adventures in museum-going

  1. Day 9: on project management

    | posted by: phiden

    One thing we haven’t really talked about in this seminar (or ever, now that I think about it) is project management. It almost seems like a given that we know what project management is, or that there will somehow be a project manager on our exhibit development teams.

    I’ve worked with PMs before, but never in the context of an exhibit development, so hearing Marion Gill and Carlos Bustamante at the National Museum of African American Culture & History talk about project management was definitely a lesson. There were things that were not surprising to me — for example, the incredible amount of detail that goes into management, or how a PM manages people. But, as has so often been the case, I hadn’t considered how objects change the equation. Before today, I never would have considered that moving a single object could be a project of such magnitude that it requires a PM.

    It was a nice way to wrap up our many museum visits and professional conversations, because it seems like project management is the umbrella under which all other exhibit development must get done, at least in larger institutions that are managing many people on a single project. Still, I wish we’d started talking about it sooner and in more detail. Clearly, it’s an important aspect of exhibit development, but it’s been glossed over.

    Now, all we have left in our seminar is to present our virtual exhibits, which we’ll do tomorrow. I heard that the professors invited all of our guest speakers to attend, which is both a relief (our classmates already know our objects, which will make for a boring lesson – guests would make it more interesting) and terrifying!

  2. Day 8: Harpers Ferry

    | posted by: phiden


    We had a very, very cold morning in Harpers Ferry, WV today — but it allowed for beautiful pictures of the fog and direct observation of the sun. I think I can speak for the class at large when I say we were really grateful for that sun, especially when we were walking around outside looking at wayside exhibits.

    New word: wayside. It’s basically a panel placed in front of a location with some combination of words and images, preferably short and engaging. Our guide today had some very strong opinions on what constitutes a good wayside, versus a bad one, and it was interesting to hear that a lot of what makes a good wayside could also be said to make good web content, given that the two tools are very different. It was also weirdly gratifying (encouraging?) to hear that there are not enough people who are capable of producing good waysides — this is an area for career growth, perhaps!

    We unfortunately didn’t have too much time to wander around the historic town of Harpers Ferry, because we lingered over a delicious lunch, but we did meet Ranger David Fox.


    He gave us the whirlwind tour of Harpers Ferry (or a very small part of it, I should say), pointing out that it’s a point of convergence for several storylines, each of which can be interpreted individually or as part of a whole or both. He also made the very valid point, when showing us the wooden flood marker that he called “the most expensive exhibit” in the area, that content doesn’t have to be high-tech and gloriously costly to tell a compelling story. The flood marker, for example, is expensive not because of what it cost to manufacture and mount, but because it represents the overall cost of repeated flooding in the area, both in terms of objects and lives.

    During the tour we heard again what seems to be the overarching theme for all museums we’ve heard from on this trip, large and small: we don’t have enough resources. This was cutting edge x years ago. We could really stand to update this. But we all really love what we do.

    It makes me quite sad that our cultural legacy is so often relegated to the low-priority list when it comes to budgeting and resources — especially since this doesn’t seem to be a trend that will reverse any time soon. It also makes me wonder: is this really a new thing, or are we just more aware of it?

  3. Day 7: oh, so that’s a living collection

    | posted by: phiden


    Ok, so I knew what a living collection was before going to the zoo today, because it’s one of those things that comes up in our required classes. But it had been probably a decade since I’d been to a zoo, so I hadn’t ever looked at one in the context of museum studies — though I will this coming semester because I’m taking Living Collections, which I’m now looking forward to even more!

    In one of my exhibit design classes, we did talk some about the challenges that institutions with living collections might face, that those with non-living collections don’t have to deal with, and some of those came up today. For example, you have to feed the living collections, account for their care and habitats, and one thing I hadn’t thought of — you have to keep them from breeding! Or sometimes you have to worry about breeding them, depending on the animal.

