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Design on Display – 2013 talk at Peter Miller Books

Design on Display: Museum Workers, Designers and Professions Inbetween

Thursday, April 4th, 2013  @ Peter Miller Books

The Seattle Emerging Museum Professionals (SEMP) mixer and short panel discussion featuring professionals whose work and interests exist at the intersection of museum work, exhibit display and design. This event was coordinated in partnership with the Seattle Architecture Foundation (SAF.)

Questions to address:

  • How did you arrive in your particular field?  Where is your passion?
  • What is your interaction with the museum field?
  • Where do you think improvement could be made in museums, be it exhibition work, programing, marketing, etc?

Other:

  • What is your favorite museum and why?
  • In what ways should local communities influence exhibit design or be directly engaged in the design of exhibit or museum spaces in your ideal scenario?  

Draft of my talk:

Hello.

I haven’t spoken in public in a while and I am out of practice. And, so that you know, my two teenaged children are helping to redefine “private” with all of the social networks, and I guess I am with them. I will be as open and honest as I can be. Ask me anything.

First of all, please allow me to tell you something about myself, as you may wonder why I wound up on this panel and also, if you are like me, you generally don’t fully listen to someone, especially when they are giving you advice unless you consider the source (and maybe hardly at all if it is your mother).

I am an artist. I am also a registered architect. And, after twenty-five years running my own business, I am also a very experienced exhibition designer. For those of you who need to know the creds, I went to Boston U where I received a BFA and MIT where I earned a Masters in Architecture (where the ratio was 1:5, female:male when I started). I was weaned in a male-dominated work world where I have tried to be a pioneer. I lived in Japan in my late twenties and worked as a carpenter there. After working in SF for Skidmore Owings and Merrill, John Holey and Associates, and HGBH (where I was Head of Interiors), as well as John Stewart Polshek, and Ralph Applebaum & Associates in NYC, I started my design business. First, in New York, then San Francisco, and then in Seattle in 1995. My first child was born in in SF 1994 and she was three months old when we moved here. Unlike some people for whom having a child means less formal working and less working time, I kicked into gear and only started to make real money after she was born. I figured that I had to earn money for her too…and also working keeps me sane. Relatively.

I like having a small business and I have kept it small to be involved in everything we do. I have also intentionally, to this point, kept the business regional to be near my growing family. When I started, my entrepreneurial mother told me “any idiot can spend money”.  And so I began by working out of my house. I bought my first computer with my first check and the printer with the second check. I won an award for my first project, which was a garbage museum in Connecticut, and that was that. I was launched.

I have no excuses or regrets about having a boutique-sized design firm, although from the perspective of being impressive, this has not always worked in my favor. Until recently, it wasn’t sexy to work out of one’s house, especially as a woman. But I prefer the intimacy and I like to work hard.

Eventually, I moved to an office down the road from my house in Seattle (a 42 second commute), then two miles away, and now I am  back again. This has allowed me to be in my kid’s lives (now my two kids are teens) and yet keep a good separation of church and state.

Lehrman Cameron Studio has been busy these past twenty-five years. I love working. I have worked on projects large and small. I have worked with museums – art, culture, children’s, science, flight –and places that are pseudo museums – such as music centers and visitor centers — places where learning is touchable, playable, interactive (even when “interactive” was only an early gleam in the museum world’s eye). I have worked on subjects like hydroelectricity and waste water (in fact, water is a major theme in most of my project. Interwoven is the history of people and landscape, and many many themes, topics, and subthemes that others might have learned in school and that I have had the great luxury of studying in detail and depth while making money.

I think that we have been an unusual firm, doing great amounts of work with few people. We have never been larger than nine, and that only for a short while. Usually we have four to six people. But we do a lot: research, writing, graphic design, exhibit design, planning, interiors, and architecture. Recently, clients have asked us to include interpretive landscape design with environmental graphics. We get to rotate the mental crops and the nutrients in our fields are never depleted. Occasionally, I get to do public art too.

