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ExhibiTricks blog

  • Encore Post From The Road: "5 Things That Great Dining And Great Museum Experiences Have In Common."




    I'm on the road vacationing with my family this week.  We will no doubt be enjoying many wonderful new museum and food-related experiences during our travels, so I thought I'd share this "encore" of one of my most popular posts that ties together the similarities between great dining AND great museum experiences.

    ENJOY! 

    Let me tell you about Bigelow's.  It's a little "hole in the wall" sort of place near my home on Long Island known for its fried clams. Bigelow's has been in business in the same spot since 1939.  I went there for lunch today with my youngest son Philip, and in-between our sighs of pleasure and chatting it up with our fellow diners, I was reminded of how much a great dining experience is like a great museum experience.

    1) Everyone Knows Where It Is

    I know you can use Google Maps or Yelp, but if you ask somebody at a hotel front desk or a taxi driver where a local restaurant or museum is, they should be able to tell you right away. If the place is really good, they should also be able to enthuse about a memorable experience that they or a friend had there recently.  I remember visiting a city whose (unnamed) museum was practically across the street from the well-known professional football stadium, and not one taxi driver knew where that museum was located or had even heard of it.  That's sad.

    2) You Feel Welcomed Right Away

    Even if it's the first time you've been there, a great museum or dining spot makes you instantly feel welcomed and at ease.  It's a combination of the physical entry sequence (starting in the parking lot) and the staff people at the entrance that do the trick. You feel like you are in the right place and are starting out your visit in a positive way.  Think about the qualities of the places that always make you feel welcomed (and the ones that don't!)

    In the case of Bigelow's, you see the stools around the horseshoe-shaped counter (so you know where to sit right away) and the straightforward menu board lets you see your options (so you can start thinking about what you'd like to eat or drink as soon as you sit down.)  

    Contrast that with some museums where you have no idea where to pay your admission, or how to figure out which things you want to do or pay for.

    Welcome to Bigelow's!

    3) Friendly Staff Anticipate Your Needs

    You never wait for your water glass to be refilled, or twiddle your thumbs waiting for the check at a great restaurant. That's because the people who work there are alert and genuinely attentive to their customers' needs.  Great museums have actual floor staff interacting with visitors, not just chatting in a corner by themselves.  Wonderful dining and museum experiences share an important social component.  A positive interaction with a staff person often adds to the overall experience.


    4) You Tell Friends About The Place And Want To Take Them There

    A fantastic experience at a great place is one you want to share with other people. There's a reason "word of mouth" advertising is so sought after --- you can't fake it or spend your way there.  If you had a remarkable museum experience you tell other people about it.  And you want to go back there to share that positive experience with people you care about.  I've written blog posts about "museums worth a special trip" those places you would travel out of your way to go see based on a friend's recommendation.  I would definitely put places like The City Museum in St. Louis, or Chanticleer Garden outside Philadelphia in that rarefied category. 

    Bigelow's is worth a special trip!


    5) Memory Makers!

    The best museums (and restaurants!) are memory makers.  They are the places that are part of every story that starts with "Remember the time we ..."  They are the places that you want to post on Facebook or Instagram because you felt the experience was worth capturing and sharing.  The picture at the top of this post shows my friends Bistra and Nadia from Muzeiko in Bulgaria after a lunch we shared at Bigelow's.  They asked for me to bring them somewhere that was real "Long Island."  And even though they both grew up thousands of miles away, they loved it!  And what business can ask for more than that?

    As you are starting out your New Year and thinking about ways to improve the museum(s) you work for, maybe a trip to your favorite local restaurant can give you just the right kind of "food for thought" to inspire making some memorable changes for your visitors!

    Facebook-ready "food for thought" from Bigelow's!


    Don't miss out on any ExhibiTricks posts! It's easy to get updates via email or your favorite news reader. Just click the "Sign up for Free ExhibiTricks Blog Updates" link on the upper right side of the blog.

