online survey to track our progress. All project team members logged in weekly to report on social indicators like “team learning” and “team satisfaction,” economic ones like “variance to budget,” and environmental ones—like “waste generated” and “greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from staff project-related travel.” The surveys were tedious, and felt like a waste of time. Counting every sheet of paper and tea bag that was recycled was time consuming and didn’t feel like one of the more impactful decisions that could be made on a project of this scale. Plus, figuring out how much staff paper use was accountable to this project specifically was a challenge when most of us were working on several projects simultaneously. Whether or not people rode their bikes to meetings or drove cars to meetings was interesting but we just didn’t have very many off-site meetings, so again the impact seemed minimal. Plus, it was increasingly apparent than many of the social considerations were not necessarily quantifiable or comparable to other measures—for example, how do you measure a missed opportunity for supporting underserved audiences, and what would that mean in budgetary terms?

Our team was beginning to understand that sustainability is a much more complex concept—and that these specific measurements were almost meaningless without explaining the context around each and every number. We realized that measuring sustainability is far more nuanced and complex than a standardized set of questions could possibly represent.

Sustainability itself is an ideal—it isn’t a destination that is possible to achieve, but rather a journey along which we try to make better, more well rounded decisions by intentionally widening our scope of decision-making criteria. We widen this scope to give a voice to the many valid considerations that should play a role in decision-making but often don’t– especially ones that may not be easily assessed by looking at an Excel spreadsheet. For example, how much stress and grief might one of our budget-driven choices cause staff members or exhibit repair staff down the line? How might purchasing exhibit pieces from the cheapest vendor in town inadvertently harm a woman or minority-owned business struggling to make ends meet? What part does ordering plywood from across the country play in transportation related carbon emissions?

So after a year or two of struggling to measure specific indicators, we realized that it is more valuable to pay attention to the actual discussions that feed into making decisions, rather than the particular outcome of decisions. We developed the “Sustainable Decision-making Tool” to help teams identify these many considerations. When using this tool, teams are forced to take a hard look at all of the visible and invisible impacts of their decisions. The goal of making a more-sustainable choice comes down to making the choice that maximizes positive benefits. Of course every choice has tradeoffs and this tool is also intended to give light to the real tradeoffs that are being made with every choice.

ExhibitSEED workshop participantsAt the beginning of the project, our team oftentimes defaulted to making so-called sustainable decisions based on environmental or “green” considerations, but we tended to overlook some of the important social and economic ones. We found that after putting all of the considerations on the table with the Sustainable Decision-making Tool, we were automatically starting to bring up social, economic, and environmental aspects to every decision in every conversation we had, whether we used the tool or not. It became ingrained in our thinking. As a result of this new approach, we have made many choices that may seem to the untrained eye as less sustainable, but you may find that there were more net positive impacts of the decision than the alternatives.

We invite you to try out the tools and resources offered at, and challenge you to use the three pillars frame of social, economic, and environmental considerations with your project team. You may be surprised by how your project can be more sustainable!

Didn’t make one of the regional ExhibitSEED workshops? Please join us for a free pre-conference workshop at ASTC in Albuquerque (pre-registration is required)!

What is ExhibitSEED? is a place for exhibit and museum professionals to find resources for developing, designing, and building more sustainable exhibits. ExhibitSEED resources are based on a three pillars approach to sustainability that includes environmental, economic, and social considerations. The resources on this website were developed from an interactive science museum perspective, but we hope the information will be valuable to exhibit professionals specializing in all types of museums. The Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI) developed with input from local and national museum industry and design advisors.

What will I find at

Sustainable Practices: Practical tips for incorporating social, economic, and environmental considerations into each phase of exhibit development: Proposal Writing, Project Management, Content Research & Development, Design, Prototyping & Visitor Testing, Production, Evaluation, and End-life.

Decision Making Tool: An activity to use with your team, intended to inspire a well-rounded conversation that leads teams to decisions that consider all three (social, environmental, and economic) aspects of sustainability.

The Green Exhibit Checklist: a tool to evaluate the environmental sustainability of exhibits. It awards points in 5 key strategies for reducing the environmental impact of exhibit production, plus a sixth category for innovation.

Material Guide: an online guide that was created to help exhibit designers and builders choose materials that are better for the environment, for visitors and workers, and make economic sense.

Case Studies: Individual case studies of how museums are integrating the three pillars of sustainability into their operations.

Envisioning Sustainability: An activity designed to help teams explore the concept of sustainability.

