Thursday, November 5, 2009

On the road….Out and about with Museum Explorer

Here’s what we’ve been up to lately. . . .

Making History Irresistible

For the Downers Grove Park District Museum, one major responsibility is historic preservation. But today’s audiences (and boards) expect more than the traditional tasks of collecting and preserving objects and information. So Museum Explorer has been working with DGPD Museum’s Executive Director, Christa Christensen, to help the museum forge new connections with its audience by interpreting history in accessible and appealing ways.

By presenting its museum as a place for understanding and enjoying history, and as a link for the past, present and future, the Downers Grove Park District will move from offering “just the facts” to offering an experience rooted in history yet connected to today, with exhibits and programming that stay fresh and up-to-date.

Wheeling Visitors In

At the American Association of Museums annual meeting in Philadelphia, Museum Explorer’s Rich Faron took part in the panel session “Wheeling Visitors In!” Session participants explored the use of custom-designed program carts to integrate the needs of designers, educators and visitors.

In Museum Explorer’s repertoire, carts have become a go-to solution for many of our clients. Not only can carts deliver information in engaging ways, but they offer plenty of bang for the buck!

An audience of nearly 100 museum professionals heard Rich and colleagues Lynn McRainey (Chicago History Museum), Michelle Nichols (Adler Planetarium) and Susan Nichols (Smithsonian American Art Museum) discuss the amazing potential of carts. You can access session handouts and links to recordings at

Planning to Promote an Up-and-coming Exhibit

Museum Explorer recently completed a planning document that the DuSable Museum of African American History has begun to circulate to potential donors and supporters for its upcoming exhibit on African American Olympians. While the exhibit is independent of Chicago’s bid for the 2016 Summer Olympics, it embraces the spirit of the Games and the idea that Chicago will be a magnificent host city.

The following passage from the planning document sums up the essence of DuSable’s exhibit:

Young people today see and hear a lot about the glory of sport. But all too often this glory is defined by headlines and dollar signs. Kids (and their parents) know about the millions of dollars star athletes earn, and they know what this money can buy. They know who endorses this product and who endorses that one; they hear how colleges recruit talented players; and they dream of the day their turn will come.

What they may not hear about so often are the less glamorous—but more widely available—life lessons that sports participation can offer, even to those who never compete professionally or at an elite level. And these lessons are exemplified well by those who aspire to compete before the world, on the Olympic stage.

Keeping Lincoln Park Zoo in the Pink

Museum Explorer continues to pitch in with the ongoing spruce-up of graphics, labels, signage and exhibit elements at Lincoln Park Zoo. One of our more intriguing recent tasks there involved the replacement of large graphic panels in and around the Pink Flamingo Pond.

Like most wild animals, flamingos are sensitive to changes in their surroundings, so working in the pond area demanded everyone’s careful attention. Thanks to guidance from Zoo staff, we managed to finish the job with no problems or surprises, although we got some idea what the animals must feel like as visitors on the other side of the railing gaped at us as we went about our business!

Performing Check-ups for Carts

Museum Explorer worked with the Chicago History Museum to assess the condition of the museum’s mobile “Activity Stations.” The museum wanted to find out what needed fixing, upgrading or replacing so the carts could be spruced up, fixed up and ready to roll by the time school started in the fall.

Five carts—Prairie, Architecture, Bridges, Maps and Fire—had to travel off-site to receive their bumper-to-bumper tune-ups. (And no, we didn’t wheel them down Clark Street! They were carted away in a well-appointed vehicle.) The carts returned home to CHM during the summer, in plenty of time for those thousands of curious hands expected during the school year.

If you’d like to learn more about the CHM carts check out:

Or if you’d like to learn more about Museum Explorer’s Program Carts go to:

Revising Exhibit Elements and Labels

Based on the results of a recent evaluation conducted by Morton Arboretum staff, Museum Explorer completed work with Children’s Garden Director Katherine Johnson to update graphic elements for exhibit labels and experience boxes used in the Morton Arboretum Children’s Garden. Included were graphics for two experience boxes, Beaver Pond and Evergreen Lookout, along with redesigns of four Growing Garden labels and two Rules signs, and the addition of three Joke signs. Take a look at the Morton Arboretum Children’s Garden at

Charting the Future of Museums

Rich Faron has been named as an Influential Advisor to the Center for the Future of Museums (CFM), an initiative program of the American Association of Museums. The aim of the CFM is to build influence through building engagement and recruiting key representatives as museum futurists. CFM will create and test innovations in museum practice, expand the horizon of museum planning, acquire and use information about trends, exercise leadership in the museum field to provoke discussion and build connections to innovative thinkers in all sectors.