    Paul Orselli writes the posts on ExhibiTricks. Paul is an instigator, in the best sense of that word. He likes to mix up interesting people, ideas, and materials to make both individual museum exhibits and entire museums with his company POW! (Paul Orselli Workshop, Inc.)

    If you would like to support the content on ExhibiTricks, please consider making a small donation through our PayPal "Tip Jar"
  • What Makes A "High Quality" Museum?



    How would you define "quality" in the context of museums?  It's a slippery term (like "World Class" which we've written about before here on ExhibiTricks.)  Every museum wants to be described as "High Quality" and "World Class" but what do those terms actually mean, in a practical sense, and how do you know when you truly have become a high-quality organization?

    “High quality” to me means something of lasting value, something special that is meaningful over time and across generations.  And museums that can be described consistently as high quality are quite uncommon.

    What does high quality mean to you, or to the museums you work in or visit?   

    I'd say that all "high quality" museums have a strong capacity to create programs and exhibits internally. 
    Not necessarily everything, but many things.  High-quality museums know their strengths and build upon them. Great museums also know what their weaknesses are, and where to look for help in those areas.  

    Put simply:

    High Quality = Internal Capacity 


    As a practical matter, the way to develop a truly high-quality museum experience means having a clear sense of what you want your museum to look like two, three or more years in the future—not just two months after opening! That means investing for the long-term in thoughtful experiences, staff, and expertise. ("Invest in staff, not stuff!" as Jane Werner might say.)

    In my exhibit design and development practice, I often ask museum collaborators two simple questions: How will you (the staff inside your museum, not contractors or consultants) 1) fix things that break or don’t work? and 2) transform great new ideas into real exhibits and programs? If you can’t come up with credible answers to both questions, I’m afraid that not only will you be constantly racing to “put out fires” in the form of problems that could have been anticipated (as opposed to the many un-anticipated ones you’ll encounter) but your bright, shiny museum will soon become dingy and boring, not only physically, but in its intellectual and emotional spirit as well.

    Creating a strong institutional culture of internal capacity is the key difference between a great museum and a mediocre one. Building and investing in strong institutional capacity doesn’t mean that you work in isolation.  On the contrary, carefully understanding the strengths and weaknesses across your institution makes it clear when and where you need to invest time and resources. Those investments in time and/or resources can involve seeking out expertise in your local communities, sending staff to national or regional conferences or local professional development opportunities, or (gasp!) bringing in consultants to help build up internal capacity in other areas of institutional need. There are many choices.

    What is not a choice is doing nothing. Because doing nothing will surely begin the slide from “high quality” to “who cares?” And is that the kind of museum you want to be part of? 





    Don't miss out on any ExhibiTricks posts! It's easy to get updates via email or your favorite news reader. Just click the "Sign up for Free ExhibiTricks Blog Updates" link on the upper right side of the blog.

    Paul Orselli writes the posts on ExhibiTricks. Paul is an instigator, in the best sense of that word. He likes to mix up interesting people, ideas, and materials to make both individual museum exhibits and entire museums with his company POW! (Paul Orselli Workshop, Inc.)

    If you would like to support the content on ExhibiTricks, please consider making a small donation through our PayPal "Tip Jar"
  • 4 Things I Learned from Attending 4 Museum Conferences in 4 Weeks



    You might think my first answer to the title of this post would be: "DON'T go to 4 Museum Conferences in 4 weeks!" but you'd be mistaken.  My experiences in Denver, New York City, New Orleans, and Copenhagen (by way of Helsinki!) were certainly a bit taxing at times, but ultimately extremely rewarding professionally and personally.

    So where did I go?  In order, the organizations whose Conferences I attended were: Association of Children's Museums (ACM) in Denver; New York City Museum Educator's Roundtable (NYCMER) in NYC; American Alliance of Museums (AAM) in New Orleans; and the European Network of Science Centres and Museums (ECSITE) in Copenhagen.