Over twenty-five years in business for myself, I have almost always hired women (I used to say that was because “I like to hire the best”) and I have given them what surprisingly turns out to be a great deal of independence in my office. However, after the first ten years, my husband came into the business with me. He was a museum administrator at the Brooklyn Children’s museum in NY, Liberty Science Center in NJ, and the Exploratorium in SF. His job at the Jimi Hendrix Museum (now EMP) is what brought us to Seattle. I had enough hubris to think that I could make it anywhere. And after three years here, he joined me at Lehrman Cameron Studio. Max was the catalyst for my getting into museum work in the first place, although I have a strong personal relationship with museums through family members and throughout my childhood. Also, I am the Lead Designer on all of our projects and the philosophical foundation of our firm and its work. People have been interested to know how we have successfully worked together for so long. I can tell you another time if you are interested.

I recently stepped back to reconsider my work as an exhibition designer and to begin the process of more fully investigating my life in Art (starting with drawing, painting, writing…) I just finished writing my mother’s biography. After twenty five years, I am personally aiming for more purity, more mess, more solo flying. But I have been lucky to have had, for so long, all of the hard work and challenging times that go into exhibition design.

I have been asked to address the question of where I think improvements can be made in museums.

So that you know, Lehrman Cameron Studio has worked on every type of museum and visitor center mentioned on the American Association of Museums’ Wikipedia site: art, culture, history, science, military, maritime, and youth museums, as well as aquaria, zoos, botanical gardens, arboreta, historic sites, and science and technology centers.

I personally think of museums as special and sometimes even sacred places and I am especially fond of art museums. And, although I usually do not tell our clients, I measure all museums by the standard of the old Museum of Modern Art in NY which, to my mind, was nearly perfect in scale, subject, curation, interpretation, context, programming, and architecture. There were many reasons I loved it. Mostly though, it was because the works of art were the primary experience and everything else played a perfect supporting role.

So how can museums improve? It seems to me that museums should consider what they offer that cannot be found anywhere else. The experience of an exhibit should be better than what you can find at home. It has to be more than a website, more than a tv show, digital program, or app. It has to be authentic. I like to ask clients “Is this an exhibit? Should it be something else; a book, a performance, a game?” The museum experience needs to have a unique, and specific quality, much of which comes from the building and the context itself: the architecture and the approach. And much of the impact of an exhibition comes from the anticipation, the PR, the marketing, and the related programming. But then, it all hinges on the presentation and interpretation of the collection, the objects; what is chosen to be on display, why, in what proximities and rhythms, as well as the text and illustrative explanations (which can be on graphic panels, via docents, on headsets…)  A museum experience is different than other types of experience because it is in a real place in real time with real objects, and a visitor had to travel to get there. It may be that within a museum, a visitor can have interactions with devices that may otherwise not be available to them, or have interpersonal exchanges that they wouldn’t have at home, or just have the incredibly special opportunity to see materials and things up close and personal in the right light at the right height, well explained.

I also think that there can often be something better about the museum’s relationship to outside designers. Lehrman Cameron Studio has worked for clients large and small, museums, private and public entities, and others …as planning only, planning and design, design-build, and many forms of contracts and relationships. I can tell you what it is like to work with and for a team for many years on one project and still keep a consistent, design vision as the work gets rolled over by budgets and habits. I can tell you how you can work with people you admire but don’t particularly like (that took me a long time to learn), or like but don’t admire (something I would like to avoid). I can describe the enthusiasm, optimism, and sincerity at the start of a project and how it gets retarded sometimes by the client’s knee-jerk, emotional, maybe even primal reaction to change and a clinging to familiarity. And I can tell you about what it takes to make a place of learning through objects and materials, the locations, dimensions, colors, textures, patterns, motion, rhythms, legibility, laws of gravity, laws of graphics, processes of architecture, and all of the nearly infinite decisions that go into designing these little places that you hope have moved someone to memorably change their lives for the better. Not just because they got out of a day of school. But because of the experience that you helped to develop. It is a complicated myriad of elements, processes, and relationships that go into great exhibition designs.