Influential Advisors are independent museum professionals, consultants, faculty members in museum studies programs and field services providers who support the work of the Center for the Future of Museums. As forward-thinking, creative leaders in the museum field, Influential Advisors play an important role in shaping the knowledge, behavior and attitudes of museum leaders.

Making News

The July/August issue of MUSEUM magazine features Museum Explorer’s ninth published “Letter to the Editor” since 2002. In the latest issue Museum Explorer advocates for keeping museums networked with a learning landscape that includes all kinds of learning—formal and informal, directed and self-guided, in traditional and non-traditional settings.

Writing and sharing letters and articles in print and online is important to Museum Explorer because we treasure innovation. And we believe that contributing to a continuing dialogue about what best serves our clients (and their clients) is what keeps the business of informal learning moving forward.

There you have it—a sampling of our work with recent clients. Is there something we can do for you?

Museum Explorer creates experiences to delight visitors. As we plan exhibits and programs, we put the visitor front and center. We aim to set a welcoming stage for people to delve into ideas, see relationships, kindle a passion, consider beliefs in a different light or just learn a little something new. Our hope: to ignite excitement! We work hard to prepare thoughtful spaces where people enjoy learning in non-traditional ways—and find themselves motivated to learn more.

We imagine the visitor as a good friend, and the exhibit as an enthusiastic conversation about a subject we love. How to start that conversation? That’s where we roll up our sleeves.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

MUSEUM magazine / November-December 2009

Is there a museum afterlife? Following a dignified demise what awaits the typical American museum on the other side? Reboot, retool or reprogramming? Will museums restore old routines and ‘software’ or embrace new and progressive operating systems?

At the close of ‘Death with Dignity’(MUSEUM magazine, July/August 2009) the alternatives are clearly outlined in ‘Tough Calls for Tough Times’. Whether museums are looking to simply get healthy or more remarkably, return from the dead, tomorrow’s bottom-line mission statements might read:“Pay attention, be efficient and remain relevant.”

For perhaps the first time in museum history, almost every size venue- small, medium, large and extra large- now confront the same issue. In order to compete, maybe even survive, museums must increase revenue streams by attracting and holding the attention of millions of potential new customers. The upside is that there are super-informed consumers out there just waiting to make a decision, a huge available audience free to select from a nearly unlimited menu of leisure time choices. But in order grab and hold a share of the marketplace, museums must be prepared to make changes.

Banking on reputation, relying on experience and managing the marquee by growls of gut instinct won’t cut it anymore. Prior to the recent economic meltdown there were indications that change was imminent however the collapse has compressed the timeline for change and brought things into sharper focus. There exists real pressure to make honest evaluations and size things up. The traditional field of play has been leveled and democratized, impacting how museums will operate and communicate in the immediate future. There needs to be attention paid to answering questions like how do museums fit on the "new worldwide" stage and how will they be identified moving forward, hopefully as competitive players within an ever evolving education-entertainment marketplace.

But the question remains as to whether the next generation of museums is truly prepared to leap forward and inspire audiences in memorable ways. Can modern institutions continue, as they once did, to impress visitors by leading the way and employing innovative means for expressing big and difficult ideas? This is something that museum spaces are uniquely organized and outfitted to do. Risk taking ought to be the hallmark trait of the museum reputation. After all it was the American museum that helped frame and bring contemporary non-objective art into view, planted evolutionary theory and climate change issues inside everyday conversations and pushed the social histories of civil rights, tenement housing and many other relevant topics out in the open.

Can museums build upon these past achievements or are they liable to eventually succumb to the pressures and burdens inherent in administering and maintaining their own virtuosity? Is there a price to pay for maintaining and perpetuating outdated traditions that often cause museums to forego risk? Is there danger in being too careful and cautious regarding the need to make big changes?

Perhaps in the near future museums should seek to take the next logical step and work to inspire more than just inform. To allow people to intuit instead of only interpret and to live up to the promise of informal learning by pushing people to not only experience things but to engage intimately as well as intellectually. Maybe in this fashion museums can coax visitor’s to record memories instead of simply pocketing meaning and with that done museums will indeed enjoy a useful life or afterlife.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

“Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change we seek.”

Barack Obama


I’m willing to come clean. I confess to being a serious geek for MUSEUM’s ‘People & Transitions’ and the AVISO job classifieds. I usually can’t wait to get my hands on the latest updates and job scripts. They’re ideal for raking insights and gathering gossip regarding the state of mind and level of energy at work behind all those closed doors marked ‘Staff Only’.

‘People & Transitions’ acknowledges promotions and lifetime achievements:

…to assistant curator of decorative arts

…to education director

…to vice president of institutional development

…to executive director

…to CEO

Job posts are even better. They’re such a reflection of our industry and of ‘museum-people’.