    And what did I learn (or re-learn) during my conference travels?  Four main things that could be applied to any conference experience really:


    1) Content is King

    2) Social Interaction is Queen

    3) Location, Location, Location

    4) Size Matters






    CONTENT: Ostensibly as life-long learners we should be excited about the content offered at conferences.  But that works both ways -- conferences should be interested in providing interesting and exciting formats that engage participants with meaningful content also.  (As a related sidebar, does anyone really remember or care about the Conference "Themes"?)

    I give high points to ACM, NYCMER, and ECSITE for having excellent keynote speakers.  I really enjoyed Temple Grandin and Gever Tulley extolling the virtues of self-directed learning and "making stuff" during their talks in Denver.




    The keynote speakers at the ECSITE conference completely enthralled me with presentations on two unlikely topics -- Hyperbolic Space and Slime Molds!  I'd recommend clicking over to the ECSITE YouTube page to see the videos of each of those keynotes.




    Of course, the other essential part of the content equation is how the sessions are framed and presented. I think ECSITE did the best job of this by presenting truly thought-provoking content through formats that left the traditional "A moderator and 3 talking heads with PowerPoints" framework in the dust.

    Two examples from Copenhagen were a "House of Commons" session where the room was literally divided in half with a tape-line down the middle and all the chairs set on one side of the room or the other. Speakers each presented a short, provocative statement about science centers, then participants "voted with their feet" by choosing the "FOR" or "AGAINST" side of the room, followed by a discussion with audience members about why they voted the way the did.

    My other favorite session was one that I presented in that followed a "Yes, and ..." format.  In this case, each presenter had one minute to present a wild exhibit idea that they really would like to see implemented, followed by one minute of audience members adding positive ideas (Yes, and ...) to the original ideas, but no BUTS or naysaying allowed!  Then the original presenter summarized (and added a title) to their original idea based on the audience input.  A great fast-paced session that left everyone (audience and presenters) with a whole set of cool exhibit ideas!




    You can often find out more about conference sessions (including digital copies of handouts and session materials) by going to the respective Conference webpages (like ACM's here, or ECSITE's here.)





    SOCIAL INTERACTION: In many ways going to a conference is like attending a reunion.  You look forward to seeing folks you haven't seen in a while and meeting new folks as well.  So how are conference organizers creating opportunities for socializing and networking outside the formal sessions?  Dear colleagues in the United States museum community, I am here to report that the ECSITE Conference stands head-and-shoulders above every U.S. museum Conference in that regard.

    So what does ECSITE do, that others don't?  For starters, every lunch is a communal hot lunch at big tables. Rather than everyone scattering for an hour or two, all ECSITE attendees receive these large group lunches every day included in their registration.  For reference, there are about 1200 people or so who attend the ECSITE Conference, so just about every other Museum Conference in the U.S. (except AAM which is really too big, to begin with, but more about that below) could create these communal social gatherings if they really wanted to.

    Maybe my European colleagues are just cooler, but the evening events at ECSITE were better too! Our first ECSITE evening event (again, for everyone) was held in a historic Copenhagen Circus building with dinner and a show!  If you really believe that at least half the value of attending a conference comes from the social interactions outside of sessions, then what are the conference organizers doing to really foster those interactions?




    Although I always award extra points to the National Association for Museum Exhibitions (NAME) for the best social event at AAM, and the 2019 party at the Southern Food and Beverage Museum was no exception.  I mean, at what other AAM party could you wear a bean jacket?





    LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION: This isn't just about the city where a particular conference meets (although Denver, New York City, New Orleans, and Copenhagen were all awesome) but also the logistics of getting around to different conference events and the quality of the host institution(s) as well.  ACM, NYCMER, and ECSITE all handled this aspect pretty well.  AAM's handling of logistics in New Orleans, on the other hand, was a BIG fail.  Events in "conference hotels" were far away from the main Conference Center and even with shuttle buses, many people were late for events they paid for.


    SIZE MATTERS: Bigger is NOT always better when it comes to Museum Conferences. Once the number of conference attendees exceeds 2000, the quality of the overall conference experience decreases exponentially.  I really believe there is such a thing as a museum being too big, and similarly, a museum conference being too big as well.

