Monday, February 18, 2013

Process: Collaborative Projects

Design is all about process, and that's especially true of large, long-term projects.  This semester, I'm taking Collaborative Projects, and we're working with the Grand Rapids Public Museum to create a traveling exhibit.
The first step in the our process was research.  On the first day of class, we went to the Van Andel Museum Center to take a tour of the public museum.  We walked around the whole museum, including the offices where exhibit pieces are planned and built, which was particularly interesting.  In my mind, tables and display blocks have always just been there, but everything has to be built for an exhibit, and it happens on-site.  We also had the chance to talk to curators about different parts of the museum.  Most of the exhibits at the public museum have been there for ten years or longer, except for traveling exhibits.  The curators felt that changing the long-term exhibits might entice people to visit the public museum, even if the traveling exhibit isn't something that they're interested in. The museum is primarily aimed at children, in part because the museum has a fair amount of visits from school groups.  The curators said that Michigan requires that students have a cultural experience in third, sixth, and ninth grades.  For many schools, that means they're going to send a class to the public museum.  If I remember correctly, the required cultural experience for my class in those grades was The Henry Ford, since I went to school in Metro Detroit.
The newest of their long-term exhibits is "Thank God for Michigan! Stories from the Civil War" which they put together about two years ago.  It seems like this exhibit is very successful, and it feels the most modern out of all their exhibits.  If I remember correctly, all the artifacts in the exhibit are from the public museum's collection. I don't know if there's a way to track this, but I'd like to know what percentage of artifacts on exhibit are owned by the museum, and what that's like for other museums. What I really want is a mountain of museum-related data to dissect.
I think that visiting the public museum showed us what their goals are and showed us a little about what they're already doing.  Also, they let us ride the carousel, which is an artifact in itself.
On the next day of class, we took a tour of the public museum archives.  The archives are in a fairly new building that's attached to the old public museum.  They have collections of all sorts of historic objects, including extensive collections of furniture and vacuums, and the archives of the Grand Rapids Press.  Also, they have a mummy.  Apparently the mummy was donated by someone who went to Egypt and just bought it, like a souvenir.
One thing that I found to be really interesting was the number of animals in the archives.  When the museum was much newer, the curators would go on expeditions to find animals for the museum.  I'm guessing that the museum used to have much more emphasis on natural history than it does now.  The museum also has numerous dioramas built in portable boxes. This used to be a part of the connection between the museum and area schools, the museum would allow teachers to borrow a diorama relating to what they were teaching at the time, like a miniature traveling exhibit.  The idea of a diorama as a teaching tool seems antiquated, but miniature traveling exhibits are worth considering.  What if replicas of artifacts were in various public areas, as an advertisement?  Doesn't the Louvre do something similar, like replicas of pieces of art in the metro?
There was also a collection of technology from the recent past.  These artifacts won't be on display anytime soon, but there's a bit of a mentality about curating for the future that's at play here.  I wouldn't have thought of technology as being something that museums need to have in their collections, but it really is relevant. In eighty years, the computers that were around when I was a kid will have their place in museums, just like cars from eighty years ago have a place in museums today.
For our research, we visited The Henry Ford Museum.  We were on a mission to see how different styles of exhibit worked for them, and see how people interacted with the exhibits.  The Henry Ford is a huge museum.  It's focused on history, with historic cars and machinery prominently featured in their collection.  Out of everything they have on display, my personal favorite is the Dymaxion House, with this exploded Eames chair coming in a close second.
 The museum almost feels like it's happening at different stages of exhibit design.  There's a large exhibit about various struggles for liberty in the United States, which links together American independence  abolition of slavery, women's suffrage, civil rights, and labor movements.  This exhibit feels modern and links together a variety of artifacts, and uses some interactive features.  The museum also has this exhibit about guns on display.  It's really just a bunch of guns in glass cases, with information at the bottom.  This is how I imagine an exhibit at the old Grand Rapids Public Museum to look, and the concept seems antiquated. There's nothing awful about it, but it feels very "meh".  This style of exhibit might have been effective thirty years ago, but now it just seems boring.
 One piece of an exhibit that we've discussed in class has been interaction.  There are a lot of types of interaction that can happen with an exhibit, and one of them is a takeaway - a part of the exhibit that comes home with you.  Near some of their exhibits, The Henry Ford has a raised plate with an image.  They put paper and crayons near this, and people can use the crayons to copy the image from the plate to their paper.  That's one kind of takeaway.  Another sort of takeaway is a souvenir, which The Henry Ford makes a little more interesting with this machine, which injection-molds a little plastic figurine right in front of the visitor.  It's an interesting idea for a takeaway that offers a little more than an object in a gift shop.

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