Job Description (2009): Executive Director

The successful candidate will have strong leadership skills with experience managing people and resources in a nonprofit setting. Key qualifications include working with a board; fundraising and networking experience; marketing expertise; and proven business and administrative skills. A reputation for strategic thinking is a must. The ideal candidate should have a general understanding of museums and an enthusiasm for managing an institution with a long standing, historic connection to the community. The successful candidate will increase and diversify the sharing of the museum's collection and properties through effective and enticing programming for children and adults, residents and tourists. The new Director will work with the staff to conceive, implement, publicize and evaluate new and existing educational programs to inform the public, raise the museum's profile in the community, increase membership, and attract additional funding.

(Actual Excerpt) AVISO

But times have changed. ‘Big Time’! What was a fun; private game now weighs like a guilty, empty pleasure. An indulgence better suited to a more emotionally prosperous time. So I’ve quit reading them. I still admire the faces pictured on the ‘People & Transitions’ page but I’ll wage 30 years on the job that behind every smile there’s a bit of real heartache for a colleague, more likely a friend, a museum-person downsized or detached from their livelihood, career, passion and dream. It’s a shame and even more unfortunately, its bad timing.

Today, we are about to welcome the first wave of Americans to grow up ‘inside’ museums; an entire generation of new visitors is about to come on line and of age. They’ve been toddled, middle-schooled and teenaged with hands-on experiences, customized field trip programs, outreach and web-based connectivity; a next generation completely absorbed by the promise of informal learning.

For 25 years museum-people have worked to implement an industry wide shift, bringing about dramatic ‘change’ and installing a new strategic model. Retooling the way we meet and greet visitors, altering how we test, design and present our exhibitions, overhauling our strategies for developing and delivering programming, restructuring our methods for wooing and engaging donors. ‘Museum-people’ have brought on progress and near total industry revitalization. A ‘cradle to walking cane’ business model is now in place and we can take pride that we’re beginning to serve our visitors well.

Unfortunately as we are about to embrace our success the economic crisis stands poised to stall or even crash the accomplishment. Money is a problem. There is no way around it. Dramatic reductions in cash flow have put all kinds of endeavors at risk and on hold, real projects and virtual ones ranging from infrastructure to outreach. But our greatest loss might be the loss of our true creative engine; the human resource.

Recently, Nina Simon writing in Museum 2.0 has suggested that we must now face an even bigger challenge. The challenge to move our industry beyond mere survival and the never-ending search for sustainability and to push past this toward what Nina so spot-on describes as ‘supreme awesomeness’.

But it’s not only museums that must change. We need to reinvent ourselves and our career goals, because without us, without museum-people, it’s only a venue; buildings, galleries, storerooms, offices, schedules and budgets. It is we who make the difference. We make the plans and set the goals, craft missions, collect, preserve and interpret and it is us that make things happen.
Museum-people are already ‘Awesome’ but museum-people are going to have to work even harder in the future. We’re going to have to change. Change our hearts, minds and job descriptions to meet the demands of working tomorrow.

Future Job Description: Executive Director

The successful candidate will possess strong interpersonal communication skills including a temperament for managing collaborations with staff, communities and local resources in order to visualize the nonprofit setting as an alternative business environment. Key qualifications include experience working with a youthful, goal driven and diverse board. Ability to achieve balance by employing a flexible hour’s staff working both inside and outside the museum and volunteers ranging from teens to retirees. Fundraising and social networking skills a must; bricks & mortar building experience along with knowledge of the virtual marketplace are needed as are traditional skills in collections administration. Ability for future oriented thinking will be put to the test; therefore the ideal candidate should love museums and possess an enthusiasm for knowledge and an understanding of what it means to be awesome.

(Imagined) AVISO

Alas in the future it might be a bit challenging to reach MUSEUM magazine’s ‘People’ page but the journey will be much more interesting…

…to assistant curator of decorative arts for building and curating the graffiti and street artists collection

…promoted to education director for establishing an on line database allowing public school teachers to match state learning goals & standards to existing field trip programs

…to vice president of institutional development for implementing a micro-loan financing program allowing the public to participate in making investments that support small exhibits and customized programs

…promoted to founding executive director, the new museum aboard the International Space Station

…to CEO?

Rich Faron

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Trust Everyone?

Nina Simon’s recent MUSEUM 2.0 conversation asks us to reflect on the fundamental nature or our collective museum identity. It is an exploration worthy of our interest and it begs embrace by everyone, everywhere who cares for what role museums will play in our future. But, it’s a ‘talk’ that must be pushed beyond borders and past our American museum scene, to encompass a world-wide context meant to explore how museums need to increase the level of collaboration and engagement with people and their communities.