    I'm afraid the AAM Conference is just too enormous to be able to handle content, social interactions, and even location logistics in a way I find personally and professionally satisfying.  I'm going to be taking a break from AAM for a while, and instead focusing my conference time on smaller regional, national, and even international museum conferences to continue to hone my professional practice.




    Don't miss out on any ExhibiTricks posts! It's easy to get updates via email or your favorite news reader. Just click the "Sign up for Free ExhibiTricks Blog Updates" link on the upper right side of the blog.

    Paul Orselli writes the posts on ExhibiTricks. Paul is an instigator, in the best sense of that word. He likes to mix up interesting people, ideas, and materials to make both individual museum exhibits and entire museums with his company POW! (Paul Orselli Workshop, Inc.)

    If you would like to support the content on ExhibiTricks, please consider making a small donation through our PayPal "Tip Jar"
  • A Wonderful Resource For Creative People That Make Things That Move



    In a fantastic "back to the future" moment, the fine folks at the 507movements.com website have created a wonderful resource for any maker, designer, or builder that makes things that move.

    Basically, they've created a Web version of the classic technical reference Five Hundred and Seven Mechanical Movements by Henry T. Brown. (The original printed edition came out in 1868!)

    As the title of both the original book and the website suggest, here are five hundred and seven drawings of mechanical movements -- from two simple gears meshing to a labyrinthine collection of intricate pulley arrangements.

    The beauty of the website is that they are now animating each of the 507 drawings so you can see the mechanisms in action!

    Definitely worth a look (and worth bookmarking for future reference!) so click on over to the 507movements.com website to see the entire collection!



    Don't miss out on any ExhibiTricks posts! It's easy to get updates via email or your favorite news reader. Just click the "Sign up for Free ExhibiTricks Blog Updates" link on the upper right side of the blog.

    Paul Orselli writes the posts on ExhibiTricks. Paul is an instigator, in the best sense of that word. He likes to mix up interesting people, ideas, and materials to make both individual museum exhibits and entire museums with his company POW! (Paul Orselli Workshop, Inc.)

    If you would like to support the content on ExhibiTricks, please consider making a small donation through our PayPal "Tip Jar"
  • Hone Your Prototyping Skills By Becoming an Office Supply Ninja!



    Thomas Edison said,  "To invent, you need a good imagination and a pile of junk."  His reference was to inventing, but he could have also been speaking about prototyping.

    To me, prototyping is an iterative process that uses simple materials to help you answer questions about the physical aspects of your exhibit components (even labels!) early on in the development process.  

    As I mentioned in a previous post, it's always a bit discouraging to hear museum folks say "we just don't have the time/the money/the space/the materials to do prototyping ..."  (By then I'm usually thinking "So how is setting an ill-conceived or malfunctioning exhibit component into your museum, because you didn't prototype, saving time or money?"  But I digress...)


    Maybe it's just me, but I can't imagine anyone fabricating an exhibit component without trying out a quick-and-dirty version first.  So in today's post, I thought I'd lay out the simple steps I use to show how quickly and inexpensively prototyping can be integrated into the beginning of any exhibit development process, and how you too can become an Office Supply Ninja!


    STEP ONE:  Figure out what you want to find out.

    In this case, a client wanted me to come up with an interactive version of a "Food Web" (the complex interrelationship of organisms in a particular environment, showing, basically, what eats what.)  We brainstormed a number of approaches (magnet board, touch screen computer) but finally settled on the notion of allowing visitors to construct a "Food Web Mobile" with the elements being the various organisms found (in this particular case) in a mangrove swamp.  The client was also able to provide me with a flow chart showing the relationships between organisms and a floor plan of the area where the final exhibit will be installed.

    The two initial things I wanted to test or find out about from my prototype were:

    1) Did people "get" the idea conceptually?  That is, did they understand the relationships and analogies between the Food Web Mobile and the actual organisms in the swamp?

