How not to reinvent the wheel

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

Exhibitions designed to be mobile

July 20th, 2011 by Wendy Pollock

NAME Journal, Exhibitionist, Spring 2011 issueThe National Association for Museum Exhibition (NAME) is seeking articles for the Spring 2012 of its journal, Exhibitionist, about exhibitions designed to be mobile. This includes:

  • traveling exhibitions in the traditional sense – designed by an organization or consortium and sent on the road to a number of venues
  • museum-sponsored vans or buses that extend a museum’s reach in its community or state
  • “pop up” exhibitions- created by one or more designers or by visitors themselves – that appear in neighborhoods or other venues, not necessarily museums.

If you’re interested, send an abstract by August 1st to editor Gretchen Jennings. In 250 words maximum, briefly describe your article; how it relates to issue theme; your background/qualifications for writing the article. Abstracts will be vetted by our editorial advisory board, and you will be notified of acceptance or non/acceptance within several weeks.

For back issues of the journal, visit the NAME website.

Contact: Gretchen Jennings, Exhibitionist Editor, gretchenjennings[at]
Abstract deadline: August 1, 2011.

ExhibitFiles at the Visitor Studies Association conference

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 to make exhibitions catalysts for group interaction

July 12th, 2011 by ExhibitFiles

Minda BorunIn this guest post, Minda Borun, long-time director of research and evaluation at Philadelphia’s Franklin Institute, draws on earlier reports about the NSF-funded Philadelphia/Camden Informal Science Education Collaborative (PISEC). While dating back more than 10 years, this work is as relevant as ever for those designing exhibitions that stimulate the conversations we know are an important part of learning.

Exhibits are catalysts for encouraging group interaction. People bring their personal histories to their encounters with exhibits, they talk with one another – and that is how learning happens. We know this intuitively – and over the years, we’ve also gathered considerable evidence about characteristics of exhibition design that support and encourage this outcome.

In 1992, the Philadelphia/Camden Informal Science Education Collaborative (PISEC) started working on the Family Science Learning Project (NSF/ESI #9355504) to systematically test and refine our understanding of the learning behavior of the visiting unit characteristic of most museums: the small group. We identified seven characteristics of exhibits that our observations and collective experience suggested were associated with what we called “family-friendly” exhibits.

  • Multi-Sided  - Family can cluster around the exhibit
  • Multi-User - Interaction allows for several sets of hands or bodies
  • Accessible - Comfortably used by children and adults
  • Multi-Outcome - Observation and interactions are sufficiently complex to foster group discussion
  • Multi-Modal - Appeals to different learning styles and levels of knowledge
  • Readable - Text is arranged in easily understood segments
  • Relevant - Provides cognitive links to visitors’ existing knowledge and experience

Mechanics Maze, one of the "family friendly" exhibits in Kid ScienceThese features apply to any small group, not just families. The model has also been found to apply to programs by substituting “comprehensible” for “readable.”

Each of the PISEC partner museums – The Franklin Institute, Academy of Natural Sciences, New Jersey State Aquarium (now called the New Jersey Academy for Aquatic Sciences), and Philadelphia Zoo – added a new component that embodied these characteristics to an existing exhibit. Our results were impressive: In each museum, we saw a measurable increase in active family learning. After the publication of the results of this study (Borun et al., 1998), the PISEC museums and others went on to use these “seven characteristics of family-friendly exhibits) in the creation of new exhibitions. At the Franklin Institute, for example, the seven characteristics guided design of Kid Science (above), an exhibition for families with children ages five to eight, which opened in 2001. Prototypes of the interactives were extensively tested to be certain that they appealed to this age group and communicated their messages – and that design reflected those characteristics we knew were likely to be catalysts for group interaction. In our summative evaluation, we found that Kid Science engaged families longer and more actively than any other exhibit in the museum.

Sea Cave exhibit at Lookout Cove, Bay Area Discovery MuseumOther museums – like the Bay Area Discovery Museum in Sausalito – have also applied these principles.  Justine Roberts wrote about one of these exhibitions in her ExhibitFiles case study of Lookout Cove (left).

The PISEC group has since gone on to extend our experimentation to programs, including museum/community partnerships for underserved families (reported in our latest publication, In Their Own Voices: Museums and Communities Changing Lives).

It is important for museums to be facilitators of family exchange and group learning, not obstacles. PISEC’s findings offer important insights and guidance for those designing new exhibits.

