Museum L-A

Located in Lewiston, Maine this lovely musuem features the story of work and community from the past and to the present.  The exhibition experience takes guests back in time and it highlights the local history during the Industrial Revolution with a focus on the Bates Mill historic district.  The contributions of local workers–many of whom were immigrants–are also featured and celebrated throughout the exhibits.

**collections item back of house, not on current display**

Currently residing in the historical buildings of the former Bates Mill complex artifacts from the textile, shoe and brick industries can be seen up close and unobstructed.  Huge silkscreens, shoe lathes, and giant looms line the exhibit floor.  Many of which are truly works of art in their own right.  While these collections items now are sitting in silence where once the sounds of the factory was deafening and the heat nearly intolerable, they echo stories of a time and place.

Today the region is vibrant and the integration of cultures continues in the community just as it did during the Bates Mill heyday.  Plans for a new location and exhibit experience are underway for the Musuem L-A.  This is one to watch for—plans are big and the stories even bigger.

#batesmill #museumLA #museumexhbitiondesign #museums #interpretivedesign


Case Study on Co-Creation and Crowd Sourcing: History Unfolded

Case Study on Co-Creation and Crowd Sourcing: History Unfolded
See the site!

Project Description 

History Unfolded is a project of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) in Washington, DC that focuses on answering the question: “what did American newspapers report about Nazi persecution during the 1930s and 1940s?” (About This Project).  To find answers, the USHMM utilizes crowd sourced content derived from archived newspapers.  Citizen historians perform the role of content developers and are cultivated from the participating public through a website.  Armed with straightforward instructions they collect primary source content that is submitted to USHMM via a website portal.  The data will, in turn, inform the exhibition development process of a new exhibit that is planned to open in 2018 featuring Americans and the Holocaust (About This Project).

Using a website and linked social media pages, History Unfolded invites the interested participants to become citizen historians by introducing 32 specific topics on Holocaust-era events, all of which are available for research.  Primary research on the topic follows, using newspaper archives to find evidence of reporting in the United States. Tools are provided to help participants learn how to locate archived newspapers, conduct primary research, and download articles, cartoons and more.  As content is located and submitted, USHMM staff review it for accuracy and when approved, upload it to a growing website data bank for the public.

Critical Assessment

History Unfolded  has effectively and successfully gathered content on all 32 featured topics and engaged participants in the United States from all 50 states, amassing a sizable body of content. “As of September 30, 2017, 1,799 participants from across the country had submitted more than 12,200 articles from their local newspapers. The articles were published in newspapers located in all 50 states and the District of Columbia…” (About This Project).

Becoming a citizen historian is relatively easy, offers a greater sense of the world around us and, offers a robust interaction with the USHMM.  I became a citizen historian, locating research and submitting an article around the topic: Hitler announces Nuremberg Race Laws, September 15, 1935. This process of adding research to crowd sourced content can make one feel they are part of an expanded community; a community that is around the USHMM.  Some like Karlene Hanko might say this is success. She wrote in What Makes a Great Museum Experience and How Technology Can Help: “the museum is less about filling in the gaps in their current understanding and more about having their sense of the world reshaped and expanded” (Hanko).  Kathleen McClean in Letting Go? Sharing Historical Authority in a User-Generated World describes true interaction as “an exchange of some sort, a reciprocity that creates new knowledge and insights” which in turn, develops “a conversation… which can help museums create more meaningful relationships with their visitors” (McClean, 70). History Unfolded has created true interaction as it engenders new knowledge and insights for the citizen historians.

The USHMM is seemingly making excellent strides to crowd source content and in turn allow true participation in exhibition development.  It will remain interesting to see how this content will shape the final exhibition when it opens in 2018.  Will this exhibition—one that surely engaged its public in the planning process—know its public so well that it does a better job engaging the visiting public? Daniel Spock in “Museum Authority Up for Grabs” suggests it might, when he said: “To engage the public is to know the public” (Spock, 8).