Museums have in-house experts and as design consultants we like to rely on their expertise, but sometimes in-house designers get turf-conscious when we are around. It is wonderful, and the work is better when we work with people who are smart and who understand aesthetics and the process. The only glitch has been when a museum staff person does not respect or trust us as outside professionals. And it pisses me off when a museum does not give us credit for our work. But it is the most delicious of circumstances when the people are brilliant in their field of expertise, when they respect us as brilliant in ours, and especially when they have a refined sense of humor. It should be a collaboration, not a clobberation. In any job, we may find ourselves acting as therapist. But I keep expecting museums to be peopled with individuals whose emotional intelligence is as advanced as their intellect, and that just isn’t always the case. Sometimes egos get in the way.

But, what would really be improved about museums goes beyond the museum walls.  If society fully appreciated, rewarded, and funded museums, it would make the biggest difference and improvement in our relationship with our culture. Society should more fully appreciate acts of the imagination and all of the exceptional and complicated aspects of caring for culture.

It starts with education. And this is my pet (peeve) project. I want Design to be taught in elementary schools and art to be considered a core subject. I would say that the issue is that society needs to more fully accept and understand the role of design and art in our lives and that this must be reflected in what and how we teach young children. We are taught writing and math. And we use writing a great deal. With math, on the other hand, after addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division, I am not sure why all of us have to take it farther. I need math to calculate tips, taxes, and balance a checkbook. In my life, I need to know fractions, percentages, and decimals. Math is wonderful and fascinating. But I argue that it is less essential and generally less useful to learn than Design. It amazes me that it isn’t more fully recognized that we use and are affected by Design every minute of our waking and sleeping lives; in our tools, clothes, transportation, communications, furniture, cities, technology… everything. To study art and design is to be better at everything. So, I don’t understand our current educational priorities.

And I think that is where improvement might be made to benefit museums. I think that we might teach children in school about pattern-making, composition, light, color, the manipulation of materials, history of art and culture, and art appreciation so that we will all be better at ANYTHING we may do (these lessons are wildly useful in many fields). It is important to know these things whether you are a creator or a consumer, a consultant or a client. And it is so full of wonder and joy. If we do teach our children these subjects and ways of thinking, then there will be more interest, more funds, more resources, and less questioning of the viability and essential need for art and design, smarter design results, better physical places, more efficient tools, and more vital interplay of museums and people.

(not sure why this trickled off or what I said in conclusion…) 

 

 

 

Ranting Online / The Click and Squeak of Democracy

Here are four days-worth of my recent Facebook posts. I know that sometimes this is just simply assuaging my guilt and making me (falsely) feel as though I am doing something. But I am trying to learn how best to articulate my thoughts and ideas, as well as trying to figure out how best to be effective.

Not all people recognize the danger to Democracy that this administration poses, and I wish that they did see it. “On Tyranny” by Timothy Snyder puts this into recent historical perspective.

 

What SEEMS to be is more essential than what is. This is true in fashion and in politics.

 

Stock tip – invest in high end jails? (It would be funny for the Trump family fortune that began in hotels in Dawson, BC to end in exclusive jails. Both a sort of “hospitality” venture!)

 

These hearings are very important for women’s rights and the way that men and women treat each other. VERY important. However, perhaps I can say something that I have yet to hear anyone say. It is this. The courts are not without bias. A Supreme Court justice will lean conservative or liberal. Of course, a SC justice should, ideally, be super human. But, that is not possible. Even getting close to approaching a case without personal bias would take extreme amounts of intelligence, discipline, and integrity. And no one does that perfectly. In fact, I would argue that it is impossible to judge without bias, even if that is what we need in a Supreme Court justice. Given this, I do believe that Kavanaugh will, if given a chance, shield and pardon the POTUS against current allegations about Russian intervention in American Democracy. He has said that he would do that. He also sounds strikingly uninformed or ill-informed about contraceptives and abortion. I do not think that he will leave his biases outside the courthouse door. And I think that he is dangerous in that way, even if a good man in other ways. His courtroom decisions about women and immigrants and others might truly kill people, despite his taking umbrage against that allegation. Now, still, we do need to choose a justice. And that person will be either biased as a conservative, a liberal, or another. And, given that this is an appointment FOR LIFE, it is imperative that we vet the nominee as much as possible. That is the meaning and importance of these hearings. The Republicans want him appointed before the midterms. The Democrats do not. The Republicans denied Merrick Garland his rightful place. The Democrats would like to deny Brett Kavanaugh a place on the court. My biases, based upon fairness, compassion, kindness, and what I understand to be justice, is that Kavanaugh simply should not become our next Supreme Court justice. His biases are wrongheaded.

