Two Museums and a Design Firm: Thinking about How We Design Exhibits Now

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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.

Developed by Kate Marciniec, Boston Children’s Museum

In early 2020, as COVID-19 made its way across the globe, children’s museums closed their doors not knowing what the future had in store. Under challenging circumstances, they learned how to adapt and identify new ways to serve audiences while their facilities were closed, such as through virtual programming and activity kits to support at-home play. Eventually for some institutions, efforts again shifted back to building operations and re-opening safely for visitors. Across the field colleagues shared resources on cleaning, ticketing, and exhibit modifications.

Now, having entered a new phase of living with the pandemic, museums are exploring long term implications of COVID on our operations, programmatic offerings, and new exhibit projects. In the exhibits world, it is not uncommon to be looking to the future, working on projects that won’t see the light of day for several years. COVID brought many of these projects to a screeching halt. But, as museums tentatively begin planning for the future, what impact has the pandemic had on development and design projects? What new challenges are present, and what strategies and criteria have emerged?

We consulted three museum colleagues on how the pandemic has influenced their design and development practices.

Karima Grant (KG), Founder and Executive Director, ImagiNation Afrika, Dakar, Senegal

Karima Grant

With over twenty-five years’ experience working in the field of human development and education on three continents, Karima now “seeks to change the ecosystem of learning for over one million young changemakers in Africa.” She leads a diverse team, designing and developing innovative educational programming that integrates local culture, play, and experiential learning to develop creative and critical thinking in children ages six months to nineteen years. ImagiNation Afrika implements an ecosystem approach to support young African changemakers across West Africa.

Maeryta Medrano (MM), AIA, Founder and President, Gyroscope Inc., Oakland, CA

Maeryta Medrano, AIA

A licensed architect, Maeryta leads her staff of imaginative, creative designers with holistic design strategies integrating learning environments with buildings and sites. Place-based family learning, equity, and inclusion for all abilities are values she instills in every project. Maeryta believes all children are full of potential and listens with a Reggio Emilia inspired ear.  She is Principal-in-Charge of the new Louisiana Children’s Museum in City Park, Explore & More at Canalside, the Thinkery, MOXI, Minnesota Children’s Museum, and the emerging El Paso Children’s Museum.

Stephen Wisniewski (SW), Visual and Exhibits Director, Flint Children’s Museum, Flint, MI.

Stephen Wisniewski
Photo by Caro Sheridan

Stephen has a long history at the museum: he played there as a child in 1985, began working there in 2001, and became Exhibits Director in 2014. With a PhD in American Culture, he has taught and worked in visual art and DIY design projects in independent art and education spaces. He has also worked in other museums on exhibit design and installation, artifact conservation, and selling admission tickets. But mostly, he likes to build stuff for kids to play with.

Is your institution—or are your clients’ institutions—open to visitors? If so, have you invested in or recommended any major changes—long-term or short-term—to respond to shifting design criteria related to mitigating transmission?

KG: Senegal was not as severely hit by COVID-19 as other countries around the world have been, but ImagiNation Afrika is not open now. We are planning to open in January, but are waiting to hear from government officials when it’s safe. The museum is moving from a traditional building in a seaside community location to a new, more centrally located site in the city with lots of indoor and outdoor space. Our exhibits—installation pieces created jointly by children, artists, and designers—were already planned. We are using this unexpected extra time to do more careful planning for our outdoor spaces and for new programming.

In the short term, at the end of October/beginning of November, the museum will participate for the third year in Partcours, a city-wide art initiative that involves lots of museums, galleries, and cultural spaces. This year, ImagiNation Afrika will create outdoor, public art installations.

MM: Depending on our clients’ geographic region, responses have been very different: “open” for essential workers’ children; “open” with limited capacity; “open” with staggered time slots with cleaning between each set of new visitors; “open” one day a week; and some have completely closed to visitors. At this writing, a few more clients are opening up with limited capacity.

We might be going out on a limb here, but suggestions to eliminate or reduce hands-on, interactive, and sensory experiences in children’s museums seem short-sighted. More than ever, museum-going families will likely seek out social interactions, sensory experiences with real objects, and physical environments without being surrounded by digital projections and glowing screens. We are Zoomed out!

With that said, obviously, technology is a valuable tool right now. Pre-pandemic, some of our clients did not have capability for video conference calling, high-speed internet, or newer computers. This has all shifted over the last six months as museums have re-evaluated operational and communication solutions best supported by technology.

Strategies we have been recommending over the years, but now even more, are to invest in robust, networked, museum-wide technology platforms, software, and capacity to connect, communicate, collect, and analyze information to allow museums to quickly update exhibits, programming, and operations. Children’s museums can be a welcome escape from screens. However, technology in support of interactive, learning environments, such as embedded RFID tags, can make the experience even more engaging.

SW: Flint Children’s Museum is not currently open to visitors, and at this writing we have no projected opening date.

