What happens to an exhibit when it closes? The artifacts are reaccessioned, the labels (hopefully) recycled, but what happens to the knowledge? What happens to the surprises designers encountered, the interactive that visitors loved, the bits that never seemed to work quite right?
If we were scientists, we'd have documentation of each experiment, each publishable result, each improved-upon discovery. If we were musicians, we'd have the recordings and the sheet music. But exhibit design is transient and its documentation spotty. We live in a cyclical Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Design. That may be fine for people who want the exercise of reinventing the wheel, but it's a disaster if our goal is to grow and improve what we offer to visitors.
As a poet, I know how a wide range of poets over a few hundred years have influenced my work. I know where to go when I want more data from a particular style or poet. I know that it's not acceptable for me to recreate something that's already been done; I have to do something new. But as an exhibit designer, I'm in the dark. Even if I WANT to learn from the exhibits that have come before and are coming up around the world, there's no obvious place to start studying.
Enter ExhibitFiles. ExhibitFiles is a community-based site launched last month to encourage the documentation, sharing, and exploration of exhibits and the exhibit design process. Last week, I spoke with Jim Spadaccini (Ideum) and Wendy Pollock (ASTC) about their experiences creating this site. I spoke to them on different days, so I've taken some liberty with structure here, but their words are maintained intact.
What was the basis for this project?
Jim: It came out of a book that Kathy Maclean did with Wendy's help, Are We There Yet?, which was a series of case studies about the exhibit design process. There was a need recognized and that need was that exhibits and exhibitions were being redesigned over and over again without that sense of history. The whole process of developing an exhibition tends to get stuck behind a museum's doors. There's no sharing of that information. Well, if we can come up with an open structure where anyone who works at any level of the process could share that process-that would be very unique and add very high value. A community site in its truest sense, where anyone can post a review or case study.
How did this come to be an ASTC (Association of Science and Technology Centers) project?
Wendy: Part of the thinking was that NSF supported the book Are We There Yet?, and they are concerned that they are supporting the development of exhibitions, and once the exhibits travel, the knowledge really disappears. Where do you found out about these things? NSF requires grant applicants to build on prior knowledge--where do you get it?
ASTC's mission is really to help raise the level of the field as a whole. We've published and done professional development in the area of exhibits from the very beginning. And with NSF's support, some of the very first things we did were around people developing traveling exhibits. Everything we've done in the arena of traveling exhibitions has professional development as a key component. I've found that our motivation has always involved improving the field.
So if NSF is funding it, is it only for science exhibitions?
Wendy: Of course, NSF is supporting this, and science exhibitions are the core of what we do, but even before ExhibitFiles, ASTC published in the area of exhibitions generally. Why is that? In the past two decades, science centers have been in the lead in the exhibits arena, and we think we have a lot to share--and learn--with other museums. Then there was the additional realization: if we're going to build a true community on ExhibitFiles, we need to have a critical mass, so we need to open this up to all museum exhibit designers. We see this as part of the network of sites that NSF is funding for informal science education.
We did promise NSF very specifically 40 case studies of exhibitions, and we listed a number of NSF-funded exhibitions that people who are part of our core community group will hopefully write about. By then, I hope we have enough good models and people who want to be a part of this that it will have a life of its own. The way real people work online is much broader. NSF seems to be perfectly happy with that.
I'm very impressed with the design of the site. It's clean, easy to use, and gives feedback quickly. What are the key design elements in your mind?
Jim: It started with the idea of case studies, because that's what the book was about-very detailed, fairly formal case studies. But the chances that you'd go through the book and find an exhibit on the same subject matter you're working on is very rare. But ideally on the site, if it takes off, people could find things in the areas they're interested in. Reviews followed closely after. There are people who have a lot to say about museums around the world--to have some outlet there seemed useful.
The profiles were the last thing added, when we were getting into the nature of the site itself. I'm a big advocate of the profile part, and want to see it used in other ways for members to contact each other.
Wendy: Time is the big barrier for learning. Our design is very consciously deliberate to make it seem easy and quick. So I hope that means people will at least say something.