Image information

Top: The Sustainable Decision-Making Tool is an activity that teams can do to inspire a well-rounded conversation that leads teams to decisions that consider all three (social, environmental, and economic) aspects of sustainability.

Bottom: ExhibitSEED workshop participants practice using the Green Exhibit Checklist to assess the environmental sustainability of an existing exhibit.

Bilingual Exhibits Research Initiative

Friday, August 17th, 2012 by ExhibitFiles

Nan Renner, Cecilia Garibay, Carlos Plaza, and Steven Yalowitz describe the Bilingual Exhibits Research Initiative, a National Science Foundation Pathways Exploratory Research Project

Does your institution create multilingual exhibits? Do you wonder about how multilingual exhibits may influence engagement and learning?

The Bilingual Exhibits Research Initiative (BERI), NSF DRL#1010666, strives to address professionals’ questions and build our collective knowledge related to:

• How informal science institutions create bilingual exhibits;
• How Spanish-speaking and bilingual visitors use bilingual exhibits; and
• How bilingual exhibits can support engagement with science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) among Latinos in the US.

Bilingual Exhibits—Professional Practices

The BERI team conducted interviews with professionals at 22 U.S. informal science education (ISE) institutions to document current bilingual exhibit practices.
This effort builds on a survey conducted by ASTC and the Exploratorium in 2011.Bilingual  study participants look at and point to a map within a bilingual  exhibit at the San Diego Natural History Museum. Photo shot with a  SenseCam worn by a study participant.

Research questions focus on staff knowledge, beliefs, and practices:
• Who is the audience for bilingual exhibits?
• What is the form and content of bilingual exhibits?
• What is the process for creating bilingual exhibits?
• How do visitors interact with bilingual exhibits?  (as observed and hypothesized)

Publication of these research results is in progress.

Many institutions believe that providing Spanish text increases engagement among Spanish-speakers, although we have very little information about how visitors actually use bilingual exhibits and the resulting benefits.

ISE professionals’ questions about audiences and bilingual exhibits have helped to shape the research agenda with visitors, e.g., Who uses bilingual exhibits, and how? Do bilingual exhibits create visual or mental overload? How much Spanish text is enough? Will bilingual exhibits encourage attendance?

Bilingual Exhibits—Visitor Uses and Benefits

Observations and interviews with Spanish-speaking visitors in social groups will document how visitors use exhibit resources and how they perceive the benefits of bilingual exhibits.

A  bilingual visitor group interacts with geology exhibits while  researchers record observations. Low resolution photo shot with a  SenseCam worn by a researcher.

Research questions focus on social activity involving language (speaking and reading):

• How do individuals and groups engage with text in bilingual exhibits?
• What indicators of learning can be observed?
• How do patterns of engagement and learning correspond with exhibit features?
• How do visitors perceive the benefits of bilingual exhibits?

You can participate! Help create an online archive of bilingual exhibits by adding your reviews, case studies, and “bits”  to ExhibitFiles. Don’t forget to tag your post with “bilingual.”

Post a comment! What are your questions, concerns, and conundrums related to bilingual exhibits? What have you learned about creating bilingual exhibits? Are you engaged in cross cultural visitor studies in museums?

Bilingual visitor groups use both languages when reading and speaking. Photographic data from a SenseCam worm by a study participant shows a rock with an embedded fossil, multi-party touching, and pointing to English text (left) and Spanish text (right). In analysis, the research team will integrate data fro audio recordings, live observations, SenseCam images, and activity-in-context photographs.

Research sites include:

San Diego Natural History Museum, the Miami Science Museum, and two other ISE institutions chosen to represent diversity of content, geographic region, and Latino cultural groups. We began data collection in June 2012 and will complete in fall 2012. This Pathways research project will be completed in June 2013.

This exploratory research, funded by NSF’s Division of Research on Learning, will build knowledge about how informal science institutions create bilingual exhibits, how visitors use bilingual exhibits, and how bilingual exhibits may expand access to science learning for Latinos in U.S. science centers and museums.

Image information

Top: Bilingual  study participants look at and point to a map within a bilingual  exhibit at the San Diego Natural History Museum. Photo shot with a  SenseCam worn by a study participant.

Center: A bilingual visitor group interacts with geology exhibits while researchers record observations. Low resolution photo shot with a SenseCam worn by a researcher.