    Speaking of breeding, we got to see Mama Panda Bear! I know Jes was dying to see Bao Bao, the cub, but though we tried we had no such luck. I did feel very lucky that we got to even try, since Bao Bao isn’t slated to make his (her? we also learned baby pandas are hard to identify in terms of gender) public debut for another few days.

    While taking a look at Bao Bao’s mom, we came across another challenge when designing long-term exhibits: labeling and narrative panels, and the use of relative time periods, specific names, and genders in the stories. At the Zoo, they’re working on staying away from that sort of language, because it makes the panels less flexible over time.

    It makes sense to me; this is actually something that was partially drilled into me while writing for (y’know, in a past life). Because the news is both transient (in that the information moves very fast) and permanent (in that it never gets deleted), especially online, news writers are trained to refrain from using relative terms (“10 years ago,” “yesterday”). So yay, another big of my old life that could translate into a new one at some point.

  4. Day 6: Routers, printers & painters, oh my!

    | posted by: phiden

    3D-printed objects at the OEC.

    Today, I walked through a wonderland of powertools, printers and substrates. We visited the Smithsonian’s Office of Exhibits Central, which is effectively a fabrication firm that counts all the varying Smithsonian institutions as its clients. Their workshop is a maker’s dream — or should I say workshops? Because the space is huge: it’s something like 50,000 square feet of power tools, 3D printers, vinyl in all colors of the rainbow, Plexi, plywood, shopvacs…and that’s just what I saw. The space is sectioned off by massive doors, so we couldn’t see it all.

    We could, however, see the entire exhibit development process from model to crating, thanks to a SITES exhibit that was getting ready to ship. We were able to see the maquetes that were done early in the design process, and then we got to see the real thing as it was getting packed. That’s pretty awesome, especially when you couple it with a set of full construction documents and insights from the designer herself. It really drove home a lot of what we learned in theory in the two exhibit design and construction classes.

    While I’m thinking about it, it turns out SITES needs interns. I got really excited for about a half a second — SITES seems like an interesting organization, the women we met who were crating the exhibit were energetic and enthusiastic — and then I remembered that I live on the wrong coast! But the trip through the shop left me convinced that I need to learn autoCAD, CNC software, and maybe lighting (though I have the National Gallery of Art presentation to thank for that) — somehow, I need to get into a fabrication shop!!

  5. Day 5: Air & Space!

    | posted by: phiden


    Air and Space is, hands down, my favorite museum on Earth (so far, anyway). So I was really, really excited to visit today, and even more excited to meet Beatrice Mowry, the Chair of Exhibit Design and Technology. As has been the case with most of our guest speakers this week, she was full of interesting insights as to the way NASM gets the exhibits work done.

    I especially liked having her perspective as we walked through the museum. This was a different kind of tour. Unlike when we walked through Damage Control with its curator, Beatrice didn’t interpret objects for us or talk about the galleries from an object-oriented perspective. Instead, she talked about the unique challenges of getting airplanes strung from a glass ceiling and keeping the Plexi surrounding displayed spacecraft clean.

    It was gratifying to hear her talk about the many changes upcoming at the NASM — after a 30-year career in that museum, she seemed genuinely excited about what’s coming up in the next decade or so! After many people commenting on lack of funding, low visitor numbers and other realities of museum work, to hear Beatrice (who also mentioned funding challenges, to be fair) genuinely amped about her work was a nice change of pace!

    Air & Space — more specifically, wanting to work there — is how I found out about this program (digging through the Smithsonian’s website looking for ways to get involved led to a museum studies program listing) and is also one of the reasons I’m in it. So it was especially nice to revisit the museum (between Udvar-Hazy and the Mall facility, this is my fifth visit in three years) and be reminded of what got me started in the first place. In a lot of ways, it helped quell the discouragement I felt yesterday!

  6. Day 4: a little discouraged

    | posted by: phiden

    I really wish I had a new museum to talk about today, but it was a classroom day! We have a deadline tomorrow morning, so we had the afternoon to get our acts together for our final project. But in the morning, we met with Abbie Chessler, one of the founders of Quatrefoil, an exhibit design firm.

