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.”