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Matters of Experience
Matters of Experience is a podcast about the creativity, innovation, and psychology driving designed experiences and encounters. Each week Abby and Brenda dig into the who, how, so what and why of exhibitions, branded experiences, events, spectaculars, and all the crazy things designers and creatives are putting out there for people who just can’t get enough.

Recent episodes

Creating with Nature with Melissa McGill

Creating with Nature with Melissa McGill

May 29, 2024
Subscribe now on Apple Podcasts and Spotify
How can art truly connect with a place and its community? Join Abby and Brenda on Matters of Experience as they dive into this question with artist Melissa McGill. Melissa shares her approach to creating art that resonates authentically with its environment, emphasizing the importance of genuine connections and immersion. Through projects like the Red Regatta in Venice, she illustrates how art can forge meaningful relationships with communities and inspire collective action. Tune in to explore the transformative power of art in public spaces and its potential to foster deeper connections.
Melissa McGill is an artist, activist and water storyteller. She is known for collaborative, ambitious site specific public art projects, creative interventions and a vibrant studio practice. Her projects are site-specific, immersive experiences that explore nuanced conversations between land, water, sustainable traditions, and the interconnectedness of all living beings. At the heart of her work is a focus on community, meaningful shared experiences and lasting positive impact. Spanning a variety of media including performance, photography, painting, drawing, sculpture, sound, light, video and immersive installation, McGill has presented both independent projects and solo exhibitions nationally and internationally since 1991. She lives in Lenapehoking (Beacon, New York).

Melissa McGill

Why an Italian Village Tied Itself to a Mountain

Red Regatta — Melissa McGill

Constellation — Melissa McGill

[Music]

 

Abby: Welcome to Matters of Experience, a podcast that explores the creativity, innovation and psychology driving designed experiences and encounters. If you’re new, a big welcome and to our regular listeners, thank you for tuning in. My name is Abigail Honor.

 

Brenda: Hello, everyone. This is Brenda Cowan.

 

Abby: So today we’re talking with Melissa McGill, who’s an artist, activist, and water storyteller. She’s known for collaborative, ambitious, site-specific public art projects that really explore nuanced conversations between land, water, sustainable traditions, and the interconnectedness of humankind. Spanning a variety of media including performance, photography, painting, sculpture, sound, light, video and immersive installation, Melissa has presented both independent public art projects and solo exhibitions nationally and internationally.

 

Abby: Melissa, welcome to the show.

 

Melissa: Thank you so much. I’m so happy to be here with you.

 

Brenda: Melissa, your work is so amazing. Abby and I are thrilled to be talking with you today.

 

Melissa: Thank you.

 

Brenda: Yeah, absolutely. But Abby and I are really curious to know why you feel creative experiences are important to communities. Can you give us an example of a particular creative experience that you think has really made a huge, a huge difference?

 

Melissa: I think that things that draw us into awe and wonder and a sense of really, you know, the planet we live on, our interconnectedness, those are the things that really move me. And I think there’s incredible potential to creative collaboration.

 

So, one work that immediately comes to mind, a work that is such an inspiration to me personally, is a work by an artist named Maria Lai. She’s a Sardinian artist. She’s passed now, but she did a project called “Legarsi alla montagna,” where she activated her entire village to be connected through a blue ribbon, basically a blue cloth ribbon that was woven through the town. And everybody got involved. And then this ribbon was brought up the mountains, so they were literally tied to themselves, to the mountain, you know, and since what’s happened in that village and how the people came together around that project was really inspiring to me.

 

Brenda: And why are these important? Why are these kinds of creative experiences important in the first place?

 

Melissa: Well, I think we live in a time that’s very deeply, deeply challenging, and we are out of balance and disconnected from each other and the environment, and this robs us of our collective agency. So, if we remember that nature is really our wisest ancestral guide, and that how deeply interconnected we all are, we can come together and celebrate the interconnectedness and find balance and a harmonious path forward. I think there’s incredible potential for that in public space.

 

Abby: Would you say, Melissa, when I look at your work in general, does it sort of focus on nature and bringing community together through nature, like what’s sort of your focus as you’re creating a piece?

 

Melissa: It’s all water and stars. Very simple. That’s why I sometimes call myself a water storyteller. I’m really, I’m a water person, and that element is just so engaging to me. We have to care about our waterways, and so exploring nuanced conversations with land, water and sustainable traditions and the interconnectedness of all beings, not just human, but all beings, is at the heart of what I am interested in doing.

 

But I actually would say that constellation is really a form that all of my works take. Like with a constellation, it’s one star and then a collection of stars that are telling a story or that have, that become something else. And that is what’s happening in my work all the time. We are individuals, but then coming together collectively, we can create something different.

 

I mean, we can all have an idea that we start with. But when you engage in real conversation with, let’s say it’s a site-specific work with other people from that place, with people who, you know, let’s say if we talk about the Venetian Lagoon, where I’ve, I’ve done a major project called Red Regatta, you know, finding others that were deeply connected to that waterway and drawing on my experience, my own long personal experience with that waterway, brought us to new places.

 

Abby: So, talk to us, you mentioned Red Regatta first, so I’m going to piggyback on that because it’s a phenomenal project. Can you sort of describe to our listeners the end result of what Regatta could be expressed visually? And then sort of the pathways and the different collaborations with the different groups who helped bring Red Regatta to the water.

 

Melissa: So Red Regatta was an unprecedented independent public intervention. It took the form of four large scale regattas that activated different areas of the Venetian Lagoon in Italy. The vela al terzo sailboats are a traditional wooden type of boat and we sailed together. Each boat had its own set of hand-painted red sails, so every sailboat was hoisted with hand-painted red sails.

 

This project took place in 2019. It was presented in collaboration with the Associazione Vela al Terzo Venezia, which is the sailing club of this type of boat that is in Venice, and a team of over 250 Venetian and international collaborating individuals and partners, many who have never worked together before.

 

And so, why red? Why these red sails that were hand-painted for each boat? Well, my idea was that red is a color that has tremendous emotional range. It represents life force, passion, energy, but also alarm and warning. So just imagine 52 Venetian traditional vela al terzo sailboats sailing through the green blue waters of the Venetian lagoon in unison against the backdrop of the city to draw attention to so many of the issues that this waterway and that Venetians are facing, whether it’s climate change, rising seas, ever increasing motorboat traffic, the problem with the cruise ships, the ever shrinking Venetian population.

 

One other thing that I want to mention about these boats is these vela al terzo boats, they are so beautifully adapted to the city of Venice. You can raise your sales and sail through the Venetian Lagoon, or you can lower the sails, take the mast down, and then row your way under the bridges through the city. So, what an amazing, adapted perfect tradition that needs to be celebrated and moved, and brought forward. Those are the examples that we need, right, to navigate into the future.

 

Brenda: How on earth, Melissa, do you coordinate and lead a project on that scale? You mentioned that there were so many different groups and individuals. What did that look like?

 

Melissa: Well, first of all, I had an amazing team which I’d like to give, thanks and call out to. So, I collaborated, like I said, with the Associazione Vela al Terzo Venezia under the helm of Giorgio Righetti, who was the president of the association at the time. He’s since passed on.

 

And we had deep partnerships with the Comune di Venezia, all kinds of organizations in Venice, Oceana, the United Nations, Sailors for the Sea. I mean, it went on and on nationally and internationally, the Peggy Guggenheim Collection. We did Ocean Space. I mean, I could list so many, they’re all on the website, but I really celebrate the community.

 

And, I think that, you know, the, yes, I mean, there are many people when you start a project like this that will tell you that it can’t happen. I got a lot of that, like, no, this is impossible. It’s never going to work. But when you also have people who look at the project and say, wow, this would be amazing if we could do this, let’s, let’s try and then you just keep putting one foot in front of the other in dedication. You have to be incredibly resilient.

 

There’s an ancient Arab proverb that I always use, which is throw your heart out in front of you and run ahead to catch it. And that is basically what happened. So, there were many stages. There were many moments of like tearing your hair out like, oh my gosh, are we actually going to be able to do this? Actually, it was my project manager, Marcella Ferrari, when we were painting the sails.

 

She said, you’re going to look back on this and you’re going to just be astounded. And I was like so in it, I was like, okay, yeah, but we have to mix this color to go with it. Like, I was right, I was back in the details, you know? And now I look at it and even talking about it, you can probably hear in my voice like I actually, I’m kind of in awe of the fact that we did it.

 

I also think that all projects have divine timing. and the project timing of this project was really specific because I raised all the money for this project myself, like I do for a lot of my projects, my big projects, like Constellation and this one, I have had to fundraise and raise the money for these projects independently because I haven’t found another way to do them. And so, that is a huge responsibility. Fundraising is not my favorite part, but it’s part of what goes with, you know, something like this. And, you know, somebody said, oh, you know, we, we don’t have enough money yet, like, we really should, because the sails were expensive, and I gave them all to the sailors. They all kept, I gave them to them to keep.

 

So, somebody said, oh, you know, we don’t have enough money yet and we should postpone it. And I said, we absolutely cannot postpone it. I was convinced. I was like, no, it has to be now. And it was just like bigger than me, like it was just, has to be now. And then what happened right after was a series of catastrophic events.

 

A cruise ship, like a month or, a month or so after we sailed the last regatta in September 2019, a cruise ship crashed into the Fondamenta in Venice, something we were talking about. It’s like cruise ships in Venice. And then they had the worst flooding since the 60s, you probably remember the dramatic flooding of Venice that year. Like, you know, it was horrendous. It was like the whole city was destroyed. And then Covid. So, if it hadn’t happened then, we probably wouldn’t have done it.

 

Brenda: You are definitely in sync with, I’m sure, a lot of different forces, because what an uplifting, positive time of beauty you created in the city. And, you know, thinking about your connectivity with things. Let’s talk a little bit more about how your work incorporates and resonates with nature. So, you’ve mentioned deep listening. It’s, something that you encourage, deep, deep listening to nature as you create.

 

And this is really, it’s related to a lot of movements that we’re hearing about now, such as, you know, being very mindful, highly present, fostering deep connectivity through mindfulness and active listening. Tell us what deep listening means to you. What can we learn from it?

 

Melissa: I think that the deep listening is not just to, well, it’s to nature, but it’s also to each other. So how can we come together to address these urgent local and global issues creatively and collaboratively? This is the question that I think about. Like, you know, and I would say that seeking out authentic listening collaboration is so important because there’s a lot of people that talk about collaboration, but, you know, when you’re having a conversation, how much are you listening and how much are you talking? You know, also with the non-human, so that’s, you know, the other, I never know what to call that, it’s like other beings, other forces, because I always think of these projects as being collaborations with other people and communities, but also with the elements.

 

Abby: Yeah.

 

Melissa: And with the natural forces. I mean, you can’t sail a regatta without the wind and the water. But I think meaningful shared experiences that are designed to have lasting positive impact, it’s like if we shift the perspective and think about how to have these conversations in ways that are going to bring people together in joy and wonder with lasting positive impact, which I really build the projects around, all of them, then, you know, there’s a lot we can do with that.

 

Abby: So, some of your, you work in what I’d describe as unconventional places. For our listeners, what do you think, Melissa, some of the pros and cons are, when considering creating these larger public works?

 

Melissa: I think it’s really important that you really have an authentic relationship to the place. Like I make work where I live or where I have lived, or where I know people. Sometimes I go into new communities, but only with a tremendous amount of time with immersing myself in that, like, I am not going to be the artist who drops into a place and, you know, says, okay, let’s just make this, because it’s not going to have the same relationship to the place.

 

You know, I need that time to connect. Heart connect. It’s about heart connection. So, you know, a project in the Hudson River. I live on the shores of the Hudson River, a project in Venice, I lived in Venice. I have a deep community there. There’s a lot of places I haven’t been that I’d love to do projects, but it would take time to have a, build a relationship, you know.

 

One site that I take with me and I probably could do, you know, would be engaged to do a project anywhere there is this condition is, I am a person who is incredibly drawn to estuaries. Estuaries are places where, you know, as we know, there is saltwater and freshwater mixing. There are often marshes. There’s incredible biodiversity in those places. And they’re places that are between places that are very important in the world. And so, I do think I could go to any estuary and find my footing pretty quickly.

 

But that’s just like I have a very natural draw to that. But I think that if someone is, you know, planning to work site-specifically, I just hope they would do the work to really find out what is that place.

 

Abby: I do just want to build on a wonderful estuary where I grew up. I grew up on the Wirral, which is north of Wales and south of Liverpool. It’s a little peninsula there, so there’s an estuary which is now getting silted up. About 100 years ago boats would go up and down. So, from Parkgate is the name of the, of the town there, you can see over this beautiful estuary at all the biodiversity, over the River Dee there to Wales, and it would be an amazing place for you to do something.

 

Brenda: Put it on your list.

 

Melissa, let’s talk about time. A lot of your work connects the past, the present and the future. Why is this theme so central to your work, and do you ever think about permanence?

 

Melissa: I don’t think there’s any such thing as permanence. I also think we have to really get into the concept that time is not linear. It is more of a spiral, and we can really learn from the past. We can learn what shouldn’t be repeated, we can learn what is really sustainable and in right relationship to the planet we live on.

 

Many indigenous communities have the wisdom of that, and we need to remember what our interconnected relationship is there. So, I think that my connection of past, present and future is really like, what can we bring forward, like in the case of Red Regatta, bringing forward this tradition that is in harmony with the environment that it’s based in, is a good idea.

 

So, you know, we’ll think about that in connecting past, present and future. And also, you know, really, I love involve being the youth in the projects. I love involving, like I do family workshops and I involve people of all ages in the projects because we are all in this together and the youth are the future. And so, we really have to be including them in what’s happening and give agency again, inspire agency.

 

And that goes back to that theme of like climate fatigue and like, how can we come up with creative ways to navigate forward that are going to be in the interest of everyone eventually, hopefully.

 

Abby: Do you think we, we as humans ever learn? Because it seems to me that if we could all just look at the past, then we wouldn’t even be making some of the mistakes we’re currently making, let alone all the ones are going to be making in the future. Do you ever feel a little like this is just part of being human, and we’re constantly going to repeat the same mistakes?

 

Melissa: It goes a little bit to this idea of disconnection. I think that our culture and capitalism relies heavily on distraction, distraction from core values and the connection to the environment. And so, to remember that in any way we can is going to be a positive thing.

 

Brenda: Melissa, a lot of artists are talking about sustainability. When we say sustainability, what do you translate that to mean in your work?

 

Melissa: I think that sustainability is finding ways to be and to like, it brings up a lot of verbs for me, like, actually, like action, like how can we be sustainable not just for the humans, but for all of the beings that live on the planet. So, for example, you know, if we make decisions based on what’s best for everyone, that’s sustainability.

 

I mean, that’s the way I think about it. So, if something is in, as I was saying before, right, relationship to, you know, nature, to all the beings that are human and, and more than human, there’s all different ways of saying it. I mean, we’re never, but we can’t make any gross generalizations about what’s right for everyone. But I think that’s the thing that has to really be part of the conversation. and that’s one of the reasons I really care about beauty. Beauty in the projects is because beauty brings heart connection, and you don’t need language.

 

Abby: So, if you’re using beauty to move people, to make them rethink nature, why is nature on its own not enough for people? Why does it not connect naturally to us, do you think? Why are we happy living in our cement jungle?

 

Melissa: I think again, it goes back to distraction and the phones and the smartphones and the whole culture being in that, people aren’t, you know, are really in that. I know it’s been a useful tool. I’m not someone who is against technology, but I think we really need to think about the impacts that it’s had on people and how they’re connecting to the world that they are in.

 

Like, for example, when I was doing this project called Constellation. Constellation was a large-scale project around the ruins of Bannerman’s Castle on Pollepel Island in the Hudson River. Every evening as the sun went down, these starry lights emerged one by one with the stars in the night sky, and they created a new constellation connecting past and present, light and dark, heaven and earth. And it references a Lenape belief about Opi Temakan which is the “White Road” or the “Milky Way” connecting this world with the next.

 

So, what this was, was I mounted on this island 40 to 80ft poles, and at the top of each pole was a solar powered LED., so you would see this kind of vertical rhythm of these poles during the day. And then as the sun went down, the light would fade and the poles would disappear and these starry lights would come on one by one in the night sky and mix with the stars, actual stars and the moon and connect you back to this larger sense of this landscape. And out of the, just the narrative of this folly, of this Bannerman’s Castle, which was a, built by an Army surplus dealer, a Scottish immigrant, in the turn of the century who kind of turned it into an advertisement.

 

It’s like a folly. So started, and a lot of it has fallen down, which is why it’s kind of a ruin. And so, it’s part of the New York State Parks Department, Hudson Highlands State Park. So, going back into that site and bringing that connection to the larger landscape, we did boat tours all the time. I collaborated with the Bannerman Castle Trust to do these boat tours, which would bring people out on to the river in the evening, which hardly anybody does, and go to see the stars come on.

 

And so, one experience that I had that was so moving and I would, I will never forget it, was every time I did an artist led tour, which was often I would experience the same thing, which was we would have this, the public on the boat. And every evening as the sun went down and these points started to light one by one, over the 15 minutes or so that they lit, people would see one come on, somebody would say, there’s the first one or whatever, and then everybody would get out their phones and start to try to take pictures.

 

But it was night time on the river, and these were solar powered points of light like stars, so you couldn’t capture it very well with the phone, so you had no choice but to put your phone down, put it back in your pocket or your bag and just be there with each other and the smell of the river and the wind on your face, breeze or whatever it was. Sometimes, you know, and different phases of the moon and everyone would stop talking. Or if they talked, they would just whisper. It was like being in a cathedral or something. It was like being really there and present and connected, and it was incredible. So that was a gift.

 

Abby: So be in the moment. Put the phone down, be present.

 

Brenda: And listen.

 

Abby: Well. Thank you, Melissa, for joining us today. Yeah, thanks for sharing your work, the tenacity needed to create these projects and, the importance of nature for all of us and how at our core, we’re very much still part of the world we live in, dependent on it and need to take care of it. So, thank you so much for sharing today.

 

Melissa: Thank you.

 

Abby: And thanks to everyone who tuned in today. If you enjoyed it, subscribe for more episodes of Matters of Experience on Spotify or Apple. Please leave a rating and a review and share with a friend. See you next time!

 

Brenda: Thank you Melissa. Thank you everyone!

 

[Music]

 

Producer: Matters of Experience is produced by Lorem Ipsum Corp and recorded at Hangar Studios. Tune in next time for more fun discussions about experience design.

Melissa McGill is an artist, activist and water storyteller. She is known for collaborative, ambitious site specific public art projects, creative interventions and a vibrant studio practice. Her projects are site-specific, immersive experiences that explore nuanced conversations between land, water, sustainable traditions, and the interconnectedness of all living beings. At the heart of her work is a focus on community, meaningful shared experiences and lasting positive impact. Spanning a variety of media including performance, photography, painting, drawing, sculpture, sound, light, video and immersive installation, McGill has presented both independent projects and solo exhibitions nationally and internationally since 1991. She lives in Lenapehoking (Beacon, New York).

Melissa McGill

Why an Italian Village Tied Itself to a Mountain

Red Regatta — Melissa McGill

Constellation — Melissa McGill

[Music]

 

Abby: Welcome to Matters of Experience, a podcast that explores the creativity, innovation and psychology driving designed experiences and encounters. If you’re new, a big welcome and to our regular listeners, thank you for tuning in. My name is Abigail Honor.

 

Brenda: Hello, everyone. This is Brenda Cowan.

