Exhibits are central to museum practice and the museum experience, but the people and processes underlying the creation of exhibits – from initial concept to fabrication and installation – aren’t always clear to an observer. Who participates in these processes, and what factors and considerations drive successful exhibit design? Particularly when museums work with outside groups to develop exhibits, how do goals like honoring institutional identity or crafting innovative, effective learning experiences play out? To explore these questions, I visited the Weldon Exhibits facilities, where Weldon team member Loura Brooks kindly gave me the grand tour. I sat down with Dean Weldon, Creative Director and CEO, who gave me insight into the exhibition design field and shared some illustrative anecdotes. From our conversation, some prominent takeaways for exhibit development included:
- Respect the museums’ mission, content, and context. Both the exhibit designer and the client need to understand where expertise lies and adapt to their opportunities and circumstances to achieve common goals.
- When thinking about how to engage visitors, remind yourself that you are one. Experiences should be developed to support group activities and the ways that people like to learn. Consider people’s context – right now, for example, “second screens” and games are very common in daily life. Think about how this may factor into visitor engagement with an exhibit.
- Take risks in your work, and encourage the organizations you work with to explore new ways of presenting information and designing experiences. Be willing to be flexible and keep learning along the way.
Nalini Elias: I’d like to know what led you into exhibition design and to create Weldon Exhibits.
Dean Weldon: Interesting question. I’ve been doing this a long time, more than ten years, and when I started, like most people I didn’t even know that it was a profession for the most part. Now there are museum studies programs, but back then most museum professionals discovered the field through working in other professions: I was a sculptor and a designer. I answered an ad in the newspaper for a museum model maker, and was lucky enough to get a job at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History. My first job was to make a biologically accurate jellyfish sculpture for a marine biology exhibit at the museum. Since I had a fine art background I loved the absurdity of making rigid sculptures to represent these fluid, graceful critters: I ended up using cutting edge materials to accomplish this It was fun. Soon I was running the exhibition department. Working with the museum curators I would develop the exhibition ideas, and then develop concept drawings and budgets. The museum director would go out and secure the funding, and then the team I built would complete the exhibition. It was a wonderful experience with endless learning opportunities.
Eventually, eight years later I started my own company – Weldon Exhibits (#1). After a few years my largest potential client was the California Academy of Sciences. But at the last minute in our contract negotiations, they offered me a job running their multi-million dollar exhibition program. This would allow me to work at much larger scale of projects, so I closed Weldon Exhibits (#1) and went to work for CAS. We created Academy Studios as an off-site exhibit fabrication facility as we built exhibitions for CAS. In a few years, I was running the exhibition department and we were completing significant new cutting-edge exhibitions every few years. After the 1989 earthquake, the CAS public exhibitions priorities changed, so I resigned and formed a new company, Academy Studios Inc, providing exhibition design and fabrication services worldwide, completing over 200 projects over 23 years nationally and internationally.
As with Academy Studios, Weldon Exhibits works across all disciplines: art, history, science, natural science, visitor centers and aquariums/zoos. What is interesting and dynamic is at the edge of these fields – where the creative juices usually are – the crossover between art and history, or science and zoos. We are unique in that we both design and build exhibitions, whereas most companies don’t have the skill base to do that. Because this is a niche business, we have to have a broad reach – so we work nationally and internationally.
N: What do you need from the museums or companies you work with? Who are the key players you collaborate with when designing an exhibition? For instance, do you work closely with a curator, or an exhibitions manager? Let’s use your current projects as examples: the Papalote Museo del Niño in Mexico City and the Imperial Valley Desert in California.
D: Papalote’s staff is very strong in their knowledge of their museum, which is highly interactive, often mechanical and electronic, appropriate to a children’s museum. They have done a lot of audience surveys to get to know their audiences. They’re very strong in education and the museographic aspects. So when they said they wanted to do an entirely new museum and entirely new content, all of a sudden they are not the experts anymore. They are the experts in what they like or don’t like, namely what they think will and will not effectively teach the lessons. But beyond that, all of a sudden it’s outside their expertise. So they have added a group of about 15 to 20 education, science, medicine and other advisors, which has become the informational core team.
