Exhibit Fabrication and Installation Challenges during COVID

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This article is part of the “Exhibit Planning in 2020: Thinking Now about Where We Hope to Be in the Future” issue of Hand to Hand. Click here to read other articles in the issue.

Cathlin Bradley, Kubik Maltbie, Inc.

These days, it seems like every conversation begins with, “during these uncertain times,” and for good reason. While many aspects of daily life are beginning to return to a pre-COVID state, things also continue to change every day. Museums, museum staff, and the firms that serve them are adapting to the “new normal”—another phrase we hear all too often. The reach of the COVID-19 pandemic extends beyond our personal lives, into the way our industry creates and maintains exhibits.

Starting at the Beginning: Exhibit Planning

Historically, the exhibit planning process has involved a variety of stakeholders (museum staff, designers, fabricators, media producers) coming together, often in the same space, to brainstorm and collaborate. The social distancing protocols, travel restrictions, and concerns associated with COVID-19 have turned this on its head. Many museums are closed, with staff furloughed or working from home. Consultants are no longer traveling to job sites, even if they’re just down the street. Human contact has shifted from in-person to virtual interactions. In spite of these challenges, we’re enjoying some benefits of quarantine culture, such as reduced travel costs, increased flexibility, and acceptance of sweatpants as work attire. The importance of proximity of team members has also diminished, allowing museum teams to select the absolute best partners rather than those who happen to be closest. But, where there are pros, there are often cons, and some important aspects of the planning process have to be rethought.

Over the past six plus months, our industry has had to shift the way we plan, fabricate, and install museum exhibits… In many ways, exhibit planners like my organization have taken lemons and made lemonade. Instead of giving up, we’re become flexible and agile.

In the world of design and fabrication, accurate site dimensions create the foundation for an exhibit. The floor plan defines traffic flow through the space and anchors different experiences to the gallery’s key story or big idea. Design drawings that rely on architectural plans that have not been site-verified simply aren’t as accurate. Without access to museum galleries due to closures or travel restrictions, we have to get creative! Over the past few years, some very cool large format scanning technology has become available. These scanners are relatively easy to use and can capture entire rooms and even artifacts with a high degree of accuracy. And the added bonus? The data collected builds a 3D model that can be exported to CAD (computer-aided design software). So not only are dimensions more accurate, but teams can use this technology to save the step of creating the digital model, on which the design is based, ultimately saving time and money while providing a great result.

Prototyping and Testing

Once the planning is complete, we move on to fabrication. As we know, a key component of children’s museums is hands-on interactivity. When fabricating interactives in our shop, we conduct prototyping and testing to ensure exhibits are safe, durable, and function in the way they were designed. For our firm, these two critical steps have always been collaborative activities. The project team, including the museum staff, designer, and fabricators, come together in the shop (often with kids and families) to play. Prototypes are put through the ringer and tested to failure, while the project team takes notes and documents the experience with photos and videos. Based on these collective experiences, we specify modifications or make approvals.

With current travel restrictions and social distancing protocols, this hasn’t been possible, so we’ve shifted our process. Instead of hosting project teams in person, we’ve moved prototype testing and reviews into the virtual space. This allows us to collaborate in real-time while also recording the testing sessions for team members not able to join. We were concerned at first, but we’ve found that we often have more participants than we previously had in person. Museum staff who might not have traveled to our shop due to budget constraints or museum responsibilities are now able to join and contribute their insights. Participants can go back and review the video afterwards to collect their thoughts to provide better and more detailed feedback. The results have been fantastic. This has been so successful that we intend to add a virtual component to every shop review in the future.

Materials: What Works Now and What’s Available

Let’s dig into materials and their supply chains. Most fabricators and museums who build exhibits in-house rely on standard fabrication materials such as plywood, medium-density fiberboard (MDF), Sintra PVC board, and acrylic sheet goods. Before March, these materials were readily available. At the beginning of the pandemic, there were material shortages and longer lead times for many items, but our firm was very fortunate as we already had a stock of standard materials. Unfortunately, smaller organizations and in-house teams may have been (and continue to be) impacted. In order to overcome shortages, many organizations have begun considering alternative materials or making trade-offs.

If your organization is considering an alternative material, be sure to test it out. Any time a new material comes into our shop, we treat it as we would a prototype. We consider different use (and abuse) scenarios, constraints, and limitations. There are several key factors to keep in mind. Safety and durability are always first on the list. With hands-on or interactive exhibits, we have to ensure that materials will hold up to the inevitable wear and tear of little learners, always keeping in mind potential hazards such as pinch points and sharp corners. While it has always been important to clean exhibits, COVID-19 has made sanitizing a top priority. Materials must now withstand little hands and the chemicals used for disinfecting. Some material choices we would have made a year ago simply won’t hold up to disinfectants or scrubbing. A painted MDF surface may need to become solid surface, laminate, or boat board. Exhibits with soft surfaces and foam objects that are more difficult to clean may need to be redesigned or modified.

Scheduling—and Protecting—Installation Labor

In addition to material shortages and delays, COVID-19 has created challenges with installation labor. When the pandemic began in March, our firm had installation crews onsite at several museums across the U.S. Some sites, such as the American Museum of Natural History in New York, closed immediately and sent crews home. Others delayed installation starts by days or weeks, depending on local protocols. Eventually all job sites shut down for several months. This has created an opportunity to put our logistics skills to the test. Our project managers and site supervisors stay apprised of the different safety protocols for each state, some of which still include a fourteen-day quarantine before entering the job site. To overcome these and other challenges, every site installation is carefully planned with each task, including travel and quarantine, accounted for on a master schedule. This way, we are able to tackle uncertainties as they emerge. While the installation process may look different than it did before COVID-19, just like with planning and fabrication, flexibility is the name of the game.

In order to ensure that our team is always safe, we’ve instituted a corporate safety protocol, outlining our safety procedures that must be followed regardless of local regulations. This involves CDC-recommended social distancing as well as use of personal protective equipment (PPE) at all times. In addition to our internal protocols, each museum has different requirements, ranging from limitations on the number of people allowed to work in each room to additional PPE like “spoggles” (safety glasses that are goggles), face shields, and hand sanitizer stations.

An Industry Evolves

Over the past six-plus months, our industry has had to shift the way we plan, fabricate, and install museum exhibits. The current landscape remains uncertain, and will continue to be so until either effective treatments or a vaccine are developed. Children’s museums and the organizations that support them continue to move forward and develop new and better ways to serve children and families through informal learning experiences. To do so, we must be creative, proactively seeking new and different ways of doing things. In many ways, exhibit planners like my organization have taken lemons and made lemonade. Instead of giving up, we’re become flexible and agile. We’re digging into technology to meet our communication needs and even enhance the ways in which we collaborate. We’re finding new material solutions and optimizing site logistics. We’re still working together and doing our best to serve our clients. Someday, we will return to the world of in-person meetings and travel, but we’ll continue using this new toolkit of virtual skills to enhance our collaborations and produce optimal visitor experiences. It definitely hasn’t been easy, and we will continue to face challenges, but if we focus on what we’re learned and maintain our focus, the future will be bright.

Cathlin Bradley is director of business development at Kubik Maltbie, Inc., an exhibit fabrication firm that works with museums, visitor centers, and specialty environments.