adventures in museum-going

Category Archive: getting started

  1. Day 9: on project management

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    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 6: Routers, printers & painters, oh my!

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    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!!

  3. Day 4: a little discouraged

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    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.