Report from the 2012 AAAM Conference in Baltimore

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Last week I attended the Association of African American Museums conference along with two hundred other people from across the country.  I’d never attended before but since it was close by in Baltimore, I decided to take a chance and it turned out to both educational and fun.  Although I only attended one day, I’d like to share some of the highlights from the sessions I observed.

In “Understanding Exhibition Design and Planning“, the panelists all stressed the importance of pre-design, which includes determining which spaces will be devoted to exhibits, visiting other exhibits to clarify what you like (and don’t like), conducting visitor research, identifying potential artifacts and images, roughing out a budget and schedule (is the exhibit feasible?), and determining the maintenance costs.  The Harpers Ferry Center of NPS offers an exhibit planning template for FileMaker Pro.  The panel also provided a rough estimates of exhibition costs for design and fabrication:

  • $150-250/sf: 2D items, graphics, pedestals for 3D objects, little to no media.
  • $250-350/sf: 3D object displays, more extensive use of graphics, some media elements
  • $350-500+/sf: custom cases, media, electromechanical interactives, theatrical lighting/projectors.

They stress that costs could be lower, but it will then rely heavily on reusing ideas or elements from earlier exhibits or projects.  The panelists also believed that better designs are the result of longer development schedules, not more money.  More time allows for more iterations of designs to refine ideas.  Finally, for new buildings, they suggest that exhibit designers be brought in early to the process because they help program the space because they tend to “design from the inside out”–but that will require that the architect is willing to collaborate.  For a copy of the PowerPoint presentation, contact Chris Danemeyer at Proun Design.

Claudine Brown, the Assistant Secretary for Education and Access at the Smithsonian Institution, was the luncheon speaker.  She laid out the new interpretive direction for the Smithsonian and why they matter to museums, especially those that focus on African American history and culture.  The challenges facing the Smithsonian is that they need to preserve the evidence of the past, be relevant in the present, and be prepared for the future [and these are ideas all museums and historic sites can follow].  The three big topics the Smithsonian will be interpreting are:

  • Americans All: a shared experience as immigrants, everyone came from somewhere else, but all share a common country.
  • Waterways:  Water is a serious problem and its estimated that 2/3rds of the world will suffer water shortages by 2025.
  • Creativity and Innovation:  With our current high unemployment rates, museums can be part of the solution by providing learning opportunities that simulate real life and helping the next generation learn how to organize, strategize, and act.

The session on developing mobile applications was led by the Digital Humanities Center at Michigan State University, which maintains an online clearinghouse of mobile museum applications.  The session provided some estimated costs for producing various applications, as follows:

  • $0-?: mobile-ready website (creating a website that can be easily viewed on a smartphone; most common solution)
  • $5,000-$60,000:  native application (self-contained program that’s downloaded and works without an internet connection)

The session stressed that mobile applications rarely generate revenue–the average return on investment is $688 and takes 51 years–so look for other benefits to the institution.  It may be possible to generate revenues from after-market sales, such as an app that promotes a book, photoprints, music, and attendance at an event.  When I asked about the effectiveness of applications, the person sitting next to me suggested I look at #SocialMedia Daily, a blog that aggregates news about social media and apps.