History Unfolded is creating relevance for participants through numerous intersections: topical, geographical, cultural and more.  Nina Simon, in The Art of Relevance, shares: “Relevance is a key that unlocks meaning.  It opens doors to experiences that matter to us, surprise us, and bring value into our lives (Simon, 25).  Bronx High School of Science student Audrey Lang shares on the website the impact the project had on her when she said “part of why this was interesting to me is I am Jewish…. and, once I was doing research myself on questions, I started asking my grandparents those questions and it was really interesting what I was able to find out and had never really thought to ask before” (Starting Conversations).

Engagement in this project is limited to a participant public who has the means and access to conduct primary research.  This suggests that those who are doing this research represent an advantaged segment of the public and not the general public.   Access to online newspaper archives can cost a fee, is generally harder to access online for the general public (rather than a college or public school student) or, requires transportation to nearby libraries. This may create a bias in who participates in the study.

Participation requires a working understanding of the Holocaust.  Novices or younger people may not have the perspective to fully appreciate the 32 topics.  Similarly, those who participate through a class where involvement is required may be researching content that is not truly reflective of personal interest or relevance and instead, directed to fit curriculum.  USHMM should cautiously make assumptions when making inferences about what people seek for content relative to what topics were researched.

Opportunities for Improved Engagement and Relevancy 

Spock states, “if you invite people to really participate in the making of a museum, the process must change the museum” (Spock, 6). Given this, History Unfolded may wisely choose to allow all content accepted by USHMM to not only exist in the website data bank but to also become clearly integrated within the new exhibition.  This will showcase the impact which participating people had upon the museum’s end product and in turn, promote the development of a narrative that the USHMM’s public are shapers of the products (or exhibitions).

On a broader note, History Unfolded can expand its relevancy by connecting historic events and media reporting through World War II (WWII) to that of today.  The contemporary pubic is bombarded by television reporting, newspapers, and social media that includes Twitter, Facebook and more.  How does media shape our thinking about events? How does reporting in WWII share similarities or differences with reporting on issues today? From modern day propaganda to our President using Twitter to share content unfiltered content, Facebook to newspaper reporting, there are many opportunities for USHMM to explore this untapped area of relevance and meaning-making between the 32 holocaust-era events and today. Creating more relevancy through this lens of a t”hen-now perspective” the USHMM may connect to an even broader audience.


History Unfolded is an innovative project doing many things exceptionally well around audience engagement, relevancy, interaction and more.  While there are areas of concern such as the real issue that citizen historians will represent a advantaged population and not a general population and, that it could broaden its framework for creating relevancy through then-now parallels in media coverage, it is a project of note.  For those museums looking for engagement, relevancy and community connections, this project is exemplifying best practices on many levels.

Works Cited

“About This Project.” History Unfolded, US Newspapers and The Holocaust, Accessed 25 September 2017.

“Events.” History Unfolded, US Newspapers and The Holocaust, Accessed 25 September 2017.

Hanko, Karlene, et al. What Makes a Great Museum Experience and How Can Technology Help? Slover Linett/ The Field Museum.  2014.

McLean, Kathleen. “Whose Questions, Whose Conversations?”  Letting Go? Sharing Historical   Authority in a User-Generated World. Ed. Bill Adair. Bill Adair Paperback. 2011. 70-81.

Simon, Nina. The Art of Relevance. Museum 2.0. 2016.

Spock, Daniel. “Museum Authority up for Grabs.” Exhibitionist. Fall, 2009.  6-10.

“Starting Conversations.” History Unfolded, US Newspapers and The Holocaust,  Accessed 25 September 2017.

Exhibition Review: MIT Museum’s Big Bang Data


MIT Museum’s Big Bang Data, A Traveling Exhibition

IMG_0300Introduction: Project Description

On exhibit through March of 2018 at the MIT Museum in Cambridge, Massachusetts is the traveling exhibition Big Bang Data. It “explores the intersections of culture, technology, and society in the digital age” (Big Bang Data).  More simply stated, it looks at how we create, visualize and use trillions of data points that reside in the global data cloud to inform and shape our lives. It is a clever blending of scientific data analysis and a series of playful art installations that explore our data-driven world. The experience unfolds through a sequence of thematic zones, each honing in on specific areas of data visualization and offering relevant connections for visitors through environmental installations, interpretive copy, graphics, objects, interactive digital media, oral histories, audio, and art.  As a whole it offers inroads for engagement and meaning-making around an abstract topic—data creation, utilization and visualization—with a varying degree of effectiveness.