    She was fascinating, full of stories about working in museum exhibits, and knowledgeable about what goes into getting projects done. That said, she was also a cold dose of reality! You know how sometimes you know something is true, but you can kind of ignore it for a while? That’s how I’ve felt about breaking into museum work. I’ve been going through this program and applying for various jobs without any experience, thinking something just might work out.

    Today, I decided to ask Abbie what she looks for in a designer for her firm, because for all we talk about museum work in this program we rarely ever discuss practical advice for getting museum work. I’m coming into this field totally blind and inexperienced, so that sort of information is super useful for me. She said some things I kind of expected — she wants people who can be taught what they need to know, who can draw, who are passionate. And then she added that it’s almost impossible to get exhibit design work, because of the economy and the general state of the museum world.

    The reality is, in order to get a toehold, I’m probably going to have to work for free for a while. Or for less, if I go the freelance-web-designer-for-an-exhibit route. I’d been ignoring that reality, until today. It’s discouraging, simply because I don’t know that I can find volunteer work in my area, or an internship (and believe me, I’ve been looking — I’ve even done the preliminary training at the Exploratorium, where they’re so fully volunteer-staffed that I’m on a wait list!). That’s if I determine that I can afford to take on less or no paid work for a while.

    Let me be clear that I have no regrets about this program (something my dad asked me recently) — I just wonder what the opportunity cost will be for me to apply it in the museum field, as opposed to in another storytelling/design/development capacity.

  7. Day 3: When something just doesn’t fit

    | posted by: phiden


    We spent some time at the National Building Museum today. It’s a gorgeous old structure with an interesting history, and we were privileged to some great views from the fourth floor, which is normally closed to visitors.

    We went through the House & Home exhibit, which made me feel quite nostalgic. It was interesting to hear Cathy Frankel, Vice President for Exhibitions and Collections, talk about the process of pulling together the exhibit, how it deviated from the original plan, and what it’s like to buy exhibit objects from eBay. I also especially enjoyed seeing all the models that are part of the exhibit.

    That said, I think the museum caused a little bit of stress for my group. We have a primary object and a big idea for our exhibit, and we’re all in the process now of finding our secondary objects. We all have some idea of which museum, of the many we’ll visit, we’ll find our individual objects in — and none of us are expecting it to be the National Building Museum.

    Even so, we had some discussion around whether or not we should try to find a secondary object in the NBM, and I felt like we were really struggling with the inclusion of a museum that wasn’t speaking to any of us insofar as our big idea is concerned. I found this a little surprising, honestly — I’m not sure why we felt the pressure to consider a museum collection that just doesn’t seem to fit.

    In the end, we came to the conclusion that we all have ideas about our secondary objects in other museums, and that the National Building Museum, as beautiful as it is, is just not a good fit for our big idea.

  8. Day 2: The rocks, they resonate

    | posted by: phiden


    The last thing I expected from a lecture in this course was a story about cows, but that’s what we got today — a story about Jersey cows at Winterthur. Stephanie was relating a story in which she, somewhat frustrated with what amounted to a field trip to the area, was made to care about it because of the Jersey cows that once resided there. Turns out, her family used to raise cows.

    She told us this story in order to make the point that in order to get visitors to care about your museum or exhibit, you need to give them something that resonates personally. For her, it was Winterthur’s cows. For me, it’s minerals.

    We went to the NMNH‘s new Q?rius space, which opened in December 2013 — not all that long ago, and it shows. It’s bright and shiny and new, and best of all, filled with lovely objects from the museum’s collections. There’s a whole area where you can open drawer after drawer of specimens, and actually touch them. Mind, blown.


    Set loose in the collection, I came across a chalky grey mineral that looked strikingly familiar. My father is a geologist, and his father was before him — and a well-known one (pdf), at that. My grandfather spent a good portion of his life collecting minerals, which my father inherited. It’s now proudly displayed in his living room, backlit on specially-built shelves.