 

Now, if you want to really see change, VOTE in November.

 

The entire nomination should not hinge (should not have hinged) on the sexual allegation. He is WRONG in many many ways. He should NOT be A Supreme Court justice. He is hyper-partisan and carrying a grudge.

 

Flake is an idiot if he thinks that the allegation of sexual misconduct was the ONLY issue in question about this unworthy, partisan lawyer.

 

Extremely partisan, angry (vindictive?), a loose cannon, and then one of the most powerful people in the world? That makes for a potentially great novel and a scary nonfictional proposition.

Will the investigation of Russia interference into American Democracy now crumble? This guy said he will not prosecute a president. The misogynistic, bigoted, graceless, racist, greedy, short-sighted, science-denying loser-in-chief has appointed ill-informed, extremely selfish, and party-before-people everywhere. But this is a BIG one.

 

I am frightened for this country. It feels like watching your house fall apart in a hurricane, and realizing that the builder ignored your drawings and specifications, and used papier mâché in place of concrete.

 

When I was in elementary school, I was so proud to learn how to spell “incomprehensible”. “I N C O M P R E H E N S I B L E ! “. I would happily spell out the letters, full-well knowing how small my voice was. Little did I know how entirely prescient and relevant that would become.

 

Calling all eighteen year olds (and 19, and up)! Do you care about women’s rights, civil rights, all people’s rights, gun regulations, resisting tyranny …do you care about the planet?????!?! There has never been such an important time to VOTE. And you carry incredible power in YOUR vote. PLEASE NOTE IN NOVEMBER.

And this is not even the big story. Yikes. Distract and conquer.

 

Should we not have the expectation that a Supreme Court Justice, appointed FOR LIFE would be calm, balanced, wise, thoughtful, considerate…? At a minimum. Not to mention, that the justice should not start out with a vendetta against a major political party.

 

Roe v Wade is at stake. Should this guy be appointed, women will lose the right to determine what to do with their own bodies. This will be decided quickly and heartlessly by someone who doesn’t fully understand abortion versus contraceptives. At the very least, many many women will have to travel many miles to another state to get a safe abortion. Abortion is not contraception, but it is essential to save lives. And it is an individual woman’s right to choose. Period.

 

Next up, pardoning criminals and strengthening their loyal ties to a corrupt man, as well as supporting the people who enabled a foreign enemy to invade and to undermine our Democratic elections. Next up, further erosion of the division between church and state. Next up, the lose of Medicare/ of Social Security? Next up, many serious and important partisan and vindictive judgements against half of the citizens in the United States. Next up, a complete imbalance in the tripartite foundation of our centuries-old experiment called Democracy.

 

It is not only that he has probably committed sexual abuse. It is not only that he lied. Though, his lack of impulse control should be enough.

 

“a permanent Republican majority”? – A despot with cronies who swear fidelity, like the good old oppressive feudal days around the world? The country’s founders wanted a balance of power. Our Constitution was designed with a tripartite system in order to have checks and balances. Not to have one party rule all three branches of government. And think about what this would mean. You have seen “The Handmaid’s Tale”…?