An Unconventional Exhibition

Placing data at the center of an exhibition narrative is an unusual content focus making for an unconventional exhibition. It is a broad topic, somewhat intangible, and constantly changing and evolving.  It is not a narrative that most visitors are likely thinking about.  This creates a challenge in bridging the gap between those curating the content and the visiting public. Curators are deeply steeped in it while the visitors are not. As Nina Simon states in the Art of Relevance:  “There are two kinds of people in the world of relevance:  outsiders and insiders. Insiders are in the room.  They know it, love it, protect it.  Outsiders don’t know your doors exist.  They are uninterested, unsure, unwelcome.  If you want new people to come inside, you need to open new doors—doors that speak to outsiders—and welcome them in”  (Simon, 49).  Big Bang Data opens the doors and expands its relevancy by engaging visitors in thinking about how each of us personally add data through our cultural and social digital interactions, what we can learn from data, and how our private data points can be used to surveil or, profile us.

Critical Assessment: What works, what does not.

It works! Art in the context of sciencIMG_0338
Set in a science exhibition at a science museum is art installed as part of Big Bang Data. At the MIT Museum, this works.  It opens relevancy doors for some visitors and broadens the appeal to a larger audience. In “Visualizing Data,” one of the thematic zones, is an artful installation.  It consists of a series of globes, each illuminated to cast an etherial, magical glow.  Printed on the globes are different graphical expressions of data about different topics.  These included, in part: total number of billionaires per country, which countries have remained free of war/conflict since World War II, the total population behind bars.  The art installation created by the globes was the engaging medium—the hook for visitors—that made conveying the associated content easier. The content was then visualized through the graphics on the globes, fed in small, digestible morsels that did not overwhelm but instead, left visitors looking for more. Unfortunate was the lack of forethought in planning the location of  the text and key to the globes and the design of passageways too narrow for many and which certainly might challenge the laws of accessibility.

It works! Seeing ourselves in the story: relevancy
Big Bang Data is making excellent strides to engage guests in an abstract topic.  Visiting with my college-going son, we began our visit unclear as to the intellectual underpinning of the exhibition yet, we ended the visit with clarity.  More importantly, we saw ourselves in the content—from how we are part of a society obsessively quantifying ourselves on social media to how that same data is utilized to envision the future.  Thematic zones were arranged around provocative topics, adding to the allure of the narrative.
A simple and static display of one man’s yearly “annual report” was surprisingly engaging.  There was no opportunity for interactivity, just a look at the printed reports that visualized the quantification of one man’s life. The relevancy door was opened again. As visitors read how far the author walked, how many countries he travelled, hours he slept it is easy to become curious about what that visualization of our own lives might look like.

Other opportunities for engagement were created around similarly benign data. Quirky data collection tools like cat-tracking GPS devices to fit-bits and even electronic diet forks that monitor the number of bites one takes, are the real-life examples of the nearly constant data collection which often goes on unknowingly.  It engages each of us in a consideration of how our unwitting uploads to social media reveal what we are thinking and doing which in turn, reveals our life’s patterns to readers of our data diaries.

Broken exhibits, complex content, minimal visitor comforts:  a recipe for what does not workIMG_0321
Interactive touch screens dominate some exhibit zones yet, most are broken—a notorious frustration for guests.  The functioning touch screens are very complex and uses text in a writing style that is far different from wall text, written at a higher reading level, and leaves guests feeling it was over their head.  Gail Gregg aptly noted that writing above visitors’ comfort level is problematic:  “visitors who feel bored, overwhelmed, confused, or stupid are unlikely to return” (Your Labels Make Me Feel Stupid).  While exhibit wall text was engaging and easy to understand, the divergence in how language is used—in both a written and spoken form—within the digital media creates a real problem.  Beverly Serrell, the well-regarded guru of interpretive text, should have been heeded:  “writing clearly does not mean writing simplistically, but it does mean writing for people who are not experts in the subject” (Serrell 95).  Similarly, Ingrid Schaffner says: “Labels have the potential of art itself, to be sensual, smart, and experiential” (Wall Text).  Integrating the approach of both Serrell and Schaffner in all forms of communication would have increased the visitor access to the content.