 

Abby: So today we’re talking with Melissa McGill, who’s an artist, activist, and water storyteller. She’s known for collaborative, ambitious, site-specific public art projects that really explore nuanced conversations between land, water, sustainable traditions, and the interconnectedness of humankind. Spanning a variety of media including performance, photography, painting, sculpture, sound, light, video and immersive installation, Melissa has presented both independent public art projects and solo exhibitions nationally and internationally.

 

Abby: Melissa, welcome to the show.

 

Melissa: Thank you so much. I’m so happy to be here with you.

 

Brenda: Melissa, your work is so amazing. Abby and I are thrilled to be talking with you today.

 

Melissa: Thank you.

 

Brenda: Yeah, absolutely. But Abby and I are really curious to know why you feel creative experiences are important to communities. Can you give us an example of a particular creative experience that you think has really made a huge, a huge difference?

 

Melissa: I think that things that draw us into awe and wonder and a sense of really, you know, the planet we live on, our interconnectedness, those are the things that really move me. And I think there’s incredible potential to creative collaboration.

 

So, one work that immediately comes to mind, a work that is such an inspiration to me personally, is a work by an artist named Maria Lai. She’s a Sardinian artist. She’s passed now, but she did a project called “Legarsi alla montagna,” where she activated her entire village to be connected through a blue ribbon, basically a blue cloth ribbon that was woven through the town. And everybody got involved. And then this ribbon was brought up the mountains, so they were literally tied to themselves, to the mountain, you know, and since what’s happened in that village and how the people came together around that project was really inspiring to me.

 

Brenda: And why are these important? Why are these kinds of creative experiences important in the first place?

 

Melissa: Well, I think we live in a time that’s very deeply, deeply challenging, and we are out of balance and disconnected from each other and the environment, and this robs us of our collective agency. So, if we remember that nature is really our wisest ancestral guide, and that how deeply interconnected we all are, we can come together and celebrate the interconnectedness and find balance and a harmonious path forward. I think there’s incredible potential for that in public space.

 

Abby: Would you say, Melissa, when I look at your work in general, does it sort of focus on nature and bringing community together through nature, like what’s sort of your focus as you’re creating a piece?

 

Melissa: It’s all water and stars. Very simple. That’s why I sometimes call myself a water storyteller. I’m really, I’m a water person, and that element is just so engaging to me. We have to care about our waterways, and so exploring nuanced conversations with land, water and sustainable traditions and the interconnectedness of all beings, not just human, but all beings, is at the heart of what I am interested in doing.

 

But I actually would say that constellation is really a form that all of my works take. Like with a constellation, it’s one star and then a collection of stars that are telling a story or that have, that become something else. And that is what’s happening in my work all the time. We are individuals, but then coming together collectively, we can create something different.

 

I mean, we can all have an idea that we start with. But when you engage in real conversation with, let’s say it’s a site-specific work with other people from that place, with people who, you know, let’s say if we talk about the Venetian Lagoon, where I’ve, I’ve done a major project called Red Regatta, you know, finding others that were deeply connected to that waterway and drawing on my experience, my own long personal experience with that waterway, brought us to new places.

 

Abby: So, talk to us, you mentioned Red Regatta first, so I’m going to piggyback on that because it’s a phenomenal project. Can you sort of describe to our listeners the end result of what Regatta could be expressed visually? And then sort of the pathways and the different collaborations with the different groups who helped bring Red Regatta to the water.

 

Melissa: So Red Regatta was an unprecedented independent public intervention. It took the form of four large scale regattas that activated different areas of the Venetian Lagoon in Italy. The vela al terzo sailboats are a traditional wooden type of boat and we sailed together. Each boat had its own set of hand-painted red sails, so every sailboat was hoisted with hand-painted red sails.

 

This project took place in 2019. It was presented in collaboration with the Associazione Vela al Terzo Venezia, which is the sailing club of this type of boat that is in Venice, and a team of over 250 Venetian and international collaborating individuals and partners, many who have never worked together before.

 

And so, why red? Why these red sails that were hand-painted for each boat? Well, my idea was that red is a color that has tremendous emotional range. It represents life force, passion, energy, but also alarm and warning. So just imagine 52 Venetian traditional vela al terzo sailboats sailing through the green blue waters of the Venetian lagoon in unison against the backdrop of the city to draw attention to so many of the issues that this waterway and that Venetians are facing, whether it’s climate change, rising seas, ever increasing motorboat traffic, the problem with the cruise ships, the ever shrinking Venetian population.

 

One other thing that I want to mention about these boats is these vela al terzo boats, they are so beautifully adapted to the city of Venice. You can raise your sales and sail through the Venetian Lagoon, or you can lower the sails, take the mast down, and then row your way under the bridges through the city. So, what an amazing, adapted perfect tradition that needs to be celebrated and moved, and brought forward. Those are the examples that we need, right, to navigate into the future.

 

Brenda: How on earth, Melissa, do you coordinate and lead a project on that scale? You mentioned that there were so many different groups and individuals. What did that look like?

 

Melissa: Well, first of all, I had an amazing team which I’d like to give, thanks and call out to. So, I collaborated, like I said, with the Associazione Vela al Terzo Venezia under the helm of Giorgio Righetti, who was the president of the association at the time. He’s since passed on.

 

And we had deep partnerships with the Comune di Venezia, all kinds of organizations in Venice, Oceana, the United Nations, Sailors for the Sea. I mean, it went on and on nationally and internationally, the Peggy Guggenheim Collection. We did Ocean Space. I mean, I could list so many, they’re all on the website, but I really celebrate the community.

 

And, I think that, you know, the, yes, I mean, there are many people when you start a project like this that will tell you that it can’t happen. I got a lot of that, like, no, this is impossible. It’s never going to work. But when you also have people who look at the project and say, wow, this would be amazing if we could do this, let’s, let’s try and then you just keep putting one foot in front of the other in dedication. You have to be incredibly resilient.

 

There’s an ancient Arab proverb that I always use, which is throw your heart out in front of you and run ahead to catch it. And that is basically what happened. So, there were many stages. There were many moments of like tearing your hair out like, oh my gosh, are we actually going to be able to do this? Actually, it was my project manager, Marcella Ferrari, when we were painting the sails.

 

She said, you’re going to look back on this and you’re going to just be astounded. And I was like so in it, I was like, okay, yeah, but we have to mix this color to go with it. Like, I was right, I was back in the details, you know? And now I look at it and even talking about it, you can probably hear in my voice like I actually, I’m kind of in awe of the fact that we did it.

 

I also think that all projects have divine timing. and the project timing of this project was really specific because I raised all the money for this project myself, like I do for a lot of my projects, my big projects, like Constellation and this one, I have had to fundraise and raise the money for these projects independently because I haven’t found another way to do them. And so, that is a huge responsibility. Fundraising is not my favorite part, but it’s part of what goes with, you know, something like this. And, you know, somebody said, oh, you know, we, we don’t have enough money yet, like, we really should, because the sails were expensive, and I gave them all to the sailors. They all kept, I gave them to them to keep.

 

So, somebody said, oh, you know, we don’t have enough money yet and we should postpone it. And I said, we absolutely cannot postpone it. I was convinced. I was like, no, it has to be now. And it was just like bigger than me, like it was just, has to be now. And then what happened right after was a series of catastrophic events.

 

A cruise ship, like a month or, a month or so after we sailed the last regatta in September 2019, a cruise ship crashed into the Fondamenta in Venice, something we were talking about. It’s like cruise ships in Venice. And then they had the worst flooding since the 60s, you probably remember the dramatic flooding of Venice that year. Like, you know, it was horrendous. It was like the whole city was destroyed. And then Covid. So, if it hadn’t happened then, we probably wouldn’t have done it.

 

Brenda: You are definitely in sync with, I’m sure, a lot of different forces, because what an uplifting, positive time of beauty you created in the city. And, you know, thinking about your connectivity with things. Let’s talk a little bit more about how your work incorporates and resonates with nature. So, you’ve mentioned deep listening. It’s, something that you encourage, deep, deep listening to nature as you create.

 

And this is really, it’s related to a lot of movements that we’re hearing about now, such as, you know, being very mindful, highly present, fostering deep connectivity through mindfulness and active listening. Tell us what deep listening means to you. What can we learn from it?

 

Melissa: I think that the deep listening is not just to, well, it’s to nature, but it’s also to each other. So how can we come together to address these urgent local and global issues creatively and collaboratively? This is the question that I think about. Like, you know, and I would say that seeking out authentic listening collaboration is so important because there’s a lot of people that talk about collaboration, but, you know, when you’re having a conversation, how much are you listening and how much are you talking? You know, also with the non-human, so that’s, you know, the other, I never know what to call that, it’s like other beings, other forces, because I always think of these projects as being collaborations with other people and communities, but also with the elements.

 

Abby: Yeah.

 

Melissa: And with the natural forces. I mean, you can’t sail a regatta without the wind and the water. But I think meaningful shared experiences that are designed to have lasting positive impact, it’s like if we shift the perspective and think about how to have these conversations in ways that are going to bring people together in joy and wonder with lasting positive impact, which I really build the projects around, all of them, then, you know, there’s a lot we can do with that.

 

Abby: So, some of your, you work in what I’d describe as unconventional places. For our listeners, what do you think, Melissa, some of the pros and cons are, when considering creating these larger public works?

 

Melissa: I think it’s really important that you really have an authentic relationship to the place. Like I make work where I live or where I have lived, or where I know people. Sometimes I go into new communities, but only with a tremendous amount of time with immersing myself in that, like, I am not going to be the artist who drops into a place and, you know, says, okay, let’s just make this, because it’s not going to have the same relationship to the place.

 

You know, I need that time to connect. Heart connect. It’s about heart connection. So, you know, a project in the Hudson River. I live on the shores of the Hudson River, a project in Venice, I lived in Venice. I have a deep community there. There’s a lot of places I haven’t been that I’d love to do projects, but it would take time to have a, build a relationship, you know.

 

One site that I take with me and I probably could do, you know, would be engaged to do a project anywhere there is this condition is, I am a person who is incredibly drawn to estuaries. Estuaries are places where, you know, as we know, there is saltwater and freshwater mixing. There are often marshes. There’s incredible biodiversity in those places. And they’re places that are between places that are very important in the world. And so, I do think I could go to any estuary and find my footing pretty quickly.

 

But that’s just like I have a very natural draw to that. But I think that if someone is, you know, planning to work site-specifically, I just hope they would do the work to really find out what is that place.

 

Abby: I do just want to build on a wonderful estuary where I grew up. I grew up on the Wirral, which is north of Wales and south of Liverpool. It’s a little peninsula there, so there’s an estuary which is now getting silted up. About 100 years ago boats would go up and down. So, from Parkgate is the name of the, of the town there, you can see over this beautiful estuary at all the biodiversity, over the River Dee there to Wales, and it would be an amazing place for you to do something.

 

Brenda: Put it on your list.

 

Melissa, let’s talk about time. A lot of your work connects the past, the present and the future. Why is this theme so central to your work, and do you ever think about permanence?

 

Melissa: I don’t think there’s any such thing as permanence. I also think we have to really get into the concept that time is not linear. It is more of a spiral, and we can really learn from the past. We can learn what shouldn’t be repeated, we can learn what is really sustainable and in right relationship to the planet we live on.

 

Many indigenous communities have the wisdom of that, and we need to remember what our interconnected relationship is there. So, I think that my connection of past, present and future is really like, what can we bring forward, like in the case of Red Regatta, bringing forward this tradition that is in harmony with the environment that it’s based in, is a good idea.

 

So, you know, we’ll think about that in connecting past, present and future. And also, you know, really, I love involve being the youth in the projects. I love involving, like I do family workshops and I involve people of all ages in the projects because we are all in this together and the youth are the future. And so, we really have to be including them in what’s happening and give agency again, inspire agency.

 

And that goes back to that theme of like climate fatigue and like, how can we come up with creative ways to navigate forward that are going to be in the interest of everyone eventually, hopefully.

 

Abby: Do you think we, we as humans ever learn? Because it seems to me that if we could all just look at the past, then we wouldn’t even be making some of the mistakes we’re currently making, let alone all the ones are going to be making in the future. Do you ever feel a little like this is just part of being human, and we’re constantly going to repeat the same mistakes?

 

Melissa: It goes a little bit to this idea of disconnection. I think that our culture and capitalism relies heavily on distraction, distraction from core values and the connection to the environment. And so, to remember that in any way we can is going to be a positive thing.

 

Brenda: Melissa, a lot of artists are talking about sustainability. When we say sustainability, what do you translate that to mean in your work?

 

Melissa: I think that sustainability is finding ways to be and to like, it brings up a lot of verbs for me, like, actually, like action, like how can we be sustainable not just for the humans, but for all of the beings that live on the planet. So, for example, you know, if we make decisions based on what’s best for everyone, that’s sustainability.

 

I mean, that’s the way I think about it. So, if something is in, as I was saying before, right, relationship to, you know, nature, to all the beings that are human and, and more than human, there’s all different ways of saying it. I mean, we’re never, but we can’t make any gross generalizations about what’s right for everyone. But I think that’s the thing that has to really be part of the conversation. and that’s one of the reasons I really care about beauty. Beauty in the projects is because beauty brings heart connection, and you don’t need language.

 

Abby: So, if you’re using beauty to move people, to make them rethink nature, why is nature on its own not enough for people? Why does it not connect naturally to us, do you think? Why are we happy living in our cement jungle?

 

Melissa: I think again, it goes back to distraction and the phones and the smartphones and the whole culture being in that, people aren’t, you know, are really in that. I know it’s been a useful tool. I’m not someone who is against technology, but I think we really need to think about the impacts that it’s had on people and how they’re connecting to the world that they are in.

 

Like, for example, when I was doing this project called Constellation. Constellation was a large-scale project around the ruins of Bannerman’s Castle on Pollepel Island in the Hudson River. Every evening as the sun went down, these starry lights emerged one by one with the stars in the night sky, and they created a new constellation connecting past and present, light and dark, heaven and earth. And it references a Lenape belief about Opi Temakan which is the “White Road” or the “Milky Way” connecting this world with the next.

 

So, what this was, was I mounted on this island 40 to 80ft poles, and at the top of each pole was a solar powered LED., so you would see this kind of vertical rhythm of these poles during the day. And then as the sun went down, the light would fade and the poles would disappear and these starry lights would come on one by one in the night sky and mix with the stars, actual stars and the moon and connect you back to this larger sense of this landscape. And out of the, just the narrative of this folly, of this Bannerman’s Castle, which was a, built by an Army surplus dealer, a Scottish immigrant, in the turn of the century who kind of turned it into an advertisement.

 

It’s like a folly. So started, and a lot of it has fallen down, which is why it’s kind of a ruin. And so, it’s part of the New York State Parks Department, Hudson Highlands State Park. So, going back into that site and bringing that connection to the larger landscape, we did boat tours all the time. I collaborated with the Bannerman Castle Trust to do these boat tours, which would bring people out on to the river in the evening, which hardly anybody does, and go to see the stars come on.

 

And so, one experience that I had that was so moving and I would, I will never forget it, was every time I did an artist led tour, which was often I would experience the same thing, which was we would have this, the public on the boat. And every evening as the sun went down and these points started to light one by one, over the 15 minutes or so that they lit, people would see one come on, somebody would say, there’s the first one or whatever, and then everybody would get out their phones and start to try to take pictures.

 

But it was night time on the river, and these were solar powered points of light like stars, so you couldn’t capture it very well with the phone, so you had no choice but to put your phone down, put it back in your pocket or your bag and just be there with each other and the smell of the river and the wind on your face, breeze or whatever it was. Sometimes, you know, and different phases of the moon and everyone would stop talking. Or if they talked, they would just whisper. It was like being in a cathedral or something. It was like being really there and present and connected, and it was incredible. So that was a gift.

 

Abby: So be in the moment. Put the phone down, be present.

 

Brenda: And listen.

 

Abby: Well. Thank you, Melissa, for joining us today. Yeah, thanks for sharing your work, the tenacity needed to create these projects and, the importance of nature for all of us and how at our core, we’re very much still part of the world we live in, dependent on it and need to take care of it. So, thank you so much for sharing today.

 

Melissa: Thank you.

 

Abby: And thanks to everyone who tuned in today. If you enjoyed it, subscribe for more episodes of Matters of Experience on Spotify or Apple. Please leave a rating and a review and share with a friend. See you next time!

 

Brenda: Thank you Melissa. Thank you everyone!

 

[Music]

 

Producer: Matters of Experience is produced by Lorem Ipsum Corp and recorded at Hangar Studios. Tune in next time for more fun discussions about experience design.

Creating with Nature with Melissa McGill

Creating with Nature with Melissa McGill

May 29, 2024
What is an Experience? with Tim McNeil

What is an Experience? with Tim McNeil

May 15, 2024
Subscribe now on Apple Podcasts and Spotify
Tim McNeil believes that exhibition design is the most transdisciplinary of the design fields, bringing together different design disciplines to create engaging experiences for diverse audiences. In this week’s episode, Tim joins hosts Abby and Brenda in a multifaceted conversation about collaboration, creativity, and the impact of technology in exhibition design. This episode is sure to inspire listeners to rethink conventional approaches and embrace the transformative power of immersive storytelling.
Timothy McNeil is a Professor of Design at the University of California Davis and Director/Chief Curator of the UC Davis Design Museum. He has spent over 30 years as a practicing exhibition designer working for major museums, researching exhibition design history and methods, and teaching the next generations of exhibition design thinkers and practitioners.

His recent publication “The Exhibition and Experience Design Handbook” pulls from his extensive experience as an educator, designer, and contributor to building three major museums: the J. Paul Getty Museum at the Getty Center and Getty Villa, and the Jan Shrem and Maria Manetti Shrem Museum of Art.

He has been recognized for design excellence by the Society for Experiential Graphic Design, the University and College Designers Association, the American Alliance of Museums, and the International Museum Design and Communication Association. Tim is a frequent speaker and writer on museum and design issues. His award-winning design work is archived at the Getty Research Institute and has been featured in multiple publications.

Tim McNeil | University of California Davis | blooloop 50 2023

The Exhibition and Experience Design Handbook – 9781538157985

Design Museum — UC Davis

The Transformational Impact of Exhibition and Experience Design – SEGD

[Music]

 

Abby: Welcome to Matters of Experience. My name is Abigail Honor.

 

Brenda: Hello, this is Brenda Cowan.

 

Abby: This is produced by Lorem Ipsum, an experience design company headquartered in New York, and our podcast explores the creativity, innovation and psychology driving designed experiences and encounters. Hello to anybody listening for the first time, and welcome back to our regular listeners. So, Brenda, today we’re talking with a guest Blooloop named among the top 50 Museum Influencers for 2023, who recently published the Exhibition and Experience Design Handbook, which really is a must read and reference book for all designers. I cannot encourage you enough to go online and buy it. It’s an amazing guide for our practice. And if you haven’t guessed yet, we’d like to welcome to today’s show, Tim McNeil. Tim, welcome.

 

Tim: Thanks for that great introduction, Abby. Hi, Brenda. It’s so, so great to be here. So, admire what you’re doing and how your show has contributed to the field. So, thanks for having me.

 

Brenda: Well, Tim, I love your book. And, you know, it’s funny, I remember hanging out with you weeks before Covid changed the world, and you were sharing with me your journey of writing this book, and I was so excited in those early days for what was to come and, Tim, you so delivered.

 

Tim: Thank you.

 

Brenda: So, like me, you’re an educator. You are a professor of design. You are the director of the Design Museum at the University of California, Davis. And before that, you spent 30 years as a practicing exhibition designer working for major museums like the J. Paul Getty. Tim, what are the most vital elements from your years of practice that you make sure to pass on to your students in the classroom?

