Friday, December 19, 2014

How Lovely Are Your Branches: A Christmas Trip to the Arboretum

Earlier this week, you may have noticed, we trekked to the Morton Arboretum.  That’s right—it is December, and it was a mere 30° outside, but what a night!  We went to see the “Illumination” exhibit at the Morton Arboretum, a mile-long stretch of trees decked out in all kinds of lights and color. 

These were not just any Christmas lights!  Although there were plenty of conifer trees on display, the lights shone upon trees and hedges of all sizes and shapes at the Arboretum.  It was literally like walking through the Disney classic “Fantasia,” what with all the incredible colors and the Classical music (from our very own Chicago Symphony Orchestra!) being played from the speakers.  The ‘Symphony Station,’ which you see pictured to the right and above,
 was particularly awesome.  This was a new addition to “Illumination” this year, with the lights both on the floor of the forest (!) and those projected on the trees synching up with the Classical music.  Just incredible.

Here are some more photos from our tour of “Illumination,” but try and get to the Morton Arboretum to see for yourself—you only have until January 3rd!

Monday, December 15, 2014


Cheers to MuseumExplorer's very own Gini Kondziolka!  Our Graphic Designer has just had one of her paintings selected to hang in the State Office of the Lieutenant Governer.  Gongrats, Gini!

Friday, December 5, 2014

David Bowie Is...

To answer the question, read for yourself!

For me, the thought "David Bowie Is" has always been followed by an ellipsis...  It was never a full sentence, just a question that sort of trailed off and I never answered for myself.  Not that I tried, but I couldn’t get a grasp on him—is he a movie star, a musician? Never having listened to his music, or seen Labyrinth as a child (the brink, I think, of Bowie fandom for my generation), Bowie always remained an intimidating enigma to me, whose multiple roles I never delved into further contemplating. Well, that changed Saturday night when I went to the Museum of Contemporary Art.

The exhibit now showing at the MCA uses the phrase “David Bowie Is” as a title.  Though it seems a pretty definitive statement, it is presented without punctuation.  It’s an open-ended invitation to you the museum goer to finish the thought however you'd like, whatever you say is probably right… This, to me, was still a little trepidating.  Having majored in English, I’m pretty attached to my punctuation.  It makes sense that the title wouldn’t have a period, because it wouldn’t be a complete sentence--and because Bowie is still alive.  But then why get a retrospective exhibit? He's not retired, he's not really the sort of artist that would be featured in an art museum.

The exhibit uses the term “David Bowie Is” playfully throughout, in mock matinees, in posters spaced throughout the exhibit. Actually, the phrase itself is used (playfully enough as punctuation) throughout the exhibit. “David Bowie Is” will begin the sentence on a poster/matinee in different rooms in the exhibit, with various endings.  Thus, there is in fact no wrong ending to that phrase, because David Bowie is so many things.

A poor example of the costume staging and use of multimedia
And, in exploring that idea in the makeup of the artist, many other artists, musicians, authors, are cited.  Prior to seeing this, I expected (correctly) that this retrospective exhibit might echo that of the Alexander McQueen exhibit, “Savage Beauty,” given at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 2011.  As Bowie is a fashion icon himself, many of his costumes and outfits were displayed at the MCA for “David Bowie Is.”  And indeed, they were dramatically staged as runway mannequins, not unlike those designs of McQueen in “Savage Beauty,” down to the lighting. This worked out though, given the drama of so many of his outfits, and especially given that McQueen himself designed several costumes for Bowie.

Costume was not the only medium on display.  Everything from music videos, to creatively staged motion projection, photographs, journals, notes, and countless other artifacts are on display at the MCA attempting to give a grasp on Bowie's incredible body of work. I had no idea just how influential he was until having seen a preserved tissue of his from a concert in the 1970s. I had no idea just how widely influenced he was until seeing his notes on a copy of a novel he read.

The essential audio tour fit in nicely to this multimedia aspect. Now, if you recall our post about the recent Magritte exhibit at the Art Institute, you know my qualm with audio tours at museums. I hate the invasive ones, and I almost never partake in them myself because I don't like my interpretations or exhibit experience to be guided by a pre-recording. This audio tour, however, was truly stellar. It actually automatically synced up to whatever station of the exhibit you were in (confession: I had more than a little fun stepping from spot to spot just to make sure that the tour’s motion sensors kicked in). Perusing that powder blue Bowie once famously donned, you might overhear soft audio from an interview with Bowie, and then it would kick into “Life on Mars?,” which you would realize was synced up to the music video being projected on a wall nearby, featuring that very suit. There was so much visual and audio stimulation from one moment to the next in this exhibit, but not so that your eyes and ears didn't know where to focus. It all flowed very nicely.

Now having gotten a glimpse at what “David Bowie Is,” I can confidently say that Bowie remains evermore mysterious, though more intriguing than intimidating. He is a movie star, and yet a recording star, and yet an actor, but now after a peek under all of those hats, the multiple roles make more sense.  And this exhibit revealed even more hats that I was not aware of--designer, makeup artist, fashion icon, voracious reader and a pretty talented student of other icons and musicians.  But getting a closer glimpse into his process on all the media and platforms available in this exhibit, it is clear why “David Bowie Is” has no punctuation: because that ending is continually being altered and rewritten and added to.

"David Bowie Is" only here until January 9th, so make sure you catch it before it leaves!

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Feigning Wealthy for Halloween: A Night at the Driehaus Museum

Awaiting the Swing Gitan Concert in the Ballroom

As I am reluctantly putting away my Halloween decorations and swapping them for Thanksgiving trimmings (obviously desperately wishing it was not already winter weather-wise), I realized we forgot to share what MuseumX did for Hallow’s Eve!  For Halloween, we pretended that we were among the wealthiest of members of the upper class in late 19th century Chicago.  Fortunately for us (get it), that did not require us to dress in period-appropriate costume, but it was still an immersive experience nevertheless!