In the last decade there’s been a lot of talk about how museums should serve their communities. But time and again we neglect to reflect on the reality that “communities” are not simply data sets, demographics or even “neighborhoods,” districts drawn on a map. Communities are dynamic and are mapped on the minds of real people; they are founded on sets of common interests and shared perspectives. Therefore nothing deemed socially relevant is off limits when attempting to determine an appropriate form for museum content or especially benchmarks for trust. Any workable definitions of content or agendas framing trustworthiness must be understood, at least from a broad perspective, to be flexible, dynamic if not fluid.

Departing from the ‘big picture’ we will someday be encouraged, even pressed, to argue and accept, that future organizations will on occasion be asked to muster alternative definitions for ‘museum’ identity, meaning and trust. These calls for introspection will be fueled by a wide range of now unknown, future concerns. However, some factors will remain forever familiar, including the vital need for regarding tolerance, urging recognition, understanding and respect for cultural context and the ever-widening quest to target and capture what is truly meant by ”…relevant museum content.”

Regardless, of exactly when this process is engaged there lays a rough road ahead for the ‘average’ museum, the demands on human energy required by any institution to continually evolve what it means to be trustworthy and/or relevant must be acknowledged in advance as taxing, given the current configuration of most museum infrastructures. This is especially true, if each journey is to be tackled with absolute objectivity and without an eye on either the clock or the bottom line.

Nevertheless, museums, whatever their form or content, can begin to plan ahead by adding to their mission goals the requirement to implicitly serve communities. By employing this simple framework the very activity of developing a relevant museum message can be envisioned as a catalyst and tool for inspiring real interest and cooperation between museums and citizens. People working from both sides can help transform the existing landscape of the visitor to venue experience. By laying the groundwork for a truly reciprocal network, true social and economic value can be infused by utilizing the ‘local’ museum as a vehicle and means for developing long term community investments. By making museums do more people find excitement, a place to gather and a stage for bringing into focus mutual aspirations, interests and inquiries.

Imagine an exhibition development process emerging as a lens through which communities might consolidate knowledge, cultural energy and material wealth in order to achieve a common agenda. In instances like this, community trust would be built not with a slogan, but layer by layer, hand in hand, side by side with bricks and mortar.

It must be acknowledged that museums are the places that already exist to enrich and inspire our imagination. Museums bind the past with present and by doing so offer us a chance to connect with our future. Museums also remind us that it is our duty to vouchsafe for succeeding generations some form of, and perhaps appreciation for, our artistic, cultural and scientific heritage. This heritage is the foundation of our identities–as individuals, as communities, as nations. It is the vital work of museums to help validate these communities.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Coming Soon: The Future
The Shape of Museums to Come

MUSEUM magazine: May / June 2009


“It would be dangerous, however, for museums to focus on narrowly defined missions and trust that someone else will grapple with the challenges facing society.”

Coming Soon: The Future
The Shape of Museums to Come
page 43

Unfortunately this represents fundamentally poor advice. If museums were to reprioritize their missions, in order to evaluate and strategize potential responses to the possible impact of shifts, trends and change measured by means of prediction, then museums would expose themselves to the risk of becoming constrained or worse, absorbed by the drag and creative dampening influences of real-time. While certain aspects of institutional ‘life support’ must respond to fluctuations in the contemporary marketplace it nevertheless remains imperative that the core work of the museum stand outside the context and timing of the real world. The work of museums must not be rerouted to map or respond to the short term adjustments of fashion; whether shifts in aesthetics, trends in politics or even short term changes in scientific thought. Museums are media, media designed to engage the future as it unfolds unceremoniously and incrementally day to day. Only by operating according to mission; select, evaluate, preserve and interpret, can museums remain free to fulfill their role as points of collection and redistribution where the past and future emerge, to be considered in the present.

Certainly playing; predict the future represents an interesting challenge; however, predictions are not what are required when seeking to help the average museum of today to meet the demands of tomorrow. Predictions rely on informed but nevertheless clever attempts at applying processes of logical analysis and reasoning, bringing these to bear on a blank and nearly infinite canvas of open-ended potentialities. Therefore, while entertaining, developing predictions and targeting strategic decisions based on best guess scenarios will not help support museums in their work to merge today with tomorrow.

But, while predicting the future might not represent a practical activity, maintaining relevance is essential. Over the last quarter century museums and their audiences have grown not only in sheer numbers but also in maturity of spirit. Together, museum and visitor have done a pretty good job of ‘seeing’ what’s coming and have responded by incorporating a meaningful, mission-based awareness of the whole Earth as an immensely diverse but finite location, a place of measurable distances and limited resources, natural and cultural. The creative tension and exchange between visitor and venue enlighten the means by which museums meet the demands of maintaining a public trust and with the advent of advancing technologies the role of visitors will continue to increase and evolve by allowing for the customization of partnerships, enabling museums to achieve true community connectivity and with it, balance of purpose, process and performance in the 21st century.


