Just Remember

Driving between the grocery store and my daughter’s daycare yesterday when I saw this:

343 flags

I kept driving, assuming it was a political statement that would only piss me off. But, then I decided to silence my cynicism and indulge my curiosity instead. Nobody was behind me so I put the car in reverse. I pulled over in front of the house and read the sign. It said, “Remember 9/11 Reflect. These 343 flags represent the 343 firefighters who died on September 11, 2001.”

Simple. Powerful. I learned something new. And, it worked. I’m reflecting.


A cowboy named Robert picked us up in Quemado, New Mexico, and drove us out to a treeless ranchland, where we were to stay for twenty-four hours. This is the only way to experience artist Walter De Maria’s installation, The Lightning Field. The field is a massive grid of 400 twenty-foot tall steel poles spaced 220 feet apart. It looks like a sea of oversized needles that have pierced through the earth in search of the sky. The smooth reflective poles mirror the light as it changes throughout the day.

Watercolor of Lightning Field (no photos are allowed while visiting)

We spent hours weaving through the grid watching the colors of the poles morph from deep sea blue to creamsicle orange, and then disappear altogether in a midday haze of clear grey.

The next morning we woke at 5:30 to watch the sun rise. It was cold. As the sun ascended the rods gradually warmed to a brilliant red. At midday the scene paled and the steel rods softened as the sun reached its peak; the sand, sky, and a crinkle of mountains on the horizon faded once again into a silvery palette.

In the afternoon Robert arrived to pick us up in his red suburban. His cowboy hat bobbed above the driver’s seat as he skidded down the center of the dirt road back to Quemado. Gazing out the window, without the glistening poles before me, I saw this seemingly barren land anew. This endless stretch of land, from the dusty road to the distant fringe of mountains, wasn’t empty at all. It was full of light.

The Lightning Field is not a traditional museum, but it’s landscape installation that “interprets” light, quite successfully. And, when I visit museums this is what I’m seeking – a new take on the world around me. What do you seek when you visit museums?

Despite the chilly New England weather, I took my motorcycle out of winter hibernation this week and took off for an hour-long ride through rural, cranberry bog-littered towns. Listening to nothing but the wind in my helmet reminded me of why I love motorcycle riding and museums: it’s the opportunity to be alone in my thoughts.

ImageOn the bike, there’s no radio, no possible cell phone interruptions, and no passenger conversation. It’s just me, observing the road, enjoying the scenery, thinking. My morning ride today took me past 250-year old cemeteries and barely-standing colonial homes, white churches and stone fences — all artifacts of our south shore Massachusetts — no interpretation, and most enjoyably, no interactive computer monitors encouraging me to “dig deeper” into the content, or to “share” my observations with others.

In designing museum exhibits, one of the things I’ve noticed over the years is the slow disappearance of the bench and of the empty space. There’s a requirement for a minimum number of benches in museums, to accommodate accessibility concerns, but that’s typically where it ends. There’s little effort to provide seating areas and visually clutter-free spaces simply for visitor comfort.

I recently came across this wonderful blog, devoted to visitor comfort and seating in museums and similar public spaces, called “Please Be Seated.”  The blog has three years of interesting content. Their introductory post states that the importance of seating areas in museum is simply,  “because these are intrinsically good characteristics of any space and because visitors will be encouraged to return.”


Art museums have always been good at benches — at providing plenty of them, at placing them in calming areas, and at having different types and sizes. But in science centers, children’s museums, and other often loud and crowded museum facilities, spaces with comfortable seating and empty walls — allowing visitors to take a mental break between exhausting exhibits — are rare real estate.

We need to get better at that. As exhibit designers, we need to slow down, stop filling every square inch of our projects with “cool” stuff and interactive “experiences,” and imagine ourselves visiting the museum, periodically needing a bit of downtime. We need to educate our clients on the importance of empty or simple exhibit spaces — calm transitions between deep content and dynamic designs — and encourage our clients to preserve those spaces (because when someone on the team comes up with another neat idea, or wants to add yet more “interactives” or artifacts, those areas of respite and seating will be the first things sacrificed).