 

Tim: Yeah, no, I think, I mean, the key one is collaboration. In the classroom, I always encourage students to work together, because, you know, that’s how, you know, exhibition teams work, right? We don’t do anything in isolation. A level of, I suppose, installing in my in students that ambiguity is okay, because often when we’re working on any project, right, we don’t know where things are going to go sometimes.

 

We’re going to pitch ideas. We’re going to try and, you know, conceive of things to get buy-in from various people. And sometimes that works and sometimes that doesn’t. Sometimes we come up with an amazing design for something and it gets critiqued, it gets changed, it has to move on. And I think for, in the classroom space, that’s sometimes quite difficult for students to grapple with, that they could spend a long time on something and then it may not actually get, you know, realized in the same way that they envisioned it.

 

And the other is just creativity. I’m a huge believer in creativity, that that is the one key thing that makes designers, designers, right, that we can have all the amazing tools we want in the world, but if we don’t have a creative response or something unique to present that information or those ideas, and we can’t think of things in a highly creative way, then that doesn’t do much.

 

So, to me, the designer brings this level of creativity to any project and thinks about things in a way that maybe has never been thought of before.

 

Brenda: So, this is something that is, it’s actually it’s been a little bit of a debate. Now, I’m a firm believer that you can teach creativity, or I should say that you can foster its growth and foster its presence within an individual. What do you think—

 

Abby: Oh, hang on, this is going to be interesting.

 

Brenda: Tim, can you teach creativity?

 

Tim: I think you can teach tools to be more creative, whether those will all get to the end result you want, not for everybody. I mean I make a point in the classes I teach, we do warm-up exercises that are about just thinking freely and about making what I call, by associations. So, taking one thing and taking another and trying to put them together and seeing what you get.

 

So, there are tools you can use, you know, and there are lots of, you know, resources for this about how to be creative. But I think it’s practicing that so that you have a set of tools to rely on that help you. And also, part of that creative process is multiplicity of ideas, right? Not settling on one but exploring the full gamut of options. So yeah, I think you can offer the tools and ways of becoming more creative.

 

Brenda: Build the muscle.

 

Abby: Yeah, I totally agree with that, and just touching on one other thing that you mentioned, which is really important to me, is this idea of the multiplicity of ideas and that generating new versions and different versions, because settling on the first idea, I think, doesn’t mean that that idea has had that robust testing that needs to happen in the ideation process.

 

That’s the point of evolving ideas and exploring everything. And I think a lot of designers pause, potentially, when they feel like they’ve found it immediately, instead of really continuing to iterate, Tim, so it’s nice to hear that you’re teaching your students that that’s really invaluable, because I think collaboration and iteration are the two things that designers really need to get used to and understand that their idea is to be contributed to a pool of other collaborators, to grow and build something that’s made collectively.

 

Tim: Completely agree, and I suppose another part of it is originality. And I don’t believe—it’s hard to find anything that’s truly original. So, I wouldn’t go out and say that you can always come with original ideas, but I do think you’re always striving to think about how can you at least improve what’s already there?

 

Brenda: Innovate.

 

Abby: Move it forward. Yeah. So, changing our focus for a second, experiences, whatever they are, so from entertainment to cultural events sort of reflect our society which is ever changing. What do you think have been some of the most significant social changes, let’s say in the last decade, and how is our industry addressing them?

 

Tim: Well, we always talk about technology. Okay. It’s been a big part of this which has really impacted our culture, or at least the way we do things within exhibitions. Also, a big change, right, is, is a focus on, much more on audience, and understanding everyone’s needs. And we’re not there yet with that, but we’re certainly a lot further along than we were.

 

And I certainly, when I’m teaching and, in my work, always put audience at the forefront, audience and story, actually narrative at the forefront. So, I think that’s the key thing. And also, just an awareness of a complex world that we’re living in and that awareness, and I see it, you know, certainly in my students, in terms of how there’s so much more sort of understanding of the complexity of the world in terms of, you know, the climate crisis, in terms of inclusion and equity, in terms of understanding what everyone around them needs. And then, so I think that’s a, definitely a huge, sort of shift or advancement as well in that area.

 

Brenda: One of the great things about having students is, is that they are always bringing society to you.

 

Tim: I always say that I’m learning more from them than I can ever really teach. You know, right? I mean you’re there as a facilitator to get the conversation going and the dialog going, but really they’re learning from each other more than they’re necessary learning from the instructor, and I think that’s key. But I, yeah, I absolutely agree with that.

 

Brenda: Well, it’s the mark of a really great educator. So, let’s talk about the book again. Just like my graduate program it’s titled Exhibition and Experience Design. What’s the difference between the two in your take, like why is there an and?

 

Tim: One of the main goals of the book for me was to combine somewhat equally, the sort of history of exhibition and experience making, the theoretical sort of underpinnings of the discipline, and then the more practice based of how do we do it? You know, the, the words we use to describe the field, the way we do things have evolved.

 

Certainly, the word exhibition is one that, you know, has evolved over time to include so many more things. To me, exhibition, or exhibition as a medium because exhibitions are everywhere and anywhere, right? You can find an exhibition, you know, in, in a street, in a museum, in your home, if you choose to create one. I think whenever we’re staging any kind of environment, we’re creating an exhibition. Experience, of course, is one that’s being used now very loosely within multiple sort of sectors to describe experience making, whether that’s not just within exhibitions but also within, you know, digital media or UI/UX, sort of human centered design, all those other areas too. So, the books attempting to try and, you know, clarify some of that or link these two together, that experiences can happen in many, many places. But the, it’s the, you know, exhibition making is certainly one of the main drivers to how you get there.

 

Brenda: I’m listening to you, and I’m really appreciating the way, the sort of, the broad way in which you’re really describing experience and the scope that you’re including and in addition to the physical space as well, listening to you, it’s so clear that also when we’re talking about experience, we’re talking about the heart space, we’re talking about emotional experience, we’re talking about intellectual experience in addition to that physical experience, which, right, has been the convention for so long. But now we’re really, really giving, I think, you know, sizable, necessary merit to the, the, the emotional and the intellectual.

 

Tim: Yeah, very much so. And the book touches on that and goes into sort of the more sort of philosophical sense of what an experience is, as much as you’re saying about the emotional and the more psychological, right, of, of how we, how we have an experience, what does an experience mean. You know, it also touches a lot, right, on memory. Right? What are, what are those moments that we’re creating that we remember? Are those, what’s the, what’s the value in memory to an experience too is of real interest to me because I think when we walk away from experiencing, what do we walk away with? What do we hold on to and what do we let go?

 

And so, as I think about designing an exhibition, I’m always thinking about this pacing through a space and how these moments, these experiences can be revealed. So, you know, I like to think of it in terms of, you offer an attract to somebody, which then you reveal something, and then you offer a reward. And I think about that a lot in terms of creating experiences. Upfront, you’re pulling people in. You’re then maybe revealing something they’ve not known before or are seeing something for the first time and then rewarding them something at the end.

 

So, there’s this experience to dissecting it, what are the components of an experience and how do they map onto designing an exhibition?

 

Abby: That’s really interesting because we think about it in a very similar way in terms of attracting someone, gaining their interest, revealing something new about something they thought they already knew, or a new topic they haven’t seen, and then connecting with them on an emotional and an educational level and an entertaining level, and then providing, I guess, it’s interesting you call it a reward, we always think about it as, and maybe this is because we do a lot of history museums and a lot of heavy subject matter. So, it’s always that space for repose, a place for quiet thought and a place to think. One of the chapters is Once Upon a Timeline. I have mixed relationship with timelines because they are so wonderful in their organization of things for people, but at the same time can be extremely limiting. So can you sort of chat through from a design perspective—

 

Brenda: Sell Abby on the timeline.

 

Tim: Okay. And I think that, you know, as you picked up there, the chapters in the book, I try to come up with kind of enticing, should we say more provocative chapters to kind of pull you in, just like you just did then, Abby, with the timeline. Because in some ways, I then refute that the timeline is only one way, of course, of telling a story.

 

And even the timeline as a concept, right, means different things to different people in different parts of the world. You know, some timelines are linear, many are cyclical, others don’t exist at all. Like the idea that we have a beginning and an end. So, I think that it’s there a bit as a provocation, but also to kind of say it’s a trope, okay, that we’ve used to tell stories for millennia, one that we rely on heavily because it’s kind of easy to do it that way.

 

You’ve got a beginning, a middle, and an end, or at least you’ve got a linear path to follow. So, the chapter does kind of take that on and looks at well, what does that mean to tell a story? Like if we think about it as being, as linear, how do we think about an experience playing out in different ways as well?

 

Certainly, I’m interested in, and the chapter picks up on it, in how we move people through a space, and that the movement through the space becomes a storytelling device. It’s not necessarily constructed on time, but more on movement or the journey. So yes, timelines are great, but they offer limitations. And, you know, the sort of chrono thematic approach to an exhibition, right, where you have a timeline as the main construct that ties it all together, but there are these deviations to different themes from it, can be a very powerful way of doing it, so that the thematic approach becomes equally prevalent. And certainly, a thematic division of an exhibition or telling a story allows for a more inclusive story to be told, frankly, you know, the timeline locks you into something that, you know, that is easier, difficult to move or, or to introduce other things to it.

 

Brenda: Well, the great thing about that kind of approach is that it, I think, enables the visitor to sort of be in, if you will, or consider a particular moment in time, and then draw it in relationship to their present day. Anyway, I’m very pleased with the Once Upon a Timeline chapter. I’m with you, Tim.

 

Abby: There was, well I do also—

 

Tim: We’ll convince you. Abby.

 

Abby: Yeah, yeah. I do agree that, that the challenge maybe with the timeline is, is how do you make it relevant to the audience at the time? And Tim, you talk a lot about it. I think it’s through the stories you tell, because at the end of the day, we’re all humans, and these stories often have relatable themes within them, whether it’s relating to a monster or relating to somebody who’s wonderfully triumphant. I think it’s important to make sure that the way that we then tell those stories resonate with the audience.

 

Tim: I think the timeline is a good starting point often, but then it’s good to challenge that, and then it gets you to then think about things in a different way. But it’s somewhere that, it’s an easy place to maybe begin.

 

Abby: Yeah, I completely agree. So, you know, there is a call to action in the book. What do you mean by that?

 

Tim: The process of designing an experience or an exhibition is very much rooted in a design process that borrows from architecture to some degree, right? We go through a phased approach of concept development, detailing, implementation, and it’s very fixed. So, the call to action is, hey, do we have to always design an exhibition this way? Could we come at it from a different approach?

 

Could we think about an exhibition more from, I suppose it is the more emotional but more, again, the creative side of it. But also, can this methodology be mapped onto other disciplines in other areas? Because I feel that within the digital realm, within developing UI/UX, types of experiences, it’s the same thing we’re doing. We’re creating a digital space rather than the physical one, but we’re still thinking about some of the same criteria, such as staging, such as creating wow moments such as thinking about, you know, our audience is key to that too.

 

So, I was really wanting to use exhibition design and that process as a way of tackling other things. And the other part of the call to action is that I feel that exhibition design is the most transdisciplinary of the design fields, more so than architecture, more so than theater design or other areas, because it simply brings together so many different design areas and people from other disciplines to create these kind of experiences.

 

So, the call to action is, hey, we need to acknowledge this field. The profile of the field needs elevating. I feel it, it’s playing a role within society and within culture that it often doesn’t get credit for and has been doing for a long, long time. And that’s why I was very focused on the history in the book of when did we begin to sort of professionally design exhibitions, experiences and look what we’ve managed to do and look where we’ve got to. So, the call to action really is also about, hey, look, this field means business. Pay attention and look at the great work that exhibition makers are doing and the influence they’re having within the field.

 

Abby: Well, no, I think it’s super important. And that’s why Brenda and I started this podcast. We felt exactly the same way, that we need people to start acknowledging this field and stop calling architects to do our work or thinking that they’re the ones that they should be hiring to design exhibitions. I can’t tell you, Tim, how many times I’m handed an exhibition design done by the architect of the building. And it’s, you know, it’s frustrating.

 

Brenda: Thinking much more expansively about the role of the curator, or perhaps less expansively about the role of the curator. You know, I just keep thinking, as I’m listening to you about things such as film and the process of filmmaking, the, you know, hordes of people and disciplines that are involved in crafting a film, and also the fact that what a delight when you are able to work with filmmakers within the exhibition team, when you’re able to work with journalists in the exhibition team, authors in the exhibition team, in addition to all of the, you know, the myriad of design disciplines.

 

Let’s expand upon this a little bit and let’s talk about other members of the creative team. And I’m thinking about engaging audiences, and I’m thinking about engaging local communities. What do you think about how it is that engaging with local people, local communities can make a difference in exhibition creation?

 

Tim: There’s a class that I teach called Narrative Environments, and it’s completely focused on working with local community. So, we spend ten weeks working with the local organization, you know, within the region where I’m based, and I let it evolve through the project. I don’t have a, necessarily a idea of what it’s going to end up being in the end.

 

And I tell the students upfront about this, too, that we’re going to do this collaborative project with the community and we’re going to see where it goes and what happens and learn as we go. And I love this class because it’s something that I wish I could have done more in professional practice, where we don’t get so hung up on what the end result should be, but that we work more open-endedly with community to let everyone be part of the process, right.

 

And it’s also coming on from a research project that I’m involved in at the moment. I’m working with a colleague in London, Tricia Austin, on this, and the two of us are currently hosting forums. We’ve done seven of them so far with designers all over the world to better understand if the exhibition design medium can be an agent of change, can truly be transformative.

 

But what’s come through from those conversations time and time again? The projects that many of the designers we’ve, you know, had participate have been ones on a very local level that have addressed, projects that are, you know, very much connected to cultural aspects or geographic local region that they’re working in. And these all involve community, about bringing people into the conversation and working with them very, very closely.

 

And it’s been interesting that many of the participants in these forums, they’re the projects they want to talk about, too, because they feel those are the most, been the most successful, when they have been able to engage community partners in a meaningful way. So, it says a lot about, well, okay, that’s, there’s the satisfaction level there, too, of feeling like the project really worked, and they’re very proud of the result when they were able to have this more reciprocal relationship with the audience.

 

Abby: Just to chime in, I was lucky, fortunate enough to be part of one of those forums, and I think that was a great opportunity for us. I find that it’s very difficult to come together with peers and discuss our projects and workshop together and move forward as an industry. There’s a couple of great places to do that, but I really felt it was very intimate.

 

We were sharing specific projects. We all had a set amount of time and then the feedback was just fantastic. It was candid, it was informed, like it was just a really wonderful moment.

 

Brenda: What I love about what you’re doing with your forums is working towards the idea of transformation, and I think creating illustrative examples of what transformation actually looks like. And I think that, you know, a lot of scholars are familiar with the idea of transformation and its connections with, for example, wellbeing and some of the recent work that I was engaged with really looking at the role of transformation in the flourishing museum and in the flourishing exhibition experience.

 

And, but there’s, there’s a but which is there isn’t, I think anyway, enough example out there of what it really, really looks like. And doing that on a global level, Tim, is, it’s brilliant and it’s important. So, so thank you for doing that.

 

Tim: Thanks. Yeah, I mean just to sort of give a little bit of context to these, the title of the forums is really called The Transformational Impact of Exhibition Design. And that’s the reason for having these forums and inviting designers to come and talk about projects they’ve worked on that address, you know, for instance, climate crisis, social justice, looking at social polarization, and issues around technology and ethics are some of the key ones that we’re sort of interested in.

 

And also, just how many of the, you know, the designers from different parts of the world have things to contribute in all of those areas, but are also very specific to where they are, geographically, you know, and what they’re facing sort of, you know, on a more local level. And that’s been interesting to see too. But the passion and enthusiasm for talking about this is, it’s contagious. It’s been, it’s been really great.

 

Abby: So, I have a question for Brenda and you, Tim, in terms of, it’s all leading towards, again, our profession and highlighting our profession. Why has it taking us so long, like what are we doing wrong?

 

Brenda: Why is it that folks call the architect first and then much later on in the process, the exhibition team is brought in to sort of fill in the box? What’s up with that? That convention should be long gone by now.

 

Tim: Absolutely. I agree, and I’ve also, Brenda, thank you for your contribution, for your books as well because part of this is, right, is building up a body of theory or writing to help substantiate the field, right? That’s a big part of it too. And in my surveys of looking at what’s out there in terms of publications about our field, there’s so few.

 

But if you look at architecture, you could fill entire library with it. So that says a lot too, about the maybe, there hasn’t been the opportunity to be as critical about our field. And I mean that through, you know, dissecting it and looking at it and writing about it than we could have been. And some of that is because it goes back to, right, the, the, a more curatorial approach to exhibition making. That certainly has a place and is well understood, but again, the role of the designer and working with the curator or with the exhibition team is less understood or less valued. Hence, again, what we’re doing here, right, is to make a mark on that.

 

Abby: That’s a call to action, then, in a way, Tim. Call to action to our listeners.

 

Brenda: You know, as I see it, it’s, I mean, it’s like a love affair. It really is. And in every possible way, you know, I think that embracing the idea of sharing your expertise or maybe even more importantly, sharing your questions, through whatever the medium is, if it is, if it is a podcast or if it is a book, or if it is a research project and, you know, any kind of publication whatsoever, I think that sort of building towards this, you know, critical mass, I think, as you’re thinking, Tim, everybody who can contribute the questions that they have about our field and to explore those questions and to enable themselves as best as possible to fall in love with something, no matter how small or quotidian or large and philosophical. I think that the more we are enabled to allow ourselves and give ourselves permission to fall in love with just one aspect, if not many, about what it is that we’re doing, and then to produce something that illustrates that passion and the wonder about it, then I think we’re going to see more and more and more of these kinds of contributions.

 

Tim: Absolutely.

 

Abby: Well, thank you so much, Tim. I really hope our listeners enjoyed all the facets of our conversation as much as I did. This was inspiring, thought provoking, provocative. So, a huge thanks, Tim, for joining us today and sharing your experiences.

 

Tim: Oh, you’re absolutely welcome. It’s been really fun. Thanks for having me on the show.

 

Abby: And thanks to everyone who tuned in today. If you enjoyed it, subscribe for more episodes of Matters of Experience on Spotify or Apple. Please leave a rating and a review and share with a friend. See you next time!

 

Brenda: Take care everyone!

 

[Music]

 

Producer: Matters of Experience is produced by Lorem Ipsum Corp and recorded at Hangar Studios. Tune in next time for more fun discussions about experience design.

Timothy McNeil is a Professor of Design at the University of California Davis and Director/Chief Curator of the UC Davis Design Museum. He has spent over 30 years as a practicing exhibition designer working for major museums, researching exhibition design history and methods, and teaching the next generations of exhibition design thinkers and practitioners.

His recent publication “The Exhibition and Experience Design Handbook” pulls from his extensive experience as an educator, designer, and contributor to building three major museums: the J. Paul Getty Museum at the Getty Center and Getty Villa, and the Jan Shrem and Maria Manetti Shrem Museum of Art.

He has been recognized for design excellence by the Society for Experiential Graphic Design, the University and College Designers Association, the American Alliance of Museums, and the International Museum Design and Communication Association. Tim is a frequent speaker and writer on museum and design issues. His award-winning design work is archived at the Getty Research Institute and has been featured in multiple publications.

Tim McNeil | University of California Davis | blooloop 50 2023

The Exhibition and Experience Design Handbook – 9781538157985

Design Museum — UC Davis

The Transformational Impact of Exhibition and Experience Design – SEGD

[Music]

 

Abby: Welcome to Matters of Experience. My name is Abigail Honor.

 

Brenda: Hello, this is Brenda Cowan.

