Lunch with NEMA: How to Bring the Community into Exhibit Design Process

Originally posted on Medium, April 27, 2017. 

This week I participated in another Lunch with NEMA program, a monthly webinar on various subjects in museums during lunch hour, called Bringing the Public into Your Sandbox Without Getting Sand in Your Face — or Theirs. The Lunch with NEMA program was about what it is like to bring community members in the exhibit design process by discussing EcoTarium’s experience in bringing in the community to design an exhibit called City Science. EcoTarium is a family-friendly, indoor-outdoor museum located in Worcester, Massachusetts with various offers including interactive exhibits, shows in the digital planetarium, daily Science Discovery programs, and live animal habitats. To find out more about EcoTarium, check it out here http://www.ecotarium.org/. Discussion was led by Betsy Loring, the Director of Exhibits, and Alice Promisel who is the Exhibit Content Developer for EcoTarium.

Loring and Promisel, in the beginning of the program, talked about EcoTarium and their exhibit City Science. City Science: The Science You Live is an immersive exploration of the modern city that allows visitors to investigate the science we encounter every day but rarely stop to consider. The exhibit allows visitors to experience firsthand that the way we design and build our cities has many impacts on people, animals, civic life, and the larger environment. It uses a variety of activities, from custom-designed computer challenges, live animal observations, and hands-on design activities.

Once they explained what the exhibit was about, Loring and Promisel discussed the lessons that they learned the hard way when they invited members of the community to develop the exhibit. The first lesson they learned the hard way was to make sure they get the right minds to work on the exhibit. In other words, individuals who normally visit the museum. I agree that this is an important lesson since learning who your visitors are can help find out who will more likely be more invested in assisting in this collaboration.

The second lesson they learned the hard way is that before brainstorming it is important to get people in the right mindset. People outside of the museum do not understand the exhibit development process so it is important to include a visual of how the museum exhibit spaces are set up and how much time is dedicated to developing exhibits. Loring and Promisel described how they also found ways to have participants come up with relevant ideas for the exhibit.

They came up with a warm up activity to help participants get in the right mindset to come up with ideas for the exhibit. The question Loring and Promisel came up with to have participants come up with was: what’s the one thing you want to change about Worcester? After the warm up activity, a brainstorm session began in which they stressed that it is important to make a home for every idea no matter how broad or specific; then organize them in sections related to subjects related to developing an exhibit such as exhibit design, interactive activities, and content. Loring and Promisel also stressed that it is important to include content experts throughout the exhibit process. By including content experts, specific questions about specific content can be answered.

In addition to coming up with ways to inspire participants to brainstorm ideas and include content experts, it is important to explain to them what their role is and what their role is not in the exhibit design process. They suggest that institutions write a role document, or job description, to explain their roles; the document should explain why expertise is needed and how they will be helping, where their input is needed and when, the time commitment needed from the participants, and when they will see and hear about the results. It is also important to discuss what the museum is and does by giving them information about the vocabulary and definitions used in the museum to help them understand what the institution is looking for in an exhibit.

I enjoyed this Lunch with NEMA because it provides another example of how collaborations with people and organizations outside the museums’ walls can present its own benefits and challenges. Not all institutions are the same but we can learn from their experiences and adapt them to our own institutions. At the same time, not all collaborations are the same, and we can all learn from our own experiences and from other institutions to work on making better collaboration projects and be effective members in the community.

What are your collaboration projects? Did you come across challenges when collaborating with others, and how did you handle them?

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lindseystewardgoldberg

I am a passionate and dedicated individual who is determined to provide local and national history for future generations to appreciate their roots and teach the next generation. My love for museums began from a very young age. When I was a child, my family encouraged myself and my sisters to visit various historic sites and museums including Plimoth Plantation and Salem Witch Museum, and continued as I grew up when I saw places such as the Birthplace of Abigail Adams. My lifelong passion for history led me to earn my Bachelors degree in History from Western New England University and my Masters degree in Public History from Central Connecticut State University. While I was in the Central Connecticut State University Public History graduate program, I worked on the Connecticut Historical Society’s “Cooking by the Book” exhibit that my group came up with the original proposal for. I also helped set up art exhibits at CCSU’s art galleries, and wrote a lesson plan on women contributions to society in the eighteenth century as a final project in the program for the Stanley-Whitman House museum. Along the way, I gained various experiences within school activities and museums. My experiences include working with students in school programs at the Stanley-Whitman House in Farmington, Connecticut, Connecticut’s Old State House, and Connecticut Landmarks Hartford properties. I also volunteered at the Franklin Historical Museum in Franklin, Massachusetts where I provided tours for visitors, helped organize public programs connected with town events, and kept an inventory of the museum’s collections. I became a full time Museum Educator with the Long Island Museum where I teach programs, and take on administrative roles such as schedule programs. Today, I am an independent museum professional working on various projects. For instance, I joined the Long Island Maritime Museum and Three Village Historical Society volunteering in the education and visitor services departments. I continue to look for opportunities in which I educate school groups and the public on the significance of the arts, history, and sciences in our society through the museum education field.

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