Thursday, December 13, 2012

Creative Constipation?

Is there such a thing as creative 'constipation'? Why certainly! There are absolutely times when 'it' (a good idea) just won't come out. Writers call it 'BLOCK' and some painters refer to a lack of inspiration as seeing 'BLANK.' So what does an experienced designer working on a mobile learning station (Cart!) call it? Well in this case it certainly seemed like we were creatively constipated. Yup that is the right term because the challenge before us was to design a cart that about the scientific research that is conducted everyday at Lincoln Park Zoo: endocrinology, or POOP research. Yep you got it right, poop is what confronted the team working on this problem at the Zoo.

Amanda Berlinski, one of the Zoo's educators and a team member, said that trying to figure out how to talk about the science of poop study “made my brain hurt.” Developing a cart for their subject presented “so many options for how to convey the message that we care for animals using their poop. Then, finally, after endless hours of thinking of nothing but crap, we finally figured it out. In one of those true “Eureka” moments, we realized that no matter what scientists do with poop, whether they are observing it, identifying it, processing it, or analyzing it… It’s always still POOP. That’s all guests really want to know about… and it’s the story we get to tell with this new cart at LPZ.”

Wow! What a relief it was to finally unload with an option that was truly solid. Take a look at the photo and you'll see Amanda with her arms upraised as she explains that 'Eureka" moment to the Advisory Team at the Zoo.

Creative constipation happens to everyone at one time or another and when it does, you can't force just have to relax and let inspiration do its thing.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Our Summer Vacation

Now that we are well into fall (especially given our frosty weather of late), we can tell you about our summer vacation.  Well, actually it wasn't much of a vacation--we've been very busy!  But we did manage to have some fun—we even took a roadtrip, and what a great one it was!

We had many highlights this summer, including celebrating our company’s 10 year anniversary.  One way in which we were able to celebrate this successful hallmark was with yet another: The Smithsonian Affiliates, the organization of esteemed museums associated with the Smithsonian museum, invited us to present at their 2012 National Conference in Washington, D.C.  We are so honored and excited by this—it is so rewarding to even be acknowledged by this group.  It was the best anniversary present a company in the Museum business could get!

Needless to say, Museum Explorer jumped at the chance to present our museum carts.  We turned this invitation into a classic summer road trip from Chicago to the National Mall (which those of our fans + friends will recall, we chronicled on Facebook).  And with the help of some of our summer interns (teens from our own families), we were able to make this trip possible.  The museum carts were constructed, loaded into the van, and off we went on something of a classic (albeit extended) sales call—only this door ended up being in the nation’s capital!

Our presentation was well-received, and it felt great.  While we are fortunate enough to have many of our carts out there in the museum world (including MSI, etc), our biggest accomplishment over our ‘summer vacation’ was introducing the Smithsonian American Art Museum to Museum Explorer’s carts!  The SAAM had us create 5 carts for them.  We sent them off just a few weeks ago.  Below you can see a picture of the finished product actually in the museum itself! One of the most flattering and satisfying moments of the entire summer was when we received the artwork that will be placed on the side and banners for all 5 Smithsonian American Art Museum carts. The carts will be labeled 'Art a la Cart.’  We couldn't be more thrilled to have our carts carry this message to the Smithsonian visitors from around the world that will enjoy the gallery programs staged on our carts.

Another amazing thing that happened because of this trip was a second Smithsonian project, this time for the National Museum of African American History & Culture. We are at the very start of helping the NMAAHC to develop a cart that will feature three Apple iPad stations. We're very excited to say the least about engaging our second Smithsonian client in only a few months.

This rewarding event—an accolade, truly—was specifically titled ‘Collaboration Blitz.’  This, in the Affiliates’ own words, was intended to provide an arena for “Vendors, Affiliates and Smithsonian staff [to] present partnership opportunities…ideas and resources in hopes of making unexpected connections with potential collaborators.”  Luckily for Museum Explorer, this is exactly what happened to us.  It was a successful summer indeed!

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Chicago Cultural Plan 2012: 1909 Redux

Many years ago, architect Daniel Burnham built the City of Chicago.  Well, not personally, maybe—but we Chicagoans owe much to him nonetheless.  Having designed the city’s structural backbone, Burnham fashioned Chicago from a Midwestern locale to a true Metropolis, with a unique identity.  His hand quite literally drew Chicago up from the ashes of the Great Fire of 1873, officially commemorating its rebuilding from the fire by designing the magnificent White City of the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893.  He truly lived by his words to “Make no small plans,” and he certainly set some big plans in motion for Chicago with these words in mind.