    So for Christmas, I gave Dad a stibnite specimen I’d found at the AGU meeting in San Francisco. That chalky grey specimen in Q?rius? An amazing piece of stibnite, with big crystal formations and a lovely iridescence.

    I can spend time in art museums and appreciate the work, but they’re not my favorites. However, put me in a natural history or science museum and I’m 100% in especially if I can handle the objects.

    So, basically, the rock resonated — and imagine my delight when I found out that my team was considering using a mineral as the primary object for our exhibit!

    We chose this piece of tourmaline:

    Not only does tourmaline hit home for me because it’s a mineral, but also because this particular stone has significance for me — a few years before he died, my grandfather gifted his four granddaughters and his wife each with a lovely, deep-green tourmaline ring. You may notice that our specimen is deep green!


    We put it under the microscope to get a better look at the crystals and the matrix and found that our object has a bunch of tiny little crystals around the larger ones, and also a luminescence when viewed in the proper light — it turns amber-colored.

    Because I knew that tourmaline is used as a gemstone in jewelry, and also that it comes in a ton of different colors (my jeweler side definitely kicked in today as well), I suggested that we visit the gem exhibit in the museum, where we discovered case after case after case of gorgeous mineral specimens, both in their raw and cut forms.


    Would I have had a similarly strong response to Q?rius and this museum without Stephanie’s lecture, and emphasis on resonance? Yes, absolutely — this is the stuff I love. But I don’t think I would have been thinking about it with the same frame of mind. I was keenly aware of how I was reacting to the objects at hand, and I think if we remember that idea of resonance as we work these two weeks that our final project will be much stronger.

  9. Day 1: Information overload begins

    | posted by: phiden

    It’s 9:20 pm and I could pass out cold right now. Day 1 took it out of me!

    The bulk of the day was spent at the Hirshhorn. It was a giant lesson on teaching and learning with objects, where the museum and its building were the object teaching us. I have to say that I might have gotten slightly more out of it if we hadn’t been standing out in the freezing cold, but even so, it was interesting to hear my classmates’ perspectives on the building’s architecture, and later on, on a piece of art we studied as an object. I doubt that we would have had the same reactions had we been examining the building from the interior, and it was fun to engage and bounce ideas off one another.

    The empty fountain at the Hirshhorn.

    The empty fountain at the Hirshhorn.

    I was fascinated by the fountain in the center of the building, which was off due to the freezing weather. I learned that the giant turbine-fan-looking-thing that makes up the fountain’s basin is made of bronze, not copper, which is what I’d assumed from the green patina of the metal. Also, it wasn’t until I saw this picture below that I realized that the radial supports on the fountain’s basin probably aren’t as nearly as visible when the water is on — I feel kind of privileged that we got to see it empty.

    The highlight was the private tour of Damage Control that we had with the exhibit’s curator, Kerry
 Brougher. We had some time before meeting with him so a bunch of us took a walk through the exhibit on our own, and it was a completely different experience viewing it through his lens.

    For one thing, my reaction to the content viewing it with Mr. Brougher was much different from viewing it on my own — after my first walk-through, I felt utterly depressed. After all, the exhibit is about destruction in art, so it contains all kinds of images of explosions, crashes, destroyed things and people. On my own, I failed to notice the rhythm of ups and downs in the content, the careful placement of pieces so that they weren’t just bomb after bomb after bomb, and the almost whimsical nature of some of the art.

    It was also incredibly interesting to hear him talk about the curation and exhibition installation process — particularly the bits about getting art stuck in customs, which is apparently a thing to be expected. It really did give me a new appreciation of the works as part of a cohesive whole, and reinforced the idea that transforming a work of art — say, by erasing it — can add value to the original piece.

    Mr. Brougher took about an hour and a half with us, and talked about way more than I can begin to cover and stay within my word count! Suffice to say that his passion for his work and the show he curated came through loud and clear, and served to really illuminate the exhibit for me.

  10. name change

    | posted by: phiden

    Yes, the blog changed names — the old one was a holdover from Randall’s multimedia class, and I felt the name no longer applied!