How are you balancing responding to immediate needs while also looking to the future?

KG: We’ve always been a community-focused museum. Now, with social distancing and no-touching, we are focusing on a major campaign among schools, teachers, parents, and children to provide information about the social emotional impact of COVID on children. Future planning revolves around opening the museum in its new location.

MM: The most important skill right now is to be able to think outside of the box—the museum box. For example, could your parking lot become a drive-in school, like the old drive-in movie theaters but instead with museum staff facilitating fun activities in the car? Or could you use the same parking lot for a car wash—children wash their family cars, parents take selfies, upload to social media, and celebrate at the end with a giant bubble fest! Creative problem-solving is always needed and now, all museums are being forced to try something new. The unknown is an opportunity for change.

To leverage design strategies into effective potential future pandemic responses, we encourage our clients to carefully consider architectural schemes that allow for a flexible structural system and museum layouts that accommodate reconfiguration. This includes efficient adjacencies for staff operations (quick access to cleaning areas and equipment), nimble ticketing systems (adjusted prices and schedules to support fluctuating capacity), smart building systems that can be managed remotely, and communicating to visitors in real time.

SW: In the first several months of the pandemic, we spent most of our time creating and revising a reopening plan. We didn’t know when the plan would be put in place, but we knew we needed to be prepared. With no reopening date yet, we’re still in that liminal space, but constantly thinking of new ways to stay active and present in our community.

The circumstances are obviously unique, but this is familiar territory for small museums with limited staff and resources—your immediate needs and your vision of the future always coexist as interrelated concerns equally clamoring for your attention.

What new design and development projects are you now working on?

KG: As a result of COVID, we are rethinking classically built indoor museum spaces and focusing on how we can do more outside in natural spaces, all continuing with our basic philosophy of hands-on learning. In Dakar, a lot of new housing construction is being built with no yards or not much outdoor space.

In our previous location, we had six to seven exhibit spaces, including a makerspace, art lab, early childhood space, gallery, and cafeteria, all in 1,200 square meters. The new museum will have the same basic plan, but the design emphasizes a greater fluidity between outdoor and indoor spaces.

COVID-19 slowed down our fundraising and with no income almost completely decimated our operating funds. We are starting again, slowly. We’ll build and reopen with three of the six to seven planned exhibits. New exhibit designs are in a circular format with a center hub and smaller activity stations built around it. For example, our new makerspace will continue with our customary woodworking activities indoors, but with added gardening activities in built garden spaces outside.

MM: The entire museum world has been hit hard and we are all still trying to figure it out. But it’s a great time to ask, “What do we do best?” By partnering more with schools, libraries, hospitals, can we affect those learning environments to be as engaging as our children’s museums? In what ways might our children learn better in museums than in typical public classrooms? Would an National Science Foundation (NSF) or Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) grant investigate those situations to learn what works best?

Gyroscope has been fortunate enough to be part of a very inspiring NSF research project to design activities for critically ill children in hospital settings. We will share what we learn over the next few years.

The types of projects in design and development right now have one thing in common: they are all hybrids.

SW: I am working on redesigning and transitioning our small satellite location at the local farmer’s market into a retail space, since local capacity restrictions prohibit the hands-on activities we normally run there.

We recently restarted a longer-term project begun two years ago: a partnership with our local dental association to create a large-scale interactive dental health exhibit. Design and fabrication will hopefully begin in the next few months.

What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced when designing and developing a new exhibition during a pandemic?

KG: Money and access to the workforce. Usually a team of local craftspeople builds our exhibits. They very much want the work now, but we must assure their safety and follow COVID guidelines. If they need new materials, for example, we don’t want them traveling to new communities to get them (increasing their risk of acquiring or spreading COVID). There have also been curfews in Senegal, which limit workers’ ability to travel.

Our exhibit development process involves highly guided workshops to elicit kids’ contributions to the designs. As we plan for new exhibits, such as our upcoming Partcours installation, we are working with well-known designers, including Bibi Seck, whose exhibit will imagine the future of transportation with a new type of vehicle. Normally, we would involve children in designing this outdoor event installation, the only space in the whole festival dedicated to children, but this process is more complicated this year.

Our communities include children living with many levels of care; some are basically taking care of themselves. Although Senegal is on the downside of COVID, a big religious event is coming up and we worry about a spike. Dakar is a densely populated city. The new museum is in a much bigger public space and more accessible to a cross-section of children. We have been working with the mayor to choose the best temporary space for our Partcours exhibit installations. But, there is not much open, green space. How much is available? Should/can we fence it off to limit access for health reasons?

MM: Museums are implementing far-reaching changes to their operational and business models, and yet the bases for these changes are constantly evolving. In response to the skyrocketing stakes, many museums will go all-in on transforming into the institutions they need to be for their communities. Some see this as a great time to reflect and reinvent/reimagine themselves. This era will give rise to museums that are educational powerhouses, agile to the core, and radically community-serving.

