Location = Magic

The Chicago Museum Exhibitors Group (CMEG)

Fall 2019 Meeting

There is a dynamic relationship between the design of a museum space and the content presented in it. When an exhibit’s space changes, the presentation of the content has to adapt to fit its new environment.

At the fall 2019 Chicago Museum Exhibitor’s Group Meeting, we heard about the challenges and opportunities of scaling exhibits to fit new spaces for traveling exhibits, pop-up museums, and renovations.

A big fish in a small pond or a small fish in a big pond?  Either way, the way we see the fish is all about its environment. Same with exhibits.

Right Sizing the Renovation

We all know that renovations are high stakes projects. When visitors grow to love objects in a certain arrangement, a museum must prove that a costly and time-consuming renovation provides a tangible improvement to the visitor experience.

SUE in Stanley Field Hall

The exhibit developers of the Field Museum’s new SUE exhibit, Susan Golland, Ben Miller, and Meredith Whitfield (who I had the opportunity to interview about the new SUE exhibit), knew that visitors had a strong attachment to SUE and high expectations for the new exhibit. However, based on extensive visitor research, they also knew that visitors wanted a change. Susan related, “visitors wanted immersion and additional context and having SUE in Stanley Field Hall did not give us that opportunity. One of the hard things about a main hall is people aren’t focused in that space. It’s hard to get people to focus on important content when they’re pulled in so many directions.”

“Location = Magic,” Susan believes. “Taking something, putting it in a new space – it’s as if it’s a new specimen.” The new SUE exhibit creates a world around the fossil. All the parts of the SUE fossil, the other fossils found with SUE, and other specimens from the same period are united in one space. Visitors are surround by cretaceous plants and sounds that immerse them in SUE’s environment.

Location = Magic

Susan Golland, Exhibition Developer at The Field Museum

“We’ve gotten so much positive feedback,” Susan beamed. “We tried to do it in a way that shows people how much we care.”

Susan talking about the SUE light show

The Agile Pop-up Museum

Pop-up museums offer an exciting opportunity to build a museum’s brand. However, it can be challenging to tailor a pop up’s content to multiple different spaces without sacrificing your institution’s identity.

Liz Garibay, Founder and Executive Director at the Chicago Brewseum, is working to create a 30,000 square foot museum dedicated to the cultural history of beer in the United States. To get a jump start, she created a pop-up exhibit.

Rendering of the Brewseum by Su-Lin Meyer

As part of her effort to build awareness about the Chicago Brewseum, Liz partnered with the Field Museum to create an 800 square foot exhibit, which is open until January 2020. Liz had to scale down her focus to beer in Chicago in order to fit her big ideas into the modest space. The exhibit has brought a lot of attention to the Chicago Brewseum, which she is leveraging to develop partnerships with other institutions across the country. For example, she is working with a glass museum in Seattle to tell the story of beer and glass in the U.S. The agility of Liz’s pop-ups promises to build the Chicago Brewseum into an increasingly influential institution.

The Chicago Brewseum at the Field Museum

Traveling Exhibits as Research and Development

Traveling exhibits face the challenge of fitting the same content and basic design structure into multiple different venues. However, they also provide a unique opportunity for research and development.

The Museum of Science and Industry used its traveling version of the popular Numbers in Nature math exhibit as an opportunity to play with content structure and designs, uncovering solutions that could be retrofitted back into the permanent version.

The beloved mirror maze in Numbers in Nature

Mark Ewing, Production Manager at Luci Creative, and Olivia Castellini, Senior Exhibit Developer at the Museum of Science and Industry (MSI) collaborated to make the traveling Numbers in Nature extremely modular. Olivia packaged content into three discrete modules, each of which contained the exhibit’s big idea and key messages. Therefore, “the complete story could to be told, even in museums that couldn’t put all three modules in the space,” Olivia related. She also edited the exhibit labels to ensure visitors would always find the appropriate information, even if a museum had to separate previously grouped objects or remove objects. While Olivia admitted that “there were a lot of compromises on the number of objects and content we would display,” she was excited that the new format provided her the opportunity to “streamline content.”  

The modularity also offered exciting design opportunities. Mark was pleased that the touring spaces freed him from the architectural constraints posed by the space at MSI. Furthermore, the tour allowed the exhibit team to continue R&D opportunities for the original exhibit.” The original exhibit had a large mirror maze made out of glass mirrors, which Mark thought would break. In the touring exhibit, Mark experimented with a less breakable mirror material that worked as well in the maze as the glass. Mark brought the new material back to the original exhibit to replace broken glass mirrors.

While scaling to fit poses challenges and opportunities for all types of exhibits, when its done right, “location = magic”

Me and other members of the Luci Creative team at CMEG

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