Category Archives: Design

Boston MFA takes Flight with New American Wing

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The Boston Museum of Fine Arts, one of the great public museums established just after the Civil War, has recently opened “Art of the Americas,” a new wing filled with its outstanding collections of American fine and decorative arts.  As some of you know, the Boston MFA underwent a controversial restructuring more than a decade ago, shifting from departments organized by media (e.g., paintings, ceramics, furniture) to geography (e.g., Europe, Asia, and America) and firing some longtime curators (including Jonathan Fairbanks, who created the American Decorative Arts and Sculpture department at the MFA).  I’m assuming one of the results of this restructuring is “Art of the Americas.”  This four-story exhibit consists of 53 galleries tracing the history of art from pre-Columbian to Modern periods for the continents of North and South America, so along with the expected Chippendale chairs and Copley portraits, there are Peruvian funerary urns and Acoma pots.  It’s so large that it took me nearly three hours just to cruise through it at a walking pace and I didn’t make it to the fourth floor, which explored the 20th century.

Unlike most art museums, the exhibit mixes Continue reading

Flexible Lobby Thanks to Furniture on Wheels

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During a recent visit to the Abbe Museum in Bar Harbor, Maine, I spotted a clever way that allows them to easily remodel their lobby from a visitor reception area to an event space.  You don’t notice it at first because the furniture is so well designed and complements the appearance of the building.  The reception desk is busy selling tickets and greeting visitors, and next to it are panels explaining what to see and do.  But look below or behind, and you discover it’s not a panel but a moveable storage wall.  Clever!

2012 Webby Awards Point Out Models for Historic Sites

Historic sites are always looking for good models for online activities, such as websites and mobile applications, and one of the best places to look for inspiration is the annual Webby Awards, the leading international award honoring excellence on the Internet. Established in 1996 during the Web’s infancy, the Webbys are presented by the International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences.

The 2012 Webby Awards received nearly 10,000 entries from over 60 countries and all 50 states and awards were given in over a hundred categories for website, interactive advertising and media, online film and video, and mobile and apps. As a result, there is a lot to cull through but here are several that seem to be most related to historic sites (and hang on, this is a long list):

  • NPS’ Civil War: 150 Years features a Then and Now Timeline at the top and a Civil War Reporter sending tweets at the bottom.

    The Civil War: 150 Years has the form and content of websites that will be most familiar to historic sites, except that it commemorates “a defining event in our nation’s history and its legacy in the continuing fight for civil rights” rather than a specific place.  I like their use of Twitter to create a virtual “Civil War Reporter” whose tweets report on events from the 1860s but the major innovation is the featured Then and Now Timeline that compares similar events during the Civil War and today (although I was only able to jump months, not years).  Another way to compare the past and the present is demonstrated by Slavery Footprint, a website and mobile app that was launched on the 149th anniversary of the announcement of the Emancipation Proclamation.  It’s designed to raise awareness of modern-day slavery and can tell you approximately how many slaves have pitched in to make the goods you enjoy on a daily basis.

  • Timelines appeared in several other forms in the winning entries and along with the Then and Now version is Continue reading

Details on the new National Museum of African American History and Culture

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Yesterday I joined a meeting of the curatorial and education staff at the National Museum of African American History and Culture to discuss a potential partnership with Drayton Hall, and it was great to see again Rex Ellis, Debbie Mack, Bill Pretzer, and Michele Gates Moresi as well as meet so many of the other staff who are working to make this new museum a reality.  The museum recently broke ground on the Mall in Washington, DC and is scheduled to open in 2015.

While I was there, I spied a three-dimensional model of the new museum in the lobby and it thought I’d share some photos to give you a close up of the design (and sorry for the reflections–it’s in a vitrine near a big window).  Freelon Adjaye Bond/SmithGroup, a consortium of four independent architectural firms that designed the building, laid out this vision: Continue reading

Attractive Outdoor Interpretive Panels are Possible at a Bargain Price

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James Madison’s Montpelier in Virginia sports some very attractive interpretive signs that looked so good, I had to figure out how they were made. With a bit of prodding and poking, I discovered they were printed plastic attached with Velcro to a sturdy wooden frame.  Very clever!  The signs are great looking even after a couple years outside.

Peggy Vaughan, Vice President of Communications and Visitor Services, generously shared that the three signs cost about $900 total:  $90 for each 30″x 40″ PVC sign and $210 for each base. The content, design, and bases were created in-house (yes, Montpelier is fortunate to have a graphic designer and master carpenters on staff) and the signs were printed by FedEx Office (formerly Kinkos). This sign was created using Adobe Indesign, saved as a pdf, and printed directly on PVC–the image isn’t as sharp but they last longer outdoors than the alternative method of laminating a printed image onto PVC. Peggy said that, “The big advantage to these signs for us was that they are relatively cheap, and because everything around here is always changing, we did not want to spend $2,000 on a proper museum sign, as we had in the past, that would be out of date before it wore out. And, frankly, even if things don’t change at your museum, your messaging should change from time-to-time to keep up, don’t you think?”

If you’re looking for more ideas for signs at historic sites, I’ve collected dozens of images from places around the world—good, bad, and ugly—on several web albums.  Please note that one sign may serve several purposes (e.g., directional AND identification), so look in other categories, too.

Identification Signs

Directional and Wayfinding Signs

Informational Signs

HBR: What Virals Ads can Tell Us About Engaging Visitors

Evian's Roller Babies commercial demonstrates what makes an ad go viral.

