Saturday, November 27, 2010

When exhibit planning intersects with community dreams

Earlier this month Museum Explorer was recognized as part of a team from the Evanston History Center that won an Award of Excellence for Exhibitions from the Illinois Association of Museums. The award-winning exhibit, "Lifting as We Climb: Evanston Women and the Creation of a Community," presents and celebrates women and women's organizations in Evanston's history. We were grateful to learn that IAM made particular note of the team's "excellent planning process" and the "remarkable record of women's achievement" that the exhibit documents and displays.

We love being recognized for an "excellent planning process." Yet no amount of excellent planning holds water without complete support from the client museum. We were privileged to work closely on this project with EHC archivist Lori Osborne, who served as exhibit curator, and EHC director Eden Pearlman. At the Evanston History Center, Eden Pearlman has created and continues to nurture a collaborative environment that elicits the very best effort each team member has to offer.

Even more important than any planning process is this. In the last 10 years there has been much discussion about how museums need to serve their communities. In our opinion, these communities aren't just neighborhoods, or lines drawn on a map. Instead, community is mapped on the mind--a set of common interests and perspectives. Good museums, like the EHC, help focus interests not just in external content areas like art, science, and history, but also in internal realms such as identity, self-worth, and self-actualization.

Museums serve communities by helping visitors realize goals. Could a new age for museums be at hand, as various political groups, commercial ventures, and cultural bodies begin to see that the act of exhibit development itself can catalyze mutual interest and cooperation? As everyday people learn that exhibits can excite and inspire a local community, exhibit development becomes a tool through which communities can consolidate knowledge, cultural energy, and material wealth to achieve a common agenda.

The Evanston Women's History Project and its exhibit, "Lifting as We Climb," does just that. While the Evanston History Center is a small museum with a tight resources and a small, hardworking staff, they are playing the big game with big success, in ways that great--and greatly endowed--museums can only dream about.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

When it all works out

How often do things work out just the way you want them to, with a minimum of fuss and bother? In the museum exhibit business, there's usually no shortage of haggling and hand wringing between the revelation of an idea and the Big Opening. But every once in a while we get lucky.

The new reading rail on the pedestrian bridge overlooking the pond at Cafe Brauer, at Lincoln Park Zoo, is one of those lucky projects. Step 1: A simple idea. People walking across the bridge see the gorgeous Chicago skyline in the background. Let's put a "map" of the skyline right at their fingertips so they know what they're looking at. Step 2: Museum Explorer creates concept drawings.

Step 3: Chicago Architecture Foundation generously shares existing graphics files with the metal fabricator so no one has to re-invent the wheel, i.e., create new scale measurements and drawings for each building. Step 4: The metal fabricator builds the reading rail just the way we drew it.

Step 5: Bingo! People love it.

The bridge over the pond is part of the larger Nature Boardwalk project at Lincoln Park Zoo. Catch up on Nature Boardwalk news and see great photos of plants and animals that live there: check out the blog written by Vicky Hunt, the zoo's coordinator of wildlife management. Barbara Brotman of the Chicago Tribune wrote a recent column about Nature Boardwalk; take a look at it here.

Or better yet, hop on the train or the bus and head out to Lincoln Park Zoo, wander around, and see the Nature Boardwalk--and much more--for yourself. Can't beat the admission price: it's free.