More than 100 years later, we are still attempting to truly realize (in both senses of the word--of understanding and implementing) this plea for our city.  Mayor Emmanuel’s 2012 Chicago Cultural Plan, recently drafted after months of hype, strives to continue in Burnham’s tradition.  It is long—some 67 pages of ideas and suggestions for the cultural betterment of the city.  The Emanuel camp also made an effort to be inclusive with residential Chicagoans, which opens nicely with pictures of Chicagoans who participated in the town forums held by the cultural committee.  The ideas and suggestions presented by these people are engaged by the Cultural Plan, positives:  engagement of "residents" looks pretty good--and sounds believable.  The opening pages displaying the pictures of participants and their thoughts, ideas and questions looks promising in terms of a co-commitment to cultural change.  It makes it seem as though they pursued all forums, rather than just the consulting firm Lord Cultural Resources, the go-to International (Canadian) firm for generating hype and cultural capital. And the draft ghost stamped on all of the pages serves as an invitation to all to digest this and change it as they wish during the new town hall meetings, to contribute to the final version.  With a little vivacity from cultural team leader Michelle Boone, and a little conviction, this could work.  

But let's hope the final draft has more direction than what is given here.  If these are to be our blueprints, how will we know where to start, with such vague "directions"?  Conviction would be favorable with these plans rather than the length presented as a substitute for commitment.  Sure, these plans are lengthy, but are they BIG, as Burnham suggests? Are they truly sweeps of change, or are they just small plans within a “big” shell?  Otherwise, without proper direction, the Plan could easily come off as feeling a little hackneyed—not unlike a brochure for buyers and investors, rather than a commitment to Chicagoans for the betterment of the city. 

In the "methodology" section (page 21), they refer to blueprints and building culture in this city from the bottom up...but this city doesn't need that.  We already have in place very beautiful and historically significant blueprints.  In 1909 Burnham released his Plan for the City of Chicago, to which we owe thanks for a central vein into the city (Congress Parkway), as well as the parks, beaches and harbors along the lakefront.  Beyond Burnham’s architectural contributions, these feats also carried social connotations, which are visually explained in his designs.  Notice the radiation, the symmetry, the movement implied in his designs of the streets and layout of the city.  This idea of symmetry was not merely geographical, but culturally intended.  It implies a shared cultural experience of the physical space—equality, among all peoples, races, classes.  These balanced designs were particularly impactful given the large influx of immigrants to the city at the time.  He did not reserve specific spaces for specific ethnic groups, as the city has tended toward in its growth since Burnham’s time.  He would not be content with the way that this incredibly segregated city has turned out in that area.  Note that his plans do not allocate a North Side and South Side; he does not designate Chicago’s present neighborhood factions. 

As Chicago looks to the future, it needs also consider its past.  Now that the dust from Burnham's original plans for our city have settled and the air has become stagnant, Chicago needs to reassume these designs and physically, culturally and socially put them in place once again.  We can build our city around Burnham’s idea: symmetry, equality, shared space. Burnham’s idea of our city as a “Paris on the Prairie” was not merely physical, but cultural as well. His oft-quoted command to “Make no small plans” was clearly meant for Chicago.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

A Happy Anniversary!

Today is truly a banner day for Museum Explorer!  Yes, we've had many of those lately, having just come back from a successful trip to the Smithsonian Museum... but today is all the more special because it marks 10 YEARS of Museum Explorer!!  In an article Rich wrote for Museum Magazine, "How Will Museums Label the Future?" (around the time when we started the company), he suggested as an answer to the titular question that "experimentation might lead to surprising results."  TEN years ago today, we started this company to make that happen, and about a week ago today, we presented one of our carts to the Smithsonian Affiliates at the Smithsonian Museum... 

In celebration of our anniversary, we wanted to share thoughts and well wishes from some of our customers. MANY THANKS to all of you for your support, and to everyone, including our family, friends, colleagues, and clients who have helped us make it to ten years.  Here is to 10 more years of experimentation--and success!!

