Tag archive for "featured"

Exhibition Design, Starting A New Museum

“How to Start a Science Center” or 10 Steps to Designing a Science Center

5 Comments 28 April 2011

“How to start a Science Center”.  Designing a Science Center can be divided into ten steps that include; project objectives, exhibition design, coordination with building architecture, fabrication and installation.  Exhibition design is visually communicating casework, lighting and equipment the creates the visitor experience while considering aesthetic and functional perimeters.

A project the scale of a science center requires a group of stakeholders.  The group should include the founder, a money person, a scientist, a politician, an artist, a designer and a community leader.  Find a person to represent each, a person who can raise money, a scientist, an active politician who can make things happen, an artist, a designer, and a  community representative (PTA leader, Superintendent of Schools or a real estate developer are all great)

10 Steps:

  1. Project Objectives - Maybe the toughest part of all.  Why are you building the science center?  What is the visitor experience?  What are the visitor outcomes? “World Class”, “Clean, Modern Aesthetic”, “Fun and Interactive” – really don’t tell you much at all. I often think that we each have a movie playing in our head’s when descriptions such as “Fun and Interactive” are used, one person’s “movie” is different from another’s.  The trick is to get all the stakeholders with the same movie.   The best method I have found is a research trip with all of the stakeholders.  Schedule a long weekend, for the 4-8 people that comprise the “core” team and go see at least 3-4 Science Centers.  Ask lots of questions and view different exhibits at the same time.  Document your findings from the trip.
  2. Critical Mass – Sometimes the best way to start a project is to gather a group of smart, creative people with a pot of coffee, some good food and talk.  Talk for a couple of hours, “if you could create any type of Science Center, what would that place be?”, create quick concepts and take lots of notes.  Set up a meeting to review the ideas.  Type up the meeting notes and review the notes before the next meeting.  At the next meeting narrow your conversation to three or four concepts for the Science Center.  Work to create an “Umbrella concept”,  an idea that provides a superset or grouping of concepts that all fall under a single common category.   An umbrella concept is the central and coordinating concept that will represent a number of smaller, separate concepts.  Try to be relaxed and have fun.  This is the most important work you will create in the whole process.  A few examples, Exploratorium -”An ongoing exploration of science, art, and human perception”, Discovery Science Center – “Science Southern California Style”, “The Tech Museum of Innovation” (the name says it all), The Museum of Science and Industry – Coal Mine, Silver Streak, Farm Tech, U-505 and the Wright Flyer.  With each example the Umbrella Concept is the unifying concept for the institution a sort of “elevator speech” for the Science Center.  Take your time and try on several unifying concepts before deciding on one, make sure you have enough “critical mass” of exhibit ideas to support the Umbrella Concept.
  3. Filters There is no shortage of good ideas.  Often the tough part is having a way to separate one good idea from another.  Create a set of “Exhibition Filters”; guiding principles by which exhibits are chosen or rejected.  The filters become the criteria by which the exhibits are judged to be included as part of the overall Science Center.  Examples of Exhibition Filters, “Wherever possible exhibits will be open ended with multiple outcomes”, “Exhibits will be discovery based vs. didactic” and “Exhibits and environments will be built with exposed fasteners and connections”. Make sure your Exhibition Filters are in line with your Umbrella Concept.   Run a couple of tests, “we know we would like XYZ exhibit in the science center, does it pass our Exhibition Filters?
  4. Design and Research Concept Development, Schematic Design, Design Development and Final Design are the phases of exhibition design.  As the process goes through iterations, more and more details will be added to the design.  During Concept Design, you will be reviewing area themes and space allocation, schematic design, you will be reviewing rough layouts of exhibits in areas, Design development, you will be reviewing dimensioned drawings of each area and Final Design will be details of case design and AV systems.  The Fabricator will be creating Working Drawings for review prior to fabrication.  Accept and embrace that exhibition design is a never ending process, even on opening day, you will still be making changes and revisions.  Revisions are not mistakes.  What you are creating has never existed before.  Until you have hundreds of people in the science center you are not going to know how it all works.  A friend of mine says “designers are people who can see the future”, she may be right.  A design is an image of the future, but only “an” image, the “image” will change with time.