SW: Primarily working remotely, without daily access to my workshop or any actual materials, has been a challenge. My design approach involves trying things out and experimenting. Everything now just takes way more time and way more steps, since we can’t work in groups or with volunteers, or even with each other in the usual ways.

The biggest challenges about planning future exhibit design and development are all the unknowns. Returning to pre-COVID conditions completely is unlikely, so what kinds of “hands-on” experiences can we think about building?

Can you share some strategies you’ve implemented during this time to respond to the challenges that have surfaced?

KG: For the future car project described above, instead of working together to build a full-size version, our team has been holding mini-workshops for kids where each child can produce a mini-replica of a future car. Since only a limited number of kids is allowed in a workshop, we have divided it into two groups: 1) a dedicated school group and 2) kids who are homeless or from low income communities, identified by social services. We want to be sure exhibits are designed/prototyped with a broad representation of kids. It costs more: we have to add a budget line for masks, since we can’t be sure kids from schools or other community groups will come with masks on.

SW: As a small museum, the staff here have always worn lots of hats and worked in a collaborative ways to get things done. The pandemic has only intensified that dynamic. Like other museum staff, we’ve been thrown into the deep end and are learning how to do things that we never anticipated. Maintaining good communication with the rest of the team has become a conscious strategy; it’s easy to become isolated.

How has the pandemic shaped/changed your approach to creating new experiences for your visitors?

KG: We’re now thinking of the museum as something beyond just physical space. Yes, a building or location is still important, especially since kids know the museum as a place they always come to.

Physical places are important—we can’t abandon them. But like U.S. children’s museums, our museum is also a critical organization to deal with many other needs, such as social justice and food issues. We need a physical space identity to support all these activities. We were one of the first organizations in Dakar to have a dedicated preschool space. In our new location, we will continue to have one, but will add an open-air preschool garden.

We are focusing more on programs, including ones available through social media. 60 percent of our annual budget comes from vacation or summer programming.

MM: The antidote to the strain and stress of Zoom Fatigue may be getting back outside into nature. The growth of forest schools in Europe and nature-based play curricula during this pandemic have been good reminders for how successful adventure playgrounds are. Real materials and tools inspire children to affect their own environments, find interesting things to investigate (bugs, worms, snails), build their own structures, and create their own experiences. We have always been a Reggio-inspired design studio, and this approach still holds true now. As always, we are designing experiences that support change, creating flexible platforms for visitor discovery, exploration, and creativity.

SW: Like a lot of museums, we’ve tried to pivot to an increased online presence through virtual programming, take-home activities, and other remote strategies to help us stay in the lives of the families that normally visit the museum. Although we’ve gotten a great response so far, it’s been tough for our small staff to constantly create new kinds of content, while juggling the other parts of our jobs.

If you look at an exhibit design project in the works right now, and ask yourself, “what if another pandemic happens after this is installed?” would you be satisfied the project would remain viable as is, or are there any changes you would make to it right now?

KG: For us now, it’s all about the physical space: we will be able to serve more kids in an open, outside space. July-September is our rainy season, but this past year there was a greater amount of rain. Like everyone else, we are being affected by climate change. Our new location is farther inland, so it will be drier than the former coastal one and better for outdoor play year-round.

COVID definitely was a backslap. But it has encouraged more conversations about who we are. What is our core function? Before everything was linked to the physical space, but we are rethinking that. Of course, we’re rethinking our budget too. But this is an exciting opportunity for leaders to include children’s museums in conversations where they never thought to include them before.

MM: For those clients in the process of choosing a new project site as part of strategic master planning and feasibility studies, we recommend looking for a location with ample square footage for outdoor experiences, both at grade level and on rooftops. These types of spaces will provide facility rental opportunities as well as outdoor programming in the future.

For our projects that are in the early stages of design, we are recommending spaces with even more natural light (collections permitting, of course).

For our projects in final design and/or under construction, there have been some initial investigations into UV cleaning systems, special antiviral coatings on all surfaces, and touchless “touch screens,” but none so far have been fully incorporated. We continue to research options and evaluate efficacy, cost, and long-term operations. While some strategies may be more short-term, overall, museums will see a long-term need to communicate cleaning and safety protocols into the foreseeable future.

SW: Looking back eight months ago, when I was actively designing a special exhibit right before the pandemic hit, I now realize just how much of it will be impossible to do whenever we reopen. A folder full of notes and exhibit component sketches will have to be scrapped and revised for whatever the world will look like in six months or a year. Will there be permanent changes in capacity, proximity, or even the kinds of activities we can do? Even the fundamentals of how I think about our building and use that space will need to be completely reimagined. So, as a designer at a museum that hasn’t reopened, I’m still thinking one day at a time and trying to be ready for whatever might happen.