The Driehaus Museum held a concert one Friday evening last month, featuring the musical talents of Alfonso Ponticelli and Swing Gitan, a Chicago gypsy jazz band.  For those not familiar, gypsy jazz is a style of music combining gypsy musical elements (including some gypsy songs, and instruments such as the violin) with jazz standards and swing elements, played on acoustic instruments.  It’s a style chartered by Django Reinhardt (the Original Gypsy) in France during the 1930s, and yet, we learned that night, still sounds and feels completely fresh and extemporaneous.

Being that we arrived late to the chapel-style event seating, we didn’t grab a great view (or photo) of the band, or the instruments.  The photo atop this post was taken from our seats toward the back of the room.  You can see that the staff added a bluish green filter to the lighting, which was perfect for the mood of the music.  Generally speaking, gypsy songs tend to favor the minor key, and there are dark elements to the tone of the music (the song “Dark Eyes,” for example).  So, the bluish tinge upon the dark mahogany wood of the third floor Ballroom lent a lovely setting for the moody and music. Fortunately, the acoustics were plenty good from where we sat! 

Ponticelli, the lead guitarist of Swing Gitan, and started off the concert with a solo song.  Afterwards he introduced the rest of the quintet, who played rhythym guitar, bass, violin, and a cimbalom.  If the setting of this concert wasn’t enough to take you to another time, the cimbalom definitely was.  This instrument sort of looks like a small piano with strings across the top of it, and is played by striking beaters against those strings.  It is hardly ever used in contemporary music, and was incredible to hear live.  The talent and artistry among this group of musicians is truly amazing, and I’m so glad I got to witness that in person! 

If in our last post I lamented about history not being well preserved enough, the Driehaus Museum offers a fabulous counterpoint to that complaint.  The house itself-a late 19th century Italianate mansion once belonging to Samuel M. Nickerson-has been fully restored and preserved, not to mention furnished and decorated with period-appropriate pieces by the Richard H. Driehaus foundation.  Although we did not have enough time during this visit to fully explore the floors of the museum, we do have several pictures of rooms on the first level of the mansion.  Here you can see a photo of the Gallery, underneath the beautiful stained glass dome.  The attention to detail here with the furnishing and decorating is truly exquisite. You feel as if you had walked into the Nickerson’s house only seconds after they left it.   

And, though a prime exemplar of historic preservation, the Driehaus Museum is among Chicago’s most immersive.  Imagine your grandmother’s carefully decorated living, which she may or may not have taken precautions to preserve herself (vinyl sofa covers and/or carpet protectors).  Imagine the rebuking you would get trying to play or, heaven forbid, eat in that room… Talk about a scare!  Yet here at the Driehaus museum, you can walk among these opulent decorative pieces, and are even invited to have a drink inside the Ballroom—no vinyl coverings to be found!  Here, if you want to get closer to a piece at the museum, you will most likely not be stopped by glass casing, nor an alarm warning you that you are too close.  So, although the period and decorations of the mansion and the glory years of gypsy jazz were not contemporary, the Driehaus was a fabulous setting for this jazz concert.  Why shouldn’t a museum known for historic preservation host a band keeping the music of the 1930s alive?  There was no costume necessary for us to feel as though we were living history!

Friday, October 17, 2014

Failure, Fondness, and the Few Remaining Wonders of the Chicago World's Fair

Earlier this week I mentioned a point where I was not so timely in getting to an exhibit.  That time—more specifically, a 9-month span—was my failure to make it to the “Opening the Vaults: Wonders of the 1893 World’s Fair” exhibit on the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition at the Field Museum.  It was a failure of epic proportions, truly.  In typical fashion, I waited until the absolute last day of the exhibit to attempt to go—a day which also happened to be the home opener for the Chicago Bears’ 2014 season.  I waited until 3:00pm on this day to try to go to the Field Museum—a time which also happened to coincide with the end of the Bears’ loss that day.  So I ended up waiting some more, in traffic, for two hours—the first hour trying to venture eastbound to get the Museum campus (to no avail), the second hour in more traffic trying to get home (I live approximately 5 miles away).  So with all this free time to spend in gridlock, I got to thinking about what I’ve already seen from the Chicago World’s Fair – the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. 

Several changes have been made to the city since 1893.
Turns out, I’ve been to a few attractions already this summer.  First we’ll start off with my most recent ride on the Ferris Wheel at Navy Pier.  To clarify, this is not the original Ferris Wheel that was built purposely for the fair—that one was dismantled in 1894, relocated and eventually demolished.  The Ferris Wheel at Navy Pier stands in honor of that Original, however.  At least, that’s what the radio tour that plays during the ride would have you believe.  There is actually little relation between the two attractions.  Whereas the Navy Pier Ferris Wheel stands at 150 feet high, the Original was a whopping 264 feet tall, a fact that literally made me get butterflies as it was recited to me from above Navy Pier via the radio inside the gondola (view on the right!). Nor are the sites of the two wheels close.  The Original was located on what is now park ground next to the University of Chicago campus in Hyde Park – a stretch that still maintains its original name from the fair: The Midway Plaissance. 

Osaka Garden - a view of the Moon Bridge

Actually, Hyde Park is the location that holds most of the remnants of the 1893 World’s Fair.  That is where you will find the Osaka Garden, near the lake right off of the Midway Plaissance.  Located in Jackson Park on the Wooded Isle, this garden was constructed as an exhibit in the Fair, at the behest of the Japanese government.  While the garden remains located on the original location from 1893, it had to be reconstructed after having been vandalized during WWII.  Turns out the park has an interesting history of its own (which you can read about here).  What stands today is what you can see here in these pictures I took: a beautiful Japanese strolling garden, with several ponds, a waterfall, plants, trees, a Moon bridge, and the pavilion a few steps away.  From this view, only steps away from the lagoon the garden shares with the Museum of Science and Industry overlooks, it is easy to imagine how the grounds may have looked in 1893. 