  5. Architecture Sometimes the building comes first and you have to do a “force fit”, “how do you create your umbrella concept in the planned architecture?”.  Sometimes you create a the Umbrella Concept and work with an architect to reflect the umbrella concept in the architecture.  The truth is the second is much more difficult than the first.  Architects are NOT exhibition designers.  Often exhibition designers and architects think very differently.  Architects are concerned about creating spaces, exhibition designers are concerned with creating activities.   In the best relationships the architect creates a space to house the activities of the Science Center.  You want a very patient architect, by design your process will be ever changing, and that will mean changes to the architecture.  Define the spaces for the exhibitions, create “foot prints” of each exhibition area.  Include, lighting, HVAC, electrical, doors, windows and create a elevations of the space and reflected ceiling plans.
  6. 1/3, 1/3, 1/3 There are thousands of science centers all over the world, there is no need to “redesign the wheel”.  1/3 of the exhibits should be original to the Science Center, 1/3 purchased from a vendor or science center and modified and 1/3 should be bought “off the shelf”.   Once you have established the areas of your science center, go visit at least ten science centers and find out what exhibits could be used for your science center. Start a data base of the exhibits that can be purchased “off the shelf”, which ones you like but would like modified and exhibits that you would like original to the science center.  To the “nah sayers”, Frank Oppenheimer the founder of the Exploratorium researched existing science class experiments as the starting point for the Exploratorium.
  7. Science Center Icons Create an icon for the Science Center and create an icon for each exhibition area.  I often think about the “parking lot conversation”, when people are walking back to there car after visiting the science center “what is the one exhibit they will be talking about?”  Make sure that you have that “wow” exhibit for the science center and each exhibition area.  A few samples of icons, the Tactile Dome at the Exploratorium, The Cube at Discovery Science Center and The Hoberman Sphere at Liberty Science Center.
  8. Fabricate Ask other science centers who they used for fabrication, ask local building contractors for the names of casework companies and speak to your local convention center about trade show fabricators.  Start a list of ten fabricators and go visit each shop and ask to meet the project manager.  Walk through the shop and look at the projects in the shop, look at the quality of the work, review the working drawings in the shop.  Narrow your search down to three  fabricators and ask each to prototype an exhibit and tell them you are choosing between three shops and one of the shops will win the project contract.  Choose your fabricator by the quality of their project manager, the quality of the shops workmanship and their reputation and response to warranty requests.
  9. Prototype, Prototype, Prototype One third of the exhibits will be bought “off the shelf”, leaving two thirds that will either be original to the science center or modified “off the shelf”.  Some of the original exhibits will be from artists, some will be built by the selected  fabricator and some will be modified “off the shelf” that will be modified by the original vendor.  Start a list of the exhibits to be prototyped and group them by type.  Create a relationship with a local Art museum, library, middle school or college and prototype the exhibits there.  Test the exhibits with the public and evaluate the responses and modify the exhibits according to the evaluation.  
  10. Install, Open and Archive Installation, opening and archiving is part of the design process.  During installation there will be lots of small (and maybe large) decisions made; changes in exhibit placement, changes in lighting, changes in exhibit parts and all of those decisions need to be captured in “as built drawings”, maintenance manuals and archived for future changes and maintenance.

