Editor’s note: As the much-welcomed California rains arrive, this post salutes the new leadership at the UC Botanical Garden whose mission it is to promote public understanding and appreciation of the natural environment. We also congratulate the Garden for promoting USF Museum Studies alumna Mary Mrowka (MA, 2014) to a new position as visitor services coordinator, where she can work to advance this mission.
by Lauren Garnese (MA, 2016) and Morgan Schlesinger (MA, 2016)
On Friday, April 22, 2016, the Museum Studies Graduate Association hosted an exclusive exhibit development & design workshop led by the University of California Berkeley Botanical Garden’s new Director, Eric Siegel. We were curious about how science exhibition professionals turn complex ideas into concrete exhibitions, and we learned that the key skills needed are an open mind and the ability to listen very well to the perspectives of many people.
Before accepting his new position at the Botanic Garden, Eric worked in museums in the New York City area for over 30 years. His success, we believe, is not only due to strong leadership skills but to his talents as a trained jazz pianist. He has provided his unique brand of leadership in many environments. He worked for five years as the Director of Corporate and Science Development at the New York Botanical Garden before landing at the New York Hall of Science. As that museum’s Director and Chief Content Officer, Eric led countless projects and initiatives promoting science education, exhibitions, and technology for almost twenty years.
As the event’s organizers, we structured the workshop was structured into two parts. In the first section, Eric gave an in-depth lecture on his experience in exhibition design and discussed various exhibitions he has worked on including Human+, ReGeneration, Design Lab, and Connected Worlds. These projects covered many topics including project management, accessibility, community engagement, technology, and fundraising.
The Human+ exhibition was developed with assistance to promote disability and access awareness. Thus, it was very important to have people with disabilities consulting on all parts of the development process. Eric operated under the philosophy that “if we build the exhibition around individual stories, it will come across as more honest.” By finding relatable ways for all people to understand disability, the exhibit was able to tap into “the narratives that reflect what people already know.”
Eric’s goal to engage audiences in new ways guided the development of the ReGeneration exhibit at the New York Hall of Science. Designed to be a synthesis of contemporary art and science, Eric wanted to put contemporary artists in a science museum with an audience not traditionally exposed to contemporary art. During our session, Eric reflected, “Why I initially thought this was a good idea I’m not sure.” Of the ten artists chosen, Eric felt some of the artists “phoned in” their work and declined to explain their process or ideas. That is opposite of why people attend science museums so in the end visitors were more confused than they needed to be.
Undeterred by this misstep, Eric kept his thinking big with the New York Hall of Science’s Design Lab, the largest design space of its kind. There are no directed experiences in this exhibit as there is nothing that explains what visitors are supposed to do. All visitors see are things people have made and left behind. Kids are encouraged to experiment and build in an exhibit space with the hope that they will focus and engage.
Eric took his thinking to a new level with the New York Hall of Science’s Connected Worlds exhibit. With entirely interactive displays, this exhibit about sustainability features six “biomes” that are fed by one source of water which can be redirected by visitor intervention. Visitors are challenged to allocate water to each biome in the most sustainable way possible.
The second part of Eric’s workshop with USF students was a role-playing activity in which a pre-selected group of students took on various roles that one might play in the exhibition development and design process and brainstormed a fictional museum and accompanying exhibit. The chosen theme was homelessness in San Francisco. Eric then “consulted” with the group to visualize how the exhibit would transition from different people’s take on an idea to one physical space. Audience members were encouraged to ask questions to contribute to the discussion as we co-developed our ideas and then settled on themes, objects and interpretative strategies.
Eric reminded us not to assume that the museum’s internally-generated ideas about social issues such as homelessness are the same as those of visitors or others. By guiding us through the conceptualization process, Eric helped prepare us to work with people who might not be familiar with museums. As collaboration is such an essential part of exhibition development, having Eric come speak to us and emphasizing its importance through his personal experience was a hugely valuable opportunity.
For more information on USF’s Museum Studies program, click here.