 

Abby: This is produced by Lorem Ipsum, an experience design company headquartered in New York, and our podcast explores the creativity, innovation and psychology driving designed experiences and encounters. Hello to anybody listening for the first time, and welcome back to our regular listeners. So, Brenda, today we’re talking with a guest Blooloop named among the top 50 Museum Influencers for 2023, who recently published the Exhibition and Experience Design Handbook, which really is a must read and reference book for all designers. I cannot encourage you enough to go online and buy it. It’s an amazing guide for our practice. And if you haven’t guessed yet, we’d like to welcome to today’s show, Tim McNeil. Tim, welcome.

 

Tim: Thanks for that great introduction, Abby. Hi, Brenda. It’s so, so great to be here. So, admire what you’re doing and how your show has contributed to the field. So, thanks for having me.

 

Brenda: Well, Tim, I love your book. And, you know, it’s funny, I remember hanging out with you weeks before Covid changed the world, and you were sharing with me your journey of writing this book, and I was so excited in those early days for what was to come and, Tim, you so delivered.

 

Tim: Thank you.

 

Brenda: So, like me, you’re an educator. You are a professor of design. You are the director of the Design Museum at the University of California, Davis. And before that, you spent 30 years as a practicing exhibition designer working for major museums like the J. Paul Getty. Tim, what are the most vital elements from your years of practice that you make sure to pass on to your students in the classroom?

 

Tim: Yeah, no, I think, I mean, the key one is collaboration. In the classroom, I always encourage students to work together, because, you know, that’s how, you know, exhibition teams work, right? We don’t do anything in isolation. A level of, I suppose, installing in my in students that ambiguity is okay, because often when we’re working on any project, right, we don’t know where things are going to go sometimes.

 

We’re going to pitch ideas. We’re going to try and, you know, conceive of things to get buy-in from various people. And sometimes that works and sometimes that doesn’t. Sometimes we come up with an amazing design for something and it gets critiqued, it gets changed, it has to move on. And I think for, in the classroom space, that’s sometimes quite difficult for students to grapple with, that they could spend a long time on something and then it may not actually get, you know, realized in the same way that they envisioned it.

 

And the other is just creativity. I’m a huge believer in creativity, that that is the one key thing that makes designers, designers, right, that we can have all the amazing tools we want in the world, but if we don’t have a creative response or something unique to present that information or those ideas, and we can’t think of things in a highly creative way, then that doesn’t do much.

 

So, to me, the designer brings this level of creativity to any project and thinks about things in a way that maybe has never been thought of before.

 

Brenda: So, this is something that is, it’s actually it’s been a little bit of a debate. Now, I’m a firm believer that you can teach creativity, or I should say that you can foster its growth and foster its presence within an individual. What do you think—

 

Abby: Oh, hang on, this is going to be interesting.

 

Brenda: Tim, can you teach creativity?

 

Tim: I think you can teach tools to be more creative, whether those will all get to the end result you want, not for everybody. I mean I make a point in the classes I teach, we do warm-up exercises that are about just thinking freely and about making what I call, by associations. So, taking one thing and taking another and trying to put them together and seeing what you get.

 

So, there are tools you can use, you know, and there are lots of, you know, resources for this about how to be creative. But I think it’s practicing that so that you have a set of tools to rely on that help you. And also, part of that creative process is multiplicity of ideas, right? Not settling on one but exploring the full gamut of options. So yeah, I think you can offer the tools and ways of becoming more creative.

 

Brenda: Build the muscle.

 

Abby: Yeah, I totally agree with that, and just touching on one other thing that you mentioned, which is really important to me, is this idea of the multiplicity of ideas and that generating new versions and different versions, because settling on the first idea, I think, doesn’t mean that that idea has had that robust testing that needs to happen in the ideation process.

 

That’s the point of evolving ideas and exploring everything. And I think a lot of designers pause, potentially, when they feel like they’ve found it immediately, instead of really continuing to iterate, Tim, so it’s nice to hear that you’re teaching your students that that’s really invaluable, because I think collaboration and iteration are the two things that designers really need to get used to and understand that their idea is to be contributed to a pool of other collaborators, to grow and build something that’s made collectively.

 

Tim: Completely agree, and I suppose another part of it is originality. And I don’t believe—it’s hard to find anything that’s truly original. So, I wouldn’t go out and say that you can always come with original ideas, but I do think you’re always striving to think about how can you at least improve what’s already there?

 

Brenda: Innovate.

 

Abby: Move it forward. Yeah. So, changing our focus for a second, experiences, whatever they are, so from entertainment to cultural events sort of reflect our society which is ever changing. What do you think have been some of the most significant social changes, let’s say in the last decade, and how is our industry addressing them?

 

Tim: Well, we always talk about technology. Okay. It’s been a big part of this which has really impacted our culture, or at least the way we do things within exhibitions. Also, a big change, right, is, is a focus on, much more on audience, and understanding everyone’s needs. And we’re not there yet with that, but we’re certainly a lot further along than we were.

 

And I certainly, when I’m teaching and, in my work, always put audience at the forefront, audience and story, actually narrative at the forefront. So, I think that’s the key thing. And also, just an awareness of a complex world that we’re living in and that awareness, and I see it, you know, certainly in my students, in terms of how there’s so much more sort of understanding of the complexity of the world in terms of, you know, the climate crisis, in terms of inclusion and equity, in terms of understanding what everyone around them needs. And then, so I think that’s a, definitely a huge, sort of shift or advancement as well in that area.

 

Brenda: One of the great things about having students is, is that they are always bringing society to you.

 

Tim: I always say that I’m learning more from them than I can ever really teach. You know, right? I mean you’re there as a facilitator to get the conversation going and the dialog going, but really they’re learning from each other more than they’re necessary learning from the instructor, and I think that’s key. But I, yeah, I absolutely agree with that.

 

Brenda: Well, it’s the mark of a really great educator. So, let’s talk about the book again. Just like my graduate program it’s titled Exhibition and Experience Design. What’s the difference between the two in your take, like why is there an and?

 

Tim: One of the main goals of the book for me was to combine somewhat equally, the sort of history of exhibition and experience making, the theoretical sort of underpinnings of the discipline, and then the more practice based of how do we do it? You know, the, the words we use to describe the field, the way we do things have evolved.

 

Certainly, the word exhibition is one that, you know, has evolved over time to include so many more things. To me, exhibition, or exhibition as a medium because exhibitions are everywhere and anywhere, right? You can find an exhibition, you know, in, in a street, in a museum, in your home, if you choose to create one. I think whenever we’re staging any kind of environment, we’re creating an exhibition. Experience, of course, is one that’s being used now very loosely within multiple sort of sectors to describe experience making, whether that’s not just within exhibitions but also within, you know, digital media or UI/UX, sort of human centered design, all those other areas too. So, the books attempting to try and, you know, clarify some of that or link these two together, that experiences can happen in many, many places. But the, it’s the, you know, exhibition making is certainly one of the main drivers to how you get there.

 

Brenda: I’m listening to you, and I’m really appreciating the way, the sort of, the broad way in which you’re really describing experience and the scope that you’re including and in addition to the physical space as well, listening to you, it’s so clear that also when we’re talking about experience, we’re talking about the heart space, we’re talking about emotional experience, we’re talking about intellectual experience in addition to that physical experience, which, right, has been the convention for so long. But now we’re really, really giving, I think, you know, sizable, necessary merit to the, the, the emotional and the intellectual.

 

Tim: Yeah, very much so. And the book touches on that and goes into sort of the more sort of philosophical sense of what an experience is, as much as you’re saying about the emotional and the more psychological, right, of, of how we, how we have an experience, what does an experience mean. You know, it also touches a lot, right, on memory. Right? What are, what are those moments that we’re creating that we remember? Are those, what’s the, what’s the value in memory to an experience too is of real interest to me because I think when we walk away from experiencing, what do we walk away with? What do we hold on to and what do we let go?

 

And so, as I think about designing an exhibition, I’m always thinking about this pacing through a space and how these moments, these experiences can be revealed. So, you know, I like to think of it in terms of, you offer an attract to somebody, which then you reveal something, and then you offer a reward. And I think about that a lot in terms of creating experiences. Upfront, you’re pulling people in. You’re then maybe revealing something they’ve not known before or are seeing something for the first time and then rewarding them something at the end.

 

So, there’s this experience to dissecting it, what are the components of an experience and how do they map onto designing an exhibition?

 

Abby: That’s really interesting because we think about it in a very similar way in terms of attracting someone, gaining their interest, revealing something new about something they thought they already knew, or a new topic they haven’t seen, and then connecting with them on an emotional and an educational level and an entertaining level, and then providing, I guess, it’s interesting you call it a reward, we always think about it as, and maybe this is because we do a lot of history museums and a lot of heavy subject matter. So, it’s always that space for repose, a place for quiet thought and a place to think. One of the chapters is Once Upon a Timeline. I have mixed relationship with timelines because they are so wonderful in their organization of things for people, but at the same time can be extremely limiting. So can you sort of chat through from a design perspective—

 

Brenda: Sell Abby on the timeline.

 

Tim: Okay. And I think that, you know, as you picked up there, the chapters in the book, I try to come up with kind of enticing, should we say more provocative chapters to kind of pull you in, just like you just did then, Abby, with the timeline. Because in some ways, I then refute that the timeline is only one way, of course, of telling a story.

 

And even the timeline as a concept, right, means different things to different people in different parts of the world. You know, some timelines are linear, many are cyclical, others don’t exist at all. Like the idea that we have a beginning and an end. So, I think that it’s there a bit as a provocation, but also to kind of say it’s a trope, okay, that we’ve used to tell stories for millennia, one that we rely on heavily because it’s kind of easy to do it that way.

 

You’ve got a beginning, a middle, and an end, or at least you’ve got a linear path to follow. So, the chapter does kind of take that on and looks at well, what does that mean to tell a story? Like if we think about it as being, as linear, how do we think about an experience playing out in different ways as well?

 

Certainly, I’m interested in, and the chapter picks up on it, in how we move people through a space, and that the movement through the space becomes a storytelling device. It’s not necessarily constructed on time, but more on movement or the journey. So yes, timelines are great, but they offer limitations. And, you know, the sort of chrono thematic approach to an exhibition, right, where you have a timeline as the main construct that ties it all together, but there are these deviations to different themes from it, can be a very powerful way of doing it, so that the thematic approach becomes equally prevalent. And certainly, a thematic division of an exhibition or telling a story allows for a more inclusive story to be told, frankly, you know, the timeline locks you into something that, you know, that is easier, difficult to move or, or to introduce other things to it.

 

Brenda: Well, the great thing about that kind of approach is that it, I think, enables the visitor to sort of be in, if you will, or consider a particular moment in time, and then draw it in relationship to their present day. Anyway, I’m very pleased with the Once Upon a Timeline chapter. I’m with you, Tim.

 

Abby: There was, well I do also—

 

Tim: We’ll convince you. Abby.

 

Abby: Yeah, yeah. I do agree that, that the challenge maybe with the timeline is, is how do you make it relevant to the audience at the time? And Tim, you talk a lot about it. I think it’s through the stories you tell, because at the end of the day, we’re all humans, and these stories often have relatable themes within them, whether it’s relating to a monster or relating to somebody who’s wonderfully triumphant. I think it’s important to make sure that the way that we then tell those stories resonate with the audience.

 

Tim: I think the timeline is a good starting point often, but then it’s good to challenge that, and then it gets you to then think about things in a different way. But it’s somewhere that, it’s an easy place to maybe begin.

 

Abby: Yeah, I completely agree. So, you know, there is a call to action in the book. What do you mean by that?

 

Tim: The process of designing an experience or an exhibition is very much rooted in a design process that borrows from architecture to some degree, right? We go through a phased approach of concept development, detailing, implementation, and it’s very fixed. So, the call to action is, hey, do we have to always design an exhibition this way? Could we come at it from a different approach?

 

Could we think about an exhibition more from, I suppose it is the more emotional but more, again, the creative side of it. But also, can this methodology be mapped onto other disciplines in other areas? Because I feel that within the digital realm, within developing UI/UX, types of experiences, it’s the same thing we’re doing. We’re creating a digital space rather than the physical one, but we’re still thinking about some of the same criteria, such as staging, such as creating wow moments such as thinking about, you know, our audience is key to that too.

 

So, I was really wanting to use exhibition design and that process as a way of tackling other things. And the other part of the call to action is that I feel that exhibition design is the most transdisciplinary of the design fields, more so than architecture, more so than theater design or other areas, because it simply brings together so many different design areas and people from other disciplines to create these kind of experiences.

 

So, the call to action is, hey, we need to acknowledge this field. The profile of the field needs elevating. I feel it, it’s playing a role within society and within culture that it often doesn’t get credit for and has been doing for a long, long time. And that’s why I was very focused on the history in the book of when did we begin to sort of professionally design exhibitions, experiences and look what we’ve managed to do and look where we’ve got to. So, the call to action really is also about, hey, look, this field means business. Pay attention and look at the great work that exhibition makers are doing and the influence they’re having within the field.

 

Abby: Well, no, I think it’s super important. And that’s why Brenda and I started this podcast. We felt exactly the same way, that we need people to start acknowledging this field and stop calling architects to do our work or thinking that they’re the ones that they should be hiring to design exhibitions. I can’t tell you, Tim, how many times I’m handed an exhibition design done by the architect of the building. And it’s, you know, it’s frustrating.

 

Brenda: Thinking much more expansively about the role of the curator, or perhaps less expansively about the role of the curator. You know, I just keep thinking, as I’m listening to you about things such as film and the process of filmmaking, the, you know, hordes of people and disciplines that are involved in crafting a film, and also the fact that what a delight when you are able to work with filmmakers within the exhibition team, when you’re able to work with journalists in the exhibition team, authors in the exhibition team, in addition to all of the, you know, the myriad of design disciplines.

 

Let’s expand upon this a little bit and let’s talk about other members of the creative team. And I’m thinking about engaging audiences, and I’m thinking about engaging local communities. What do you think about how it is that engaging with local people, local communities can make a difference in exhibition creation?

 

Tim: There’s a class that I teach called Narrative Environments, and it’s completely focused on working with local community. So, we spend ten weeks working with the local organization, you know, within the region where I’m based, and I let it evolve through the project. I don’t have a, necessarily a idea of what it’s going to end up being in the end.

 

And I tell the students upfront about this, too, that we’re going to do this collaborative project with the community and we’re going to see where it goes and what happens and learn as we go. And I love this class because it’s something that I wish I could have done more in professional practice, where we don’t get so hung up on what the end result should be, but that we work more open-endedly with community to let everyone be part of the process, right.

 

And it’s also coming on from a research project that I’m involved in at the moment. I’m working with a colleague in London, Tricia Austin, on this, and the two of us are currently hosting forums. We’ve done seven of them so far with designers all over the world to better understand if the exhibition design medium can be an agent of change, can truly be transformative.

 

But what’s come through from those conversations time and time again? The projects that many of the designers we’ve, you know, had participate have been ones on a very local level that have addressed, projects that are, you know, very much connected to cultural aspects or geographic local region that they’re working in. And these all involve community, about bringing people into the conversation and working with them very, very closely.

 

And it’s been interesting that many of the participants in these forums, they’re the projects they want to talk about, too, because they feel those are the most, been the most successful, when they have been able to engage community partners in a meaningful way. So, it says a lot about, well, okay, that’s, there’s the satisfaction level there, too, of feeling like the project really worked, and they’re very proud of the result when they were able to have this more reciprocal relationship with the audience.

 

Abby: Just to chime in, I was lucky, fortunate enough to be part of one of those forums, and I think that was a great opportunity for us. I find that it’s very difficult to come together with peers and discuss our projects and workshop together and move forward as an industry. There’s a couple of great places to do that, but I really felt it was very intimate.

 

We were sharing specific projects. We all had a set amount of time and then the feedback was just fantastic. It was candid, it was informed, like it was just a really wonderful moment.

 

Brenda: What I love about what you’re doing with your forums is working towards the idea of transformation, and I think creating illustrative examples of what transformation actually looks like. And I think that, you know, a lot of scholars are familiar with the idea of transformation and its connections with, for example, wellbeing and some of the recent work that I was engaged with really looking at the role of transformation in the flourishing museum and in the flourishing exhibition experience.

 

And, but there’s, there’s a but which is there isn’t, I think anyway, enough example out there of what it really, really looks like. And doing that on a global level, Tim, is, it’s brilliant and it’s important. So, so thank you for doing that.

 

Tim: Thanks. Yeah, I mean just to sort of give a little bit of context to these, the title of the forums is really called The Transformational Impact of Exhibition Design. And that’s the reason for having these forums and inviting designers to come and talk about projects they’ve worked on that address, you know, for instance, climate crisis, social justice, looking at social polarization, and issues around technology and ethics are some of the key ones that we’re sort of interested in.

 

And also, just how many of the, you know, the designers from different parts of the world have things to contribute in all of those areas, but are also very specific to where they are, geographically, you know, and what they’re facing sort of, you know, on a more local level. And that’s been interesting to see too. But the passion and enthusiasm for talking about this is, it’s contagious. It’s been, it’s been really great.

 

Abby: So, I have a question for Brenda and you, Tim, in terms of, it’s all leading towards, again, our profession and highlighting our profession. Why has it taking us so long, like what are we doing wrong?

 

Brenda: Why is it that folks call the architect first and then much later on in the process, the exhibition team is brought in to sort of fill in the box? What’s up with that? That convention should be long gone by now.

 

Tim: Absolutely. I agree, and I’ve also, Brenda, thank you for your contribution, for your books as well because part of this is, right, is building up a body of theory or writing to help substantiate the field, right? That’s a big part of it too. And in my surveys of looking at what’s out there in terms of publications about our field, there’s so few.

 

But if you look at architecture, you could fill entire library with it. So that says a lot too, about the maybe, there hasn’t been the opportunity to be as critical about our field. And I mean that through, you know, dissecting it and looking at it and writing about it than we could have been. And some of that is because it goes back to, right, the, the, a more curatorial approach to exhibition making. That certainly has a place and is well understood, but again, the role of the designer and working with the curator or with the exhibition team is less understood or less valued. Hence, again, what we’re doing here, right, is to make a mark on that.

 

Abby: That’s a call to action, then, in a way, Tim. Call to action to our listeners.

 

Brenda: You know, as I see it, it’s, I mean, it’s like a love affair. It really is. And in every possible way, you know, I think that embracing the idea of sharing your expertise or maybe even more importantly, sharing your questions, through whatever the medium is, if it is, if it is a podcast or if it is a book, or if it is a research project and, you know, any kind of publication whatsoever, I think that sort of building towards this, you know, critical mass, I think, as you’re thinking, Tim, everybody who can contribute the questions that they have about our field and to explore those questions and to enable themselves as best as possible to fall in love with something, no matter how small or quotidian or large and philosophical. I think that the more we are enabled to allow ourselves and give ourselves permission to fall in love with just one aspect, if not many, about what it is that we’re doing, and then to produce something that illustrates that passion and the wonder about it, then I think we’re going to see more and more and more of these kinds of contributions.

 

Tim: Absolutely.

 

Abby: Well, thank you so much, Tim. I really hope our listeners enjoyed all the facets of our conversation as much as I did. This was inspiring, thought provoking, provocative. So, a huge thanks, Tim, for joining us today and sharing your experiences.

 

Tim: Oh, you’re absolutely welcome. It’s been really fun. Thanks for having me on the show.

 

Abby: And thanks to everyone who tuned in today. If you enjoyed it, subscribe for more episodes of Matters of Experience on Spotify or Apple. Please leave a rating and a review and share with a friend. See you next time!