Bottom: Bilingual visitor groups use both languages when reading and speaking. Photographic data from a SenseCam worm by a study participant shows a rock with an embedded fossil, multi-party touching, and pointing to English text (left) and Spanish text (right). In analysis, the research team will integrate data fro audio recordings, live observations, SenseCam images, and activity-in-context photographs.

Picturing conviviality

Friday, July 29th, 2011 by Wendy Pollock

Image by Darcie Fohrman: National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.Is your museum convivial? Have you visited a museum where you’ve felt particularly energized and alive? We invite you to share images and stories—and to join Kathleen McLean and me during the ASTC Annual Conference to celebrate museums that cultivate this essential quality of vibrant public places.

In our recent book, The Convivial Museum, we suggest that these are key dimensions of conviviality: a welcoming spirit, orientation to the community, comfort, opportunities for social engagement, and places for healing and renewal. The book focuses on physical features of museums—like approaches, entryways, seating, lounges, and nooks—because although they are often overlooked, they have profound effects on the quality of a museum experience. For more, check out the discussion Nina Simon hosted on her blog earlier this year.

Comfortable seating at the Denver Art Museum's Hamilton BuildingUse the Bits feature of ExhibitFiles to submit your image, video, or story of a convivial museum experience, and be included in a dynamic discussion of successes and failures, obstacles and opportunities. Be sure to identify the image and include a comment about the convivial quality of the place, how you (or others) are working to make it more convivial, or a question or challenge it represents.

Log in and post a Bit; or share your image and story on Facebook (or email me). The conference session is on Monday, October 17, in Baltimore,10:45 a.m.- 12:00 noon.

About the images: Darcie Forhman’s photograph of visitors to Washington, D.C.’s National Gallery of Art (above) is in a section of The Convivial Museum about ambience. Erik Thogersen’s photograph of comfortable seating (left) is from his review of a new building at the Denver Art Museum. Another example is the Center for Creative Connections, which Kathleen McLean profiles in her case study.

Enter the outdoors

Tuesday, 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

Practicing conviviality

Wednesday, March 9th, 2011 by Wendy Pollock

The Convivial MuseumWith deep thanks to all of the museum planners, photographers, and authors who contributed to the making of this book, Kathy McLean and I would like to announce the publication of The Convivial Museum. The book explores key dimensions of a defining quality of vibrant public places that we call “conviviality”—a welcoming spirit, orientation to the community, comfort, opportunities for social engagement, and places for healing and renewal. The focus is on the physical character of museums, which, while all too often overlooked, has profound effects on the quality of a museum experience.

For all those who share a vision of the broad social role of museums, we offer The Convivial Museum as a timely reminder of the simple but deeply important practices that make museums critical components of civic life. Designed for ease of browsing, the book includes more than 130 images and thought-provoking quotations, some contributed by ExhibitFiles members.

The book complements an earlier, companion volume, Visitor Voices in Museum Exhibitions, which advocated for active individual and community involvement in creating museum exhibitions and programs. Both books were supported in part by grants from the U.S. Institute of Museum and Library Services.

The Convivial Museum is available in a limited, print edition. To order either book (or both) visit the ASTC website.

Long standing

Thursday, February 24th, 2011 by Wendy Pollock

Center for Creative Connections, Dallas Museum of ArtIt’s been a convention of long standing in the museum world that visitors should cover as much ground as possible, on foot. The economics of museums in the United States reinforce this syndrome.  Many have come to rely on earned income, buildings and related operating costs have grown, results often are measured in attendance numbers, and visitors have to keep moving in order for the museum to achieve adequate “through-put.” And if you’ve paid a substantial amount to get in, you probably want to keep moving so you can see as much as possible.

But as recent posts suggest, people feel an opposite tug, a desire to slow down and savor their experiences. Two recent contributors mentioned their trepidation about visiting (separately) a Picasso exhibition. Anticipating long lines and an $18 admission fee (plus parking) and in one case even fearing a “claustrophobic” experience, they steeled themselves.

But as Mallory Martin wrote, “as I turned a corner sure that I had seen all there was to see and was about to exit the show, a photographic time-lapse of the various stages of Guernica was on display. It was here I sat and lingered and watched how the master that was Picasso took an expansive canvas and turned it into an evocative and timeless piece of art….at this moment I had received all that I needed from the show…a personal connection and moment introspection facilitated by a work of art.” The other reviewer, Winifred Kehl, noted the “many alluring seats” in this multimedia area that “probably drew many people eager for a sit-down.”