Can't you picture the gondolas?
The Museum of Science and Industry is located in a building which originally was the Palace of Fine Arts for the Fair.  During the Fair, the South entrance of the building was the main entrance, where visitors sailed up in gondolas from the North Pond (today known as the Columbia Basin, which is part of the lagoon the building sits on).  While the Museum of Science and Industry is indefinitely worth a visit of its own accord (which we will grant soon enough), this fine summer day I visited, I could not help but imagine what the building was like during the 1893 World’s Fair.  It was the inspiration for this wistful picture you see here (personally, I think it was mildly cruel of the museum to leave these doors open and forbid people to walk out through them).  Never have I felt more nostalgic than on this day at the South entrance of the Palace of Fine Arts.  It literally pains me to look at the breathtaking pictures from the Columbian Exposition (particularly the images of the Court of Honor) and know that we have so little left of those many works of art.   Add to that my failure to visit those few remaining wonders at the Field Museum exhibit… Talk about pain!

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Live-Action Frogger: Navigating "The Mystery of the Ordinary" at the Art Institute

Magritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary 1926-1938 at the Art Institute of Chicago
While many people were reaching their personal bests in the Chicago Marathon Sunday morning, I was also able to accomplish a personal goal:  getting to an exhibit before it closed!  (Our next post will share an instance I was not so timely) Magritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary 1926-1938 closed yesterday at the Art Institute of Chicago, and I was able to sneak in before they shut the doors on it!

Confession:  I hate big exhibits like this, only because of the throngs of people snaking through the gallery trying to get by.  It’s disruptive to a good gallery experience—too many irksome things going on to really be able to connect with the works.  It was very dumb of me, then, to wait until Magritte’s final days to go see it, as the crowds were even heftier than usual.  Actually, the Chicago Marathon provided a great foil to this exhibit experience: the participants outside running freely through the streets of Chicago, compared to the dozens of people inside the Art Institute slowly shuffling through cramped quarters in The Mystery of the Ordinary.

Those Darn Audio Tour Devices!
Add on to this my introduction to the new/different audio tour devices, and the experience was mildly aggravating.  Approaching Regenstein hall, I thought it odd there was a crowd of people on their cell phones standing in front of the exhibit introduction label.  Imagine how angry I was when all of those same people were still on their phones inside the gallery!  At some point I realized that these people were not cell phones, but in fact the devices used for the audio tours for the exhibit.  At a closer glance, the devices sort of looked like calculators or maybe a large cordless house phone.  The tour was rather loudly playing out of the speakers of the “personal” device, which made it hard for the audio to be controlled. What was odd to me was that none of them came with headphones…so the audio tour really was available to everyone in the gallery for the exhibit (whether or not you wanted that), if you weren’t already distracted by the ever-glowing light of the devices.  I was amazed that the stewards inside the gallery were able to pick out the cell phones from all the audio tour devices!

That said, the exhibit itself was very well done.  AIC made great use of the sheer space of the gallery in terms of placement of the works.  Although the exhibit only covered Magritte’s works from a 12-year period, there were many, many paintings to be displayed—what a prolific artist he was!  Fortunately each work was given ample space for consideration, and I loved the way the moody gray paint really let Magritte’s colorful works shine all on their own.  Although I did not receive the time with each painting that I would have liked, it was very easy to grasp that Magritte’s ideas are timeless and provocative. “The False Mirror” (the giant, round eyeball reflecting clouds) is among my favorite works of his for this very reason – it’s just so meta.  It was quite something to see in person.  With “The False Mirror” and Magritte’s other works, it is easy to think that his painting is rather straightforward appearance-wise, given that his subject matter tends toward the use of everyday items presented in an unconventional method.  Viewing these pieces online, for instance, gives you zero clue as to his incredible way with depth and distance.  In person, the clouds on/in/against the iris of “The False Mirror” leap off the canvas; you feel like you could fall into the eye itself, it looks so dimensional. 

A view of "The Gigantic Days," from behind some tall people
This was also true of seeing “Time Transfixed” in person.  That train protruding from the fire place also truly appears to be jutting out at you leaping off the canvas.  Take if you will a picture of this particular moment, to get a sense of this exhibit experience: there I am, attempting to follow the steward's advice at viewing “Time Transfixed” from the left of the picture and then the right (so as the highlight the genius and presence of that train).  There, too, are 3 groups of 5 people stationed in front of the painting, so I try to go from left to right, blocked by the middle group of people.  I try to go around that middle group of people, think I am in the clear, when another person cuts me off and I have to veer yet again out of the way.  Who knew one would need such navigational skills inside an exhibit!  It was not unlike live-action Frogger… Left, Right, and then out the door to relish the fresh air and personal space!

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

The Great Chicago Fire Festival: Fizzle on the River

As you’ve heard by now, the inaugural Great Chicago Fire Festival ended up being anti-climactic.  It was the best-attended portion of the festival (whose day-time festivities included crafts, food trucks and several small performances), but in basic terms, the crowds really came out to see stuff get lit up. Who wouldn’t love a pyro parade!  Thousands (me, more importantly) braved the cold Saturday night to catch a glimpse of an inferno on the river.  That spark never caught on, due to electrical problems, the precipitation that week, etc.  You’ve already read all about that, I’m sure, so you’ve probably also seen the backlash about the night being an epic flop.  But, I am writing to defend the Festival, despite all of the glitches.   

The parade started off on the right foot.  Stage lighting cast different colors upon the 1800-style house floats, in anticipation of the flames they was supposed to have been lit up with later.  Rob Stafford emceed the symbolic lighting of the neighborhood cauldrons, which were then trailed down the river for all to see.  A steamship-inspired boat floated down and puffed some preliminary flames for the crowds (which ultimately seemed more Halloween-appropriate, given the creepy slow effect, clown-like appearance and accompanying Danny Elfman-sounding music).  Then, the cool part:  the Chicago Children’s Choir performed, perched atop an architecture tour boat.  Having been stationed on Wabash facing westward, I was fortunate enough to witness the opening to this chorus.  It makes for a great clip on our Facebook page!

