Category Archives: Design

Period Rooms at a Modern University

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During a recent visit to Pittsburgh, I visited the Cathedral of Learning at the University of Pittsburgh.  At 535 feet, it’s the tallest university building in the nation and dominates the skyline east of downtown.  Despite its name, it’s more skyscraper than cathedral.  It’s also an historical and architectural landmark, built between 1926 and 1937 as an Art Deco “cake” with Gothic Revival “frosting.”  For those of us working at historic house museums, what’s most interesting are the Nationality Rooms, a series of 29 classrooms on the first and third floors designed and furnished to represent different nations and ethnicities.

The classrooms vary in size but each have Continue reading

AAM and NAI Announce Awards, but Few are Historic Sites

Walking Cinema of Gloucester HarborWalk

Walking Cinema of Gloucester HarborWalk

The American Alliance of Museums and the National Association for Interpretation announced their annual winners in various categories, from label writing to exhibits to publications to programs.  You’ll want to look at the entire list for inspiration, but I especially want to congratulate those people and organizations whose worked focused on historic sites, houses, and places (that’s the point of this blog).

The Media and Technology Professional Network of AAM presented Muse Awards for digital media to: Continue reading

An Exhibit that Teases You For a Closer Look

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I’ve just returned from Yellowstone National Park–the nation’s first–and while I have much to share on my experiences from my visit, I wanted to start with an exhibit that teases you to take a closer look.  In the new visitor education center at Old Faithful Geyser, you’ll find a diorama of a hot spring as the centerpiece of the exhibit gallery.  It would be easy to just point out the blue waters of the hot spring or the coyote nearby, but several flipbooks on the railing encourage you to “Look Closely” with the words, “Life abounds in Yellowstone’s hydrothermal areas.  How many things can you find here that are evidence of plants, animals, or other life?”  Rather than just put the answers on the next page, they first say, Continue reading

History Organizations Gathering Awards

The American Alliance of Museums announced the winners of its 2013 Museum Publications Design Competition, which identifies the best in graphic design in fifteen different categories.  This is a juried competition and we send our congratulations to all, but especially to (given the bias of this blog):

  • Drake Well Museum for their journal, Oilfield
  • Kentucky Historical Society for educational resources.
  • US Holocaust Memorial Museum for their 2011-12 annual report
  • Museum of Flight (Seattle) for their 2011 annual report
  • Museum of the City of New York for the journal, City Courant
  • National Archives for their Girl Scout Welcome Activity Badge Cards
  • Peabody Essex Museum for their members magazine, Connections
  • Peabody Essex Museum for invitations to the Cultural Conversation and Ansel Adams events
  • Peabody Essex Museum for educational resources
  • Shaker Museum (Mount Lebanon) for the 2012/13 annual journal

I love good design and I applaud all the winners.  One thing about design contests, however, is that they’re only about design Continue reading

Interpreting Bondage and Freedom in the Chesapeake

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Visiting Annapolis a few weeks ago, I had a chance to see the nearly completed installation of Freedom Bound: Runaways of the Chesapeake, a year-long exhibit about the resistance to servitude and slavery in the Chesapeake Bay region from the colonial period to the Civil War.  Heather Ersts and Ariane Hofstedt of the Historic Annapolis Foundation graciously provided a personal tour of the exhibit, which is installed in several museums and historic sites around the city.  It’s an exhibit worth seeing not only for the content, but also the design, and several items jumped out at me:

1.  The exhibit looks at the varied experiences of people through nine persons.  Seven of these persons were enslaved Africans, but two are white–a convict servant and an indentured servant–which will surprise most visitors.  It complicates the usual narrative that only Africans were held in bondage (of course, being owned as a slave is very different from being incarcerated as a convict) and it’s by encountering the unexpected that people are more likely to learn.  The typical exhibit about slavery trots out the same 1850 drawing of the slave ship Brooks, a pair of iron shackles, and perhaps a tag from Charleston.  Yes, those are all authentic and true, but the constant repeat of these items renders them Continue reading

Vinyl Banners that Look Sharp, not Saggy

The other week I passed by Anderson House and was so struck by their full-color monument signs that I had to take a closer look.  They’re the common vinyl banners that can be made by nearly every sign and banner store, but they were incredibly neat and clean–none of the usual sagging, wrinkling, and rippling.  Mounted across the top and bottom with Velcro onto a metal frame, the bottom corners of banners are also secured with bolts to keep them from flying away in the wind or easily taken by admiring thief.  The frame is made of square tubing, whose legs slide onto a corresponding set of tubes set in the ground.   Emily Schulz, the deputy director and curator, generously provided more details:

“We installed the banners on the front lawn in mid April 2012, so they’ve been up pretty much exactly one year.  They replaced a small sandwich board sign that was put out every morning and Continue reading

The Many Flavors of Touring Historic Places

Monticello Explorer provides several virtual tours.

Monticello Explorer provides several virtual tours.

Although guided tours of period rooms is the most common form of interpretation at historic sites, audio tours, video tours, and virtual tours are growing in popularity thanks to technologies that are lowering the cost of production and increasing access to new audiences.  From a short list of examples, the students in my “historic site interpretation” class at George Washington University developed a list of ten best practices for different types of tours of historic sites.  You’ll discover that many of their suggestions emphasize the need for a plan, themes, and a focus–and projects that failed to have these elements were weaker and less effective.

A.  Guided Tours of Period Rooms

Reviewed by Johanna Bakmas, Melissa Dagenais, Emma Dailey

Suggested Best Practices

  1. Develop an interpretive plan and themes
  2. Consult primary sources for the property
  3. Decide whether to have reproduction or original pieces Continue reading

Outdoor Interpretive Panel for Hot Humid Places

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During a recent visit to Middleton Place, an historic site in Charleston, South Carolina, I spotted an outdoor interpretive sign that’s so nicely crafted that it’s withstood several years of weathering outdoors.  The wooden frame supports a one-inch thick plywood panel (two thinner panels secured together) whose edges are sealed and entire surface painted black (black is Middleton’s standard color for sign posts).  The interpretive sign is printed on a 1/16″ thick sheet of vinyl (or a similar synthetic material) and glued onto the face of the panel.  The top edge of the sign is protected from rain by a copper cap. One corner of the vinyl has turned up over time, but otherwise, the sign seems to be in perfect condition, despite the heat and humidity of summer in the Lowcountry.

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.