The March 2012 issue of the Harvard Business Review focuses on U. S. business competitiveness in the world and won’t interest most readers of, however, there are a few smaller stories scattered around that are relevant.  Thales Texiera’s article on “The New Science of Viral Ads” lays out five techniques that encourage people to watch and share their commercials (in other words, “go viral”) and I’ve modified three of them to address the needs of visitors at historic sites:

  • Play down the logo, play up the brand.  If your logo is too dominant or intrusive, visitors will be turned off by this obvious attempt to manipulate them.  A few places are fine and expected (e.g. letterhead, entrance sign, mugs in the store) but I’ve visited sites where a logo is on every sign, including the one pointing to the bathroom.  It may make your board happy, but it’ll turn off your visitors.  Instead, unobtrusively weave your brand (not logo) throughout the visitor experience.  Texiera uses Coca-Cola’s “Happiness Factory” ad as an example (how was the Coca-Cola logo used?).
  • Create joy and surprise right away.  Visitors stay engaged in large part if they encounter joy or surprise.  So in tours, for example, add an element of joy or surprise into the introduction rather than saving it only for the conclusion.  Each site will need to figure this out for themselves, but it can be a surprising fact or an earnest welcome. Bud Light’s “Swear Jar” ad is an example of delivering humor and surprise to maintain viewers’ interest (and just a warning, this ad may offend some people and because it promotes the drinking of alcohol, you’ll need to register as an adult on YouTube to view it).
  • Build an emotional roller coaster.  Just as in a good novel, the rhythm or flow helps carry the visitor along and keeps them engaged with fresh twists and turns.  Tours too often are presented as just one fact/object/room after another.  Instead of building a tour solely on cognitive elements (e.g. facts, names, and dates), integrate some affective ones (e.g., humor, surprise, suspense, drama, fun)–just make sure it’s appropriate, authentic, and based on fact.  Evian’s “Roller Babies” cuts between scenes for an emotional roller coaster of continual surprises.  With more than 50 million views on YouTube, it’s a major hit.

For more, read Thales Texiera’s article on “The New Science of Viral Ads” online or watch the five-minute interview that accompanies the story.

For Lovers of New England: A Week on the Road in June

Discover the rich history of the region with Historic New England’s Program in New England Studies, an intensive week-long exploration of New England from Monday, June 18 to Saturday, June 23, 2012.  The Program in New England Studies includes lectures by noted curators and architectural historians, hands-on workshops, behind-the-scenes tours, and special access to historic house museums and museum collections. The program examines New England history and material culture from the seventeenth century through the Colonial Revival. Curators lecture on furniture, textiles, ceramics, art, and wallpaper and cover their history, craftsmanship, and changing methods of production. Architectural historians explore a timeline of regional architecture starting with the Massachusetts Bay styles of the seventeenth century through the Federal and Georgian eras, to Gothic Revival and the Colonial Revival. Participants visit historic sites and museums with curators and enjoy special receptions.

Expert lecturers include:

  • Richard Candee, professor emeritus, Boston University
  • Cary Carson, retired vice president of the research division at Colonial Williamsburg
  • Abbott Lowell Cummings, former director, Historic New England Continue reading

Pine Point: Interpreting a Vanished Town

Pine Point, an interactive Web documentary by The Goggles.

Last week I had a chance to visit Bill Adair, director of the Heritage Philadelphia Program and one of the co-authors of the new book, Letting Go?:  Sharing Historical Authority in a User-Generated World.  As usual, we had a wide ranging discussion which included his interest in the work of The Goggles, an award-winning Canadian design group headed by Paul Shoebridge and Michael Simons.  He was particularly taken by “Pine Point,” an interactive web documentary about a northern mining town that closed in 1988 and was demolished.  Through oral histories, documents, video, and artifacts, the story of this ghost town is told in a mesmerizing scrapbook style.  If you’re looking for a way to interpret a place in a new way on the Web, this might provide some inspiration.

Urban Land Institute Recognizes Recently Restored Historic Places

Ron Nyren of the Urban Land Institute recently recognized ten projects completed in the past five years that brought back “valuable community resources from decline and neglect.”  Nyren notes the importance of these places because they, “serve as a link to the past, a site for shared memory, and an anchor in the often-changing urban landscape.”  We’d call them historic sites, but no matter, we’re happy to see more examples of great places reborn, especially when they seem like white elephants, such as:

Don’t let anyone tell you a saving an historic site is impossible and it can’t be reused.  When you’ve seen these projects, you’ll know it just requires creative thinking and a good plan (and yes, money–but rarely is anything free).

Christine Madrid French leaves National Trust

Christine Madrid French

The Modernism + Recent Past program at the National Trust for Historic Preservation (aka TrustModern) has been absorbed into its Preservation10X effort, a new strategic plan for its programs and sites, eliminating the director’s position held by Christine Madrid French.
Under Chris’ leadership, the Modernism + Recent Past Program raised public awareness and supported grassroots advocacy across the country through the Modern Modules events and printed booklets, the Modernism in Hawaii context study, collaborative efforts with the Farnsworth House and the Glass House, and the Angel Grant Program.  TrustModern was established in 2009 and supported in part by the Henry Luce Foundation, National Endowment for the Arts, and the LaFetra Foundation.
Christine will be moving on to new opportunities including teaching architectural history at the University of Central Florida, continuing her efforts in preservation advocacy, and working with Balcony Press to publish her book on mid-20th century Mission 66 visitor centers in our national parks.  She received her Master’s degree in architectural history from the University of Virginia and is a frequent writer and speaker on modern architecture but is best known for Continue reading