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Museum Exhibition Design, Part V

Museum Exhibition Design, Part V, Exhibition Maintenance

The process of exhibition design starts before drawing and continues through to maintaining and evaluating  the exhibits.  Having been part of surveying visitors at several museums, exhibits not working is often the number one complaint.  Creating an expectation for exhibit maintenance and repairs with staff is the first step.  It is unrealistic to expect all exhibits to be working all of the time, but 95% operational is a fair expectation.  “Operational” is a tricky word, does operational include if an exhibit is dirty?  I would say a dirty exhibit is not operational.   Many museums have an expectation of 100% operational exhibits with no exhibits staff, it is not possible to set goals such as exhibits 100% operational without allocating resources to perform the maintenance and repairs.

I would say an exhibit needs to be communicating the content for it to be called an “operational exhibit”.  I am speaking loosely here, there are many exhibits that are about exploration, not didactic communication, for those exhibits, designers need to be careful to avoid miscommunication.  I would say the first step in maintaining an exhibition is understanding the desired outcomes, “what is the exhibit communicating?”.  Yes, if an exhibit is dirty it still may be communicating the content, but you may be communicating other undesired messages about the institution.  Don’t underestimate your exhibit cleaning and maintenance staff, include them in the design process.  Disney realizes that the number one question asked is “where is the bathroom”, often asked of the maintenance staff.  Customer service training of maintenance staff is often more important than training office staff.

I started out as a museum Art handler and Exhibit Technician, the experience of being “hands on” with exhibits has been invaluable.  Many museums have a job sharing program, where office staff go out on the museum exhibition floor and work along side exhibit staff maintaining exhibitions.  Not until you are trying to clean or fix an exhibit and a bus load of twelve year olds show up, do you understand the challenges of working on the exhibition floor.  No matter the exhibition the exhibit staff and their tools will be of greater interest than any exhibit!  It is very important that all museum staff are involved in the maintenance and repair of exhibits, try your best to create an atmosphere of the exhibits floor being the “living room” of the staff.  Staff should take pride in their “living room” and want to share the experience with visitors.  I have been part of designing several museums from ground up, I believe it is important that the staff walk through the front door every day, it creates a connection with the institution.  It is too easy to have museum staff never step on the exhibition floor and become disconnected from the mission of the museum.

From the last post, “Museum Exhibition Design, Installation” you will have already:

1. Installed the exhibition

2. Built in flexibility –  Created access panels to changeable parts, screwed casework in place to allow removing from the exhibition floor if necessary.

3. Documents / As Built Drawings – Created notebooks of the “As built” drawings and maintenance manuals.  Created contact sheet for the contants at designer and fabrication teams.  Copies of the IT, AV and architectural drawings.

4. Crating – Documented storage crates and modifications for next installation if traveling exhibition

5. Keys and On/Off & Maintenance Manual – Often, I will specify key numbers as part of drawing packages (it is a pain walking around with a ring of keys, key cabinets to be keyed alike), all of the items such as key numbers, equipment warranty and “as built drawings” should be compelled in a notebook for review prior to shipping.  Created a plan for turning on and turning off the exhibits, documented in the maintenance manual.

6. One Year Warranty – I will only work with fabricators who will warranty their work for one year.  Warranty should cover repairs do to defects, not abuse or misuse.

7. Evaluated the exhibition – Be able to make the distinction between broken and misconception.  Have an objective person review exhibits to point out misconceptions.

Museum Exhibition Maintenance can be divided into:

1. Exhibit Cleaning

2. Exhibition floor inspection and walk though

3. Building Maintence (Clean floors, walls painted and repaired)

4. Computer maintenance (filters cleaned, cabinets dusted)

5. Documentation of electrical / IT / pneumatic systems location and maintenance

6. Database of exhibit maintenance and repairs

7. Backup of computer files of exhibition graphics (graphics get torn, discolored and need to be updated periodically)

8. Backup of media including digital files of videos and computer software

9. Maintenance manuals should include specifications of; laminates, paint and lighting

10. Art should only handled by Art handlers and cleaned by conservators

11. Exhibition Lighting, A Lighting plan, lighting cart with a ladder and replacement bulbs

12. Stanchions for coordinating off exhibits while being maintained

13. “Exhibit under repair” signs

14. Planning for Art cleaning and conservation

Lessons Learned:

1. One point of contact – There should be one person or group responsible for reviewing exhibits.  Often in museums, one group is responsible for cleaning exhibits, another for changing lightbulbs and another for fixing exhibits, this can lead to “finger pointing” and a lack of accountability.  Have one group reviewing the entire museum experience, then reporting to the various departments.  It is often best to have a “vistor experience” team the reviews the visitor experience for exhibit cleaning and repairs.