Throughout the exhibition interactivity is limited.  There are few places to connect or touch the content. Environmental immersion provides a sense of emotional interactivity but, hands-on manipulation of data did not exist.  There is no place to leave a piece of oneself in the exhibition through a visualization of personal data; this could easily have added to the narrative.

Circulation spaces are narrow and the elbow room between exhibits non-existent.  Very few places for sitting is offered.  Audio is available as a part of looping media but other options for hearing impaired were not available.  There are no accommodations for vision impaired guests.   Layered learning was at a minimum and although there was a clear differentiation between label copy and touchscreen copy in reading level, the delta was huge.IMG_0416

How this might have changed the museum, its reputation, or its audience?

While blending art and science is not a revolutionary concept, this interplay is not common at the MIT Museum.  It is easy to assume that this intersection of art, culture, technology and science is broadening its audience in correlation to this broadened content.   This might change its’ reputation.  Ahead is the challenge to keep the new audience coming back.

Conclusion: What are the lessons for the field?

Remember Relevancy
Big Bang Data hit the relevancy nail on the head. Nina Simon, in The Art of Relevance, shares: “Relevance is a key that unlocks meaning.  It opens doors to experiences that matter to us, surprise us, and bring value into our lives” (Simon, 25).   Linking the narrative and all of its content to our human behaviors made the abstract accessible. It personalized the exhibition.

Mix up the content silos
Cross the content boundaries.  In Big Bang Data, art, science, history and sociology are blended.  It took a highly intellectual content area and made an exhibit experience out of it. As Andrea Jones of Peak Experience Lab wrote: “Today’s audiences crave unique EXPERIENCES that have the ability to do much more than inform” (7 Reasons Why).

Remember Best Practices

Big Bang Data is an engaging and innovative project tackling unconventional content and creating relevancy and audience engagement to make sophisticated content accessible.  It connects guests to the unseen and makes is visible while offering historical introspection.  However, designers let their guard down when they made mistakes we know not to make:  using A/V hardware that breaks, showcasing content that is overly complex, offering minimal visitor comforts, and providing limited interactivity.

Works Cited

“Big Bang Data”. MIT Museum,  Accessed
November 1, 2017.

Serrell, Beverly. Exhibit Labels. AltaMira Press. 95.

“7 Reasons Why Museums Should Share More Experiences Less Information”. Peak Experience Lab, should-share-more-experiences-less-information. Accessed November 1, 2017.

Simon, Nina. The Art of Relevance. Museum 2.0. 2016. 49.

“Wall Text”. Ingrid Schaffner, Accessed November 4, 2017.

“Your Labels Make Me Feel Stupid”. Art News, labels-make-me-feel-stupid/. Accessed November 1, 2017.











Interpretive Planning: what, why and how to do it!

cropped-d8990eba-9565-4a9a-a35e-e9518e7729c6-1.jpgJust what IS an Interpretive Plan?

Interpretive plans are for informal learning institutions and serve as a guide for the development of a visitor experience through the definition of major communication goals.  They should connect and guide all aspects of a museum—from exhibitions to programs, classes to marketing, all functions should embrace the interpretive plan and work cohesively and collaboratively to facilitate its realization.

Visitors experiences are the outgrowth of an interpretive plan. It is the expression of the plan—as if the words on the pages of the plan are brought to life.  Visitor experiences are composed of many different things: reading labels, buying a membership,  walking up a stair case, observing a performance, taking a museum class, visiting an exhibition, studying art on a wall.  Some of these things may not be traditionally imagined as experiential moments, they are. Each work toward the crescendo of communicating the interpretive goals defined in the plan.  This makes up the collective visitor experience which communicates the goals of the interpretive plan.

Interpretive plans are commonly developed around thematic planning.  One might compare the interpretive goals as the preface for a book.  Thematic exhibit zones, educational classes, programs and events are the chapters in that same book.

Interpretive plans are living documents.  They are iterative.  Museums must change and can’t be static and so, the plans should be frequently revisited and when needed, adjusted.