 

Brenda: Take care everyone!

 

[Music]

 

Producer: Matters of Experience is produced by Lorem Ipsum Corp and recorded at Hangar Studios. Tune in next time for more fun discussions about experience design.

What is an Experience? with Tim McNeil

What is an Experience? with Tim McNeil

May 15, 2024
Creating an Audience-Centered Experience with Jamie Lawyer

Creating an Audience-Centered Experience with Jamie Lawyer

May 1, 2024
Subscribe now on Apple Podcasts and Spotify
As museums evolve from traditional repositories of art and artifacts to dynamic spaces that reflect their visitors’ diverse voices and experiences, creating inclusive spaces for audiences is more critical than ever. This week’s guest is on a mission to foster inclusivity in cultural institutions. Join Abby and Brenda as they chat with Jamie Lawyer, the Chief Experience Officer at the Rubin Museum of Art, about creating places and spaces to make audiences feel cared for and fall in love with cultural experiences.
Jamie Lawyer is the Chief Experience Officer at the Rubin Museum of Art, where she drives the creation of strategic, creative, and empowered experiences at the intersection of visitors, art, and Museum staff. She builds audience-centered cultures of care to meet the needs of today’s cultural consumers and workers. She also has been a creative partner, inaugural lecturer, and curriculum developer for the Musa Academy, based in Sofia, Bulgaria. This incubator program is designed for mid to late career museum professionals to build organizational capacity, leadership, and hands-on learning opportunities to create audience-centered museums and cultural heritage sites. A committed educator, Jamie is a Visiting Assistant Professor at Pratt institute and Adjunct Faculty at CUNY SPS. She has previously served as the Head of Interpretation, Digital Learning, and Evaluation at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, and been invited to guest lecture at New York University, the City College of New York, and the University of North Texas-Denton. She has a second-degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do and became a professional instructor at age 10 - which Jamie credits as fueling her interest in education and embodied experiences.

Rubin Museum of Art

Museum of Homelessness

Empathy Museum

ICOM approves a new museum definition

Mandala Lab, Milan | BAM | 2024 – Rubin Museum of Art

Muse Academy – America for Bulgaria Foundation

Muzeiko – America for Bulgaria Children’s Museum

[Music]

 

Abby: Welcome to Matters of Experience, a podcast produced by Lorem Ipsum, an experience design company headquartered in New York City. Our podcast explores the creativity, innovation and psychology driving designed experiences. If you’re new, a hearty welcome and to our regular listeners, thanks for tuning in and supporting our conversation. My name is Abigail Honor.

 

Brenda: And this is Brenda Cowan.

 

Abby: So today I am very overly excited to welcome Jamie Lawyer to the show. Jamie is the chief—and the world goes crazy—Jamie is the chief experience officer at the Rubin, where she drives the creation of strategic, creative and empowered experiences at the intersection of visitors, art and museum staff. So, Jamie, we’re neighbors. The Rubin was on the same street as our old office for over a decade, and I’ve been fortunate enough to have enjoyed many, many days with my children, colleagues, either visiting the unbelievable collection or one of the temporary exhibitions, or enjoying the best lunch, I would say, in the neighborhood, or buying a gift at the store.

 

Brenda: Or the DJ Friday nights, don’t forget that.

 

Abby: DJ Friday night. It has a special place in my New York experience, and I’m really excited to talk about your many hats, from audience-centered work to your commitment to educating museum professionals and your black belt in taekwondo. Jamie, thank you for joining us today.

 

Jamie: Thank you so much. I’m excited to be here.

 

Brenda: Let’s just begin with your origin story. What attracted you to the work that you’re doing now?

 

Jamie: I was 19 years old the first time I stepped foot inside a museum. I grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania, and as someone who was gay in a very small area, the feeling of belonging was something I was very attuned to. And I also did not have a lot of access to arts and culture where I grew up. And I remember the first time I went to a museum down in Washington, D.C., and stepped foot through the door, and I’m in this gallery, and I look around and I see families. I see two, you know, college age students signing, you know, to one another from Gallaudet University.

 

And I walk closer to a Jackson Pollock painting and security guard comes up to me and I’m worried. Oh, no, I did something wrong. Not again. And instead of correcting me, he invited me to look closer. And at that moment, I realized the power of that invitation, of what it feels like to belong in a space that can feel so intimidating and you’re so scared and, you’re just trying to figure out how to, how this, how does all this relate to me?

 

So, for me, that moment of invitation, I felt the power of that, and that’s the feeling that I wanted to pursue and say, hey, you know, people like me belong in museums. And if I don’t feel like I belong, I’m sure there’s plenty of other people that also feel that way too.

 

Brenda: What a really amazing foundational experience for you to have. That feeling that you described, is that something that is still present with you today, and the work that you do when you pop into the museum for your job and it’s, you know, yet another day. Do you still have this feeling of, is this a place where people can belong?

 

Jamie: That is the number one thing I am fighting for in every room that I’m in, and every time I talk to a team member, when I think about why do we do this work right? It’s to make people feel like this is a place for them, to make people feel like art and culture can matter, and that you have a right to access it. And to me, what happens when we build that muscle for our audiences, they begin to get curious about culture. They begin to fall in love with cultural experiences, and that’s something we need more of. We need museum fans. We need people to be excited, and we need to make sure that we’re creating spaces where we are caring for our audiences in such a deep way that they walk away with saying, you know what? I had a great experience today. I feel confident the next time I go into the next cultural institution that I access.

 

Abby: As a chief experience officer, what are you doing on a daily basis? Give me a day in the life of Jamie.

 

Jamie: My role as Chief Experience Officer at the Rubin, I’m really thinking about the 360-degree view of audience experience. Right? So, for me, that means at the point of entry, I’m making sure that our frontline staff feel supported, that they can welcome people with ease, that they have the knowledge that it takes to form those connections. I’m also intersecting with a lot of the activities that are unfolding in our galleries for interpretation. So again, another bridge between our art, our curators and our audiences. Right? So, in my areas, this is also our docent programs.

 

So now I’ve, I’ve walked you through, we’re coming through the front door. We’ve moved into our gallery spaces. But it’s also all the words that we’re using. So, for us that’s the language, that’s editorial, that’s the things that we’re publishing, all the ways that we’re speaking with people to make sure that we’re creating something that’s consistent throughout and an area that’s expanded for us and will continue to grow.

 

That’s also digital content, right? So really being able to push out into different ways to reach audiences. So, for me, a day in my life is really thinking about, those are all the major interaction points just within my team structure. But of course, I’m collaborating with colleagues across the museum to really make sure that they’re keeping visitors at the center of all of their work, because that’s what every department is really designed to do.

 

We’re supporting audiences, we’re supporting staff who support audience, and we’re trying to find ways to work together and making sure that we’re creating a dynamic experience for them, regardless of what area of the museum we serve.

 

Brenda: You do some of the most sophisticated audience studies I think I’ve ever seen, looking at audiences, looking at people, thinking about experience, thinking about learning, thinking about play, thinking about what is engagement. And tell us a little bit, give our listeners a little quick hit of the predominant types of audiences that you have identified at the Rubin, because they’re fascinating. And if I recall correctly, right, you’ve got like two predominant types of visitors. Right? And then it gets more complex.

 

Jamie: So, the audiences that come to the Rubin based on research that we have done in the past, we really are focusing on two major elements, and we really embrace psychographic research, right, what’s motivating people to really come in through the doors? And I would say they break down into simple, but powerful ways. People that want to engage with their head, I want to learn, I want to engage with my intellect and people that engage with their heart, right, I want an emotional experience. I want to feel connected to something bigger than myself. So those are our two audiences that are sharing spaces with one another. They have completely different needs, but they both can really learn from each other and in quite valuable ways.

 

And when we’re able to really build that foundation for those people who love to experience with their heart, they appreciate when their head gets involved. And there’s people that, you know, I want to learn. I crave something new. They’re even open to learning more about their emotions and ways of feeling connected to someone else. So, while they might seem separate on paper, there’s a beautiful space that they do overlap. And some of our projects are really thinking about where is that overlap, how can we satisfy both of those audiences and making sure that they have a meaningful experience with us and can really learn from each other as part of it?

 

Brenda: So, you do so much in your role as chief experience officer. What don’t you do that you think you should be? What’s missing?

 

Jamie: So, the thing that I, I wish for and I spend quite a bit of my, my days doing is really thinking about our employee experience, right? Museums are made of people, and the great work that we do comes from them, and when we invest in them, we will have greater and stronger audience experiences on the outset. When we make it so that their work is easier to do when they can find joy in what they do, when they feel empowered, when they know how to show up in their space and feel celebrated for that, we will have better cultural institutions.

 

So, for me, that big thing that I spend a lot of time doing that is really thinking about how can I really improve what’s happening on the inside of our cultural institutions within our teams that make people reach out, say, hey, let’s work together on this, hey, you have a valuable perspective to offer. I haven’t heard you speak up today. I know you’re thinking something, so really making sure that all the key voices are heard and represented as part of the conversation, and not only it being something that I’m just deeply passionate about, then making sure it gets baked into our culture and the way of working so that it will stay, and suddenly people will wake up and say, this is how we’ve always been.

 

Abby: What makes a great colleague? How can you tell somebody is not going to fit culturally, and who’s going to be a good fit?

 

Jamie: When I think about someone coming into a cultural institution, my approach is I look for potential, right? I look for people who are excited, who are curious, who have passion for what they’re doing, and that’s what matters to me. And of course, we can go into expertise and qualifications and, you know, things like that. But to me, as someone who is curious to learn, who is resilient, who has the ability to pivot, and I’m not just speaking for the, the Rubin Museum, this is for cultural institutions today, because to me, it’s, you can have all of those incredible, necessary hard skills, but so many of those soft skills that we talk about, like that’s to me, when things get tough, those are the things that we’re leaning on. Right? When people value that as part of who they are, that helps them propel forward.

 

So, someone who’s curious and willing to learn more, and that’s what our art really shows us. We’re dealing with Himalayan art. Our art requires that we stay curious and keep our minds open. And I know on the show you’ve talked a lot about like growth mindsets, right? So being able to have a growth mindset is so essential in the museum field. From my perspective, when I’m thinking about people I want to work with, that’s our way forward. People who are willing to see other ways of doing things, willing to sort of roll our sleeves up and have great conversations and, you know, have the uncomfortable conversations as well. To me, that’s how we move the field forward and also how we find joy in our work.

 

Abby: You know what’s really interesting, so my mom was the principal of a school. She’d been a teacher for a large part of her life, and we would often talk about what makes a good teacher. It was about sort of what you’re describing Jamie, and how you can get others excited, and how you can reach others and help them be curious.

 

And as you’re talking about your colleagues at the Rubin, and finding a good fit, it seems to me that whatever they’re doing, it’s not also about just them and their curiosity. It’s about how much they want to communicate and share that with the visitors. And it feels like as soon as you got that combo, then you’re golden because it’s about that welcoming and your sort of story, your origin story is just quintessentially that perfect mix of the visitor who’s nervous but open to want to know more and curious, and then the docent or the person who represents the institution holding their hand and shepherding them forwards.

 

Brenda: Well, being cared for in terms of being listened to and like you’ve been saying, being seen, but also being cared for in terms of compensation and hours of work and is my environment, you know, welcoming to me in a lot of practical ways. These are so imperative and in certain cultural institutions lead to so much stress, burnout, anxiety. We are all familiar with this kind of dynamic.

 

So, Jamie, your attention to creating a very caring environment, it’s absolutely essential to having a good workplace, a good work environment, and also to build resilience and to have the ability for somebody to feel so cared for and so comfortable that they might take that vulnerable step of saying something that might not like you said, feel very comfortable, perhaps, or they might feel like they can share even if they don’t know the answer, but they want to find out, or they want to reach out to other people with whom they don’t get to interact on a regular basis. All of those things can only happen if you’re in a very caring environment.

 

Abby: In your day to day or week to week or month by month. What are some of the challenges that happen in your job?

 

Jamie: So, for me, when I think about any challenges that I might face in the workplace, empathy is a guiding value for me. Being able to see and understand someone else’s point of view, whether it’s the curators, you know, curators that I work with, any members of staff, right, content experts, external partners, everyone has different perspectives, right? We understand this. But also, what happens is everyone has different ideas of who their audiences are. We’re all thinking about audience. But our challenge and my challenge is to make sure that we have a shared language with one another.

 

One of the things I love to do is collaborate, right? And a lot of the sort of things that come up when you hear collaborate is, oh there’s too many cooks in the kitchen. I understand where people are coming from, but to me, I’ve seen kitchens at work and there’s a lot of people in those kitchens, and it’s about every single person really understanding their role, why they’re here and having someone really guiding them expertly towards a common goal. We’re all so passionate about this work, and I think sometimes we can really misunderstand one another’s passions.

 

But if we’re willing to really pause and reflect and ask, why is this in the room, let’s take a step back. This is not about ego. This is about our audiences. And the more that we are cultivating and practicing that empathy, that vulnerability, all the things that we want our audiences to bring to us, we need to show that to our staff, to our colleagues, to our partners, to people who say, I don’t quite get it, right, but what does it look like to think about it a little differently, to see their humanity, to see their passion and say, while we don’t agree today, I’m willing to sit down, let’s listen, let’s find a way forward.

 

Abby: So, let’s focus on martial arts. So, this crops up a lot on our podcast. sports and how it helps with discipline, facing failure and sort of achieving success in the workplace. I was worried when my two girls, I’m very sporty. I’m really into sport, very competitive. And my kids were not that into sports, so I tracked them around to everything. But I was relieved when my eldest finally fell into jujitsu, which is a phenomenal sport, and my youngest now does volleyball, so they are not complete couch potatoes, and they may be successful in the workplace. So, Jamie, tell us about your sport and how you feel it relates to your work and the themes of interpretive experiences that you oversee.

 

Jamie: So, a fun fact about me, I’ll offer two fun facts; one, the way that my brain processes information, I don’t see any mental images. So, when I think about memories, a lot of people, if you think about a red barn or you can see a red barn and people have different ways that they see that red barn. For me there’s no mental image that comes up, right?

 

I can feel what that looks like. I can understand what it looks like. As a byproduct of that, right, it means that being embodied, really being in the present moment is the way that I really navigate the world. So, to go back to taekwondo, which I grew up doing, I was a second degree black belt, competed nationally across the country. And one of the things I really learned about from that from a very young age was the importance of embodied experience, right? When you can really feel something in your body, it helps you be present in a different way. It helps with patience; it helps with understanding.

 

And also, one of the things through a sport that’s very individual in nature, right, it’s you versus yourself, most often. There’s other ways, but a lot of times it’s you versus yourself. You begin to see the power of incremental change, right, so when we think about change happens, you know, when you’re training year after year, it’s not, you know, one thing, suddenly you’re at the next, next level. You wake up a year later and you’re completely different than, than what you were that year before.

 

So, to me, the subtlety of movement, the change in the way that you are holding your posture, right, you can feel that in your body. And I think for me, the last key takeaway for me from taekwondo, I started teaching when I was ten years old, which I cannot imagine that here in New York City, like you all show up to your workout class and there’s a ten-year-old telling you to drop and give them 20. But you know, for me, I had the opportunity to see that everyone was a beginner, right? Whether you’re a four-year-old or you’re a sixty-year-old, we all have things to learn. We all learn in different ways, and we all deserve respect and we’re all just trying to reach a common goal together and the power of being able to listen to one another.

 

So, a ten-year-old being able to offer correction based on expertise that they had and receive that in respect, it’s the same thing that should happen in our workplaces, right, leadership should be listening to an entry level person who’s just come in. So, to me, like I see that sort of reciprocity, that mutual respect of letting our titles out of the room and really just seeing like, what’s the expertise that we have here? Let’s listen to all the voices. We’re all beginners in some way. Let’s stay curious and let’s say open, open to learning.

 

Abby: It looks like you’ve reflected back a lot on your childhood and who you are. And it’s all sort of the pieces of the puzzle that fit together as to who you are now, you can see where you were at ten, how you’ve changed. Do you feel like there’s anything left to learn about yourself?

 

Jamie: Every day.

 

Abby: Really?

 

Jamie: Every day there’s other things to learn, right? Like knowledge locks in in new ways. And what locks in for me today, six months from now, there might be something new. That’s to me, we’re all in this path of ongoing learning. There’s always a beginner’s mind, right, that we need to embrace the world with.

 

So, for me, it’s like one of the things I really think about and whether I’m talking about taekwondo or the first time I, you know, felt comfortable in a museum. These are my values. These are the ways that I show up in my workplace, my history, my identity. Being a queer individual, that informs who I am, being empathetic, that informs who I am, being collaborative, all these things are values or identities, and I think that’s something that we, we talk a lot about. But so often within our teams, and when we show up to this work, what are our personal values?

 

Because those are the things that we will say yes to. Those are the things we will say no to, that influences how we fight in the room, how we let things go, where we will compromise, where we will, like, really push in. And it comes down to values and being willing to investigate yourself, become aware of where your weaknesses are, where the things that you don’t know, and you need to bring other people into the conversation.

 

And being able to learn from the things that you value, the way that you see the world, and understanding how that can drive you, but also where you need collaborators to sort of balance you out as well, and making sure that other people are also attuned to the things that they value. So that’s something to me that’s so important for the way that I think about, you know, biography and how we show up in the workplace.

 

We’re showing up as whole people. Right? And it’s important in our experiences. We are designing as whole people. We’re designing for the things we love, the things that we privilege. And it’s why it’s so important to have that empathy for others and other perspectives and other points of view. Because if we are only leading from our own sensations, the things that we care about, we are leaving so many people out of the conversation.

 

Brenda: Let’s talk about the Rubin Museum of Art. It’s about to launch itself into a whole new form. It’s envisioning itself as a global museum, and that means traveling museum, a digital experience, a loaning institution. And I think that what the institution is embarking upon is incredibly courageous. And I think about other institutions that have taken similar forms, such as the Museum of Homelessness, the Museum of Empathy, and how it is that these institutions operated without walls for many years, and they reached so many people through installation, through programs, and through being a part of other museum and heritage sites.

 

So, I’m excited about the new form that the Rubin is taking, and appreciate how bold it is for challenging conventions and challenging, you know, even the new definition of museum that ICOM has put forth. Jamie, what feedback have you been receiving from others? Are there naysayers?

 

Jamie: You know, for us, it’s really important to be able to meet audiences where they are, and there has been a lot of excitement towards this. We’ve received a lot of positive feedback of, yes, like, you’re going to come near me now. You’ll be able to do more work within the regions that you serve. You will still be there to serve us. You’ll be able to create more understanding, awareness of Himalayan art. Fabulous. So, there has been a lot of support for evolution.

 

There has also been, you know, people who feel a sense of attachment to who we are and want us to continue to be who we are. And it’s been really interesting, you know, to see grief in action. Right? The really, the response from the museum community, from the visitors, the only way I can describe it is just to compare it with grief. There’s people who are experiencing loss, profound memories that they’ve had in the space, who come to it during moments of I want to sort of make sense of what’s happening in my life, in the world. They come to the Rubin. People who want to feel a connection to their own culture, come to the Rubin. So, I recognize that our transition to our new form does come with that loss that people really know us, know us as, and love us as.

 

And also, we’re still going to be here, right? We’re still serving our audiences. It’s just going to look different than what people really know us as right now. And one of the things that’s so exciting, we just opened the Mandala Lab in Italy, which is currently in our current physical building. We’re still able to bring Rubin experiences to people all over the States and all over the world. So, there’s still so many ways to interact with us.