The Imperial Valley Desert Museum is for high school kids, and they have an archaeology collection and a strong connection with a Native American community. For them it’s really the story of native peoples and their connection to the land and creating engagement points for the general audience. We worked with the museum director and collections manager and with native peoples on the development of that project. This is a very different central group to engage with than the group at Papalote. It’s different for every project.
N: You are working with two very different museums. Have you designed a tool guide that helps you create your projects?
D: It all depends on what kind of museum we’re working with, the opportunities and the circumstances we need to adapt to. What we say is that we are not the experts in the content. We can come up with a plan, creating the primary messages and helping work with the client to distill the learning goals and objectives so that it is clear. Then we use the research that they provide and come up with salient points of audience engagement in the story. Some things are better as a book and others as a film, but we are making a walk-through educational experience, including multimedia and immersive experiences. Some topics resonate with your heart, giving the audience an emotional moment. Other things are big experiences and you go, “Wow!” If you have five big things in the room, they get to be boring. If there are four engaging interactive devices all in a row, all of a sudden the fourth thing isn’t exciting anymore. You need to create a rhythm and a pace in an exhibition to create drama and interest and to develop an emotional response.
N: What are the limitations and considerations of regional, international, smaller, and larger museums in all of this?
D: Every project is different and has an opportunity, small or large. It could be a very unique aspect of the location, the people involved, the information, funding sources, or community needs. Bigger museums have bigger outreach, bigger crowds, and enough space for grand topics and expansive exhibitions, whereas smaller museums tend to have audiences that spend more time and there is an opportunity for a more personal experience. The Imperial Valley Desert Museum doesn’t receive a million visitors a year. They have around 40 thousand guests a year in a 3,000 square foot gallery, and they want the stay-time to be an hour and a half to two hours. So here we can do a slower, in-depth, more personal story. There can be the “wow” moment, the detailed moment, and that surprise – a menu of experiences. For example, we are having a earthquake simulator – a shake table for visitors to not merely experience different types of earthquakes, but to actually guess their magnitude, since that area gets five to seven earthquakes a day: it is a real local feature for visitors to experience.
The Papalote Museo del Niño has a 60,000 square foot exhibit renovation and the entire museum is about 120,000 square feet, so it is quite a large project They get one million people a year, and have three to seven thousand people in the building at one time. Here we want to disperse the audience and give them multiple choices in terms of galleries they can visit. We create group interactive experiences so several people at a time can share the experience. The Papalote Museum can have numerous topics that are less intimate and have more “wow” moments, while the Imperial Valley Desert has denser, smaller moments that become a different kind of “wow” factor. As you can see, there are different types of opportunities for different types of museums.
N: As an artist, what types of exhibitions excite you the most?
D: I suppose it’s a canned response, but it’s very true: I like the projects we are currently working on. We have done great projects in the past. I think the Smithsonian American Art Museum was quite strong. Some of the work we did at the Monterey Bay Aquarium and the California Academy of Sciences was highly sculptural, immersive, and had unique types of problems to solve. Doing dense environmental messaging gracefully and appearing artistic is quite challenging. But for us, it’s really about what is the story, what is the language we can engage the audience in, and how we can turn information we didn’t know about before into a fun experience. Learning should not be painful: it should be fun. We are trying to inspire and excite people about lifelong learning, through the use of art, education, sciences with a strong story, which is very hard to measure. You can evaluate people before and after they go to a museum or gallery, and the data shows only part of the influence, but we think in many cases museums have a multi-year, lifelong impact.
N: As you know, demographics in the US are rapidly changing according to age, ethnicities, identities, etc. People seek new experiences and they are more tech-savvy. In other words, we are “cultural omnivores”. How does the Weldon Exhibit team approach these changing factors in our society, and how are they incorporated in your practice?