"For the last ten years Rich has developed Museum Explorer with a process of a        continued cycle of improvement. He has gradually added people to complement his skills as he learned more about his clients needs so that Museum Explorer can now offer a wide array of services. The company combines the best of the commercial sector with a deep knowledge of museums."
Peter Crabbe
Director of Exhibitons & Design
DuPage Children's Museum

"Congratulations! 10 years and working for the Smithsonian as an anniversary gift. Awesome!"
Peggy Martin
Director of Exhibits, Graphics & Publications
Lincoln Park Zoo

"I absolutely LOVE working with Museum Explorer.  Over the last 8 years we have worked on many projects together, from very big to very small. The size of the project never matters - Rich and his team bring the highest level of expertise and creative thinking to EVERY SINGLE project. Congratulations on 10 great years!"

Eden Juron Pearlman
Executive Director
Evanston History Center 

Saturday, June 9, 2012

The Wheels on the Exhibit (I mean, Bus) Go Round and Round

Exhibit developers and designers are lucky to have the chance to explore intriguing topics. Like reporters on breaking news stories, we get the scoop--sometimes from the discoverers themselves--on intriguing finds: dinosaur fossils, new (non-extinct!) species, artifacts from archaeological digs in exotic places. We get to suggest ways to present cool stuff and amazing ideas to the public. We get to tell museum audiences some thrilling stories.  And sometimes, we get to work on truly spectacular exhibits.

But…what if exhibits just aren’t enough?  What if you could take your exhibits off the walls, and then right out the front door, to the local park, school or shopping mall? Well how about climbing aboard the ultimate exhibit?  ...A BUS!

An exhibit bus is a big idea in a small, movable package.  You can climb aboard and cruise the streets of your community, all while exploring its history inside the bus itself.  An exhibit bus truly makes your community accessible by bundling an exhibit in a space that is not just interesting, but special. It is a unique way of quite literally delivering a message.

Picture installing a special exhibit on a small bus, one that can comfortably accommodate 12 to 14 children at a single time. That is about the same number of people that are able to comfortably crowd around the average exhibit case inside the average museum--but a bus is anything but average.

Next, picture yourself driving that bus around to schools, neighborhood festivals, branch libraries, malls--any type of place where school kids gather. Beep Beep! What a way to announce what you’ve got to offer. This little exhibit rocks because it rolls! And while the bus is only about 20 feet long and 8 feet wide, the exhibits inside cover a lot of ground--130 years of Chicago's growth and change, and delivers a hopeful message about a great person.

This bus, conceptualized specially for the DuSable Museum of African American History in Chicago, has two aisles and eight interactive areas. You can trace the history of Jean Baptiste Pointe DuSable from his arrival in the Chicago region and his establishment of a trading post through his successful years as an entreprenuer, and onward to his legacy as Chicago’s founding citizen and inspirational figure.

Yes, the wheels on the bus go round and round, but when the bus stops and opens its doors for children, parents, teachers and members of the community the wheels inside everyone’s heads start going round and round, too. The DuSable bus includes plenty of stuff to do - flappers, sliders, magnetic poetry, interactive maps, push button audio sources and even a model canoe that you can sit down in and imagine yourself paddling up the Chicago river to your pioneer home and eventually into the history books. It truly is an inspirational experience.
What these features teach about our founder will move visitors. The more people read about du Sable and his achievements, his creativity and his instincts as a frontiersman and entrepreneur, the more people will realize what an amazing person he was. 
“Each day, we build on du Sable’s legacy,” as he was an epitome of hard work and innovation--characteristics still in high esteem of we Chicagoans.   As the exhibit points out, du Sable “settled here among native peoples and raised a family,” while also running and growing “a successful business, working with customers from many different places.”   DuSable “earned admiration and respect of people who knew him,” and the exhibit bus will likely make you feel that way, too.
So keep your eyes open for the DuSable Museum Story Bus. It just might come to your neighborhood one of these days. When it does, step inside to see "Jean Baptiste Pointe du Sable: Legend and Legacy." We were inspired by the story of Chicago's founder, and we hope you will be too!

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Getting it Written Down Right!