One of the biggest questions in my mind is about honesty. I love that you include "Lessons learned" and "Mistakes we made" in the case study forms, but I'm not sure if I believe that people will really communicate openly about these things.
Jim: We're hoping that we'll get different points of view on the same projects. We're not under the illusion that some fields like "what went wrong" and "lessons learned" will be places where we get 100% honesty. We know that that's a difficult thing to share. Though to a certain extent, we don't expect all of the conversations to take place here. If I'm developing an exhibition, I may start at ExhibitFiles and then contact the person directly.
There were many discussions about whether this should be an open or a closed community-should we allow the whole world to see what's here, or lock down the whole site? We decided that the openness was more of a benefit than a detriment. People might have felt more comfortable in a closed community, but that privacy is sort of an illusion when you're talking about hundreds of people in your same field.
Authenticity of authorship and ownership is really important. We considered a multi-authoring platform, but in the end we ditched that, thinking that individual authorship, multiple perspectives are better and more sustainable.
Wendy: Part of the basis of trust is the fact that your name and your face is associated with your words. But we have functions so you can send a draft on to others. These forms are very accommodating. It's quite amazing the different perceptions once something is over; everyone's memories are different. It will be really interesting to see how the human side evolves--when you see something you question, do you write a comment, call up the person, or...?
There's an example up there right now about Wild Music, which I posted, and there have been a lot of people involved with this project, and the designers are at the Science Museum of Minnesota, and I talked to them about it, and realized that I hadn't updated the case study to reflect everyone involved. So I keep updating it.
I like the idea that this can be a place both for people who are collaborating and know each other well and for new relationships to form. It would be great to see the co-PIs' names hyperlinked to their own case studies and reviews so everything can connect via the people.
Wendy: I'm not sure whether the system is going to automatically make those connections, but the plan is to link all of this up.
Jim: We are really trying to make this into a strong social site. We looked at LinkedIn as a model. I think a cool thing is that we took a fair amount of push on the personal profiles. Originally we had the ability to go in and add favorites and they get listed on the page; now, you can also go in and add contacts in a del.ici.ous sense. You can also click from people's profiles to send them an email.
The other thing we found early on is that the profiles pop up very high on a google search for a person's name. That's all very deliberate. The pretty URLs we added in the last week should allow the site to do really well.
To a certain extent we don't want to lose sight of the fact that this is primarily about the exhibits and the exhibitions, but we know that the people are important.
Wendy: We were also very concious about not wanting ExhibitFiles to interfere the ASTC/ISEN listserv. The listerv has been out there for over 13 years and it has a certain kind of energy, and it gets its energy partly from its size. And I can already tell that the nature of the discussion has changed in recent times because people are going to other places, other web sources. We don't want to overload by offering duplicate services on ExhibitFiles.
I talked with Kathy Kraft, a fairly frequent participant in the listserv, and she is anticipating that when things come up on the listserv, being able to say, "well, look here on the ExhibitFiles," so it can be complementary.
I'm really excited about the idea that this information will now be captured and available. I'm constantly trying to figure out where the resources are out there to learn from.
Jim: Part of the motivation is that at least in the science center world, you have a generation that were developing exhibits in the 70s and 80s who are retiring. And since that was pre-web, there isn't a home for that information. Going through the old exhibit files at ASTC, the file folders, the idea that those might make their way into here is really exciting.
Wendy: The legacy aspect of it is huge. I do know people--Gretchen Jennings just retired--I think it's very very important that their knowledge doesn't die. We need an archive for exhibitions. And I am personally going out and recruiting people I know who are in that state of their lives. It was only 15 years ago we at ASTC did a global warming exhibition. And younger people have no clue. And frankly we have a responsibility to the funders too to make sure we're not going over the same ground over and over again, that we are learning something.
Ready to learn something? Sign up, browse, and contribute. Still wondering how useful it can be? I challenge you to model the kind of content you'd like to see. Write something honest, something surprising, and share some information that otherwise will be lost to the exhibit design ether.