In this continuation of her earlier post on the crossing (or breaking) of museum borders, Andrea Jones takes a look at one border the museum world is often reluctant to cross: who does what.
Educators Designing Exhibits
At the Accokeek Foundation (AF) we are a relatively small organization with a staff of educators, farmers, and other administrators that help us pay the bills and keep us afloat. We have no curators, trained historians, or scientists. In addition, we don’t have the budget to contract with an exhibit design firm to create the present-day exhibits that we needed for our Green History initiative. We had no choice but to cross the boundaries between educator and exhibit developer/designer.
But, the absence of experts actually gave us more freedom – not less. I’ve been to numerous conference sessions and workshops (one given by our own Linda Norris!) touting the benefits of prototyping. Our exhibits are a step beyond prototyping in that they are never really that permanent. They are just in a continual state of tinkering. We learn as we go.
We were particularly proud of our DIY exhibit “Underspace: The Science of Soil.” We commandeered an old storage shed and turned it into an immersive space that made dirt look pretty darn cool.
When visitors pull back the curtain, they suddenly enter a portal to the underground.
As we tend to take for granted what’s in the soil beneath our feet, we wanted people’s journey underground to look magical. After all, there are more living organisms in a tablespoon of soil than people living on earth! That’s pretty fantastical. We wanted our visitors to have a new appreciation for soil because (and you may have never heard of this environmental problem) healthy topsoil is disappearing by the day, due to heavy use of fertilizers, commercial development, over-plowing, etc.
In our quest to bring a sense of wonder to soil we brought our best crafting skills to bear. We used cardboard, plastic bags, yarn, lots of fluorescent paint, and black lights to transform our little shed into the most groovy “soil rave” you could imagine. The black lights were also a great way to hide the fact that this exhibit was extremely low budget (total cost around $300).
“Underspace” in daylight – not so impressive
“Underspace” under blacklight – wow!
On one side, we represented the vibrant, diverse life within healthy soil. On the other we recreated unhealthy soil, due to human causes.
Organic matter (compost) is being broken down by bacteria and mycorrhizae on the healthy side.
To top it off, we enlisted the help of a sound designer friend (shouts out to the very generous Erik Spangler!) to make recordings of the soil on our site (along with other organic sounds) to create a soundscape for Underspace. I was surprised how much the piped-in sound helped to create a truly immersive space.
Unlike traditional exhibits, ours was created in about one month. The design process was a steep learning curve and the exhibit required continual adjustments after it opened. The first hurdle was the herculean task of translating the researched information about soil into a visible, 3D exhibit. How real should it be?
What about scale? How big should a rotting banana be compared to fungal mycorrhizae? We settled on a quasi-real notion of the underground world. We decided that exacting accuracy could take a back seat to stimulating interest. For example, if we didn’t make bacteria large enough to see, then we excluded a hugely important level of the ecosystem. We created these little round boxes to represent a zoomed-in perspective, but the scale was still not quite perfect.
Another thing about rushing – we didn’t adequately consult experts before transforming the research into a visual representation. One of our farmers (who is well-schooled in soil science) entered the exhibit and pointed out that our differences between healthy and unhealthy soil were too stark, too extreme. Our unhealthy side has zero bacterial life. “That would be impossible,” she said. “The bacteria activity would be lower, but not disappear completely.”
Polly Festa, farmer at Accokeek Foundation
In our quest for clarity (an educator’s tendency) we had created a contrast that was a bit too exaggerated. This was a good lesson. We may not have curators, but we do have farmers. We added bacteria to the unhealthy side and amended the text.
We learned to make better use of the expertise we had. This year, when we re-launch the exhibit, I’d like to consult with a soil scientist in our network. At the end of the day, we still have to make decisions about trade-offs and balances in the realism of our representation. But more voices will result in a fuller discussion and ultimately a more informed decision-making process.
On one final note, I would like to underscore the advantages we had in engaging the entire Programs Department in building this exhibit. Our part-time interpreters' contributions were a huge asset in exhibit development as well as in the actual construction. Not only did they lend their creativity but they became more invested and learned more content than if we had just planned a traditional training.
The process of creating the exhibit created a powerful learning experience for all those involved.
Granted, it’s not realistic to involve hundreds of people (the weekend visitors) in building something like this. I don’t think it’s scalable in that way. But I started to think of our young, part-time staff like a group of long-term visitors. After all, there are many of them that come and go on to bigger and better things. If we can involve them in projects like these and make a real impact on their perspectives, they could potentially take our lessons with them in their future careers.
There will always be a place for the high cost, slick-looking exhibit within the museum landscape. But I want to encourage small museums to take on projects such as this. Why do we have to look slick like the big guys? Sometimes the DIY aspect is exactly what is attractive to a visitor. It’s really about the ideas and the creativity you bring, not the dollars. Thinking across boundaries is something small museums are often forced to do by virtue of having small staffs and tight budgets. But perhaps we can think of these constraints as a strength – as permission to step outside of our comfort zones and defy categorization.