Be as transparent as possible.  Include others in the process and ask for feedback, use facebook, tweeter and a blog and include people in the process.

Funny isn’t it, only one of the ten steps even mentions drawings !  Drawings are not designs, drawings are the culmination of lots of research and thinking.  Some Science Centers such as the Exploratorium don’t even create drawings until after the exhibition has been prototyped and evaluated. The best exhibit designs happen through research, creativity, evaluation and luck.

Would love to hear comments about the ten steps above.  A future post will be the “10 steps to Project Managing the Opening of a Science Center.

Museum Planning

10 Steps to Starting a Museum

20 Comments 10 February 2011

Starting a museum or “How to start a museum in 10 steps”.   Since 1992, I have been part of opening and expanding more than thirty-five museums.   Most of my work has been with science centers, children’s museums and natural history museums.   Below is my list of the ten steps to starting a new museum or “How to start a museum”:

  1. One Page Description.  Write a one page description of the museum.  You can use my museum questionnaire as a starting point for your new museum description. What type of museum are you creating? science center?, Art museum? local history?  Then, purchase two books, “Please Understand Me” and “Built to Last” .  I am consistently surprised how the personality of the founder of a museum comes through in the opened museum.  It makes sense, the founder, builds a Board of Directors, the Board of Directors hires an Executive Director and the Executive Director hires staff.  We all tend to gravitate to people similar to us, so the personality of the founder is often similar to the staff of the museum 10 years latter.  Roy Shafer led a workshop I attended, where we were each given a personality test, before handing out the results of the test, he asked us to look to our left and to our right and notice the people sitting next to us.  We then opened the personality test and the entire room had organized ourselves according to our personality type.  Be very honest, “is your personality the personality you want reflected in the opened museum?”  If not, find Board Members to your weakness.
  2. Community Meeting.  The second step of starting a museum, organize a community meeting, invite politicians, “want to be politicians”, parents, teachers, school superintendents and real estate developers and ask “what type of museum do you want?”.  DO NOT show drawings of the proposed museum, DO NOT describe the museum you are planning.  Listen.  Collect the names and email addresses of the participants and ask if they would be willing to attend future meetings.   Do not fall into the trap of “if I build it they will come”, find out what the community wants.
  3. 20 Museums. As part of starting a museum, visit twenty museums of the type you are interested in opening.  Keep notes and take lots of pictures.  What is their yearly attendance?  What is their ticket price?  Find out their operating costs, the National Center for Charitable Statistics is a wonderful resource. Notice the smallest details, what does the floor staff wear? Ask to do a “back of house tour”, Do they have a museum store?  What type of ticketing system do they use?  Write a thank you note to any staff you meet during your visit.  Join a museum organization and get involved.  Go back to your community and show them the findings of your museum visits.
  4. Real Estate Developers are your friends.  Make an effort to meet the real estate developers in your community.  Every project of starting a museum, I have ever worked on has in some way been motivated by real estate.  Make friends with real estate developers, tell them of your museum idea.  You will be surprised how your plans will resonate with real estate developers.  You are supplying a community resource.  Do NOT make any agreements with real etstate developers until after you have raised more than half of your capital.
  5. Do the numbers.  Starting a museum is very expensive, as a rule of thumb, the exhibition space is half of the overall space, a 4500 exhibition space becomes a 9000 square ft building at $200 per square foot of new construction is $1.8 million dollars, plus approximately, $150 to fit out the gallery spaces, $675,000, total $2,475,000 in start up costs plus operating costs.  If you use an average of $40 per square ft for operating costs your yearly operating costs would be $360,000 (salaries, utilities, maintenance), not including an endowment.  Create a business plan, can you earn at least 50% of your yearly expenses?  Be conservative with your annual attendance figures.  Too many museums have gotten into trouble using optimistic attendance figures.  Attendance in the second and third year of a new museum can fall off 20%-30% (or more).  Plan to the third year of operation, too many museums only plan to the opening of the museum.  Plan to your third year, not to opening.
  6. Own the words.  Research all of the words that describe your planned museum, the more specific you can be, the better.  Use Google Analytics and purchase domains related to the words that describe the museum.  Create a name for the organization, be very specific; San Francisco Maritime Museum, Techniquest, San Mateo County History Museum.
  7. Non-Profit.  Up to this point there is no need to form an non-profit, it is an advantage to wait.  Get people involved, build a community around the museum need, then form the non profit.  The best museums are those that grow out of a community need.  Organize your Board of Directors.  Your Board should include, politicians, business people, investment experts, real estate developers, experts in the field of the museum, teachers, school superintendents and potential donors.  A larger Board of Directors (20-25 people) is fine while you are raising funds.  Form a 501(c)(3) .
  8. Pre-View Facility.  As part of starting a museum, create a preview facility, a smaller version of your yet to be opened museum.  The preview facility may be very small and only temporary.  The preview facility is great for talking with potential donors, now you can walk donors through a small version of the final museum.  Speak to architects and exhibition designers.  Tell them of your plans, select an architect and an exhibition designer, tell them “we have limited resources at this point, but if you help us with the preview facility (pay them a reduced fee) you will have the contract for the museum”.
  9. Raise Money. Use the Board of Directors.  A favorite story of mine is an Executive Director needed $500,000 for a new exhibition, he called a meeting and said to the Board of Directors “I need $500,000, each of you either needs to contribute $25,000 or find someone who will contribute $25,000.”  at the end of the meeting a Board member wrote a check for the full $500,000.  For more information read my article “Museum Fundraising”
  10. Share the Vision.  The best fund raising tools I know of starting a museum:; a preview facility, an icon (The Discovery Science Center Cube, The world’s largest  Brachiosaurus at the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis), and a museum preview booklet (including architectural illustrations and exhibition illustrations).  As you start the design process walk potential donors through the preview facility (with museum preview booklet in hand) and discuss with them potential icons of the facility, your exhibition plans and involve the donors with the building architecture and exhibition design.  Try not to make any promises for naming opportunities until you are confident that you will reach your capital campaign goals.