Museums should be oases of the real in an increasingly virtual world. Along with the outdoors and places of worship museums represent the best opportunities for getting away from it all.

Coming Soon: The Future
The Shape of Museums to Come
page 41

Museums wouldn’t function very well as places for “getting away from it all”. In truth, the two examples meant to serve as parallels or models for museums are interpreted incorrectly. Certainly Thoreau might argue that the ‘outdoors’ requires at least bit of investment and patience to appreciate if not understand and it seems doubtful that any person of real faith would imagine their place of worship as a venue for “getting away from it all”. To the contrary places of sanctuary are in fact consciously managed outside of real-time precisely because the work of worship is so profoundly and fundamentally taxing. Like museums, places of worship require those who visit to invest in the process of creating the essential ‘meaningful’ experience.

This argument does not mean to dictate that museum ‘visitation’ must be deeply meaningful or that it can only be enjoyed in a fulfilled state. But the visitor must be encouraged to work at least a little bit, because only through partnership can a highly functional and confident institution emerge. Imagine a museum in ‘communion’ with its visitors. Picture a museum identified by a unique personality, a museum invested in the development of its own story, bound by a singular mission and narrative. This is the profile of an institution prepared to collaborate with any demographic, embrace every useful technology, cross any border and do business in every land.

The mission is the tool, the razors edge that sculpts context, for art, science, conservation, history or even the preservation of memory. It is because of each individual museum mission that some museum will always be prepared to engage the challenges facing society. The museum is a doorway opening on the past, present and future. Whether museums collect ancient ceramics, plant DNA or the ‘Tweets’ of the first ‘wired’ U.S. President the passion to pursue the acquisition of objects, of things of data remains as fundamental to our human nature as our curiosity. To preserve these and vouchsafe them for future generations is our duty and obligation. However, if we only acquire and warehouse then we are only hoarders and protectors. Therefore we complete our mission and embrace the public’s trust. We interpret, we exhibit, we program, and we publish. We acknowledge that museum-making is an old story and a never ending work in progress and it is the job of our generation to continue to carry on with that job; in the field, in the storeroom, within the exhibit hall and in the public eye.


More museums will be places of cultural exchange in their communities; they won’t have any other choice. Museums will be the primary sites for civic dialogue about community interests and the policies that affect communities.

Coming Soon: The Future
The Shape of Museums to Come
page 40

There’s a lot of talk about how museums serve communities. But “communities” are not just “neighborhoods,” districts drawn on a map. Community is mapped on the mind, a set of common interests and perspectives. Museums serve as focal points for those interests – external interest in topic or discipline, of course, but also internal interests in identity, self-worth, and self-actualization.

Museums programs serve communities by helping their members realize these goals. But a new age for museums may emerge as various political bodies, commercial ventures and cultural communities around the world recognize that the act of museum building itself can be a catalyst for driving mutual interest and cooperation. Governments and ordinary citizens alike will learn that museum-building can excite, gather and focus populations. Building efforts become a lens through which communities can consolidate knowledge, cultural energy and material wealth in order to achieve a common agenda.

Museum-building can offer everyone in a community the chance for collaboration. By joining together, distant and even disparate groups may discover common ground likely to urge conversations, potential exchanges of ideas, or even a pooling of resources. The activity surrounding a museum-building project can lead to unexpected outcomes, creating a model of cooperation applicable to other, non-museum-based endeavors.

Therefore it seems reasonable to speculate that at some point in the near future, citizens around the world will start to weigh the merits of museum-building. Such efforts are most likely to start gelling at the most local level, for that is where the needs are greatest, and the impact can be greatest as well and it appears likely that small to medium sized museums will lead the way. Advocates must recognize that museums are one of the few remaining enterprises with the power to provide even the most fragile groups a strong sense of worth and permanence. Communities must take the initiative to either develop and build, or to restore and renew, their own museum resources.

As noted, communities are not just neighborhoods. But every museum is physically located somewhere. To accomplish anything at all, we must all “act locally.” But, to avoid becoming irrelevant backwaters – or, worse, symbols of community splintering and Balkanization – we must also “think globally.” Advances in communication technology, and the perspective shifts they engender, compel museums to weave their own community – a network of data points uniting those distinct entities into a national whole.