“Congratulations! We are pleased to inform you that the jurors of the 2012 AAM Excellence in Exhibition Label Writing Competition recognized your label “Du Sable built his business at a watery crossroads” from The DuSable Museum Story Bus as excellent.”
                                                                                                               Email 3/2/12                                           

WOW! What a message to receive on a Friday afternoon—what a great way to end the work week! We’re proud, humbled and absolutely ‘jacked’ all at the same time. Winning any award that features competition from the very best museum professionals from across the US would be worthy of celebration, but winning an award of ‘Excellence’ for writing exhibit labels…well that really ranks! Writing is difficult (duh).  There are no clever interactives, bright lights or flashy graphics to hide behind—it’s all about the words! They gotta be just right.

The American Association of Museums Excellence in Exhibition Label Writing Competition is an annual event that showcases top work in labels representing almost every form of museum content, with the intention of inspiring writers and editors to create clear, concise and captivating labels. This year, the 2012 jurors included Jeanine Head Miller, representing the AAM Curators Committee; Cathleen Donnelly, representing the AAM Education Committee; Eugene Dillenburg, representing the National Association of Museum Exhibitors; and Toni Wynn, representing the recognized winners from the 2011 competition. After carefully reviewing the 83 entries submitted from across the US and Canada, the jurors selected 11 labels, including Museum Explorer’s work for the DuSable Museum of African American History Story Bus! The work will be showcased at AAM’s annual meeting April 30th in Minneapolis.

At this point it probably makes sense to acknowledge the person who actually did the work on this prize-winning label. Susan Curran is an outstanding talent, with 30 years of experience in museum work (a true Museum Person!). Susan has been a part of Museum Explorer as a Senior Writer & Exhibit Developer for 6 years.  She is responsible for developing and articulating the museum voice for all exhibit label copy. Susan researched, wrote, rewrote, edited, and proofread all copy for all of the labels on the ‘Story Bus.’

For those of you who have not yet seen the DuSable Museum Story bus…it’s hard to miss!  As Susan says, “at 8 ft by 20 ft, with huge tires that carry it all over town, the Story Bus isn’t your typical museum exhibit.” The bus is very colorful in appearance, “wrapped in snazzy graphics,” and inside, it’s “fitted with displays that tell the tale of the museum’s namesake: Jean Baptiste Point du Sable.” According to Susan, the goal for writing this project was “to create labels that tell a story” using “concrete, visual language”; to “include first- and second-person pronouns to draw visitors into that story”; and to “explain unfamiliar ideas by drawing parallels with everyday life.”  Fortunately, the labels on the Story Bus are successful on all counts! The way to measure success is by asking: "Do visitors read the labels to one another? Do they point from label copy to objects in the exhibit? Do the labels appear to encourage interaction between visitors, and between visitors and objects? Reports from the DuSable Museum Story Bus indicate ‘yes’ to all!”

In the prize-winning label, we learn that “in du Sable’s day...early Chicago sat at a crossroads of mighty rivers, rushing streams, and a great lake," and that people “often took to water” for transportation, “paddling canoes.”  You can check out the full label in the photo for more fun facts about early Chicago!  And if you are ever in the Chicago area these days, you can’t miss the DuSable Story Bus. Most any day of the week you can find it parked outside a school or near a community center hosting kids who we bet actually do read the labels, and learn from them! So if you spot the BUS, don’t forget to jump on and take a ride!

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Young fans admire the new Black Rhino Display. Check it out for yourself at Lincoln Park Zoo!

Keepin' It Real for Rhinos

A while back, in our “Chillin’ with the Rhinos” post (see our archive to follow-up!), we told you about what it might be like to really get inside Lincoln Park Zoo…

In this particular entry, we explained that “unless you're a visiting scientist, or working on behalf of science, animal welfare or conservation, it's nearly impossible to get behind the scenes on a summer day at Lincoln Park Zoo. “

Well…in a way we were right, and in a way we were down right wrong. Since we posted “Chillin’ with the Rhinos” in 2010, we have continued to work with the rhinos at LPZ, and we have made many changes! While you still can’t get behind the scenes and actually meet the beasts, you can do the next best thing and get a closer look at the giant black rhinoceros now on exhibit at Lincoln Park Zoo.

Just this spring the interactive exhibit designed by Museum Explorer opened at the Zoo, providing visitors with a fantastic opportunity to learn all about what it takes to care for this nearly extinct wild animal.