2. Walk the building – Many museums require staff to walk through the front door every day.  Often staff can become disconnected from the visitor experience by going into a “staff entrance”, it is easy to forget the “business” of the museum is the exhibition floor.

3. Pick up trash – Set an example and pick up trash as you are walking through the galleries and encourage others to do the same.  The exhibit halls are your “living room” and take pride in how it looks.

4. Maintenance Loop – Create a loop of exhibit maintenance, 1. Visitor Feedback, 2. Evaluation, 3. Staff weekly report, 4. Job assignments, 5. Completion of tasks, 1. Visitor Feedback, it is an never ending loop, refing the visitor experience

5. Reward – Base employee reviews on meeting objectives of the visitor experience

6. Access –  Make it easy to get into exhibit cases

7. Parking Lot First – Start your walkthrough from the parking lot or side walk and walk the visitor experience from the perspective of the visitor and weekly note items to be repaired, cleaned, changed

8. Post Information – Make the information public and shared with staff, “this week 92% of the exhibits are operational 3% short of our goal of 95% operational”.  It is not possible to have 100% operational exhibits , it is possible but it would be a VERY boring museum.

9. Balancing Act – Often museums shy away from interactive exhibits or open ended exhibits because of a maintenance concerns, visitor satisfaction (read “Museums are Hospitality“) needs to be part of the equation.  It is easy for museums to not include difficult to maintain exhibits and have a lower visitor satisfaction, but that is a moot point.

10. Systems – Spare parts, keys, drawing storage, numbering systems, repair manuals, bins of spare parts, lighting cart, technician cart, repair shop.

11. Inclusion – Often museums use an approach of “here is the exhibit now maintain it”, include your exhibit maintenance staff in the design and fabrication process.

12. Communication – Support your exhibit staff with walkie talkies, email and computer database for staff

13. Cell Phone and Walkie Talkie – Often a cell phone, walkie talkie, flashlight, leatherman and the maintenance manual are your best tools.  Most often wires become loose and things become un-plugged.  When trouble shooting work from simple to complex, “is the exhibit plugged in?”, “Is everything plugged in properly?”, then document what is happening and pick up the cell phone to call the fabricator.  Often it is great to have a walkie talkie so others can run and get you parts without having to get off the cell phone.

14. Prioritize –  Use a triage approach to prioritize repairs and maintenance on a daily basis

15. Expensive – Exhibit maintenance is expensive, underwrite the costs of maintenance as part of your fundraising by creating an exhibition endowment

16. Gizmo makers  – Tap into artist communities, find people passionate about the visitor experience, not fixing exhibits.  Look for gizmo makers for exhibit staff.  I used to test staff asking them to build a 12″ x 12″ x 12″ box during the interview, you can learn a lot by watching someone work.

17. Vendor Relationships – Find vendors who will stand behind their work, require a 24 turnaround for replacement parts, only work with fabricators who will warranty their work for one year.  Warranty should cover repairs due to defects, not abuse or misuse.

The next post in the series will be “Museum Exhibition Evaluation” and final post in this series will be number VII an executive summary and Museum Exhibition Design “check list”.  This series of posts has been so well received, I will next start on a series of posts about Museum Planning and Museum Strategic Planning, then compile all of the posts into an ebook.

Links for specifics of exhibition design:

Traveling exhibitions design

Science Center exhibition design

Examples of each phase see “Museum Exhibition Design”

The steps of the exhibition design process is similar for Art Museums, Natural History Museums, Science Centers and Children’s Museums.  The differences are in the content development, the design process is the same.

I have been part of setting up exhibit maintenance programs at the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, The Children’s Museum of Manhattan, Liberty Science Center, The Tech Museum (San Jose) and Discovery Science Center (Santa Ana, CA).  Contact me if you are interested in help setting up a program for your museum.

The image at the top of the post is my toolbox that travels with the “Alcatraz: Life on the Rock” exhibition.  The left hand side is for touch-up paint and spare parts, the draws for tools and hardware, the right hand side is for graphics, maintenance manuals and larger tools. 

About Mark Walhimer

Mark is Managing Partner of Museum Planning, LLC, a museum planning and exhibition project management firm of interactive educational environments for Science Centers, Children's Museums and Natural History Museums. You can reach Mark at mark@walhimer.com.

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2 comments

  1. I was very pleased to find this site.I wanted to thank you for this great read I definitely enjoying every little bit of it and I have you bookmarked to check out new stuff you post.
    GED Online  

  2. Great topic! As a design-build firm in the industry, Taylor Studios, Inc.,  we cover most of these as well.  We stand behind our product so much that we actually warranty our work for 5 years.  

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