Museums enrich and inspire our imagination. Museums bind the past with present and by doing so offer us a chance to connect with our future. Museums also remind us that it is our duty to save for succeeding generations some form of, and perhaps appreciation for, our artistic, cultural and scientific heritage. This heritage is the foundation of our identities–as individuals, as communities, as nations. It is the vital work of museums to validate these communities—the individuals they comprise, and the nations they compose--and ensure that they are appreciated, understood, and preserved every bit as well as the objects they happen to produce.


can museums rethink how they curate and interpret their collections, how they make those collections more accessible and how they involve diverse audiences in the meaningful work of museums?

Coming Soon: The Future
The Shape of Museums to Come
page 42

Most museum workers learn quickly and almost take for granted that personal professional relationships constitute the core of modern not-for-profit business management. Trust, cooperation and understanding are the active components, and represent best practice for museum teams reaching outside the walls in order to forge useful connections beyond the boundaries of the organization. Successful outreach requires that museum staffs build solid, long-term and even personally bonded relationships with members of the community.
But what about building relationships on the inside? Do museum workers recognize that internal connections are just as critical for success and that just as much effort and attention needs to be given to building internal networks as is given when nurturing external partners? Forging internal relationships and connections—working well with others—is fast becoming the critical path for achieving success on the job. This appears to be especially true for museum staff working in public programming, with specific implications looming for exhibit and education staff.
The typical American museum is organized around a framework of standardized offices, subdivided into departments that often include administration, development, education and public programming. Recently, in response to economic pressures, exhibits and the educational programs that compliment them have begun to function as more than platforms for mission-based programming. Contemporary exhibits are now expected to drive attendance, push revenue and attract new markets through advertising and outreach. To better confront these heightened expectations, exhibit departments are seeking to nurture new partnerships inside the museum. By crossing departmental lines, exhibitors can transcend the organizational frameworks of traditional museum infrastructure.

Nevertheless, despite all of the emerging technologies, and all kinds of new scholarship and methodologies, and all the things you can see in exhibits or be told by smart colleagues or think up by yourself in the shower—in the end, it still boils town to putting together good, old-fashioned teams. From working on 25,000 sq. ft. exhibits with multi-million dollar budgets and staff topping 100, to developing a single room in a small children’s museum, successful projects feature frank communication and collaboration.
The contemporary museum exhibition or education professional is in real need of access to fresh ideas and novel strategies for developing, adapting and building cross-departmental partnerships within their institutions. The top-down hierarchy still in place within most U.S. institutions is quickly growing ineffective in the face of a tough economy and direct competition from an ever-expanding entertainment marketplace. Reorganization has been tested, but museums remain conservative and continue to lag behind. However, interest is growing from the ground up, from workers eager to rethink and retool organizations in an effort to build a more integrated network of human and material resources; an integrated network that will allow museums to compete creatively in the future.

Rich Faron
Museum Explorer, Inc.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Out and about with Museum Explorer

Museum Explorer creates experiences to delight visitors. As we plan exhibits and programs, we put the visitor front and center. We aim to set a welcoming stage for people to delve into ideas, see relationships, kindle a passion, consider beliefs in a different light or just learn a little something new. Our hope: to ignite excitement! We work hard to prepare thoughtful spaces where people enjoy learning in non-traditional ways—and find themselves motivated to learn more.

We imagine the visitor as a good friend, and the exhibit as an enthusiastic conversation about a subject we love. How to start that conversation? That’s where we roll up our sleeves.

Here’s what we’ve been up to lately. . . .

Taking a bow!

In September 2008, Museum Explorer received a 2008 Award of Excellence for Exhibition from the Illinois Association of Museums for our work on the “Getting There, Getting Water, Getting Rescued” exhibit at the Aurora Regional Fire Museum. We’re proud to have had the opportunity to share in this award with ARFM Chief Curator David Lewis and Dimension Craft Inc., the exhibit fabricator.

Success at AAM

At the American Association of Museums Annual Meeting in Philadelphia in April, Rich Faron of Museum Explorer participated in a panel session “Wheeling Visitors In!” With colleagues Heidi Moisan (Chicago History Museum), Michelle Nichols (Adler Planetarium) and Susan Nichols (Smithsonian American Art Museum), Rich explored ways to integrate design, programming and audience needs using custom-designed wheeled program carts. In the Museum Explorer repertoire, carts have become a huge success: not only do they deliver important content in engaging ways, but they offer plenty of bang for the buck.

Planning and promoting an up-and-coming exhibit

Since January, Museum Explorer has been working under the direction of DuSable Museum President and CEO Antoinette D. Wright on a planning document for the DuSable Museum of African American History to use in promoting its upcoming exhibit on African American Olympians. Stay tuned.