The zoo recently renovated the former Elephant Yard (the premier north exhibit yard) with an expansive Black Rhinoceros Exhibit and African landscape. This newly enhanced habitat is more than twice the size of the former rhinoceros exhibit, and provides enormous flexibility for breeding and housing a family group of this highly endangered species, while highlighting the zoo’s important mission to protect these animals in their native habitats. And in order to help enhance visitor understanding and in an effort to build a bridge between visitor and zoo-keeper, Museum Explorer worked with the Zoo’s education department to design an interactive component. Camera shaped spotting scopes allow visitors to watch and observe the rhinos closely, much like scientists in the field do. This feature also teaches visitors how programs at the zoo are designed, while learning how to preserve these great animals in the wild.

The exhibit features interesting tidbits about personalized Black Rhino care, including how to file its giant toe nails, that it takes a bucket of hand lotion a day to keep its skin in top flight condition and that vitamins are as much a part of its diet as they are ours.

The Black Rhino Display also features the not-so-elegant but absolutely essential part of zoo-keeping – CLEAN UP time. Did you know that the average full-grown male Black Rhino will deposit 80 to 100 pounds of dung a day? Five poops a day…that’s 20 pounds a crack--pun intended! Our new exhibit gives you a chance to see if you can measure up and muscle up to the task of being a Zookeeper. Just grab the handle of the shovel and you can put your shoulder against a 20 lb weight, equal to one trip to the Rhino Restroom….if you know what I mean!

While features such as these keep the exhibit fun and interactive, the message behind it all is communicating to the public what kind of work it takes to keep a rhino alive in the wild. Right here at Lincoln Park Zoo and at zoos everywhere, biologists, zoologists, even museum people are constantly working to ensure that animals like the Black Rhino will survive in nature due in part to efforts put forth by programs and researchers that work at places like LPZ.

Oh…ooops…and before we forget! Even though you still can’t reach out and touch the Rhinos directly, we have provided a full sized completely to scale realistic and touchable version of the Rhino for people to enjoy. Now you can get up close in personal with a Rhino from tip of the horn to end of its tail. See our pictures for a sneak peek!

Monday, February 6, 2012


The museum business is a whacky racket, but it is a wonderful industry because ultimately we’re all contributing to something bigger than ourselves and our careers. Not least among us in this business are “Museum People,” who play an important role and make the day-to-day grind possible.

Everyone is aware of the typical “Museum Person” profile: that extroverted individual with a liberal fashion sense who possesses a flair for the poetic or dramatic moment during a meeting or at a conference--the stars of the museum business. This typecast typically includes curators, donors, art students, and so on--but there are so many other unsung “Museum People” …people that are so important and so dedicated but are not always recognizable as such. Sometimes they don’t even think of themselves as Museum people and might even reject the title! Regardless, people who do not come from these typical typecasts and backgrounds, who nevertheless dedicate their time and effort to bettering the museum world are truly Museum People. Even if through nontraditional means, if they give a lot of themselves to museums, they care and tangible rewards are not necessarily their motivation,they are invaluable Museum People.

Museum Explorer is losing a true “Museum Person.” Though regrettable, it is actually a happy occasion as one of our co-workers moves on to another job, back to work in the ‘Real World’ after a stint in the museum world for the past several years. Although her time in our business was short-lived, there isn’t a person out there who deserves the title of “Museum Person” more than Liz.

Like a lot of folks who move on or move back to the real-world after time served in the Museum World, it is not always easy to explain what goes on in our special not-for-profit realm. But having Liz on board for almost three years was worthwhile and a great benefit to our little troop of Museum-Lifers here at Museum Explorer. We learned a lot during our timeline together.

Liz served Museum Explorer a project estimator and budget manager. Prior to Liz’s arrival we managed our schedules and project budgets on our own, and we did fairly well--or at least so we thought. But when Liz arrived on the scene, taking a job with us after being bumped from the real-world during the economic crisis, we gained a real pro who took over and taught us many valuable lessons, things that are now in place and making us better at what we do every day.

Project Management is not just a skill, it’s an art form. Getting things lined up, laying out a timeline for the design team and for the clients, letting clients know what is what and when is when can make a project golden on both sides of the fence. The savvy client appreciates being skillfully directed and we, Museum X, we felt more comfortable and confident knowing a bit more about what was coming and when it was due.

Thanks Liz for teaching us how to stay on task and how to manage our process. Thanks Liz for getting on the phone and talking and sometimes taking on those tough clients. Thanks Liz for being a part of our timeline if for only a short time… and most of all Liz, thanks for being a ‘Museum Person.’

Good Luck!