But from that point on, the flames were supposed to take over, and…nothing happened.  For about 35 minutes, nothing happened.  Just a bunch of folks standing around in the cold waiting to see something while (unfortunately) that creepy Danny Elfman-like song played for a long while (too long).  Eventually Rob Stafford came on to announce the technical difficulties, and eventually the technicians conjured some measly flames on the float that was nearest Wabash.  But the inferno was not to be.   So, lights, cameras, and no action, really, until they ended with the fireworks. 

So, yes, ultimately it was a little disappointing to have the pyrotechnics fizzle.  But there is still a bright side to this whole event.  Note that the weather this evening was pretty cold, still damp, and a little windy.  And yet, many people still came.  Mostly everyone stuck around until the bitter end, despite the wait time and soggy parade floats.  People still enjoyed their hot chocolates, still got their Instagram pictures (guilty), still got to be outdoors amid the bright lights in spite of the depressing weather forecast and looming winter season.  Don’t think that people still didn’t enjoy the evening.  The Festival has plenty of potential to expand upon next year if it is (hopefully) held again—with better organization and more flammable parade floats the spectacle could really take off.  We Chicagoans are already familiar with looking forward to ‘next year’ for a better performance.  What’s another festival to add to the list of sports teams, right?


Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Dancing in the Rain

In the Rain on the Terrace

Earlier we promised posts of summer weather at museums, as an effort to keep good spirits up given the impending end of the season.  Well (as you know), not all summer weather is sunny. The other week at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, there was bad weather again – but our good spirits remained intact!

The draw for visiting the museum that particular day (although, there are many to choose from) was the free Manual Cinema workshop performance being given on the MCA Stage.  We’ve been following Manual Cinema’s work for a bit now, and we were thrilled to see that they are collaborating with the MCA on a performance!  Manual Cinema does truly unique work in puppetry and performance, incorporating live music, editing, and even animation into their work.  They combine all of these elements to accompany their shadow puppets using overhead projectors, producing extraordinary results.  The performance that took place that Tuesday was to a workshop for Mementos Mori, their latest feature length show.

The workshop performance offered us (the lucky 300 or so visitors) a preview of Mementos Mori, with a few scenes from the feature, as well as a discussion afterward with company members, performers and directors.  The feature focuses on how technology in the digital age affects our concept and experiences of death… So in the preview we were given, Mementos Mori featured instances such as texting while bicycling, religious iconography depicting death, and even butchering.  It’s a unique but totally relevant topic, and the imagery presenting these scenarios was just incredible.  Unfortunately, I couldn’t take a photo during the performance for you all to see, but you can peep a few images from Mementos Mori here:   Stylistically, this was a performance unlike anything else I’ve ever seen, with the live puppetry, live action, live music and singing.  During the Q&A session held with the team after the performance (which I was able to snap a pic of here), the audience didn’t have questions as much as they did praise for the performers. Everyone left looking forward to the full performance in January as part of the Chicago International Puppetry Festival.

But that’s not where the fun ended!  The workshop performance let out in time to catch the last hour of Tuesdays on the Terrace, the free weekly Jazz concert held on the terrace on Tuesdays during the summer.  As we mentioned before, the weather was bad on this particular day – but the band played on, as they say.  The concert ended up being held inside Puck’s café, which is just inside the terrace.  Despite the rain, we went outside on the terrace anyway (it’s one of the best backyards in Chicago), and saw that the rain did nothing to dampen the spirits of people around the museum: there were still people dancing outside, eating outside, even playing tennis while the rain fell, all to the tunes of Tatsu Aoki and the Miyumi Project.  People milled around the dueling didgeridoos (see right) inside the exhibit halls, peeping the Frida Kahlo and Simon Starling works as the music wafted through the museum.  It was truly a great sensory experience for visitors to the museum that night – and the best part that of the night was that all of the programs were FREE!  We will be back at the MCA soon for the much-anticipated “David Bowie Is” exhibit, along with the rest of Chicago, so stay tuned!                                                                                                                         


Monday, August 25, 2014

The Summer Sun in the Gardens of AIC

The Pritzker Garden
Today everyone is officially back in school, so it might seem like summer has technically come to a close.  But if you hadn’t picked up on this yet, it seems our summer weather has only just begun – just in time for the remaining 29 days of the season.  So, until the Autumnal Equinox gets here, you should get yourself to the remaining summer events at the museums!  You might have noticed that we’ve been to a few already this summer, and we will be posting about a few more this week (to make you feel just the slightest bit more sociable now that everyone’s cooped up for the session). 

One of our recent trips was to the Art Institute of Chicago. Last month we went to the AIC for Martini Mondays, a summertime event bolstering “libations, light bites, live music and special exhibition viewings.” This particular program (different from the monthly “Art After Dark” and “Night Heist” events the AIC already hosts) varies from month to month in location, trying to make use of the outdoor spaces of the museum before leading inward to a particular exhibit inside.  July’s event started off in the Pritzker Garden – the bright, sunny courtyard amid the trees, located off the east side of the Modern Wing.  There were several tables offering generous amounts of antipasto options (the Art Institute provides some of the best food at these events), as well as a few bartenders mixing up pretty martinis (pictured right!) and the standard bar classics.  Visitors dined and sipped as the sun lowered in the skyline, all to the tune of a live jazz band at the end of the courtyard.  It was as lovely as it sounds!

Post-martini, this event was to lead back inside for a special look at the “Chicagoisms” exhibit.  Sadly, there was a miscommunication and “Chicagoisms” ended up being closed that night, so the museum instead had the Classics hallways opened for the guests.  Although I had been looking forward to viewing the “Chicagoisms” architecture exhibit, this was no great disappointment.  The cool blue hallways hosting the Greek, Roman and Byzantine works are among my favorite spots in the museum - for the jewelry, artwork and sculpture as much as for the views overlooking the pretty garden and fountains of McKinlock court below.  As an added bonus, we got to watch the sun finally disappear behind the buildings downtown.

The sun sets over McKinlock Court

This event provided visitors all the best things that summer in Chicago has to offer.  The weather was perfect, and it was easy to see why the AIC would add a third program to their already full schedule of social events.  The gardens of the museum are so peaceful and visually beautiful, and yet we are only offered a few short months to enjoy them.  Incidentally, tonight is the last Martini Monday of the summer.  So get yourself there before the summer does officially end!  You can go here to buy tickets.