Find out more

  • Borun, M., Cleghorn, A., and Garfield, C. (1995). Family learning in museums: A bibliographic review. Curator, 38(4), 262–270.
  • Borun, M., Chambers, M., and Cleghorn, A. (1996). Families are learning in science museums. Curator, 39(2), 124–138.
  • Borun, M., Chambers, M., Dritsas, J., and Johnson, J. (1997). Enhancing family learning through exhibits. Curator, 40(4), 279–295.
  • Borun, M., & Dritsas, J. (1997). Developing family-friendly exhibits. Curator, 40(3), 178–196.
  • Borun, M., Dritsas, J., Johnson, J., Peter, N. E., Wagner, K., Fadigan, K., Jangaard, A., Stroup, E., and Wenger, A. (1998). Family learning in museums: The PISEC perspective. Washington D.C.: The Association of Science Technology Centers.
  • Borun, Minda. (2002). Object-Based Learning and Family Groups in Scott Paris (ed.) Perspectives on Object-Centered Learning in Museums, Lawrence Erlbaum, Associates, Mahwah, New Jersey
  • Borun, Minda, Barbara Martin Kelly, Lisa Jo Rudy, (2011). In Their Own Voices: Museums and Communities Changing Lives, Philadelphia, PA: The Franklin Institute.

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

Common as air? Lewis Hyde challenges museums on questions of culture, property, and the collective good

June 20th, 2011 by myriam

Lewis Hyde at 2011 AAM ConferenceThanks to Myriam Springuel of Springuel Consulting for this guest post. She is Vice-Chair of The Museum Group, sponsors of Lewis Hyde’s Thought Leader session at the Houston 2011 American Association of Museums Conference. Hyde is author of Common as Air: Revolution, Art, and Ownership (2010), The Gift, Creativity and the Artists in the Modern World (1979), and Trickster Makes This World: Mischief, Myth and Art (1998).

Lewis Hyde challenges those working in the cultural arena to be more engaged in protecting the cultural commons – those inventions, discoveries, and creative works that are our common heritage. It is a tough challenge because this is not about joining a campaign based on a sound-bite slogan. Rather it is about understanding the complicated ways in which we create civil society based on the idealism of the founding fathers of the United States. Ultimately, it is about the ways in which the expression of culture, limited by enclosures or encroachments – like those that shut 18th-century English villagers out of the commons on which they had traditionally grazed their sheep – defines how we express ourselves as human beings. Part of what makes Lewis Hyde’s challenge so difficult is that we have to learn vocabulary and pay attention to history to talk about the subject.

Common as Air, by Lewis HydeThe focus of Lewis Hyde’s presentation at the recent AAM conference was on questions raised in his latest book, Common as Air, around who owns the cultural commons, why that commons is being increasingly restricted, and ways in which various communities are organizing to challenge those restrictions to find new ways of working that are appropriate for the Internet age.

It was in order to encourage creativity and the “useful arts” that the founders in 1790 created the legal tools that protect the work of inventors, writers, and artists for a limited time. They believed democratic self-governance requires a free flow of ideas; copyright and patents allowed for a limited monopoly, giving the inventor or thinker remuneration as an incentive to work, with a limited time during which others could not profit from that work. Recently, the length of time for exclusion, originally about 14 years, has greatly increased; in many cases, the burden of proof has shifted, making it more expensive and complicated to defend fair use.

Property, whether tangible or intangible, is a right of action; those actions have limits. For example, I own my house and can keep people out. But I cannot turn that house into a factory or a parking lot, or do any number of other things with or from that house. The 18th century saw important arguments about property and ownership. Jefferson, for instance, argued that the only way to exclude someone from an idea is to keep it in your head. Non-rivalrous and non-excludable property was much discussed by the founders. It has long been understood that water, air, and fire are common goods. Public policy generally addresses the balance between property held in common and property held individually. The Internet had fundamentally challenged how we share ideas. In response, we are just starting to develop different ways of owning and sharing ideas.

Hyde was particularly provocative in reminding us that these questions are rooted in how we imagine the human self. For whom do we make works of art, explore science, or express creativity? Where do ideas come from? Hyde reminded us that the creative self is both individual and collective. He offered the term “dividual” – the many parts that make me including my self, my family, my community – as opposed to “individual.” Benjamin Franklin and Bob Dylan, for example, had remarkable gifts. But their talent is both an expression of the many influences on their work and their “dividual” self. Once I mix my labor with culture, how much can I take credit for?

In museums, Hyde suggested, I become myself. I become present. What is the self that comes to life? Is it a dividual or an individual self?

Practices around cultural property allow us to be certain kinds of selves. With them we enable or disable ways of being human. Hyde challenges us to participate in the debate about what it means to be a cultural citizen in the 21st century; knowing the history of the debate is critical to understanding its implications. Hyde did not provide pat answers but gave examples of how some fields are responding to these questions. For instance Creative Commons, the Bermuda Principles for the Human Genome, or the principles behind Cap and Trade are each grounded in “declaration”; academic scientists, French chefs, and comedians police each other, yet build on each others’ work through agreed-upon conventions.

During this AAM Thought Leader session, Lewis Hyde challenged museum professionals to be active participants in discussions about the philosophies and values that will guide the choices we make as a society – a discussion that is much broader than the museum field, but is at the heart of why so many of us are passionate about museum work.

The challenge of change

May 17th, 2011 by Wendy Pollock

Justine Roberts recently became the executive director of the Children’s Museum of New Hampshire in Dover, N.H. During her own time of transition, she reflects on museums, exhibitions, and change. She will be discussing the topic during a session at the upcoming Association of Children’s Museums meeting in Houston, May 19. Thanks to Justine for contributing this guest post.

