Hi Everyone,

Today I participated in a panel presentation at the yearly American Alliance of Museums (AAM) conference which was held this year in St. Louis, Missouri.

The panel was titled: “Exhibit Processes Must Change: Act II”.

This panel was a follow up to a panel held last year which was called: “Exhibit Processes Must Change”.  That panel had called into question the conventional processes of museum design, suggesting that using the accepted architectural process model (Schematic, Design Development, etc.) might not be the most effective format, and that perhaps looking to other modes of creative development, such as filmmaking and theater might result in more creative and impactful museum exhibits and projects.

The panel was organized and moderated by Susan Ades, Director of Exhibition Design for the Smithsonian.

In addition to myself, the other members of the panel included:

Kathy McLean — principal of Independent Exhibitions and chief troublemaker and provocateur (and organizer of last year’s panel)

Jenny Sayre Ramberg — director of exhibit planning and design at the National Aquarium in Baltimore

Marsha Coplon — education director at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Scott Miller — artistic director at New Line Theatre in St. Louis

Marsha and Scott were invited to participate based on their work in theater, to explain how that process might relate (or not) to the museum design process. 

I was invited to represent a sort of “hybrid” design studio, bridging the gap between the world of immersive design and traditional museum practice.

On Monday evening, the panel (except for Scott) met for dinner to discuss the topic and “get our act together” before the panel today.  We had a really lively and in depth conversation which was probably more fun and interesting than the panel itself… but since there was no audience around to hear that… I’ll jump to the actual panel.

Each of the panelists talked about their own process for design and creative development.  The most significant difference between the theater groups (as well as THG) and the traditional museum design process, is that we tend to try and create a “big picture” experience and approach to the experience, with a single creative director who is responsible for the overall experience (with support from a multi-disciplined team), where museum teams tend to be more “consensus” or “siloed” teams, with each discipline often contributing their own piece of the project without a strongly coordinated vision.  Many traditional museum institutions or exhibition design firms might disagree with that premise, but it’s often the case that different disciplines limit their focus to one area… the “curator” may only be interested in the artifacts or the academic content, while the exhibit designer is more focused on the styling of the exhibit than the story, and the lighting designer is just brought in to make sure the art or artifacts are well illuminated.  Of course, there are exceptions to this, but often museum exhibitions are designed more as a collection of parts that one cohesive experience.  In the theater, while there are many disciplines engaged in creating a play, they all follow the directors vision, and when there is a lack of consensus, the director has final say.  That doesn’t always happen in museums.  This can lead to a lot of tension and territoriality between the different disciplines.

The process of movie making was also evoked. Imagine a feature film getting made without a director…. That’s how many museum exhibits come together.

The panel also discussed “casting” of projects… picking the right talent with an affinity for the subject matter, rather than the next staff member or in house designer who was available.

Some other key thoughts…

… Come to the project with end goals in mind, but not a set “roadmap” of how to get there. Allow all members of the team to contribute ideas, and trust that that process will lead to the strongest and most original concept.

… In the theater, (as in the museum world or anywhere we work) respect is really essential.  Even when all ideas can’t be utilized, everyone’s contributions lead to the whole… it’s the creative director’s responsibility to empower the team, set the course, and make the hard edits, but always remaining as collaborative and proactive as possible.  If the project leader isn’t feeling the joy, the team certainly won’t either.

… Leave room in the process for change.  Obviously change is easier early in the process, but can we also be willing to change even small things the day after opening, if the audience reaction tells us that change will make the project better?

The panel talked at length about how to “test” a design, and the importance of prototyping as many elements as possible, as well as previsualizing or even prototyping the entire exhibit, to gauge audience reaction and make adjustments before the final product gets built.  This is something we try to do, and I believe we should actually do much more of.  It’s in everyone’s interest to take any steps possible to make sure the final product delivers the goals of the project to the greatest degree possible.  We all agreed that previsualizing or even prototyping the entire project and getting feedback is NOT the same thing as a focus group!  Our theater friends compared the previsualization process to the “workshop” process a new play often goes through before it ever receives a full production.  

At the end of the panel, there was a “healthy” Q and A session, which was mostly positive, but with a lot of folks just wanting more information about how a process like this might work in their institution.  There were also a few questions about the balance/relationship between a creative director and a project manager.  Many of the panel members talked about how important respect becomes in that collaboration, and that both the creative director and the project manager have to be sensitive to the others realities.

I could go on and on, but to me the most valuable takeaway from panels like this one is that it motivates me to think about our own development process and what we could do better…