Friday, August 1, 2014


Since early May, Museum Explorer has really been “with the program,” so-to-speak.  It kicked off with the release of our article on program carts published by the National Association of Museum Exhibition (N.A.M.E.) in their Spring issue of The Exhibitionist (vol. 33, no. 1, Spring 2014). The issue, dedicated to ‘Intentionally Designed Spaces,’ includes our contribution “Exhibition Carts: Intentionally Design Spaces on the Move” by Museum Explorer staff, Rich Faron and Jessica Banda. The article is still available from N.A.M.E. on their site (here), but here's a refresher excerpt:

“Program carts are wonderful tools for responding to this increasing pressure facing exhibitors. As a method of flexible program delivery, these carts provide activities that fulfill a variety of purposes, from conveying mission content, to serving as a changing marquee, to supporting local school curricula. Because carts bring staff, objects, and an exhibit-like experience into direct contact with visitors, they provide an intimate and simple means for establishing and building a dialogue with the public.”

Our article was so well received that of the dozen articles published in that issue, ours was among only 3 that were selected to be highlighted on the N.A.M.E. web site and made available via PDF through a link with their web site.

But…that wasn’t even the biggest deal.  In May N.A.M.E. invited us (Jessica Banda and Rich Faron) to participate in a Twitter Chat that was by all accounts, including our own, a huge success.  The chat was hosted by on June 26th by Dana Allen-Greil (Digital Outreach Manager at the Smithsonian Museum, National Gallery of Art), and included participants from museum of all kinds from all around the country. If you missed it you can still recap and read the tweets by clicking the link.

But wait - that’s not all! It’s one thing to write, talk and tweet about carts, but in the end the most important thing is to actually design and build carts!  We’re proud to report that we are currently designing and working with our fabricator on 3 brand new cart designs for Lincoln Park Zoo, the Brevard Zoo in Melbourne, Florida, and the Naper Settlement in Naperville, Illinois.  Additionally, we’ve been developing some brand new program materials for the History a la Cart programs at the Chicago History Museum!

So…we are keeping busy!  But so far it has been a great summer and here’s hoping that it keeps on ROLLING!

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Something Good Brewing at the Field Museum!

Hopefully, by now, you have gleaned this point from us – but museums have come quite a ways from quiet, stuffy places where you can walk but not run and look at but not touch the things behind the glass.  A museum is not a place reserved only for field trips to be led by stern, stuffy people droning on facts.  Museum people are constantly finding new ways of redefining the word: be it updating public spaces, bringing the museum to non-conventional spaces, or simply taking you behind the glass.

In a recent push to stay contemporary, many museums have developed “night series programming,” offering a chance for 20- and 30-something museum-goers to be ushered into the museum in a more social setting (not to be confused with the very cool overnight programming for younger children that many museums also bolster).  Fortunately for Chicagoans, all of the local big museums offer many such events—and we were pleased to go
Jim and Jason Ebel (the Two Brothers)
to the Field Museum’s newest such offering, “Hop to It! At the Field.”   The Field Museum collaborated with Two Brothers Brewery and chef Cleetus Friedman to create Cabinet of Curiosities – a very tasty white IPA with hints of coriander and citrus. This event was held very simply to celebrate the release of that creation - and what fun it was!

The night started with the food pairings Friedman created for the event, as well as a generous tasting of the new release Cabinet of Curiosities. For all of the other beer-loving museum-goers out there, this event was certainly worth the money – guests were provided 6 (six!!) drink tickets upon entry, which allowed you to get a taste of everything they had to offer on tap at the Field Bistro, as well as a commemorative glass celebrating the release (if you got to the event early enough).  The Curator of Anthropology, Jim Philips, was on hand to give a rare intimate demonstration of ancient methods of beer production and storage.  The Two Brothers themselves then spoke for a bit to explain the collaboration process with the Field Museum in creating their new brew, there was another toast, and everyone was able to move into the Stanley Field Hall to enjoy more food, drinks, and live music.

In Conclusion:  Cabinet of Curiosities is great!

This is only the second such event the Field Museum has done, but you would never know it.  As far as the nightlife events at museums go (which are becoming ever more popular), this is the best one I’ve attended.  This event felt different than some of the other “after dark” events I’ve been to at the museums – meaning it was a little bit more sophisticated, lacking the enormous lines for the bathrooms, and fortunately devoid of (most) of the sloppy drunken socialites.  It was organized, thoughtful, and fun, so they have definitely brewed up a good thing!  We’re looking forward to the next event they host.  But in the meantime, you don’t even have to go the South Loop for a taste of the Field Museum – you can try Cabinet of Curiosities now at your local supermarket!

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

This Summer: Stay in Touch!

You might have spotted this elsewhere (everywhere) in our work, but here at Museum Explorer, we are fond of the Head Heart Hands approach.  That is to say, we engage the visitor through their Head by targeting visitor interests, inviting exploration and inquiry, and giving them something to think about; we engage the visitor’s Heart by appealing to visitor awareness in ways that inspire personal connections, and giving them something to care about; and we engage the visitor’s Hands by stimulating curiosity with interactive learning techniques that encourage discovery and sharing, by giving them something to do.  But it’s fun to be on the other side of the exhibit as well, so you can imagine our delight at getting to experience this approach in museums as visitors.

We’ve stopped by a few museums already this summer (and more to come), and have had a few chances to go beyond the glass and experience museums first hand (!).  You read about our trip to the Peggy Notebart Nature Museum, but what we forgot to mention was our chance to get in touch with the nature!  In the Istock Family Look-in Lab, we got up close and personal with a snake from the museum’s “living collection,” which you can see up top.  Volunteers were there to explain how to properly pet the reptile, as well as to offer tips on the regions it lived in.  Unfortunately we got so wrapped up in getting to pet the animal that we forgot what kind of snake it is! 