How often should a museum change its exhibits, and how extensive should those changes be? These are not new questions. I first encountered them working on Exploration Place, Inc., where we —White Oak Associates, Gyroscope, Inc., and Talking Spaces, led by Museum President Al DeSena—talked about creating a “delta museum.” The core concept was that large parts of the exhibits could be reused and rethemed, making it less expensive to refresh the museum. The Delta Museum moved past reliance on a changing exhibit gallery, and instead looked at the whole museum as changeable.

he Big Lab, Amgen Center for Science Learning, California Science CenterThe Big Lab, at the California Science Center in Los Angeles (right), designed by Gyroscope, Inc., is an example of this. The scale of the exhibits supports collaboration, the activities encourage creative problem solving around science-based inquiry, and they are flexible enough to allow daily use by children even as those users gain in skill or their interests change.

Explora, in Albuquerque, takes this to another next level, treating even walls and work surfaces as flexible. There is almost no infrastructure. In the middle is the idea of an exhibit “platform,” which provides a designed environment, but leaves room for staff Airplay gallery, Explora - image by Nina Simonand for visitors to co-create the final museum experience. (This image, left, is from a review by Nina Simon.)

There is a significant cost difference between a traditional exhibit that visitors are invited to use until they grow tired or it gets old, and one that staff and visitors are encouraged to change seasonally, if not hourly, and incrementally.  The first model is capital intensive, the second is staff intensive.  This is an important difference since many museums find it easier to raise money for new exhibits and harder to fund staff.  Although when I think about why change matters, I am more drawn to the co-created model as a way to support active participation, customization, and durable relationships.

At the Children’s Museum of New Hampshire, where I recently became the executive director, we do not have a changing exhibit gallery in the traditional sense. Instead, we focus on staff-driven change throughout the museum.  We also seed change with Gallery 6—an art and craft gallery in the physical and emotional center of the museum—which hosts 3-4 shows a year. These shows create a continuum between the playful investigations of our young visitors and those of professional artists, and they inform drop-in activities, workshops, and evening events.

The question remains how much to change, and what types of change are meaningful.  Each organization struggles with its own challenges around supporting change and each is dealing with a different physical plant, and other constraints.  Jennifer Farrington of the Chicago Children’s Museum, will be hosting a conference session at InterActivity in Houston on Thursday, May 19, on this topic. In addition to CCM and CMNH you can learn about the innovative strategies being piloted at Zeum, in San Francisco, The Children’s Museum of Phoenix, and the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh.

Critical eyes (and ears)

March 29th, 2011 by Wendy Pollock

If you’re thinking of visiting New York or Washington, D.C. any time soon, check out the exhibition reviews by all of the museum studies students from Bank Street College and George Washington University. They’ve been fanning out to museums throughout those cities over the last several weeks and together have posted nearly 50 reviews. Thanks to their observations and critiques, we have a record of some temporary exhibitions like the Whitney’s Glen Ligon: AMERICA and fresh takes on some exhibitions and experiences like the Tenement Museum. (At right is an image by Amanda Salles from MOMA’s Looking at Music 3.0.)

Thank you to all of the students for sharing your experiences and your thinking. With your newly honed critical skills, we hope you’ll continue to contribute even when your classes end. And thanks also to Paul Orselli, Kathy McLean, Dana Allen-Greil, and Carrie Kotcho, who encouraged their students to share their reviews with the ExhibitFiles community.

Museums, memorials, sites of conscience

March 25th, 2011 by Wendy Pollock

NAME (the National Association for Museum Exhibition) is seeking article proposals for the Fall 2011 issue of its journal, Exhibitionist, on the theme “museums, memorials, and sites of conscience.”NAME journal cover

Editor Gretchen Jennings writes that the journal is particularly interested in through case studies and analyses of

  • The emergence of museums and memorials in the United States and around the world that commemorate human suffering and injustice
  • Challenges faced by museum professionals, particularly those in the exhibition development field, in creating effective exhibitions, public spaces, and programs.

Challenges might involve:

  • History and geography: can this story be told at this time in this place? If not, why not; if so how?
  • Point of view: from whose perspective(s) will the story be told?
  • Audience: who is the intended/appropriate audience?
  • Mission: is the institution for reflection; for raising social consciousness; for inspiring action; all or some of these?
  • Design: Are there common design/programmatic features as well as new ideas for engaging visitors with these difficult topics?

Abstracts (maximum 250 words) are due by April 22. Briefly describe your article; how it relates to issue theme; your background/qualifications for writing the article. Abstracts are vetted by the NAME editorial advisory board and authors notified of acceptance or non/acceptance within several weeks. First drafts (maximum 2,400 words) are due June 24 and final drafts by July 31, 2011. Contact: Gretchen Jennings, Editor, NAME .

Practicing conviviality

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.