    2) Could they easily create different sorts of physical arrangements with the mobile that were interesting and accurate?


    STEP TWO: Get out your junk!



    As in the Edison quote above, it helps to have a good supply of "bits and bobs" around to prototype with.  You might not have the same sorts of junk that I've gathered up over years in the museum exhibit racket, but everyone should have access to basic office supplies (stuff like paper, tape, markers, index cards, scissors, etc.)  And really that's all you need to start assembling prototypes. (The imagination part is important, too.)


    STEP THREE: Start playing around with the pieces ...




    Before I even start assembling a complete rough mechanism or system I like to gather all the parts together and see if I like how they work with each other.  In the case of the Food Web Mobile prototype, I used colored file folders to represent different levels of organisms.  I initially made each color/level out of the same size pieces, but then I changed to having each color be a different size.  Finally, I used a hole punch to make the holes, and bent paper clips to serves as the hooks that would allow users to connect the pieces/organisms in different ways.



    STEP FOUR:  Assemble, then iterate, iterate, iterate!

     
    This is the part of the prototyping process that requires other people in addition to yourself.  Let your kids, your co-workers, your significant other, whoever (as long as it's somebody besides yourself) try out your idea. Obviously, the closer your "testers" are to the expected demographic inside the museum, the better --- ideally I like to prototype somewhere inside the museum itself. 

    Resist the urge to explain or over-explain your prototype.  Just watch what people do (or don't do!) with the exhibit component(s).  Take lots of notes/pictures/video.  Then take a break to change your prototype based on what you've observed and heard, and try it out again.  That's called iteration.


    In this case, I saw right away that the mobile spun and balanced in interesting ways, but that meant that the labels would need to be printed on both sides of the pieces.  Fortunately, my three "in-house testers" (ages 6, 11, and 13) seemed to "get" the concept of "Food Webs" embedded into the Mobile interactive, and started coming up with interesting physical variations on their own.


    For example, I initially imagined people would just try to create "balanced" arrangements of pieces on the Mobile.  But, as you can see below, the prototype testers enjoyed making "unbalanced" arrangements as well (which is fine, and makes sense conceptually as well.)   Also, we discovered that people realized that they could hang more than one "organism piece" on the lower hooks (which was also fine and also made sense conceptually.)





    STEP FIVE: Figure out what's next ... even if it's the trash can!

    Do you need to change the label or some physical arrangement of your prototype?  Using simple, inexpensive materials makes that easy.

    Do you just need to junk this prototype idea?  Using simple, inexpensive materials makes it easier to move on to a new idea, too. (Much more easily than if you had spent weeks crafting and assembling something out of expensive materials from your workshop...)  It's not too surprising to see people really struggle to let a bad exhibit idea go, especially if they've spent several weeks putting it together. Quick and cheap should be your watchwords early on in the prototyping process.

    In this case, I sent photos of the paper clip prototype and a short video showing people using the Food Web Mobile to the client as a "proof of concept."  They were quite pleased, and so now I will make a second-level prototype using materials more like those I expect to use in the "final" exhibit (which I'll update in a future post.)  Even so, I will still repeat the steps above of gathering materials, assembling pieces, and iterating through different versions with visitors. 

    I hope you'll give this "office supply ninja" version of exhibit prototyping a try for your next project!

    If you do, send me an email and I'd be happy to show off the results of ExhibiTricks readers prototyping efforts. 




    Don't miss out on any ExhibiTricks posts! It's easy to get updates via email or your favorite news reader. Just click the "Sign up for Free ExhibiTricks Blog Updates" link on the upper right side of the blog.

    Paul Orselli writes the posts on ExhibiTricks. Paul is an instigator, in the best sense of that word. He likes to mix up interesting people, ideas, and materials to make both individual museum exhibits and entire museums with his company POW! (Paul Orselli Workshop, Inc.)

    If you would like to support the content on ExhibiTricks, please consider making a small donation through our PayPal "Tip Jar"