At the Shedd Aquarium, it is time again for their “Stingray Touch” experience.  Note that the Shedd refers to it as an experience rather than an exhibit, because you pretty much get to dive right in.  The stingrays, housed outside of the museum on a beautiful patio, circle the shallow pool as visitors – like us! – get the chance to pet them.  It’s an odd thing, petting a tropical cownose ray while overlooking downtown Chicago, but it is certainly a great experience to be able to get close to an animal not encountered in everyday life.  This is the closest you will probably ever come to being the lucky scuba diver in the tank at the “Caribbean Reef”!  Beyond the stingrays, the Shedd offers visitors the chance to touch live Sturgeon “At Home on the Great Lakes,” and Starfish in the “Sea Star Touch” at the “Polar Play Zone.”  If you’re willing to submerge your hand in freezing water for a few minutes, it’s definitely worth reaching out for! 

But how can you really understand what we’re talking about if you don’t experience for yourself?  Get out there and take matters into your own hands!

Monday, June 16, 2014

Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum: A Museum with a Message

What do you think of when you see the word museum?  A stuffy, stale place where you can walk but not run, with old stuff behind the glass that you can look at but not touch?  Well, obviously… we hope not.  Clearly we are working to prove you wrong, and should have your mind changed very soon.  If you do still happen to share this unfortunate conception of museums, get thee to the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum and prepare to be surprised!

Museum has always had a positive connotation for me, I’ve frequent many of them in my day, and the Nature Museum was still able to surprise me.  First off, it looks different than the other major museums in Chicago, which are of the Neoclassical style of architecture.  The Nature Museum is that modern looking, angular and inviting white building you see peeking from the trees of Lincoln Park.  It’s a total sanctuary located in the middle of the park, offering beautiful views of the city, of the trees and plants around it, and even the lagoon!  I cannot speak highly enough of the Butterfly Haven there, which is easily one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been. 

Hangin' around the Judy Istock Butterfly Haven

What surprised me more beyond the sheer visual delights the building has to offer, though, was the museum’s distinct style of presentation.  The exhibits are clearly fashioned to engage the visitor—at any age—with touch, understanding, and the ability to take that experience home with you.  The “Extreme Green House” exhibit, for instance, offers people a closer look at their own homes by touring a very familiar-looking house of the Green family.  Panels explain where the water in your kitchen sink comes from and where it goes, how much energy is used by your washing machine, even what kind of insects are typically found in a house and what they do!  To this point, the Nature Museum even has panels inside the stalls in their public restrooms, offering tips on how to conserve water in your toilet at home. Although offered in a beautiful setting, the Nature Museum does not soften their message: conservation.  While they make it purely accessible to the visitor by offering insight and tips, they also provide some not-so-nice images of what can happen when efforts to conserve and protect nature are not met. 

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the extinction of the Passenger Pigeon—a species that at one point was abundant enough to reach the billions.  Human fault, specifically overhunting and deforestation, led to this demise—a point the Nature Museum does not make light of.  Passing through the “Birds of Chicago” and “Wilderness Walk” exhibits, you see many taxidermied animals in recreations of their natural habitats-be it forest, savannah, or desert.  This is fairly standard practice, to have taxidermists pose animals to look as they would as they were living, and then place them in real-looking natural settings to even further liven things up.  But the Passenger Pigeon is given no such display at the museum; no florid background surrounding it, no accompanying animals to distract you from it.  As you can see pictured here, the Passenger Pigeon is not gussied up whatsoever.  It was jarring to see in person, as a museum-goer is accustomed to the still life displays of taxidermy.  The Passenger Pigeon was not that experience.  The specimen is displayed in the most stark and sterile way possible: laid down on its back with its belly to the air, eyes white, tag on its toe.  And it is here that the Nature Museum makes the best use of reaching out to people from behind the glass.  This, the accompanying panel offers, is what “can happen when we don’t take care of our planet…share it with your friends”!  This creature is behind the glass because we put it here, it’s long gone and this is all we have left to show.

A Call to Action

As a visitor, you do not have a flat line experience here.  From the highs of beauty and the liveliness amid the butterflies and birds in the Butterfly Haven, to the useful tips for preservation and prevention at home, to the dangers of being trapped behind the glass, the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum has a distinct mission for the conservation of nature in all forms. Point taken. What a powerful message indeed.


Friday, May 23, 2014

Visiting the Bard

A few weeks ago, I paid a visit to the Newberry Library’s recent exhibition, “The Bard is Born.”  Having never been to the Newberry before, I was excited to finally get a peek inside of this beautiful building, and even more eager to do so for something Shakespeare-related (bear in mind I was an English major in college and has been an avid fan of Shakespeare since high school)! 

Given the name, I was expecting and desperately hoping for biographical information about Shakespeare, but the title was given due to the timing of the exhibition—opened on April 23rd to mark the 450th birthday of the Bard.  Newberry interpreted “birth” as the rise of the star, the icon, not so much the actual birth of the person, so Shakespeare’s upbringing remains mysterious as ever.  There were a few items lending a brief idea of what life was like at the time Shakespeare was born and growing up, others from during his lifetime that might have influenced his writing, but that’s as much biography as I got. 

From that point, the exhibit jumped to the afterlife for old Shakes, after he had become an icon, via 18th-century pamphlets and posters of early commemorations of his birthday. Most interesting to me were the depictions of Shakespeare as a national treasure, not only for England (obviously), but as a treasure for the United States as well.  There were a few featured published works including claims by Americans that Shakespeare was just as dear to Americans as to England because his works were widely studied and regarded there as well.  This particular inclusion amused me most: a reprint of a painting I had never seen before, The Infant Shakespeare Attended by Nature and the Muses by British painter George Romney. As you can see below, it depicts Shakespeare’s birth much like that of a saint or even a Greek god.  Indeed, even the muses of classical Greek myth are present for his nativity!  It is a little much, but I have always cherished Shakespeare as something of a godsend myself.  I can relate!