 

We’re looking to support other cultural institutions who want to tell the story of Himalayan art, right? To be able to share our collection more broadly, something that the museum field we need to do, we need to share our assets. We need to share expertise and lift one another up. We will be able to do that work hand in hand with other cultural partners, and we will also be able to serve and support other artists and researchers through grant projects and opportunities.

 

So, while we are losing a very centralized way to experience us, we are actually going to be supplementing and supporting Himalayan art and this very important field of study in completely different ways, and to still be of service to the art, to the collection and to our audiences.

 

Abby: What motivated this?

 

Jamie: One of the big motivating factors was really following where can we most impact audiences? So, seeing a lot of the success of our traveling projects, of seeing attendance and support, support being there in both financial and audience excitement around it, those were really powerful proof points for us. And also, museums in their physical spaces, they’re expensive as well, right? So, for us, while financially the Rubin’s at a good point, this transition allows us to continue to serve our audiences for even longer. The museum field has to change.

 

I think when we look at our textbooks five years down the line, we’re going to see this moment that we’re currently living through right now. And I think what’s happening for us at the Rubin, I like to think about it as museum studies in action, right? You know, so this is to me, it’s a bold step that we are doing, but it’s one that’s in our heart of hearts, trying to serve audiences in our collection in the best way possible.

 

Brenda: So, you’ve been working in Bulgaria for the past few years on this really exciting initiative called Muse Academy. To me, it seems like there’s a surge of activity happening in Bulgaria, or at least I seem to keep hearing about how amazing Bulgaria is from a heritage institution and, cultural museum perspective. And I’m even thinking of, like, the new children’s museum, that’s there, Muzeiko, which is so beautiful and so profound and I hope to get there in person someday.

 

But let’s talk about you. What is the work that you’ve been doing in Bulgaria and what is it like bringing museum studies, audience studies, experience? What is it like bringing that to a very different place in a very different culture?

 

Jamie: So, the work I’ve been doing in Bulgaria, the, the past year and a half now has been so rewarding and so powerful. And it’s alongside great collaborators Paul Orselli and Christina Ferwerda and, we’ve been invited to create a professional development program where we’re inviting cultural professionals from all over Bulgaria, from entry level positions to museum directors, outgoing directors who are getting ready to pass the baton, also partnering with NGOs who partner with museums and tourism, hospitality and helping them think about how can I create an audience centered experience.

 

So, we’re bringing together a curriculum that is helping them change the way that they’re thinking about audience, to think about how can I tell dynamic stories in my cultural institutions? How can I create interactive exhibitions and really keep audience satisfaction at the center, and to not only give them tools that they can bring back, but also give them a mindset that they can push forward and one of the guiding phrases for the program is Mozhelo, which means it is possible.

 

So, this program is not only giving them real things, but real things that they can, they can do today, small and big changes. But it’s also giving them an energy inside them that says, you know what? We can do this right, I can do this, that this change is possible. So, to me, that’s that, you know, that’s something I believe so powerfully in our field, is that each one of us can make a difference in our, in our small ways.

 

We can push boulders up hills. We can do it together. If other people don’t want to join us, it’s okay. There’s still things that we can do and try, and it’s important that we, we stay focused. We stay focused on what’s ahead of us and that audience that we are fighting for to bring into our cultural institutions. So, when we’re there and doing that work, we’re helping remind people of the power of audience, of what it means to visit a cultural institution, of why it matters, and to give people professional development opportunities to network and find their collaborators, and to say, hey, like this, this is possible. We can, we can do something here.

 

Abby: Jamie, this was incredible. I feel like we could definitely go on for another hour. I would love to have you back after we see the transition, the Rubin to without walls. It would be really interesting to talk through all the pros and cons and what you’re experiencing and learning and growing. Very excited to see your next chapter. Thank you so much for coming on the show and sharing your experiences.

 

Jamie: Thank you so much.

 

Abby: And thanks to everyone who tuned in today. If you like what you heard, subscribe for more episodes of Matters of Experience. Make sure to leave a rating and a review and share with a friend. We’ll see you next time!

 

Brenda: Thank you everyone!

 

[Music]

 

Producer: Matters of Experience is produced by Lorem Ipsum Corp and recorded at Hangar Studios. Tune in next time for more fun discussions about experience design.

Jamie Lawyer is the Chief Experience Officer at the Rubin Museum of Art, where she drives the creation of strategic, creative, and empowered experiences at the intersection of visitors, art, and Museum staff. She builds audience-centered cultures of care to meet the needs of today’s cultural consumers and workers. She also has been a creative partner, inaugural lecturer, and curriculum developer for the Musa Academy, based in Sofia, Bulgaria. This incubator program is designed for mid to late career museum professionals to build organizational capacity, leadership, and hands-on learning opportunities to create audience-centered museums and cultural heritage sites. A committed educator, Jamie is a Visiting Assistant Professor at Pratt institute and Adjunct Faculty at CUNY SPS. She has previously served as the Head of Interpretation, Digital Learning, and Evaluation at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, and been invited to guest lecture at New York University, the City College of New York, and the University of North Texas-Denton. She has a second-degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do and became a professional instructor at age 10 - which Jamie credits as fueling her interest in education and embodied experiences.

Rubin Museum of Art

Museum of Homelessness

Empathy Museum

ICOM approves a new museum definition

Mandala Lab, Milan | BAM | 2024 – Rubin Museum of Art

Muse Academy – America for Bulgaria Foundation

Muzeiko – America for Bulgaria Children’s Museum

[Music]

 

Abby: Welcome to Matters of Experience, a podcast produced by Lorem Ipsum, an experience design company headquartered in New York City. Our podcast explores the creativity, innovation and psychology driving designed experiences. If you’re new, a hearty welcome and to our regular listeners, thanks for tuning in and supporting our conversation. My name is Abigail Honor.

 

Brenda: And this is Brenda Cowan.

 

Abby: So today I am very overly excited to welcome Jamie Lawyer to the show. Jamie is the chief—and the world goes crazy—Jamie is the chief experience officer at the Rubin, where she drives the creation of strategic, creative and empowered experiences at the intersection of visitors, art and museum staff. So, Jamie, we’re neighbors. The Rubin was on the same street as our old office for over a decade, and I’ve been fortunate enough to have enjoyed many, many days with my children, colleagues, either visiting the unbelievable collection or one of the temporary exhibitions, or enjoying the best lunch, I would say, in the neighborhood, or buying a gift at the store.

 

Brenda: Or the DJ Friday nights, don’t forget that.

 

Abby: DJ Friday night. It has a special place in my New York experience, and I’m really excited to talk about your many hats, from audience-centered work to your commitment to educating museum professionals and your black belt in taekwondo. Jamie, thank you for joining us today.

 

Jamie: Thank you so much. I’m excited to be here.

 

Brenda: Let’s just begin with your origin story. What attracted you to the work that you’re doing now?

 

Jamie: I was 19 years old the first time I stepped foot inside a museum. I grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania, and as someone who was gay in a very small area, the feeling of belonging was something I was very attuned to. And I also did not have a lot of access to arts and culture where I grew up. And I remember the first time I went to a museum down in Washington, D.C., and stepped foot through the door, and I’m in this gallery, and I look around and I see families. I see two, you know, college age students signing, you know, to one another from Gallaudet University.

 

And I walk closer to a Jackson Pollock painting and security guard comes up to me and I’m worried. Oh, no, I did something wrong. Not again. And instead of correcting me, he invited me to look closer. And at that moment, I realized the power of that invitation, of what it feels like to belong in a space that can feel so intimidating and you’re so scared and, you’re just trying to figure out how to, how this, how does all this relate to me?

 

So, for me, that moment of invitation, I felt the power of that, and that’s the feeling that I wanted to pursue and say, hey, you know, people like me belong in museums. And if I don’t feel like I belong, I’m sure there’s plenty of other people that also feel that way too.

 

Brenda: What a really amazing foundational experience for you to have. That feeling that you described, is that something that is still present with you today, and the work that you do when you pop into the museum for your job and it’s, you know, yet another day. Do you still have this feeling of, is this a place where people can belong?

 

Jamie: That is the number one thing I am fighting for in every room that I’m in, and every time I talk to a team member, when I think about why do we do this work right? It’s to make people feel like this is a place for them, to make people feel like art and culture can matter, and that you have a right to access it. And to me, what happens when we build that muscle for our audiences, they begin to get curious about culture. They begin to fall in love with cultural experiences, and that’s something we need more of. We need museum fans. We need people to be excited, and we need to make sure that we’re creating spaces where we are caring for our audiences in such a deep way that they walk away with saying, you know what? I had a great experience today. I feel confident the next time I go into the next cultural institution that I access.

 

Abby: As a chief experience officer, what are you doing on a daily basis? Give me a day in the life of Jamie.

 

Jamie: My role as Chief Experience Officer at the Rubin, I’m really thinking about the 360-degree view of audience experience. Right? So, for me, that means at the point of entry, I’m making sure that our frontline staff feel supported, that they can welcome people with ease, that they have the knowledge that it takes to form those connections. I’m also intersecting with a lot of the activities that are unfolding in our galleries for interpretation. So again, another bridge between our art, our curators and our audiences. Right? So, in my areas, this is also our docent programs.

 

So now I’ve, I’ve walked you through, we’re coming through the front door. We’ve moved into our gallery spaces. But it’s also all the words that we’re using. So, for us that’s the language, that’s editorial, that’s the things that we’re publishing, all the ways that we’re speaking with people to make sure that we’re creating something that’s consistent throughout and an area that’s expanded for us and will continue to grow.

 

That’s also digital content, right? So really being able to push out into different ways to reach audiences. So, for me, a day in my life is really thinking about, those are all the major interaction points just within my team structure. But of course, I’m collaborating with colleagues across the museum to really make sure that they’re keeping visitors at the center of all of their work, because that’s what every department is really designed to do.

 

We’re supporting audiences, we’re supporting staff who support audience, and we’re trying to find ways to work together and making sure that we’re creating a dynamic experience for them, regardless of what area of the museum we serve.

 

Brenda: You do some of the most sophisticated audience studies I think I’ve ever seen, looking at audiences, looking at people, thinking about experience, thinking about learning, thinking about play, thinking about what is engagement. And tell us a little bit, give our listeners a little quick hit of the predominant types of audiences that you have identified at the Rubin, because they’re fascinating. And if I recall correctly, right, you’ve got like two predominant types of visitors. Right? And then it gets more complex.

 

Jamie: So, the audiences that come to the Rubin based on research that we have done in the past, we really are focusing on two major elements, and we really embrace psychographic research, right, what’s motivating people to really come in through the doors? And I would say they break down into simple, but powerful ways. People that want to engage with their head, I want to learn, I want to engage with my intellect and people that engage with their heart, right, I want an emotional experience. I want to feel connected to something bigger than myself. So those are our two audiences that are sharing spaces with one another. They have completely different needs, but they both can really learn from each other and in quite valuable ways.

 

And when we’re able to really build that foundation for those people who love to experience with their heart, they appreciate when their head gets involved. And there’s people that, you know, I want to learn. I crave something new. They’re even open to learning more about their emotions and ways of feeling connected to someone else. So, while they might seem separate on paper, there’s a beautiful space that they do overlap. And some of our projects are really thinking about where is that overlap, how can we satisfy both of those audiences and making sure that they have a meaningful experience with us and can really learn from each other as part of it?

 

Brenda: So, you do so much in your role as chief experience officer. What don’t you do that you think you should be? What’s missing?

 

Jamie: So, the thing that I, I wish for and I spend quite a bit of my, my days doing is really thinking about our employee experience, right? Museums are made of people, and the great work that we do comes from them, and when we invest in them, we will have greater and stronger audience experiences on the outset. When we make it so that their work is easier to do when they can find joy in what they do, when they feel empowered, when they know how to show up in their space and feel celebrated for that, we will have better cultural institutions.

 

So, for me, that big thing that I spend a lot of time doing that is really thinking about how can I really improve what’s happening on the inside of our cultural institutions within our teams that make people reach out, say, hey, let’s work together on this, hey, you have a valuable perspective to offer. I haven’t heard you speak up today. I know you’re thinking something, so really making sure that all the key voices are heard and represented as part of the conversation, and not only it being something that I’m just deeply passionate about, then making sure it gets baked into our culture and the way of working so that it will stay, and suddenly people will wake up and say, this is how we’ve always been.

 

Abby: What makes a great colleague? How can you tell somebody is not going to fit culturally, and who’s going to be a good fit?

 

Jamie: When I think about someone coming into a cultural institution, my approach is I look for potential, right? I look for people who are excited, who are curious, who have passion for what they’re doing, and that’s what matters to me. And of course, we can go into expertise and qualifications and, you know, things like that. But to me, as someone who is curious to learn, who is resilient, who has the ability to pivot, and I’m not just speaking for the, the Rubin Museum, this is for cultural institutions today, because to me, it’s, you can have all of those incredible, necessary hard skills, but so many of those soft skills that we talk about, like that’s to me, when things get tough, those are the things that we’re leaning on. Right? When people value that as part of who they are, that helps them propel forward.

 

So, someone who’s curious and willing to learn more, and that’s what our art really shows us. We’re dealing with Himalayan art. Our art requires that we stay curious and keep our minds open. And I know on the show you’ve talked a lot about like growth mindsets, right? So being able to have a growth mindset is so essential in the museum field. From my perspective, when I’m thinking about people I want to work with, that’s our way forward. People who are willing to see other ways of doing things, willing to sort of roll our sleeves up and have great conversations and, you know, have the uncomfortable conversations as well. To me, that’s how we move the field forward and also how we find joy in our work.

 

Abby: You know what’s really interesting, so my mom was the principal of a school. She’d been a teacher for a large part of her life, and we would often talk about what makes a good teacher. It was about sort of what you’re describing Jamie, and how you can get others excited, and how you can reach others and help them be curious.

 

And as you’re talking about your colleagues at the Rubin, and finding a good fit, it seems to me that whatever they’re doing, it’s not also about just them and their curiosity. It’s about how much they want to communicate and share that with the visitors. And it feels like as soon as you got that combo, then you’re golden because it’s about that welcoming and your sort of story, your origin story is just quintessentially that perfect mix of the visitor who’s nervous but open to want to know more and curious, and then the docent or the person who represents the institution holding their hand and shepherding them forwards.

 

Brenda: Well, being cared for in terms of being listened to and like you’ve been saying, being seen, but also being cared for in terms of compensation and hours of work and is my environment, you know, welcoming to me in a lot of practical ways. These are so imperative and in certain cultural institutions lead to so much stress, burnout, anxiety. We are all familiar with this kind of dynamic.

 

So, Jamie, your attention to creating a very caring environment, it’s absolutely essential to having a good workplace, a good work environment, and also to build resilience and to have the ability for somebody to feel so cared for and so comfortable that they might take that vulnerable step of saying something that might not like you said, feel very comfortable, perhaps, or they might feel like they can share even if they don’t know the answer, but they want to find out, or they want to reach out to other people with whom they don’t get to interact on a regular basis. All of those things can only happen if you’re in a very caring environment.

 

Abby: In your day to day or week to week or month by month. What are some of the challenges that happen in your job?

 

Jamie: So, for me, when I think about any challenges that I might face in the workplace, empathy is a guiding value for me. Being able to see and understand someone else’s point of view, whether it’s the curators, you know, curators that I work with, any members of staff, right, content experts, external partners, everyone has different perspectives, right? We understand this. But also, what happens is everyone has different ideas of who their audiences are. We’re all thinking about audience. But our challenge and my challenge is to make sure that we have a shared language with one another.

 

One of the things I love to do is collaborate, right? And a lot of the sort of things that come up when you hear collaborate is, oh there’s too many cooks in the kitchen. I understand where people are coming from, but to me, I’ve seen kitchens at work and there’s a lot of people in those kitchens, and it’s about every single person really understanding their role, why they’re here and having someone really guiding them expertly towards a common goal. We’re all so passionate about this work, and I think sometimes we can really misunderstand one another’s passions.

 

But if we’re willing to really pause and reflect and ask, why is this in the room, let’s take a step back. This is not about ego. This is about our audiences. And the more that we are cultivating and practicing that empathy, that vulnerability, all the things that we want our audiences to bring to us, we need to show that to our staff, to our colleagues, to our partners, to people who say, I don’t quite get it, right, but what does it look like to think about it a little differently, to see their humanity, to see their passion and say, while we don’t agree today, I’m willing to sit down, let’s listen, let’s find a way forward.

 

Abby: So, let’s focus on martial arts. So, this crops up a lot on our podcast. sports and how it helps with discipline, facing failure and sort of achieving success in the workplace. I was worried when my two girls, I’m very sporty. I’m really into sport, very competitive. And my kids were not that into sports, so I tracked them around to everything. But I was relieved when my eldest finally fell into jujitsu, which is a phenomenal sport, and my youngest now does volleyball, so they are not complete couch potatoes, and they may be successful in the workplace. So, Jamie, tell us about your sport and how you feel it relates to your work and the themes of interpretive experiences that you oversee.

 

Jamie: So, a fun fact about me, I’ll offer two fun facts; one, the way that my brain processes information, I don’t see any mental images. So, when I think about memories, a lot of people, if you think about a red barn or you can see a red barn and people have different ways that they see that red barn. For me there’s no mental image that comes up, right?

 

I can feel what that looks like. I can understand what it looks like. As a byproduct of that, right, it means that being embodied, really being in the present moment is the way that I really navigate the world. So, to go back to taekwondo, which I grew up doing, I was a second degree black belt, competed nationally across the country. And one of the things I really learned about from that from a very young age was the importance of embodied experience, right? When you can really feel something in your body, it helps you be present in a different way. It helps with patience; it helps with understanding.

 

And also, one of the things through a sport that’s very individual in nature, right, it’s you versus yourself, most often. There’s other ways, but a lot of times it’s you versus yourself. You begin to see the power of incremental change, right, so when we think about change happens, you know, when you’re training year after year, it’s not, you know, one thing, suddenly you’re at the next, next level. You wake up a year later and you’re completely different than, than what you were that year before.

 

So, to me, the subtlety of movement, the change in the way that you are holding your posture, right, you can feel that in your body. And I think for me, the last key takeaway for me from taekwondo, I started teaching when I was ten years old, which I cannot imagine that here in New York City, like you all show up to your workout class and there’s a ten-year-old telling you to drop and give them 20. But you know, for me, I had the opportunity to see that everyone was a beginner, right? Whether you’re a four-year-old or you’re a sixty-year-old, we all have things to learn. We all learn in different ways, and we all deserve respect and we’re all just trying to reach a common goal together and the power of being able to listen to one another.

 

So, a ten-year-old being able to offer correction based on expertise that they had and receive that in respect, it’s the same thing that should happen in our workplaces, right, leadership should be listening to an entry level person who’s just come in. So, to me, like I see that sort of reciprocity, that mutual respect of letting our titles out of the room and really just seeing like, what’s the expertise that we have here? Let’s listen to all the voices. We’re all beginners in some way. Let’s stay curious and let’s say open, open to learning.

 

Abby: It looks like you’ve reflected back a lot on your childhood and who you are. And it’s all sort of the pieces of the puzzle that fit together as to who you are now, you can see where you were at ten, how you’ve changed. Do you feel like there’s anything left to learn about yourself?

 

Jamie: Every day.

 

Abby: Really?

 

Jamie: Every day there’s other things to learn, right? Like knowledge locks in in new ways. And what locks in for me today, six months from now, there might be something new. That’s to me, we’re all in this path of ongoing learning. There’s always a beginner’s mind, right, that we need to embrace the world with.