Sprucing up zoo signage

We continue our ongoing spruce-up of graphics, labels, signage and exhibit elements for the Lincoln Park Zoo, including “You Are Here” maps. Museum Explorer is working with Dimension Craft Inc. to install a large-format photo exhibition for the small-mammal house and new outdoor graphics around the pond and flamingo habitat.

Developing graphics for a museum “scavenger hunt”

Based on ideas developed by Heidi Moisan, Manager of School Programs at the Chicago History Museum, Museum Explorer is designing graphics for a soon-to-be-unveiled education program at CHM. Working with program facilitators, student field-trippers will use “clue cards” to search CHM’s permanent exhibits, scavenger-hunt-style, for artifacts and objects. Then they’ll plot and pinpoint each object’s provenance location on a map of Chicago built into interactive activity cart.

Creating the vision for a new science center

In conjunction with FGM Architects (Oak Brook, IL), Payette Architects (Boston, MA) and Lynch Exhibits (Burlington, NJ), Museum Explorer recently concluded a project for Wheaton College to imagine a 5-story atrium exhibition space in Wheaton’s new science building, now in the budgeting phase. Our comprehensive planning document for the Wheaton College Science Center includes written exhibition scenarios, design concepts and CAD layouts as it presents ideas for exhibit content, interactive exhibits, collections displays and multimedia presentations.

Revising exhibit elements and labels

Based on the results of a recent evaluation conducted by Morton Arboretum staff, Museum Explorer is working with Children’s Garden Director Katherine Johnson to update graphic elements for exhibit labels and experience boxes used in the Morton Arboretum Children’s Garden.

Prototyping exhibit interactives

In collaboration with DuPage Children’s Museum Director of Exhibits Peter Crabbe and Interdisciplinary Arts Specialist Marcia MacRae, Museum Explorer has concluded exhibit development, concept design and rough prototyping for the wind garden interactive in the “Air Works” exhibit for DCM. Constructed in our shop, the prototypes were tested at DCM late last fall and early winter, with great success. The exhibit is now being detailed and constructed, and should be “up and twirling” soon.

There you have it—a sampling of our work with recent clients. Is there something we can do for you?

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Adieu… Indiana Jones

The eulogy to Dr. Jones (MUSEUM magazine) splendidly explores the roll over of Western curatorial colonialism. By tracking the path of institutional self-discovery the article traverses a comprehensive overview across the landscape of our industry’s baseline history. The field notes of ‘Indiana Jones is Dead’ log the emergence of a collective museum-world conscience rooted in altruism and collaborative outreach, presenting most of the major discoveries that nudged us along the trail to enlightenment, save for one. By missing the clues left by our own museum-going audience, ‘we’ as museum professionals risk to tumble once again into that hidden trap, whereby we neglect to fully consider the impact and contribution of the millions and millions who have streamed though our turnstiles over the last one hundred plus years.

Simply put, average people, the ‘native’ visitor, have played as equal a role in tuning the pitch of our universal mission to collect, preserve and interpret as have any single museum, administrator, curator or political advocate. Whether natural science, aquarium, art institute or zoo every institution is mission bound to engage the never ending struggle to push exploration beyond the immediate horizon and in succeeding to achieve greater connectivity with the target audience.

Museum and visitor must advance as one. However, in the heat of pursuit every form of museum has come to rely and weigh heavily on its audience like a trusty assistant, museum and visitor working side by side in an ongoing and ever changing effort to maintain an objective balance. And possibly, even objectionably on occasion, to define a moral position, a compass point, a hard reference that might allow and empower the museum, zoo or aquarium to remain both vital and relevant.

Over the last century the American museum and its audience have grown not only in sheer numbers but also in maturity of spirit. Together, museum and visitor have become increasingly aware of the whole Earth as an immensely diverse but finite location, a place of measurable distances and limited resources. There has always been a creative tension in the exchange between visitor and venue. The behavior of visitors does contribute to the determination of how museums do their work and how they achieve balance of purpose and process. The Field Museum serves as an ideal example as it, like many other institutions, has engaged in reinvention several times since its founding in 1893.

The Columbian Exposition was intended as a robust response to the devastation of the Great Chicago Fire. A showcase set on a world stage. As a part of this event the very first iteration of The Field Museum was nothing less than the largest and grandest ‘Cabinet of Curiosities’ of its kind ever imagined, an excess of wonders leaving the public with nothing to wish for. However, as monumental and moving as that display of material culture and natural treasures might have been, Marshall Field must have recognized instinctively that transforming a side show into a meaningful museum experience would require more than a simple donation of money.