A reprint of The Infant Shakespeare Attended by Nature and the Muses by British painter George Romney, 1803

Newberry had said that it was using “Henry V” as a lens through which to focus the exhibit.  Indeed, many of the items on display were dedicated to the play, including both a Third Quarto and a First Folio edition of “Henry V,” which is a powerful thing to see if you have never had the opportunity to before (I had, but they are still awesome to behold in person).  Above all other foci, though, the takeaway point of the exhibit was Chicago’s own connection to the play, and to Shakespeare.  It was the first production the Chicago Shakespeare Theater had ever put on (although CST was not known by that name at the time).  The marked up manuscripts from the director of the second production in 1997 were interesting to see.  People can always benefit from looking at someone else’s perspective when it comes to Shakespeare, if only because there is so much to be gleaned from his writing that you might not have noticed on your own.  It was very cool to learn how Chicago has grown with “Henry V” over time, even going back as far as the mid-19th-century with “Henry V” being staged in theaters as well as in early Shakespeare in the Park-type programming.  And of course, they even had a poster of the CST’s current, ongoing production of Henry V (through June 15)! 

Chicago still has ties to Shakespeare, even all these years later.  In the end, “The Bard is Born” did well to prove that the regard for Shakespeare as a national, even a local icon is totally valid—wherever that feeling might be held.  From the 1769 Shakespeare Jubilee held at the birthplace of Stratford-upon-Avon, to this very exhibit itself, we all still can and do feel roused and even included in that famous “band of brothers” when we read, see or hear it.  Chicago has no personal or biographical connections to Shakespeare himself, and yet his works are still so powerful and beloved here that we do in fact have a long history with the Bard.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

A Proud Moment for Program Carts

Congratulations to Rich Faron and Jessica Banda! Recently, Rich and Jessica had an article published in the Exhibitionist, a highly esteemed journal among museum professionals published by the National Association for Museum Exhibition.  Following the theme of this Spring edition, the article, “Exhibition Carts: Intentionally Designed Spaces on the Move,” explores the program cart as an intentionally designed space.  As the program carts are a favorite here at Museum Explorer, you can bet we are excited about this publication. You can read the full article below, but click this link to view it in its entirety on the official NAME website (pictures included)!  

The Cover of the Issue, "Spring 2014: Intentionally Designed Spaces"

Exhibition Carts: Intentionally Designed Spaces on the Move
By Rich Faron and Jessica Banda

The intentionality behind all design work is problem-solving. While many forms of design process exist, history and tradition reveal that until recently, the typical exhibit developer-engaged in efforts defined by hours of talking, researching, coffee clutching, sketching, pencil sharpening, mouse pushing, ceiling staring and wishful thinking—hoping for that “a-ha!” moment. Recently, though (and especially over the last 10 years), conscious advancements have been made to sharpen the lens of the overall design process by refocusing attention on  meeting audience needs and expectations with conscious intent.

The biggest changes have come about in the area of upfront investigation: the collecting and collating of data regarding the end user.
  • Who is the visitor?
  • What are visitor interests?
  • What do they care about?
  • What are their needs? 
  • What is the spatial context? 

This surge in audience research has transformed the once opaque process of exhibit design into something much more transparent, allowing designers to organize the entire process into four distinct steps - 1)Investigate & Analyze;  2)Concept & Test;  3)Revise & Design; and 4), Build & Implement.  In order to differentiate this approach from more traditional forms of design problem-solving, we now refer to the entire process as experience design.  And note that the word ‘experience’ replaces ‘exhibit’ here—not merely for buzz benefit, but because experience design indicates a greater possibility to approach design with some form of intent. Today, a more discriminating public is looking for both excitement and educational enrichment. The stakes are higher than ever for modern museums, zoos, and aquariums because every destination must be visitor-centered. The goal: be prepared to capture and hold the imagination of an always-evolving audience free to make choices: free to go elsewhere and free to do something different.

Carts as Intentionally Designed Spaces
Program carts are wonderful tools for responding to this increasing pressure facing exhibitors.  As a method of flexible program delivery, these carts provide activities that fulfill a variety of purposes, from conveying mission content, to serving as a changing marquee, to supporting local school curricula.  Because carts bring staff, objects, and an exhibit-like experience into direct contact with visitors, they provide an intimate and simple means for establishing and building a dialogue with the public.  As self-contained platforms, carts are spaces that are able to move throughout a facility in order to find people, deliver an experience, and start an open-ended face-to-face exchange.  Simply put, this new approach allows public programmers to intentionally develop, design and deliver customized experiences that are all at once interactive, compact, and mobile.

To realize intent, a simple set of three standard reference points or new tools have been developed that help keep the designer on track, offering a universal method for tinkering throughout the process no matter the museum, mission, or message. Our designers at Museum Explorer keep the following principles close at hand throughout the process of creating exhibition carts:

HEAD Target visitor interest. Give the audience something to wonder about.
 Develop and design a content highlight, some nugget of information that ignites
interest and invites direct exploration and inquiry. (Give people something to
THINK about).

HEART Appeal to visitor awareness. Define an intimate environment. Design
clear conduits that allow the audience to make a personal connection with the program
narrative. Discover a way to incorporate a center of awareness in every cart design. (Help
 people find something to CARE about).

HANDS Engage visitor curiosity. Welcome the audience to put their hands on things.
Merge visitor interactivity with the overall flow and story arch of the program. Create simple
and comfortable physical connections that stimulate natural human curiosity and encourage
discovery through sharing and conversation. (Give people something to DO).