Museums aren’t just about filling our eyes and ears with as much stuff as possible. They’re not just for educating and entertaining. When they succeed, they allow us to stop, think, and contemplate.

That’s SO Big!

While oooh-ing and aaw-ing up at this giraffe inside Mammals Hall at the Harvard Museum of Natural History I overheard several delighted and wonderstruck little voices exclaim slowly, as if their voices could hardly keep up with what their eyes were taking in, “Wow, that is so BIG!” The pure amazement that spread across their round beaming faces meant, yes – this is a memorable experience. And it was for me too. Standing next to this giraffe I realized just how tall one of these guys or gals really is. Turns out I’m only slightly taller than a giraffe’s kneecap. Walking amongst my fellow mammals I realized, wow – I’m so . . . small.

Sunday afternoon at this obscure little stamp museum in Weston, MA and surprisingly we were not the only visitors, although it may appear that way from this picture.

There’s nothing fancy about this museum. But it manages to do many things quite well. The staff was incredibly welcoming and enthusiastic. Enthusiasm, like yawning, is contagious. The power of a smiling staff is sometimes underestimated, especially when all the energy is poured into showcasing the latest technology or a blockbuster shows. Of course, both can be done well, but I think at times the personalized touch is sacrificed, although it has equal influence on the quality of experience.

The Spellman Museum also has great activities. Such as the Louis Braille Bicentennial Exhibit Stamp Hunt. Kids were digging it. I did too. The reward – a bookmark made of stamps, of course!

I also really enjoyed pawing through buckets of stamps, examining these tiny works of art and celebrations of history. And each stamp in the tupperware bins cost only 2 cents to take home.

I get tired in big museums. Really, for some reason I always yawn as soon as I walk in the door.  It’s not that  I don’t enjoy them, it’s just that I want to see it all and I know that’s impossible. To conquer “bigness” and the avoid museum fatigue I like to seek out a unique, contained, experience rather than running around attempting to see the entire museum and instead absorbing very little. So, when I saw a pamphlet at the British Museum titled, A History of the World in 100 Objects I quickly scanned the brochure for a map of the gallery where I could see the show.

Well, no gallery. Turns out the objects are scattered throughout the museum, and as I said it’s no small museum. Talk about museum fatigue. The experience lost its appeal and I decided to make a b-line for the Elgin Marbles and the Rosetta Stone. But I was still curious about the program’s execution so I sought out one object on the list to find out what the visitor pay-off was. I chose a sculpture from the Parthenon and when I found it, in Room 18, I was sad to discover no interpretation at all indicating it was part of the 100 object theme. I felt like a kid on an easter egg hunt who finally finds the plastic egg, cracks it open, only to discover there’s no chocolate inside.

I like the idea of a focused exhibit of artifacts reflecting one perspective on the history of the world – it’s very compelling. However, as a visitor I would like to see the objects side-by-side, accompanied by interpretation supporting the theme. And if they can’t be together then I want some kind of reward when I find the object – a reward can be as simple as a graphic with interpretation about how this object supports the theme and why it was selected. To be fair, the History of the World in 100 Objects program is also part of a BBC radio broadcast and a website with photos of the artifacts – so there’s lots of interpretation, it’s just not in the museum.

After spending many hours just around the corner at the Franklin Institute, where noisy exhibits and loud school groups rule, I was treated to the soothing tone of the elegant and uncrowded Rodin Museum — though admittedly geared towards a different demographic. The museum houses more than 120 of Auguste Rodin’s sculptures. The museum had no touch screen interactives — no monitors or interactives of any sort! — nor verbose graphic panels. However, while visiting with our two young children, the security guard (who seemed to be the only employee on the vicinity) provided us with a copy of the well-written and illustrated “Rodin: A Guide for Children and Their Grown-Ups.” The ten-page booklet included a few short stories about Rodin’s youth and adulthood, interesting background information and factoids on seven (only seven! — not overwhelming at all) of Rodin’s sculptures, and a couple of simple thinking activities.

The Rodin Museum is located on Benjamin Franklin Parkway at 22nd Street in Philadelphia, open Tuesday through Sunday, 10:00 AM to 5:00 PM. Free (donations).

Author: David