 

Kavaugh hearings with the Senate:

He did not answer direct questions. One major one was about an FBI investigation. Add that to his (was it an-) interview with Kamala Harris about a week ago when he dodged answering a direct question about his relationship to lawyers in a law firm. She tried over and over to get him to reply directly. He is a prevaricator. He is a obfuscator. He is a liar. He is almost purely political. Although you like to point out that even “good guys” can and do slant truths to make their point, you should listen to his testimony and the way he talks. He is outrageous. NO ONE trying to be a judge in the US Supreme Court should be able to get away with his bullshit. It is so infuriating.

 

You can listen yourself. The country is divided. Yes, Democrats are imperfect too. But, the fact is that this man is unfit for the position and that the Republicans are doing everything in their power to get his lying self into position for their dangerous gains and that HE DOES NOT ANSWER DIRECT QUESTIONS. Graham came to his rescue at the hearings. He ranted until the line of questioning was dropped. They are becoming masters in the “look over here!” methods of groping for personal and political gain.

 

So much is at stake, women’s rights, civil rights, immigrant’s lives, the state of the environment and even the likelihood that our species is in danger.

 

Attempts to catch both parties in mistakes is a false equivalence. Often, when a Democrat criticizes Democrats it sounds like a schoolmarm, correcting grammar when someone is running out of a building shouting “ME MUM IS IN DIS HEA PLACE! SAVE HER PLEASE!” I do understand that many (if not all) things are open to interpretation. That is my career and I have been working at it for at least 29 years. But to be skeptical to the point of paralysis is not going to be effective. Sometimes you can share something that comes from a clearly biased source. Sometimes, despite the bias, it is still true. Certainly, not all “news” is equal, and this is true whether liberal or conservative. Occasionally, we need to stop and wait and think and reconsider our own point of view. But, sometimes, I think that we might go too far.

 

This potential Supreme Court nomination is exceedingly frightening and exceedingly serious, and the outcome might change EVERYTHING we know and trust about Democracy. In this hearing, Dr. Ford answered EVERYTHING that was asked of her. In this hearing, Judge Kavanaugh hemmed and deflected and had other senators come to his defense. He was also a full-out deflecting machine in an earlier discourse with Senator Kamal Harris. In both cases, he did not answer direct questions, he took umbrage, and he was so transparent that everyone/anyone could see it. He is not an honest person. I really think that it is imperative that we acknowledge this about a person who others are trying to place in a LIFETIME appointment to the Supreme Court where he will have a serious and severe effect on all of our lives. On the lives of our children, and their children…

 

Falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus is a Latin phrase meaning “false in one thing, false in everything.” At common law, it is the legal principle that a witness who testifies falsely about one matter is not credible to testify about any matter.

 

I have listened to Dr. Ford’s ENTIRE testimony (the full taped recording – hours and hours of it) and to Judge Kavanaugh’s entire testimony (live at the time he gave it and a second time, taped). He prevaricates and dodges while she is honest and forthright. I did not count the times they each did not answer questions, but I heard her answer everything and I heard him deflect numerous times. He is not fit to be a Supreme Court justice. And his silence/refusal to be forthcoming (and rage) are part of the proof of why he is not.

Should we not have the expectation that a Supreme Court Justice, appointed FOR LIFE would be calm, balanced, wise, thoughtful, considerate…? At a minimum. Not to mention, that the justice should not start out with a vendetta against a major political party.

