Blog

Internal Capacity: Making a Good Museum Great

By Paul Orselli
From Dimensions
January/February 2012

When I think about the most enjoyable and memorable places—truly great museums—that I’ve visited over a lifetime of avid museum-going, the ones that bubble to the top include the City Museum, St. Louis; the  Exploratorium, San Francisco; the Minnesota History Center, St. Paul; and the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh. When I think about the traits such a disparate group of institutions might have in common, I keep coming back to one thing: internal capacity.

By “internal capacity” I mean a museum’s ability to handle core functions like exhibit development, design, and fabrication with its own resources (human and otherwise). Not so long ago, this type of internal capacity was standard operating procedure for museums: “People visit us to see exhibits, and we make the exhibits they come to see.” Today, this notion of internal capacity, especially as it relates to exhibits, seems to be less common. New museums often open without any exhibits workshop space or staff, and more established museums are whittling their exhibits department to a skeleton crew, or in the worst cases, to nothing.

You may think it odd that as a consultant who creates exhibits for museums, I promote internal capacity as an integral part of a great museum’s function. But for the majority of the more than 30 years I’ve been in the museum field, I’ve worked as director of exhibits at several fine institutions, so I’m very sensitive to the internal needs of museums, especially smaller museums. Now, some of my favorite consulting clients are museums that want to create or expand their internal capacity. I really believe that internal capacity matters both for individual museums and for the broader museum field for several reasons.

Solving problems with stuff

Museums with strong internal capacity have an exhibits workshop and they test ideas. Creative ideas and exhibit solutions can’t just be switched on or off during a meeting or conference call. Having access to exhibit materials and a place to “mess around” with them is an essential part of exhibit making. Inspiration can strike at any moment, and there is no substitute for being able to test ideas right away by traveling a few feet from your workshop to your galleries.

If you don’t currently have an exhibits workshop, carve out some backstage space (even if it means adding a wall in an exhibit gallery) to keep some simple tools and a work surface. If you’re starting a new museum, don’t let an architect or space planner talk you into minimizing the size of this essential area! Having some “creative space” for noodling around with ideas will increase your capacity to solve your exhibit design challenges.

Having an exhibits workshop goes hand in hand with the notion of testing. Whether you call it prototyping or getting visitor feedback, there is no more effective means of determining whether your ideas “work” with your audience than by putting physical components into their hands and finding out what they do with them.

Change isn’t just good, it’s essential

Exhibit components, especially the interactive exhibits found in science centers, need to change over time. You might need to switch out a handle, rewrite a label, or update an entire suite of devices. If the people and tools that created your exhibits are inside your museum, modifying such things becomes much easier.

The complexity of making changes to exhibits increases dramatically, and the likelihood of the changes occurring at all decreases proportionately, with your creative partners’ distance from your museum’s front door. If you are still building your internal capacity, consider working with partners, designers, and fabricators in your local community so that you can easily visit them during the entire exhibit development process.

A museum exhibit monoculture?

An increasing trend is to “outsource” exhibit design, development, and fabrication to outside firms or to a small set of larger museums. There are certainly times when you may need to outsource an exhibit project. However, if the majority, or entirety, of your exhibit development and implementation happens outside your institution, you may be reducing the diversity of approaches to exhibits in the entire museum field. Every exhibits company and exhibit-creating museum has its own style (just like an author has a writing style), and the museum business becomes more diverse and stronger by sharing and learning from all these different approaches to creating exhibits.

Outsourcing all your exhibits also has the downside of your museum losing a valuable source of staff development. What are the folks in your exhibits department doing if they’re not learning new ways to create exhibits for your institution? If the answer is that they’re fixing exhibits, I say you have a maintenance department, not an exhibits department. While maintaining your exhibits is an important part of the process, it’s not the same as developing and building exhibits.

By now you may be thinking, “Internal capacity sure sounds like a great idea, but can we really do everything ourselves? Aren’t there times we should bring in outside people?” When creating exhibits, there are certainly many opportunities to work with outside people, whether local community members or consultants from within the museum field. But even these opportunities should be viewed as ways to help build internal capacity. For example, if you need to expand your museum’s internal expertise in exhibit evaluation or in learning new exhibit technologies, try to enlist an outside creative partner who is willing to share skills and help build your  institution’s knowledge base.

An old adage says, “Give someone a fish and you feed them for a day. Teach someone to fish and you feed them for a lifetime.” In the same way, you should constantly be on the lookout for ways to increase your institution’s internal capacity, not just for the length of a consultant visit or the run of a grant project, but for the long-term future of your staff and museum.

Paul Orselli is president and chief instigator at Paul Orselli Workshop (POW!) in Baldwin, New York.

About the image: A backstage shot of the parts, materials, and projects in progress in the exhibit workshop at the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh. Photo by Paul Orselli