D: The previous accomplishments inform the present, but they do not get you to doing new work. As there are changing attention spans, cultures, demographics, all kinds of changes taking place, every project needs to be unique and different, and needs to address that. You are never really done; you’re constantly creating a new design approach. You can’t assume that an award-winning project can simply be replicated.
Every project is about making that unique statement that is appropriate in that situation. So a lot of times we identify audience groups by asking: who is the audience in the museum now, what is the audience they would like to have in the future, and what aspect of that audience are they missing?
N: What are some current trends in the exhibition design field?
D: In the United States almost everybody has a cell phone, 50% of the people have some sort of second screen device that is portable, and people spend a lot of time with games. So when you’re doing an exhibition, that is a major influence. The core experience in museums is for groups of twos and threes who know each other. The purpose of the museum experience may be learning, but it’s primarily for the guests to talk to each other about the experience they’re having, and have some fun. We develop learning experiences that support group activities so people can get a chance to engage and talk.
N: So being in the business of creating experiences allows you to find those common denominators you mention, such as gaming, to guide you into developing meaningful activities.
D: Yes, the best approach is to think like your audience. Be a child. Be a parent. Ask yourself what would you do, what do you want to learn, what would be fun for you? That is the guiding principle. I love the classic teenage response, “So what?” It’s rude, but at the same time, it’s spot on! If you can’t do something that addresses the “So what?” you’re not going to achieve your goal.
Museums have to take some risks. Make the installations more experiential. Provide information for interpretation of art and artifacts. If the interpretation can enhance appreciation, without diminishing the experience of engaging with the object, then it can become a benefit for the visitor experience. Many museums need this kind of revitalization to re-connect with their community on a regular basis. We are always seeking an engagement strategy for the visitor. We therefore consider aspects of our projects that can be changeable. 25% of an exhibition has to continually change to remain vitalized and of interest to the museum’s audience.
N: I also think that re-connecting with the community on a regular basis is key, because being comfortable with one thing may mean disregarding another thing.
D: The other thing to keep in mind is that all these fields of endeavor change constantly. So we have to ask what is the dynamic change in all of those fields. We are creating educational experiences for the general public, a specific design and fabrication effort in a specific time, and in the future it’s going to be different. So you need to do the best you can in the time you have with full awareness that things are going to change around you. In an egocentric world, we think that the challenges we have are unique to us. When you develop an exhibit, you look at the past and the future to come up with a statement that you can develop today. What makes an exhibition work are the educational strategies, behavioral strategies, exhibition techniques, technologies, and content with a dynamic expression that people can understand and care about. Of course, an exhibition will work in the context that it belongs to, but paying attention to context is what results in higher visitor numbers and better feedback.
N: To conclude our conversation, can you give some words of advice to emerging professionals seeking to be involved in the exhibition design field?
D: Always be challenged. The challenge can be time, expression, education, or the information you’re exhibiting. Don’t take anything for granted or put it in a neat little box and say, “That’s not my area, I’m going to focus on something else.” Try to be involved with everything and be challenged. You have to open your eyes and look around you. You have to constantly remind yourself what is it like for you to go through an experience at a museum and that that’s really the grounding point for all decision-making. Listen to the people around you: that’s the hard thing for anybody of any age, but their perceptions are just as valid as yours. Be flexible.
The big thing we are trying to teach people we work with is that at all points in their careers, it’s really not about them or their egos. It’s really about the public. If somebody doesn’t like something you drew up, put it in the drawer or tear it up and do another one. You have an opportunity to draw it again. The work is not about you, it requires confirmation, so flexibility is really important. In this field we are given way too much information – every aspect of every door you’re opening is a lot of information, so you have to filter and distill it to have clear criteria to create excellence. Stick with it. It’s a lot of fun!
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.