There’ve always been those who have insisted on offering people a place to sit down. British museologist Kenneth Hudson predicted before his death in 1999, in fact, that the museums that thrive in this century will be not only those with some special charm, but, quite simply, “those with chairs.”

You don’t need a costly multimedia presentation in order to offer a space for rest and reflection. The Field Museum’s Matt Matchuk told Kathy McLean and me that his museum had moved some overstuffed armchairs from a furniture rental company into their galleries and that visitors happily “plunk themselves down” to rest. (The photograph above is from Saralyn Rosenfield’s review of the Center for Creative Connections at the Dallas Museum of Art, which also offers places to sit.)

There’s more about seating and other comforts in our forthcoming book, The Convivial Museum, available from ASTC.

A jug of water and a rocking chair

Wednesday, February 9th, 2011 by Wendy Pollock

A jug of water in Water: Our Thirsty WorldSometimes the simplest thing can bring an exhibition into focus. In Water: Our Thirsty World, it was this plastic jug that most impressed Maraya Cornell and conveyed viscerally what it feels like not to have enough. In her review, she wrote: “When you lift it, which, unless you’re a body-builder, you do only briefly, you have a small but powerful notion of what it must be like to carry that jug on your back for several miles, as must the African women walking across the sand dunes in one of Lynn Johnson’s photographs.”

Dawn Eshelman wished for a component almost as simple in her review of an exhibition at the Morgan Library about Mark Twain. Although she found herself absorbed by the author’s handwriting and turns of phrase (“clownish self-loathing,” “skeptical tumble-bug”), a rocking chair and a volume of Twain’s writings might have evoked his presence, she reflected. “When occupied, it would frame Twain’s favorite hero, the everyman, in modern form. Either way, it would provide something Twain might call progress – a good place to read.”

Sometimes it’s the simplest things that are the most memorable.

Finding our way

Monday, January 24th, 2011 by Wendy Pollock

Wayfinding sign at the California Academy of SciencesOne of the basic courtesies a museum can extend to people who come there is help getting oriented and finding our way around. But as Susie Wilkening’s recent account in the Reach Advisors blog suggests, there are museums that haven’t learned (or applied) the lessons of Wayfinding 101. In fact, one of the comments on her post, from a designer  who’s worked mainly in the commercial arena, is even more damning: “I found museums, parks, zoos, and aquariums to be some of the worst examples of institutions that simply didn’t care enough about their guests to provide a decent wayfinding system or graphic environment as part of their overall experience.”

It’s encouraging that a number of recent reviews on ExhibitFiles pay attention to the overall quality of the experience—what it felt like to enter the museum, how easily the reviewer found what she was looking for. It’s important to share positive experiences, and to pay attention to the design details, as Penny Jennings did in her October post about a wayfinding sign at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. (The example above, in a photograph Kathy McLean took at the California Academy of Sciences, is another positive example, which she and I cite in our forthcoming book, The Convivial Museum.)

But as Susie and her commentator suggest, a basic attitude of care and human concern reminds us daily to see things from the perspective of those we’re there to serve. That way, we’re likelier to call to mind those design ideas when we need them most.

Capture, focus, engage

Friday, December 10th, 2010 by Wendy Pollock

Wild Music exhibitionPaying attention: It’s at the heart of learning, an aspect of aesthetic experience, how we make meaning, a topic of recurring interest among those who design museum exhibitions. So how do we get people to pay more attention? In a major review of the topic commissioned by the Visitor Studies Association, Steve Bitgood offers background and practical guidance. Attention, he writes, “is a three-level continuum (capture, focus, engage) with a different combination of variables influencing attention at each stage.” People are making judgments all the time about where they direct their attention, he says. So “attention is perceived value (a ratio of utility/satisfaction divided by costs such as time and effort) of the exhibit element.”

The article offers a framework for thinking about things most of us already know, if only from being museum visitors ourselves. Fatigue, distraction, too many things to see and do all at once all work against attention.

But what about the value proposition–how do we make an exhibit that compels people to turn attention that way? It comes down to two simple things, Steve writes: “(1) by selecting high interest exhibit content; and/or (2) by designing exhibit elements that stimulate curiosity.” The heart of exhibition design, its mystery and challenge–and the reason we get to know the people we’re designing for.

“An Attention-Value Model of Museum Visitors” was published by the Center for Advancement of Informal Science Education (CAISE) and is available as a downloadable PDF on the CAISE website.

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.