As selling dry goods caused him to understand, the public must be served appropriately, whether one were selling fragrances or displaying fungi the pitch must be straight forward and possess real value. Therefore when Ayer finally made it clear that the opportunity was to achieve more than display …“you will have the privilege of being the educational host to millions of people who will follow us in the Mississippi valley…” Marshall Field understood that a business plan grounded in education could be established, a plan that would not only vouchsafe but connect an audience to a collection. And so the one hundred year old story of the founding of The Field Museum reminds us that museum-making is a never ending work in progress, a job carried out;

*In the field
*Inside the storeroom
*Within the exhibit hall
*In the public eye.

A revealing and in many ways very relevant comment is provided midway in ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ when Dr. Jones is confronted in the streets of Cairo by his dark rival. The words of the French archaeologist Rene Belloch taunt Indiana by reminding him of the immense difficulty the museum professional confronts in remaining objective and the precarious nature of keeping vigilant, an acknowledgement that there is indeed a right and a wrong way of approaching the work. He says to Indiana Jones;

“You and I are very much alike. Archaeology is our religion. Yet we have both fallen from the pure faith. Our methods do not differ as much as you pretend. I am a shadowy reflection of you; it would take only a nudge to make you like me, to push you out of the light.”

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

For Love & Museums

“I don’t work in museums because I love them. I love the promise of what they can be.”

Nina Simon, Museum 2.0, MUSEUM Magazine (Winter 2009)

I work in museums because I love them. I love what they are, what they were and what they will be. In this business, we define our purpose and place for making a difference by tracing distinct paths. Nina’s journey has inspired very powerful arguments about what museums can be;

“I see museums as places to circumvent the hazards of compulsory education and support a democratic, engaged society of learners”

Nina Simon, Museum 2.0
MUSEUM Magazine (WInter 2009)

But I wonder. Why settle outside the system? It only serves the urge for specialization, social segmentation and a continuing, mostly economic compartmentalization, of public learning opportunities? Like it or not, museums have ‘grown up’ as a part of the system. And while not fully invested dollar wise; at least not yet, museums S, M, L, & XL line the landscapes of our cities, towns and neighborhoods. If anything, we need to network museums in not out.

“Can they (museums) be the outlying factor that makes individuals successful? Can they provide an experience or situation that is so transformative as to make someone with raw talent into an unqualified success?”

Susan Breitkopf, MUSEUM Magazine
Winter 2009)


Museums can be the outlying factor meant to provide experiences that are transformative. Informal learning can get along with formal learning. The classroom and the library reading room can coexist with the self-directed opportunities of the exhibit gallery.

Imagine an aggregate. Formal learning, self-directed learning and informal learning, all operating in complimentary fashion, each form intact and still uniquely identifiable from a public perspective, but bound together as a network. Working outward from this point, museums emerge as something new. Not by changing but by simply merging as part of an alternative learning toolkit.

Formal learning in schools, informal learning in museums and self-directed leaning at the individual level form the raw materials of the composite.
Working together, home, school, and informal learning environments provide complementary experiences that encompass nurturing, formal instruction, self-directed interests and experiential and interactive programming.

· Investigations are conducted in School
· Interests are pursued through Self-Study
· Immersion and interactivity are explored in Museums

By repositioning the museum as an equal partner alongside traditional learning venues an alternative model is established. This new cooperative being able to serve a broad community of inquiry including adults, families, teens and school age children.

At school, learning results from teacher efforts and curriculum standards.

At home or in the community, learning happens as a result of explorations on one’s own, perhaps through play, reading, or watching, or those created by parents and caregivers.

At museums, learning occurs through self-directed immersive and interactive experiences in exhibits and/or through programs facilitated by staff and volunteers.

However, if museums are to play a key role in making the next generation of visitors successful then it is incumbent upon museums to resist the urge to resort to the ever present BUTS… that Nina Simon warned us all to beware.

“But we will try to force them to do what we want them to anyway.”

“But we will make sure the only stuff they encounter in the galleries is vetted. “

“But we won’t acknowledge their voices and their meaning.”

If in the future museums are to be provided with equal partner status, as contributors to an experience-based network, then museums must be prepared to do what museums do best. To recognize that…

The informal learning environment respects all visitors and their differing abilities to learn.

Whenever possible museums must inspire visitors to use all of their senses during observation and inquiry.

Direct experience facilitates the making of relevant connections and memories as a basis for constructing knowledge.

Visitors must be encouraged to feedback, to ask questions and make comments.

However, if we stick to our ‘Buts…’ or if we choose is to remain comfortable and target only the tips of our noses then any opportunity we might have to grab hold of a new generation and a relevant future, might just move beyond our reach.

“We are in the middle of some challenging times. All the more reason to prove museums – are more vital than ever.”

Susan Breitkopf, MUSEUM
Magazine (Winter 2009)