For more information about starting a museum read my articles,   “Museum Exhibition Design” and  “Museum Fundraising”

Museum Planning, Starting A New Museum

Hub Museum

3 Comments 10 January 2011

Hub Museum

There are approximately 17,000 museums in the United States.  That number includes Science Centers, Natural History Museums, Art Museums, Local History and Children’s Museums.

In March 2010 I returned from a year in Asia.  As with any good trip, I had lots of time for reflection and the advantage of perspective; being on the other side of the world does that.  While sitting in my hotel in Bangkok, I started thinking of all of the museums all over the world and the current economy.  My first thought was, “How can they all survive?”.  The easy answer is “they won’t survive”.

The museum world is in a time of transition.   When I started working in museums in the 1980’s, it was the time of Reaganomics.  Up to then, museums were either donor-,  state-,or federally-funded institutions without much public input.  Reagan put an end to that and demanded that museums needed to change and look to corporations and individuals for funding.  At the time museum professionals were outraged. Museums were the “source” of content;  no one should interfere with the purity of the museum’s objectivity.  Looking back, this was a turning point for museums. Museums went from inward-facing institutions to being forced to ask for donations and the involvement of others.  It was painful, but the result is we have public-serving institutions.

I believe we are at a similar turning point.  Museums live and die by attendance figures: if you can’t drive attendance, you can’t keep the doors open.  Depending on the institution, only about 50% of the revenue comes from admission, the remainder comes from museum rentals, store sales, donations, grants, memberships, state and federal funding.  Donors want to know how many visitors their donations will be affecting.  For most museums, attendance is down; people are cutting back on discretionary spending.  With less state and federal monies available, museums are faced with tough decisions.

To address the need for new and additional funding sources many larger institutions (1) learned to drive attendance through “special exhibitions” and started to outsource exhibition design and fabrication.  Starting in the 1970’s with the “Tut” exhibition, museums learned you could drive attendance with “blockbuster” exhibitions, becoming a main model for increasing visitorship over the last 30 years.  Additionally, many museums, large and small, had in-house exhibition staff to design and build exhibitions.  With the downturn of the 1990’s, many began to dis-band their in-house departments and began contracting with design and fabrication firms for production of traveling exhibitions as a cost-saving option.

Today, museums have increased competition from other sources for destination dollars.  Movies, amusement parks, and themed restaurants are competing in the same field as museums.  Donors see shrinking attendance, are unsure of their own futures and are more reluctant to donate.

When I was working at Discovery Science Center in 1996, we visited ten science centers throughout the United States.  On the flight back, a board member said to me, “You know nobody travels to other science centers.  People only visit the science center near them or maybe visit a science center while on vacation.  Why don’t we find the best exhibits and buy them for our science center?”.  In 1996 it was a new model buying exhibits to start a science center; now it is the norm.

During the early 2000’s, museums were being built at a furious pace, with a race to build the biggest.  Many of them failed, closed, or became other institutions.  One result of this was an increasing awareness that museums are community resources.  Although tourists help with attendance, they are only a small percentage of overall museum visitorship.  Most museum visitors are local visitors looking for weekend and daytime activities.  The secret to being a successful museum is being flexible and visitor focused.  A small institution often has an easier to keep visitor focus.

Donor contributions are shrinking.  The success of museums is built on attendance. Smaller museums are more flexible.  Museums don’t have the resources to “renew” themselves every three months. What is the answer?

“What if”

What if, they “traded” exhibits and programs every three months?   An online “hub” of museums could provide a forum for museums to share content and make arrangements to “borrow” each other’s exhibitions.  In many ways this is already happening vis-a-vis traveling exhibitions; museums rent each others exhibitions.  What is lacking is a “network” for collaboration for sharing of content (2).

What if there was a place where parents, teachers, scientists,museum professionals, artists, students and experts could all share ideas both on the internet and in person?  The “Hub Museum” is such a place.