What do others say about interpretive planning?
Freeman Tilden, the founding father of interpretive planning,  told us in his 1957 book Interpreting Our Heritage: “Through interpretation, understanding; through understanding, appreciation; through appreciation, protection” (Tilden 38).

The National Park Service today uses this definition: “Interpretive planning is a process that identifies and describes significant visitor experiences in a park, forest, zoo or other resource-based recreation area; and recommends ways to provide, encourage, sustain, facilitate or otherwise assist those experiences” (What Is It/NPS).

Why go through all the trouble and why conduct an Interpretive Plan?

Developing consensus around a long-range vision is key.  It helps the museum’s community track forward toward a common goal.  It ensures that the museum can remain sustainable by identifying how to be relevant in the local cultural landscape.  Perhaps above all, it ensures the museum is remaining committed toward excellence in visitor experience planning and interpretation techniques. In essence, it keeps the museum fresh.

Good interpretive planning ensures that key values and experiences are accessible to visitors and, it serves as a catalyst to facilitate experience and exhibition design that will meet the interpretive goals.

What is interpretation anyways?

While the interpretive plan is the museum’s framework—the scaffolding—that guides the museum community toward the fulfillment of common goals, interpretation itself is an action—it is a verb.  It reveals meaning, makes connections and creates relevance between the content and the visitor.

There are many techniques to make interpretation happen.  Every aspect of the visitor experience works toward its realization.  From the front door to the cafe, the exhibitions and the programs, it is all one holistic experience and should be conceived that way and, developed through a co-collaboration of educators, curators, designers and many others.

It is outdated and incorrect to think of interpretation as the text or copy on a wall.  Interpretation is so much more.  Emotional and cognitive experiences come together to communicate and create interpretive moments.  This, is fundamental.

How to initiate an interpretive planning project?

Start by assessing your needs.  This will help refine the scope of the planning effort, its schedule and the participants.

Assess your needs: Who is your audience, who are you planning for? 

For a new museum this is a harder question to answer.  Community focus groups, interviews and other forms of audience research can help gauge the community and help refine who you are planning for.

Established museums often better understand their audience. Yet, audiences change. The audience you knew seven years ago may not be the audience you have today.  The best audience research never ends.  It is on-going and iterative.  Perform some research and see who you are planning for!

Case study—defining an interpretive plan that responds to audience knowledge
Working with the Josiah Henson Visitor Center in 2013 EXP undertook interpretive planning by first asking who is the audience and what do they know about Henson?

Henson was enslaved at the site of the museum, a former plantation property, in the mid 1800s. For years it has operated as a house museum and was ready to add a visitor center.  Staff have operated under the impression that all visitors know Henson before they arrive and understand his role in American history.  In their view, his name is as well-know as George Washington.  EXP suspected this was not the case and, to bridge the gap between visitors and content, we should use a fairly well-known novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which was written as a fictionalized interpretation of Henson by Harriet Beecher Stowe. Some (like Abe Lincoln!) credit for sparking the Civil War with this book.   Determining where visitors are in their knowledge of Henson and his role in history would help us know the audience and develop an interpretive plan.

Audience research showed us that, in fact, the staff did not know their audience as well as they suspected and very few visitors knew the Henson story prior to the visitor while most had read or heard of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Audience research was vital in this case.  It informed us that Josiah Henson is not a household name.  Interpretation had to be framed to first explain who he was in the context of American history and then go from there.  (link here to a few pages from this interpretive plan)

Assess your needs: What results do you want from the interpretive plan?

Not all museums undertake interpretive planning for the same reason.  Some want to expand the annual visitation, modify the content in the exhibition, respond to a shift in collections policies or other reasons. Define what yours is.

Case study—re-framing the interpretation due to audience interests

In 2016 at the Berkshire Museum interpretive planning was undertaken to examine how to re-position the visitor experience.  As a first step, EXP conducted 400 interviews with community members (potential and actual visitors) and learned that the visitor experience was no longer compelling enough to be a top pick when planning a museum outing.  Different content and stories were desired than those offered in the museum.  Folks felt things were dated, while beloved.  The story was tired and needed a refresh and reframing. Without the benefit of audience research interpretive planning would be done in vain—with no real idea of what visitors wanted and needed.