 

So, for me, it’s like one of the things I really think about and whether I’m talking about taekwondo or the first time I, you know, felt comfortable in a museum. These are my values. These are the ways that I show up in my workplace, my history, my identity. Being a queer individual, that informs who I am, being empathetic, that informs who I am, being collaborative, all these things are values or identities, and I think that’s something that we, we talk a lot about. But so often within our teams, and when we show up to this work, what are our personal values?

 

Because those are the things that we will say yes to. Those are the things we will say no to, that influences how we fight in the room, how we let things go, where we will compromise, where we will, like, really push in. And it comes down to values and being willing to investigate yourself, become aware of where your weaknesses are, where the things that you don’t know, and you need to bring other people into the conversation.

 

And being able to learn from the things that you value, the way that you see the world, and understanding how that can drive you, but also where you need collaborators to sort of balance you out as well, and making sure that other people are also attuned to the things that they value. So that’s something to me that’s so important for the way that I think about, you know, biography and how we show up in the workplace.

 

We’re showing up as whole people. Right? And it’s important in our experiences. We are designing as whole people. We’re designing for the things we love, the things that we privilege. And it’s why it’s so important to have that empathy for others and other perspectives and other points of view. Because if we are only leading from our own sensations, the things that we care about, we are leaving so many people out of the conversation.

 

Brenda: Let’s talk about the Rubin Museum of Art. It’s about to launch itself into a whole new form. It’s envisioning itself as a global museum, and that means traveling museum, a digital experience, a loaning institution. And I think that what the institution is embarking upon is incredibly courageous. And I think about other institutions that have taken similar forms, such as the Museum of Homelessness, the Museum of Empathy, and how it is that these institutions operated without walls for many years, and they reached so many people through installation, through programs, and through being a part of other museum and heritage sites.

 

So, I’m excited about the new form that the Rubin is taking, and appreciate how bold it is for challenging conventions and challenging, you know, even the new definition of museum that ICOM has put forth. Jamie, what feedback have you been receiving from others? Are there naysayers?

 

Jamie: You know, for us, it’s really important to be able to meet audiences where they are, and there has been a lot of excitement towards this. We’ve received a lot of positive feedback of, yes, like, you’re going to come near me now. You’ll be able to do more work within the regions that you serve. You will still be there to serve us. You’ll be able to create more understanding, awareness of Himalayan art. Fabulous. So, there has been a lot of support for evolution.

 

There has also been, you know, people who feel a sense of attachment to who we are and want us to continue to be who we are. And it’s been really interesting, you know, to see grief in action. Right? The really, the response from the museum community, from the visitors, the only way I can describe it is just to compare it with grief. There’s people who are experiencing loss, profound memories that they’ve had in the space, who come to it during moments of I want to sort of make sense of what’s happening in my life, in the world. They come to the Rubin. People who want to feel a connection to their own culture, come to the Rubin. So, I recognize that our transition to our new form does come with that loss that people really know us, know us as, and love us as.

 

And also, we’re still going to be here, right? We’re still serving our audiences. It’s just going to look different than what people really know us as right now. And one of the things that’s so exciting, we just opened the Mandala Lab in Italy, which is currently in our current physical building. We’re still able to bring Rubin experiences to people all over the States and all over the world. So, there’s still so many ways to interact with us.

 

We’re looking to support other cultural institutions who want to tell the story of Himalayan art, right? To be able to share our collection more broadly, something that the museum field we need to do, we need to share our assets. We need to share expertise and lift one another up. We will be able to do that work hand in hand with other cultural partners, and we will also be able to serve and support other artists and researchers through grant projects and opportunities.

 

So, while we are losing a very centralized way to experience us, we are actually going to be supplementing and supporting Himalayan art and this very important field of study in completely different ways, and to still be of service to the art, to the collection and to our audiences.

 

Abby: What motivated this?

 

Jamie: One of the big motivating factors was really following where can we most impact audiences? So, seeing a lot of the success of our traveling projects, of seeing attendance and support, support being there in both financial and audience excitement around it, those were really powerful proof points for us. And also, museums in their physical spaces, they’re expensive as well, right? So, for us, while financially the Rubin’s at a good point, this transition allows us to continue to serve our audiences for even longer. The museum field has to change.

 

I think when we look at our textbooks five years down the line, we’re going to see this moment that we’re currently living through right now. And I think what’s happening for us at the Rubin, I like to think about it as museum studies in action, right? You know, so this is to me, it’s a bold step that we are doing, but it’s one that’s in our heart of hearts, trying to serve audiences in our collection in the best way possible.

 

Brenda: So, you’ve been working in Bulgaria for the past few years on this really exciting initiative called Muse Academy. To me, it seems like there’s a surge of activity happening in Bulgaria, or at least I seem to keep hearing about how amazing Bulgaria is from a heritage institution and, cultural museum perspective. And I’m even thinking of, like, the new children’s museum, that’s there, Muzeiko, which is so beautiful and so profound and I hope to get there in person someday.

 

But let’s talk about you. What is the work that you’ve been doing in Bulgaria and what is it like bringing museum studies, audience studies, experience? What is it like bringing that to a very different place in a very different culture?

 

Jamie: So, the work I’ve been doing in Bulgaria, the, the past year and a half now has been so rewarding and so powerful. And it’s alongside great collaborators Paul Orselli and Christina Ferwerda and, we’ve been invited to create a professional development program where we’re inviting cultural professionals from all over Bulgaria, from entry level positions to museum directors, outgoing directors who are getting ready to pass the baton, also partnering with NGOs who partner with museums and tourism, hospitality and helping them think about how can I create an audience centered experience.

 

So, we’re bringing together a curriculum that is helping them change the way that they’re thinking about audience, to think about how can I tell dynamic stories in my cultural institutions? How can I create interactive exhibitions and really keep audience satisfaction at the center, and to not only give them tools that they can bring back, but also give them a mindset that they can push forward and one of the guiding phrases for the program is Mozhelo, which means it is possible.

 

So, this program is not only giving them real things, but real things that they can, they can do today, small and big changes. But it’s also giving them an energy inside them that says, you know what? We can do this right, I can do this, that this change is possible. So, to me, that’s that, you know, that’s something I believe so powerfully in our field, is that each one of us can make a difference in our, in our small ways.

 

We can push boulders up hills. We can do it together. If other people don’t want to join us, it’s okay. There’s still things that we can do and try, and it’s important that we, we stay focused. We stay focused on what’s ahead of us and that audience that we are fighting for to bring into our cultural institutions. So, when we’re there and doing that work, we’re helping remind people of the power of audience, of what it means to visit a cultural institution, of why it matters, and to give people professional development opportunities to network and find their collaborators, and to say, hey, like this, this is possible. We can, we can do something here.

 

Abby: Jamie, this was incredible. I feel like we could definitely go on for another hour. I would love to have you back after we see the transition, the Rubin to without walls. It would be really interesting to talk through all the pros and cons and what you’re experiencing and learning and growing. Very excited to see your next chapter. Thank you so much for coming on the show and sharing your experiences.

 

Jamie: Thank you so much.

 

Abby: And thanks to everyone who tuned in today. If you like what you heard, subscribe for more episodes of Matters of Experience. Make sure to leave a rating and a review and share with a friend. We’ll see you next time!

 

Brenda: Thank you everyone!

 

[Music]

 

Producer: Matters of Experience is produced by Lorem Ipsum Corp and recorded at Hangar Studios. Tune in next time for more fun discussions about experience design.

Creating an Audience-Centered Experience with Jamie Lawyer

Creating an Audience-Centered Experience with Jamie Lawyer

May 1, 2024
Textiles and Technology with Nicole Yi Messier

Textiles and Technology with Nicole Yi Messier

April 17, 2024
Subscribe now on Apple Podcasts and Spotify
What do textiles and technology have in common? Independently, each medium can be used as a form of artistic expression. Together, they can combine to tell stories that blur the boundaries between the digital and the physical. Nicole Yi Messier is a multidisciplinary artist who loves to create experiences that push the envelope in terms of how we interact with them and how they respond to us. If you’re craft-curious or just looking to learn about the possibilities of blending materials and technologies, this is an episode you won’t want to miss.
Nicole Yi Messier is a creative technologist, designer, and artist. She is a co-founder of Craftwork, a multidisciplinary design and art studio exploring the nature of textiles and technology through storytelling, installations, and research. With an unconventional creative technology practice that spans commercial and cultural sectors, Messier is a creative with a passion for constructing beautifully orchestrated objects and designs at the core of her experiences. She has worked in the interactive experiential space helping create large-scale, multi-year installations for both commercial and cultural clients. Her work has been shown and exhibited internationally. Messier also teaches at Parsons School of Design and co-organizes electronic textile camp.

Nicole Yi Messier

Craftwork

Visit of the Bayeux Tapestry

Ancient Futures

ELLEN SAMPSON 

NEW INC

DEMO2024

[Music]

 

Abby: Welcome to Matters of Experience, produced by Lorem Ipsum, an experience design company headquartered in New York City. Our podcast explores the creativity, innovation and psychology driving immersive experiences. If you’re new, hello and welcome and to our regular listeners, thank you for tuning in and supporting our conversation. My name is Abigail Honor.

 

Brenda: Hello, everyone. This is Brenda Cowan.

 

Abby: So today we’re chatting with someone who works at the intersection of technology, craft and textiles to create experiences that truly push the envelope in terms of the way we interact with them and the way they respond to us. And someone who, as you learn more from, opens up a whole world of possibility in your brain you never knew existed, speaking from experience after visiting her studio, which is why I am so happy to welcome Nicole Yi Messier to our show. Nicole. Hello.

 

Nicole: Hi! I’m so excited to be here.

 

Abby: Nicole, you’re an interdisciplinary artist and creative technologist with a focus on storytelling and community. You co-founded Craftwork Collective, teach at Parsons and exhibit your work globally. So, we really have a lot to cover on this show. I’d like to first focus on how you got into this combo of technology and art. Technology and textiles is not an obvious pairing. So, how did you come to this particular intersection?

 

Nicole: Yeah, so my background and my first degree was actually in aerospace mechanical engineering and then I went on and worked at a consulting firm, and I really did not like it. While I was working in the consulting firm, I was taking art classes at night and decided to go back to school, get my MFA in design and technology. And that’s where I took a class called Computational Craft, where we’re really exploring conductive fabrics, thermochromic inks and things of that nature, and just got excited about kind of the magic that these materials bring to engineering and interactive things.

 

Brenda: What is it, I have to ask, what is it about aerospace engineering that sort of hooked you in the first place? What was it that, you know, sparked you to try it out?

 

Nicole: I was good at math and science in high school, and so I feel like everyone was like, you should do engineering. But I also really like to make, so I think that was the biggest thing actually, for me in engineering school that was lacking was like the making, the hands-on part. A lot of it was theory.

 

Brenda: Well, speaking of making, you once described the loom as being the first computer. We would love to hear more about what you mean by that, and how you see the history of technology and making and craft.

 

Nicole: We think of textiles as kind of an ancient technology. It’s a very mechanical system. They’re like the first computer, the first, like, drafting patterns and things of that nature, and so when we think about technology at craft work, we’re really trying to marry the two. It’s not just about what is modern technology, but let’s go to the past, use craft, and bring it into the digital technologies that we’re using today.

 

Abby: So how does all this fit with storytelling? You know, I understand both textiles and technology have been used to tell stories, textile art is one of the oldest forms of art and been used to tell stories through like human and animal figures, landscapes or, for example, the Bayeux Tapestry in England, which were all taught about, you know, from the Norman Conquest of England in 1066. It’s this huge thing that wraps all the way around, around the room. It’s amazing.

 

Textiles have been used to express cultural narratives, political affiliation. I’m thinking about banners, or there’s the AIDS quilts, and there’s also been multiple textile reactions to 911. I’m not even going into all of the ideas of blindfolds, gags, masks, corsets, foot bindings which tell a more violent story. But for you, Nicole, how does bringing the textiles and technology together sort of enhance, widen, deepen, I guess, the storytelling possibilities?

 

Nicole: Part of our work at Craftwork is we’re always thinking about how to kind of reimagine how textiles have always told stories across time and space. And so, we’re making oftentimes modern precedents of things that have already been made.

 

So, for example, we have a project called Ancient Futures where you could walk up to this textile that is woven with fiber optics, and you could tell it a secret or a story, and it would reflect back in light. And the, like, inspiration for this is how textiles have always held secrets, for example, people used to, knit secrets or messages into mittens during World War II.

 

For us, textiles is really kind of like a soft medium. So much of technology or interactive things today happen on a screen, and textiles help us bring something that’s a bit warmer and softer into these spaces.

 

Brenda: Is it possible for you to even separate the two? So, specifically, is there something about technology and just technology in and of itself that really excites you right now and then is there something about textiles and only textiles that’s exciting you right now?

 

Nicole: For me, I’m very unexcited about modern technologies right now. I think we’re seeing a lot of things on repeat, a lot of the same ideas, and it seems quite cyclical. And then whenever I’m doing something that’s textile based, I’m excited about it because it’s hands on, it’s usually something new that I’m learning. And then marrying the two is super exciting because we’re often creating novel materials, so like blending materials that aren’t found within the same space and really having to think about how these two different worlds can live together.

 

Abby: Do you think it’s because, you mentioned hard or plastic or digital or technology and how sort of that feels very rough or hard and then when you think about textiles, they feel softer. Do you think as people, as human beings, we like a bit of softness in our life.

 

Because I know when I was in your studio, I wanted to touch things. You had a beautiful merino wool hanging that may end up as a rug, and it was just the type of thing that you, it was soft and padded and squishy, and it was so, so nice. I wanted to walk on it. And so, textiles provide this emotional connection that isn’t in technology. I don’t feel the same—I get excited about technology—but I don’t want to touch it and squish it and being, surrounded by it. So, is there something about human nature that you think craves softness?

 

Nicole: I think people love texture and they love to touch things. And so, I think also when we think about textiles, it reminds us of home sometimes. There’s like less of a barrier to get through, so just thinking like instead of having a touch screen, what if that screen was soft or had some type of texture to it, I think it would be easier for people to engage with it.

 

Brenda: This is reminding me of, there’s an artist in the UK named Ellen Sampson, and she’s done a lot of research with touch and with clothing, and she talks a lot about how in her thinking, the desire to touch and to feel items of clothing specifically, has to do with the idea that our DNA is threaded within it, and the memories of people held within clothing is much like the DNA that we impart within clothing. It’s really, it’s, it’s fascinating stuff.

 

What do you think about that? Do you think about people wearing textiles as you’re making them? Do you think about that kind of human interrelationship and the idea that somebody’s body is really mingling with the work that you create?

 

Nicole: Yeah, sometimes with e-textiles, a lot of times you think about wearables and what it means to have something that’s interactive and soft on your body. I think for me and for us at Craftwork, we’re more excited about thinking about textiles as like an actual building block. And I think for a lot of people, the first thing when you think about textiles, you think about clothes, but actually, like you look around the room right now, how much textiles are around us? There’s textile on this mic, there’s textiles on the wall, and then just like making textile at an industrial scale to really be immersive in environments and in spaces.

 

Abby: One of the things, actually, you mentioned Ancient Futures, and I was in there and I saw a prototype. One of the things that I loved about it is this idea of being able to share a story and have the digital side create a color that represents that emotion of the story. So, if it was a happy story, it would be one color, neutral story, another, and then something maybe negative, not that I’d ever tell a negative story.

 

Brenda: Never.

 

Abby: That would be a be a third color. Can you talk a little bit about the genesis of this idea and what you’re hoping to achieve?

 

Nicole: Yeah. Craft has been such a space for community historically. And so, for us, we constantly think about that with our interactive pieces. And so, where there’s an ambient feeling to the textile, where there’s a light that’s changing, and the idea is that that light will be constantly changing and evolving with all the messages that are shared with it and in particular space, and the idea is that we could capture the overall feeling and the mood of a community. And then as this piece travels from location to location, we could capture many different communities through their stories and reflect that through something that’s not exactly just text or audio, but through something that’s more about creating a feeling within a location.

 

Brenda: Amazing,and a feeling that is a shared feeling. A feeling that is sort of like of many instead of just one. That’s lovely.

 

Abby: Yeah. Isn’t that absolutely incredible?

 

Brenda: Yeah.

 

Nicole: I think also like sometimes it can feel like in big cities you might be disconnected, but that as you see the stories that are collected, there tends to be like moods throughout the day and that there’s actually a connection between people, even within spaces.

 

Brenda: Nicole, I’m wondering, are there other projects in addition to Ancient Futures that sort of combines spoken word with technology, with textile and emotions? And are there other works that you can sort of share with us right now?

 

Nicole: Less about the spoken word, but we, we have another project in the studio that we’re very excited about where we’re exploring RFID systems as a mode of interaction. RFID systems are pervasive. We use them every day to like, swipe into buildings, but the magic of them is actually they both have antennas on them, and one powers the other, and you don’t actually have to touch them. You can make them hover against each other, and there’s actually like electricity moving through them. And so, we’ve thought about how do we put this system on our body and have people interact either with spaces or with each other through like simple hovering gestures? It’ll be like a little bit playful, a little bit awkward, but exploring like different modes of intimate interactions. So we’re really excited about that, and we’re excited about it because it’s also using like a low fi tech that’s very accessible, very easy to come by.

 

Brenda: Amazing. Where do these ideas come from?

 

Abby: Are you solving a problem first? And you’re like, I’m sick of RFIDs, and the way they’re so like this. Or are you just like musing in the shower or like, like, oh, maybe and so, yeah, where’s your inspiration coming from?

 

Nicole: I think a lot of the inspiration is through making. So, for the RFID tag thing, I had to one time make an RFID experience. The ones that we’ve all seen at museums and my RFID tags were on backorder. And so I was just like Google how I make an RFID tag and there’s just like this whole world of people making fun, quirky things with RFID tags. You can take copper tape, make an antenna, put a light bulb on it, and you don’t even need a battery to power it, you Just hover that over an RFID reader and it lights something up. And it’s those moments that feel, they feel magical.

 

Abby: I was going to say, do you know what makes it hard, though, when you think about pitching what you do to a client, must be difficult. What are some of the issues or some of the hurdles when you’re trying to explain to clients what you do and the different materiality, like, how are you solving this issue and what are some of the misconceptions people might have?

 

Nicole: I think some of the misconceptions are, technology and textiles, you do wearables. And we do do wearables. We can do wearables, but we do so much more than that. And then in terms of pitching, it’s really hard to capture textiles via photo, and then it’s really hard to capture textiles that are doing things computationally.

 

So, the best thing that we have found is to bring people to our space and then sometimes—we have a big materials library that we’ve organized, and we use that as a big tool when we’re talking to people. And if we go to someone oftentimes, we’ll bring like 1 or 2 of those cases that are full of swatches just to show the materiality, allow people to touch things and experience what a computational textile could be.

 

Brenda: Let’s talk about process. First, though, I want to ask you a question regarding as you are shaping a work and going through the process and you’re thinking about the story, do you like incorporate the audience or the end user at any point throughout the process, or is it something where you know you’ll work up to a certain point and then you’ll bring in that end user or the visitor or whatever the case might be. What does that process look like?

 

Nicole: Much of our making process is prototyping. A lot of the pieces we have out in the world, we call them prototypes. And so, we are constantly having an iterative process where we’re allowing the space, the pieces to live within a space and people to interact with it. And then going back to the drawing board and seeing how what we can change to make it a better experience. Better experience, meaning a lot of things. Maybe it’s sometimes messaging, sometimes it’s the interaction, sometimes it’s the design of it, like how it looks and feels.

 

Abby: Oh, that’s so interesting.

 

Brenda: We would love to know what your thoughts are regarding AI and what kind of technologies you might be using.