It was 1981 or so, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, thirty seven years ago. I was a grad student at MIT. (I had spent my formative years in the 1960s, I feel I must add.) I went to a party/gathering at the apartment of some acquaintances. I do not remember if I smoked (I occasionally smoked grass) or drank (I barely, if ever drank), but I decided to leave and walk to the apartment of a guy I was seeing (ok, sleeping with), maybe ten blocks away. As I was heading out, I might have hesitated, slightly afraid to go out so late alone at night. Then, a demure, pale, tall, thin, male, MIT colleague with metal-framed glasses and mousy-colored hair (an acquaintance whom I barely knew) offered to walk me there. I thought that was a gentlemanly gesture. It was probably after midnight, maybe even closer to 2 AM. The acquaintance and I got to Central Square which was relatively busy even at that time of night, where he asked if I wanted to come home with him. I didn’t. At all. I barely knew him, I did not find him attractive, and I was headed to my then boyfriend/lover’s house. The acquaintance then, abruptly and somewhat awkwardly said “Okay. See you!” and he left me there in the middle of Central Square. I remember being surprised. From there, I walked on a relatively quiet, dark residential street to the boyfriend’s house which happened to be across from a taxi stand which was open all night. I did not like walking alone in the dark on a quiet street, but once I got to the door, I felt safer because of the taxi stand where there were people outside 24/7. I thought I was safe. As I was ringing the doorbell, a guy walked past. I saw his shadow when he stopped just past the opening where I was standing. He jumped out at me and grabbed me by the neck. After a long struggle (which I vividly remember and have described before — mostly to make clear how poorly the police acted), someone came out from the building and the attacker ran off.

The point is that I remember a lot, but not everything. I remember what I was wearing, I can sketch the doorway, I remember the material and color of the sidelites of the door (yellow plastic circles), etc. But I do not remember everything. I can even admit that I would now have to look up the boyfriend’s name, though I am embarrassed to say so. (One point worth noting is that I immediately and for a while after, felt guilty and questioned if I was WRONG to reject that nerdy acquaintance’s advances because, after all, I was sleeping with someone who meant so little to me; proven by the fact that I have not since remembered his name!) The attack was physically damaging; because of his hold around my larynx, I could barely talk the next day. I could tell you about how the police didn’t care, and I can be specific about that. But, I do not remember everything about that event, despite it being very traumatic to me.

And the point I am really trying to make is that Dr. Christine Blasey Ford is possibly the most credible person I have ever heard speak. She is so smart and real. I definitely believe her.

(Not that it matters. Whether guilty of the attack or not, whether you care about the attack or not, for MANY other reasons, Kavanaugh is unfit to have a lifetime appointment as a United States Supreme Court Justice.)

Unfortunately, it does seem that way. Oddly, for years, I contested that the POLICE were worse than the perpetrator. Sure, I was hurt by the guy. But I was betrayed by the police.

 

And then there was Europe: young man in a small town in France, old man in Florence, middle aged man in Venice…

 

Here is another aspect. I have NOT considered myself to be part of the #metoo movement, or at least not to have been a victim. NEVER have thought of myself as a victim. The only time I have truly felt victimized is about being denied WORK or INCOME or RECOGNITION or REWARD because I am female. I did not consider these incidents of sexual assault to have identified me as a victim. I am glad to revisit this. I still do not think that I am a “victim” per se, but I do see now that people may have tried to make me one.

The real value of marketing.
Recently, I have been thinking that the most impact possible on upcoming national elections might be if people in Appalachia, and in other poor, rural places can actually be reached. For so long, the entrenched mental image of the Coal Miner as All American (like the cowboy) has been deep in our culture and I bet that people who work in the fossil fuel industries feel scared for their livelihoods and disrespected for their hard work and dedication. The Dems have ignored poor rural people to their peril. But, somehow, not long ago, the Marlboro Man lost his cigarette without losing his appeal or “losing face” as it were. So, I am wondering if the coal miner can lose the buckets and headlamps — and perhaps replace these with overalls and boots as hard-working, sexy organic farmers, or begin hauling and reworking materials for reuse, or building solar farms, or wind farms, or navigating boats for ocean cleanups, or working on the construction and installation of smart water systems or toilets that generate energy, or…? — without losing face. I am musing about this and wondering how to make an impact on THE INTERPRETATION of fossil fuels to help the people who work in the industries realize that shifting to cleaner (renewable) technologies will mean MORE and better jobs and a better outcome for all. I think that it hinges on presenting a good image and getting the word out.

Perhaps there can be a series of ads of sexy guys and gals working the land on eco-friendly farms, recycling, even, dare I say, making art or writing? And somehow connect THAT to a vision of the strength of early America to reach and connect with people who now feel disregarded?

I think that we need what used to be called “Madison Avenue” for these upcoming elections.