The Hub Museum is not one museum but a new model of a partnership of connected museums. Instead of a children’s museum, natural history museum, an Art Museum, a Science Center, the Hub Museum is all of them! Museums live through attendance and attendance is driven by new programs and exhibitions. The Hub Museum changes every three months into a new place and the exhibitions are rotated through all of the fellow hub museums.

Teachers, parents, scientists,museum professionals, artists, students and experts all gather online at “The Hub” portal. Teachers can share lesson plans and review science standards and curriculum.  Parents can view lesson plans and curriculum. Scientists can answer questions of students.  “Citizen scientists” can earn “expert” points by answering questions. Students can ask questions and learn from one another and experts. The online presence is fun and relaxed, although the content is in line with California Science Standards and National Curriculum. The Hub Museum portal is a shared online community amongst museums, parents, teachers, scientists, experts and most importantly students.

Museums become the hub for in-person activities.   Instead of museums trying to individually create exhibitions, they are created through a network of museums all working to the same educational standards and curriculum. Instead of each museum working to separate standards and curriculum (but standards & curriculum are unique to each state – that would help give relevance, but it’s also “thinking in the box” the curriculum of the schools is shared by the museums and museums work in partnership with one another to design and build exhibitions.

Exhibitions are then shared amongst museums, so museums are always changing. Superintendents of schools, teachers and students are aware of the educational content before they visit the museum.
Still the museum is serving a different role than the school, the museum is an informal place for exploration and discovery related to the formal education at school.

Instead of the typical museum approach of hiring a “world class architect, hiring a ”world class exhibit designer”, the “Hub Museum” approach, is:
• A “Hub of content” for the museum
• Open Source content:  the museum’s content and programs are shared and available for teachers and parents
• Collaborative: the exhibits, exhibit content and programs are shared by several institutions
• Exhibit spaces are easily changeable
• Dynamic:  the visitor spaces change every three months
• Transparent :  the planning of the institution is shared and available to the community
• The Hub Museum will be an amalgam of museums; a Children’s Museum, Science Center, Natural History and Art Museum
• Shared Curriculum
• Transparency
• Museums curate their content from the “Hub Museum Network”

To make this all work the “Hub Museum” is governed by a panel of advisers who over see the content and direction of Hub Museums.  Advisers to include:

  • Museum Directors
  • Educators
  • Scientists
  • Artists
  • Business Leaders
  • Journalists

All content is open source.  Users agree to adhere to guidelines similar to open source software, each user can build upon another’s content, but only owns his/her content.  Using the open source software model “users own their branch, but not the tree trunk”.

The business model, of “The Hub Museum” website is for profit.  Two possible business models are being explored, one is users pay a 5% or 10% fee to “The Hub Museum” , using a similar model as guru.com or ebay.com.  A second business model is the site is supported through advertising.  Both options are being explored.

The desired result is a revitalization of museums.  Museums currently don’t value their own content and often give it way.  In this new model, museums and the visitor benefit from more agile and engaging educational experiences and museums could have a new revenue source.

What do you think?

(1) When speaking of “museums”, referring to all types of museums, including science centers, children’s museums, natural history museums and Art museums
(2) When referring to content; referring to exhibits, exhibitions, programs, staff training, teacher training and museum research

Museum Planning

What is Museum Master Planning?

2 Comments 20 May 2009

Museum Master Planning is the creation of documents to describe a new museum’s vision, the visitor experience and an organizational plan for the new institution.

Museum Master Planning includes:

  1. A review of institutional assets and collections
  2. A review of local attractions and museums
  3. Educational objectives of the new institution
  4. Experience objectives of the new institution
  5. Exhibition story line
  6. Visitor flow diagrams
  7. Thematic treatments
  8. Preliminary exhibition layout
  9. Style Boards
  10. Exhibition Renderings
  11. Preliminary staffing plan
  12. Preliminary project schedule
  13. Preliminary project budget

Museum Master Planning is created by a museum planning team, that include; museum staff and volunteers, members of the board of directors, a museum planner and representatives of city and state planning agencies.

The objective of  Museum Master Planning is to create a clear and concise “road map” for the creation of new institution and a sustainable long term museum vision.



museumplanner.org is run by Mark Walhimer, Managing Partner of Museum Planning, LLC an exhibition design and museum planning company.

Mark is available for consultations. Feel free to contact him using our contact form.

Download Brochure

© 2014 - Museum Planning, LLC, All Rights Reserved