(link here to a few pages from this interpretive plan)

Assess your needs: What results do you want from the interpretive plan?

No two interpretive plans are alike.  Some are very detailed, others involve pages of text and still some, have loads of preliminary exhibit ideas and drawings.

What is common to all is the following:

> a facilitated process that convenes stakeholders to discuss interpretive planning

> identification of best practices in interpretation that the museum would like to adhere to

> an open dialogue about messaging and guiding principles

> brainstorming about what exactly are the main messages and/or experiences the museum would like to reveal to the visiting public

> a written description of the main interpretive goals and how to achieve them

> a written and diagrammatic description of ways and means to achieve the main interpretive goals

> an assessment of current physical and organizational conditions as they relate to executing the interpretive plan

> description of the planned visitor experience, themes in the experience, and, the resources that may be drawn upon.

> vignette visualizations of what the experience might look like

Case study—Heritage Harbor Museum Interpretive plan

(link here to a few pages from this interpretive plan)

Assemble your team: Who should be and could be involved? 

The best plans are a co-creation of different participants.  No two museums have exactly the same resources or staff and so, there is no formula for who to bring to the table.  This is a guide:

> an experienced interpretive planner. This person should serve as the facilitator and lead. This one point person will write the final plan.

> exhibition designers. These are often part of the interpretive planning team.  At EXP we bring exhibition designers to the table, along with interpretive planners, to consider just how to tell the story?  These individuals might represent media, graphics, environments, landscape, or more.

> experts in the content.  Sometimes this is on the museum staff.

> content advisors.  Especially important when interpreting someone else’s story—like Native Americans.

> representatives of the visiting audience

> community stakeholders.

> members of the Board of Directors.

Not to be ignored
Do plan for fully integrated design teams.  Interpretative plans cannot be fully realized in design  if planning teams are diced up into silos.  The interpretive planning facilitator needs to have a strong voice in all aspects of museum planning in order to execute the plan.

Experience tells to avoid the following recipes for disaster and a disconnected final product:

> the architects plan the new building and circulation, the lobby, and the classrooms but never speaks to the interpretive planner, education staff, or exhibition designers.

> the exhibit designers plan the galleries but have no collaboration with the interpretive planner, education staff or the object curators.

> the interpretive planner writes the text but does not work hand-in-hand with the exhibit designer or the curator.

> interpretive plans are initiated without the opportunity for audience research

> the full community of the museum—-stakeholders, audience, staff, consultants, members—collaborate and iterate on the plan during the planning phase.

What should the final product look like?

Interpretive plans are the final outcome of the facilitated process that may extend a few months or rarely, years.  Interpretive plans provide a clear overarching goal or goals for a museum. It becomes the spirit of the museum from which layers of the museum are scaffolded onto.

Often interpretive plans identify exhibition themes to support the core interpretive goal.  Theme-based learning is an effective way to support, through exhibition, the primary interpretive goals.

“One purpose of working within a goal-driven frame- work is to make sure that consensus has been reached on the results to be achieved. Then discussion can focus on the best ways to achieve those results. This approach helps avoid the trap of automatically designing one’s favorite medium or program with-out considering desired outcomes” (What is it/ NPS 8).

Interpretive planning comprehen- sively analyzes all interpretive needs and determines a wide array of interpretive services, facilities, and programs to communicate in the most efficient and effective way the park’s purpose, significance, and themes. Interpretive planning is a goal- driven process that determines appropriate means to achieve desired visitor experi- ences and provide opportunities for audiences to form their own intellectual and emotional connections with meanings/significance inherent in the resources while protecting and preserving those resource

Themes should be complete thoughts; it is helpful to write them in complete sentences. Their emotional or evocative content can vary. However, to be effective, themes need not be Αgrabbers≅. Themes tell us what to interpret, not how. It is more the task of interpreters and media designers to make them compelling. (What is it/ NPS

Works Cited

What is it? Planning for Interpretation and Visitor Experience.  Accessed November 7, 2017.

Tilden, Freeman. Interpreting Our Heritage.  38.