As varied examples of how  intentionally designed program carts are created for various settings (an art museum, a history museum, and zoo), this article will discuss the following carts: “Art à la Cart,” “History à la Cart,” and
 “Animals Like Us,”

Carts Build Visitor Collaboration and Engagement: Smithsonian American Art Museum
The design process for program carts at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, was primarily a matter of shifting a perception about the nature of these carts. Jennifer Brundage, National Outreach Manager at the Smithsonian Institution, spoke to the concept of mobile learning centers in 2011.  In an entry for the Smithsonian’s Affiliate blog, Brundage confessed that she had “come to think of educational carts in the galleries as the Clydesdales of the field – the workhorses that are low-tech, straightforward” (2011).  Fortunately though, Brundage went on to admit that she was “wrong” about her initial notion of program carts, changing her mind after a 2011 brown bag lunch session where educators at the Smithsonian gathered for a presentation by guest speakers Rich Faron of Museum Explorer and Heidi Moisan from the Chicago History Museum regarding program carts—at the behest of Susan Nichols.  Brundage reflected afterward that, “through a slideshow of case studies and prototypes it became clear that their examples did not reflect the cart [she] had come to stereotype.”  Rather, “they presented carts as an appealing, active launch pad for visitor team-building, collaboration and a deeper engagement with exhibitions” (Brundage, March 22, 2011). 
As visitor collaboration is not something that often occurs in quiet art museums, bringing this object into the Smithsonian American Art Museum of all places was something of a novel idea.  The simple intent of moving a program cart (a box) into a gallery (four walls covered in expensive art), can be a challenge in such a conservative setting.  But the SAAM wanted direct and active visitor engagement, so Museum Explorer created “Art à la Cart”: five mobile carts for use throughout the Museum that further engage visitors with artwork by providing interactive hands-on activities for them.  Though all white in design with simple stark flags, these Art à la carts are still a colorful idea in such a prestigious setting. 

Carts Empower Visitors to Interact with History: Chicago History Museum

At the Chicago History Museum, program carts address a need for a very specific audience.  Here, history is not locked away in vaults or even behind glass (with some exceptions), but rather is made accessible to visitors—especially young local students—through inviting dialogue, opportunities to touch, and descriptive but relatable museum labels to provide a full historical experience.  Exhibition carts naturally fit into an environment like this, providing a different platform for making history accessible through direct visitor engagement. 
As part of the “History à la Cart” program, we designed multiple mobile learning carts for the museum, including “Prairie Landscape” and “The Great Chicago Fire.”  When Chicago Public School children come to learn about these locally-important moments in history, they actively implement their learning.  For example, they can physically measure how tall prairie grass was in order to visualize early Chicago, and they can map the path of the Great Chicago fire to assess the vast scope of the damage. 

According to Lynn McRainey, Director of Education at the Chicago History Museum, carts such as these “define a place where collaboration, conversations and children’s curiosity are a priority” (personal communication, December 2013).  In an environment where so many young students come to enhance their learning at school, the “History à la Cart” program at CHM provide spaces (six exhibition carts, to be precise) complimenting school curriculum.  Here, carts “empower children to move out of their passive roles of being told history into active participants in the discovery process”  (personal communication, December 19, 2013). 

Carts Encourage Exploration and Enable Visitors to Control their Experience: Lincoln Park Zoo
Allison Price, Director of Education at the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago, at first questioned program carts’ abilities to hold on to visitors.  The intentional design process proved its mettleon their program cart “Animals Like Us,” a collaborative effort with Museum Explorer Inc.  Through a series of probing questions and trial and error, Price and her team discovered that their typical “show and tell” program delivery was not working with audiences.  “[My team at Lincoln Park Zoo] kept coming back to our guest experience.  What should a visit to a cart feel like? What should guests be able to do?,” Price asked.  The answer to these questions was simple.  They deduced that “guests should be able to explore the animal kingdom on their own terms,” and should “walk away not just with information, but with provocation.” As a result, the designers decided “ Animals Like Us” and its program would be designed “so that the guests control the program flow, and so that exploration is valued equal to or more than information”(personal communication, December 3,2013).
Designing a cart for a zoo setting proved to have its own challenges.  In this space, there are many stimuli competing for attention – sights, sounds, smells, flavors.  In order to become its own space in a place like this, a program cart has to be colorful and loud and inviting all on its own.  “Animals Like Us” was created for the Lincoln Park Zoo with these qualities in mind, offering colorful and large signs, real animal skulls for visitor engagement, and a life-size human model standing adjacent to it.  This cart has no problem maintaining its own space.
“What resulted from our probing questions [in the design process] is a cart that, since its unveling, has captivated everyone from the 5 year-old to the 95 year-old, first-time visitors and long-time trustees,” Price says (personal communication).  Indeed, data supported Price’s findings.  A 2013 study conducted by the Garibay Group on program carts at the Lincoln Park Zoo (including “Animals Like Us”),  reported that, “on a scale from 1 to 4 (1 being ‘disagree strongly’ and 4 being ‘agree strongly’), 149 of 150 respondents rated their agreement with the statement ‘We really enjoyed our experience at the station’ as a 3 or 4” (2013).  Research typically focuses on quantitative data about what visitors learned, but it is important to note that this particular study also takes enjoyment into account.  Enjoyment is not often cited as a reason for what people get out of a visit to a museum or zoo, but this evaluation strongly emphasized that “visitors enjoyed their experiences at the stations,” primarily because there was learning involved.  While visitors often cited “enjoying the hands-on or interactive nature of the stations,” the most common response “concerned enjoying information conveyed during the interaction” (Garibay Group, 2013). 
A big idea in a small package? That is exactly what an exhibit cart is. Load it up and cruise the halls and galleries of your museum until you find an audience. It’s a possibility worth imagining because intentional design can work! It’s not only a fix--refocusing a message or reengineering interactivity--it’s about setting out and intending to capture that ‘instant’ of initial human interest and managing that moment as it unfolds and grows into a genuine experience.  Further, that experience can generate a memory of a great museum visit.

The key to program carts’ success rests in remaining flexible making a commitment to anticipate change through audience research, and then adapting as needed to meet the visitor’s mind, senses and spirit. One measure of success is reflected in the higher numbers of participation and stay-time by visitors. Whether adults, families, or children in school groups, all audiences are showing an increasing willingness to draw on their own sense of wonder and curiosity as they investigate, analyze and interpret new museum content designed with them in mind. Carts are succeeding because they invite all visitors to participate equally in a process of direct exchange and discovery.  The result: carts are effective because they engage people via the combination of live programmers and the common interactive space of the cart. Carts aren’t just visitor-centered, they are people powered. In a nutshell, carts WHEEL VISITORS IN.