 

Nicole: We have been exploring AI. We’ve had a few projects where we’re thinking about AI as a collaborator. And also, have just explored how AI makes textiles, and it can’t. It’s so bad. You ask it to make a knitted structure and it cannot. And we’ve also tried to use it, like the great thing about it is it could be a rendering tool, right, for RFIPs and pitches—it is a bad rendering tool for textiles. It’s so bad we went all the way the other way and we’re having a storyboard artist help us make pencil renderings.

 

Brenda: There we go. This is where I get to interject some kind of romantic comment about the human hand.

 

What are you really passionate about right now, if you could pick one thing?

 

Nicole: I feel like Craftwork is, our studio is, my passion project right now. There’s not a lot of people really doing experiential design where they’re putting material research at the core of the things they do, and I think that in order to make more interesting, interactive pieces, we really need to have material research, material exploration, be a part of the design process, and for us, that is what excites us.

 

Abby: So, what’s the best way to work with you? Because you must be brought on sometimes at the very beginning, but sometimes probably towards the middle or even the fabrication stage, where they’re like, oh, how are we going to make this. Can you sort of talk to us about your process and then how you work in the larger project process?

 

Nicole: Much of our process follows, a similar path to a larger project in that we have an idea or concept and then we do design development. But I would say our design development is less based in like rendering and mockup worlds and actually prototyping and making it. I feel like a lot of the studios in experiential design were doing so much prototyping and then the like older I’ve gotten, the studios have moved away from it, and I think in order to make interesting work and really explore the possibilities of certain interactions and materials, you have to make things to figure it out. So, that’s a big part of our process. And then in terms of communicating that to a client, it’s like trying to find ways to document that constantly and capture that, and making that our 2D deliverable.

 

Abby: Yeah. That must be your biggest challenge in a way.

 

Brenda: Do you try to push to be a part of the earlier stages of the process?

 

Nicole: Yeah, ideally we’re part of concepting, so we can really flesh out the ideas together and build, build a creative trust because that’s, that’s a big hurdle. And we talked about this a bit. I think a lot of people are very excited about the new ideas, but then they want an example of it. It’s kind of like, well, we’re doing a new thing, so we don’t have an example and you kind of have to trust and it’s hard to build that trust. Yeah.

 

Brenda: It’s one of the things that we work with our students to try to really sort of teach them and enable them to be prepared for the, you know, inevitable question from a client, which is, day one, you’ve just met everybody: what’s it going to look like? And to fight against that, in, you know, a kind way, but to basically, for as long as humanly possible, not know what it is going to be, and it’s a tough, it’s a tough trick to teach a designer actually to, you know, not get visual for as long as possible and instead to really think about the story and the human factors and, you know, in the audience and so on and so forth, and it’s frustrating for, I know for a lot of the designers that I work with, it’s really frustrating to not know what it is.

 

What’s that process like for you? Do you get frustrated? You seem like you’re having too much fun to be a frustrated person.

 

Nicole: Do I get frustrated working with materials that don’t live within the same spaces? It’s so frustrating. But, as someone who’s done coding and hardware engineering, I feel like the biggest thing, and doing creative technology, so doing things that people don’t, haven’t done before is I have like a high amount of patience when things are broken. and I have this like, I can’t let it stay broken. So, I just keep going at it.

 

Brenda: It sounds like broken to you is an opportunity.

 

Nicole: Yes.

 

Abby: So, I would like, I’d like to ask you a question. What would you tell ten-year-old Nicole, if you could talk to her now, and here she is, ten-year-old Nicole, what would you say?

 

Nicole: I don’t know, I say this to my husband a lot, I say we’re living the dream, because New York can be hard and being a creative in New York can be hard. And I’m like you always have to remind yourself that, you know, in—to ten-year-old Nicole, in 25 years you’ll be living a dream.

 

Brenda: What’s coming up next? Can you talk about what, what we can expect from you in the near future?

 

Nicole:  Yes. Craftwork is part of NEW INC. NEW INC is the design incubator at the New Museum. They work with artists, they work with studios, they work with a wide range of creative practitioners in helping them make their work more sustainably. So they’ll have a big festival called Demo Festival in June, and there will be a big, group exhibition, talks, presentations, and that is a big, kind of thing we’re looking forward to where we will have a large scale version of Ancient Futures that is up, down in Financial District.

 

Abby: Oh, fantastic.

 

Nicole: Yeah.

 

Brenda: That’s excellent.

 

Abby: Doesn’t that sound amazing, outside, see how it weathers the, because that was my other question was like textiles. I think we chatted textiles, water, like, are you dealing with waterproofing? Have you worked in water before, when you’re thinking about different elements?

 

Nicole: Yeah, we’ve dealt with waterproofing. And I think also when people think about textile, they think about it as a fragile thing, and actually there are industrial scale textiles. So thinking about whether it goes inside or outside, there really, there’s lots of possibilities there, and there’s lots of ways to treat textiles so that that might be stiffer in some parts, looser in others, so it has that flexibility, but that there’s, there’s different scales of what a textile can be.

 

I think the biggest thing is just, thinking about textiles as a building block is is a big thing for us. And I think it would be great if designers and everyone thought about that more. We would have such a richer, richer architecture, richer spatial design if we folded textiles in in a way that we fold technology or hard materials into things.

 

Abby: And for me, it kind of feels like one of those, why aren’t we doing it already? You know, like, yeah, of course, it should be part of our training, the training of students.

 

Brenda: Is it expensive? If I were looking to create some fabric architecture for space and stuff, does that like, are the budgeting conversations on a really crazy level or how accessible financially is this kind of technology?

 

Nicole: I think there are different scales, right? We were just talking about, this was for an exhibition, they’re going to put up drywall. We were like, we could put up fabric scrims instead, and the difference is, not crazy different.

 

Brenda: Right, negligible.

 

Nicole: Yeah.

 

Brenda: That’s really good to know and that, because that’s like the first question that I know always comes in. And it sounds like, you know, it might be really expensive, but it’s really nice to know that it’s scalable.

 

Abby: And long lasting, right? There’s a misconception that material will just wither away and disappear. But it lasts just as long in some cases, right?

 

Nicole: Yeah. And also, if you think about the amount of, like, money that goes into technology, if we could just think of textiles as technology, the amount of money to build something that’s textile and interactive would not be more expensive than something that’s hardened technology.

 

Abby:  Just the plastics industry will be weeping. 

 

Nicole: Yeah.

 

Abby: Which wouldn’t be a bad thing right. Exactly. Nicole thank you so much for opening up this window on textiles and technology and sharing your vision and experiences with us today. I hope everybody enjoyed listening. It was absolutely incredible.

 

Brenda: Amazing.

 

Abby: And thanks to everyone who tuned in. If you like what you heard, subscribe for more episodes of Matters of Experience, wherever you listen to podcasts. Make sure to leave a rating and a review and share with a friend. See you next time!

 

Brenda: Thank you everyone. Thank you, Nicole.

 

Nicole: Thank you.

 

[Music]

 

Producer: Matters of Experience is produced by Lorem Ipsum Corp and recorded at Hangar Studios. Tune in next time for more fun discussions about experience design.

Nicole Yi Messier is a creative technologist, designer, and artist. She is a co-founder of Craftwork, a multidisciplinary design and art studio exploring the nature of textiles and technology through storytelling, installations, and research. With an unconventional creative technology practice that spans commercial and cultural sectors, Messier is a creative with a passion for constructing beautifully orchestrated objects and designs at the core of her experiences. She has worked in the interactive experiential space helping create large-scale, multi-year installations for both commercial and cultural clients. Her work has been shown and exhibited internationally. Messier also teaches at Parsons School of Design and co-organizes electronic textile camp.

Nicole Yi Messier

Craftwork

Visit of the Bayeux Tapestry

Ancient Futures

ELLEN SAMPSON 

NEW INC

DEMO2024

[Music]

 

Abby: Welcome to Matters of Experience, produced by Lorem Ipsum, an experience design company headquartered in New York City. Our podcast explores the creativity, innovation and psychology driving immersive experiences. If you’re new, hello and welcome and to our regular listeners, thank you for tuning in and supporting our conversation. My name is Abigail Honor.

 

Brenda: Hello, everyone. This is Brenda Cowan.

 

Abby: So today we’re chatting with someone who works at the intersection of technology, craft and textiles to create experiences that truly push the envelope in terms of the way we interact with them and the way they respond to us. And someone who, as you learn more from, opens up a whole world of possibility in your brain you never knew existed, speaking from experience after visiting her studio, which is why I am so happy to welcome Nicole Yi Messier to our show. Nicole. Hello.

 

Nicole: Hi! I’m so excited to be here.

 

Abby: Nicole, you’re an interdisciplinary artist and creative technologist with a focus on storytelling and community. You co-founded Craftwork Collective, teach at Parsons and exhibit your work globally. So, we really have a lot to cover on this show. I’d like to first focus on how you got into this combo of technology and art. Technology and textiles is not an obvious pairing. So, how did you come to this particular intersection?

 

Nicole: Yeah, so my background and my first degree was actually in aerospace mechanical engineering and then I went on and worked at a consulting firm, and I really did not like it. While I was working in the consulting firm, I was taking art classes at night and decided to go back to school, get my MFA in design and technology. And that’s where I took a class called Computational Craft, where we’re really exploring conductive fabrics, thermochromic inks and things of that nature, and just got excited about kind of the magic that these materials bring to engineering and interactive things.

 

Brenda: What is it, I have to ask, what is it about aerospace engineering that sort of hooked you in the first place? What was it that, you know, sparked you to try it out?

 

Nicole: I was good at math and science in high school, and so I feel like everyone was like, you should do engineering. But I also really like to make, so I think that was the biggest thing actually, for me in engineering school that was lacking was like the making, the hands-on part. A lot of it was theory.

 

Brenda: Well, speaking of making, you once described the loom as being the first computer. We would love to hear more about what you mean by that, and how you see the history of technology and making and craft.

 

Nicole: We think of textiles as kind of an ancient technology. It’s a very mechanical system. They’re like the first computer, the first, like, drafting patterns and things of that nature, and so when we think about technology at craft work, we’re really trying to marry the two. It’s not just about what is modern technology, but let’s go to the past, use craft, and bring it into the digital technologies that we’re using today.

 

Abby: So how does all this fit with storytelling? You know, I understand both textiles and technology have been used to tell stories, textile art is one of the oldest forms of art and been used to tell stories through like human and animal figures, landscapes or, for example, the Bayeux Tapestry in England, which were all taught about, you know, from the Norman Conquest of England in 1066. It’s this huge thing that wraps all the way around, around the room. It’s amazing.

 

Textiles have been used to express cultural narratives, political affiliation. I’m thinking about banners, or there’s the AIDS quilts, and there’s also been multiple textile reactions to 911. I’m not even going into all of the ideas of blindfolds, gags, masks, corsets, foot bindings which tell a more violent story. But for you, Nicole, how does bringing the textiles and technology together sort of enhance, widen, deepen, I guess, the storytelling possibilities?

 

Nicole: Part of our work at Craftwork is we’re always thinking about how to kind of reimagine how textiles have always told stories across time and space. And so, we’re making oftentimes modern precedents of things that have already been made.

 

So, for example, we have a project called Ancient Futures where you could walk up to this textile that is woven with fiber optics, and you could tell it a secret or a story, and it would reflect back in light. And the, like, inspiration for this is how textiles have always held secrets, for example, people used to, knit secrets or messages into mittens during World War II.

 

For us, textiles is really kind of like a soft medium. So much of technology or interactive things today happen on a screen, and textiles help us bring something that’s a bit warmer and softer into these spaces.

 

Brenda: Is it possible for you to even separate the two? So, specifically, is there something about technology and just technology in and of itself that really excites you right now and then is there something about textiles and only textiles that’s exciting you right now?

 

Nicole: For me, I’m very unexcited about modern technologies right now. I think we’re seeing a lot of things on repeat, a lot of the same ideas, and it seems quite cyclical. And then whenever I’m doing something that’s textile based, I’m excited about it because it’s hands on, it’s usually something new that I’m learning. And then marrying the two is super exciting because we’re often creating novel materials, so like blending materials that aren’t found within the same space and really having to think about how these two different worlds can live together.

 

Abby: Do you think it’s because, you mentioned hard or plastic or digital or technology and how sort of that feels very rough or hard and then when you think about textiles, they feel softer. Do you think as people, as human beings, we like a bit of softness in our life.

 

Because I know when I was in your studio, I wanted to touch things. You had a beautiful merino wool hanging that may end up as a rug, and it was just the type of thing that you, it was soft and padded and squishy, and it was so, so nice. I wanted to walk on it. And so, textiles provide this emotional connection that isn’t in technology. I don’t feel the same—I get excited about technology—but I don’t want to touch it and squish it and being, surrounded by it. So, is there something about human nature that you think craves softness?

 

Nicole: I think people love texture and they love to touch things. And so, I think also when we think about textiles, it reminds us of home sometimes. There’s like less of a barrier to get through, so just thinking like instead of having a touch screen, what if that screen was soft or had some type of texture to it, I think it would be easier for people to engage with it.

 

Brenda: This is reminding me of, there’s an artist in the UK named Ellen Sampson, and she’s done a lot of research with touch and with clothing, and she talks a lot about how in her thinking, the desire to touch and to feel items of clothing specifically, has to do with the idea that our DNA is threaded within it, and the memories of people held within clothing is much like the DNA that we impart within clothing. It’s really, it’s, it’s fascinating stuff.

 

What do you think about that? Do you think about people wearing textiles as you’re making them? Do you think about that kind of human interrelationship and the idea that somebody’s body is really mingling with the work that you create?

 

Nicole: Yeah, sometimes with e-textiles, a lot of times you think about wearables and what it means to have something that’s interactive and soft on your body. I think for me and for us at Craftwork, we’re more excited about thinking about textiles as like an actual building block. And I think for a lot of people, the first thing when you think about textiles, you think about clothes, but actually, like you look around the room right now, how much textiles are around us? There’s textile on this mic, there’s textiles on the wall, and then just like making textile at an industrial scale to really be immersive in environments and in spaces.

 

Abby: One of the things, actually, you mentioned Ancient Futures, and I was in there and I saw a prototype. One of the things that I loved about it is this idea of being able to share a story and have the digital side create a color that represents that emotion of the story. So, if it was a happy story, it would be one color, neutral story, another, and then something maybe negative, not that I’d ever tell a negative story.

 

Brenda: Never.

 

Abby: That would be a be a third color. Can you talk a little bit about the genesis of this idea and what you’re hoping to achieve?

 

Nicole: Yeah. Craft has been such a space for community historically. And so, for us, we constantly think about that with our interactive pieces. And so, where there’s an ambient feeling to the textile, where there’s a light that’s changing, and the idea is that that light will be constantly changing and evolving with all the messages that are shared with it and in particular space, and the idea is that we could capture the overall feeling and the mood of a community. And then as this piece travels from location to location, we could capture many different communities through their stories and reflect that through something that’s not exactly just text or audio, but through something that’s more about creating a feeling within a location.

 

Brenda: Amazing,and a feeling that is a shared feeling. A feeling that is sort of like of many instead of just one. That’s lovely.

 

Abby: Yeah. Isn’t that absolutely incredible?

 

Brenda: Yeah.

 

Nicole: I think also like sometimes it can feel like in big cities you might be disconnected, but that as you see the stories that are collected, there tends to be like moods throughout the day and that there’s actually a connection between people, even within spaces.

 

Brenda: Nicole, I’m wondering, are there other projects in addition to Ancient Futures that sort of combines spoken word with technology, with textile and emotions? And are there other works that you can sort of share with us right now?

 

Nicole: Less about the spoken word, but we, we have another project in the studio that we’re very excited about where we’re exploring RFID systems as a mode of interaction. RFID systems are pervasive. We use them every day to like, swipe into buildings, but the magic of them is actually they both have antennas on them, and one powers the other, and you don’t actually have to touch them. You can make them hover against each other, and there’s actually like electricity moving through them. And so, we’ve thought about how do we put this system on our body and have people interact either with spaces or with each other through like simple hovering gestures? It’ll be like a little bit playful, a little bit awkward, but exploring like different modes of intimate interactions. So we’re really excited about that, and we’re excited about it because it’s also using like a low fi tech that’s very accessible, very easy to come by.

 

Brenda: Amazing. Where do these ideas come from?

 

Abby: Are you solving a problem first? And you’re like, I’m sick of RFIDs, and the way they’re so like this. Or are you just like musing in the shower or like, like, oh, maybe and so, yeah, where’s your inspiration coming from?

 

Nicole: I think a lot of the inspiration is through making. So, for the RFID tag thing, I had to one time make an RFID experience. The ones that we’ve all seen at museums and my RFID tags were on backorder. And so I was just like Google how I make an RFID tag and there’s just like this whole world of people making fun, quirky things with RFID tags. You can take copper tape, make an antenna, put a light bulb on it, and you don’t even need a battery to power it, you Just hover that over an RFID reader and it lights something up. And it’s those moments that feel, they feel magical.

 

Abby: I was going to say, do you know what makes it hard, though, when you think about pitching what you do to a client, must be difficult. What are some of the issues or some of the hurdles when you’re trying to explain to clients what you do and the different materiality, like, how are you solving this issue and what are some of the misconceptions people might have?

 

Nicole: I think some of the misconceptions are, technology and textiles, you do wearables. And we do do wearables. We can do wearables, but we do so much more than that. And then in terms of pitching, it’s really hard to capture textiles via photo, and then it’s really hard to capture textiles that are doing things computationally.

 

So, the best thing that we have found is to bring people to our space and then sometimes—we have a big materials library that we’ve organized, and we use that as a big tool when we’re talking to people. And if we go to someone oftentimes, we’ll bring like 1 or 2 of those cases that are full of swatches just to show the materiality, allow people to touch things and experience what a computational textile could be.

 

Brenda: Let’s talk about process. First, though, I want to ask you a question regarding as you are shaping a work and going through the process and you’re thinking about the story, do you like incorporate the audience or the end user at any point throughout the process, or is it something where you know you’ll work up to a certain point and then you’ll bring in that end user or the visitor or whatever the case might be. What does that process look like?

 

Nicole: Much of our making process is prototyping. A lot of the pieces we have out in the world, we call them prototypes. And so, we are constantly having an iterative process where we’re allowing the space, the pieces to live within a space and people to interact with it. And then going back to the drawing board and seeing how what we can change to make it a better experience. Better experience, meaning a lot of things. Maybe it’s sometimes messaging, sometimes it’s the interaction, sometimes it’s the design of it, like how it looks and feels.

 

Abby: Oh, that’s so interesting.

 

Brenda: We would love to know what your thoughts are regarding AI and what kind of technologies you might be using.

 

Nicole: We have been exploring AI. We’ve had a few projects where we’re thinking about AI as a collaborator. And also, have just explored how AI makes textiles, and it can’t. It’s so bad. You ask it to make a knitted structure and it cannot. And we’ve also tried to use it, like the great thing about it is it could be a rendering tool, right, for RFIPs and pitches—it is a bad rendering tool for textiles. It’s so bad we went all the way the other way and we’re having a storyboard artist help us make pencil renderings.

 

Brenda: There we go. This is where I get to interject some kind of romantic comment about the human hand.

 

What are you really passionate about right now, if you could pick one thing?

 

Nicole: I feel like Craftwork is, our studio is, my passion project right now. There’s not a lot of people really doing experiential design where they’re putting material research at the core of the things they do, and I think that in order to make more interesting, interactive pieces, we really need to have material research, material exploration, be a part of the design process, and for us, that is what excites us.

 

Abby: So, what’s the best way to work with you? Because you must be brought on sometimes at the very beginning, but sometimes probably towards the middle or even the fabrication stage, where they’re like, oh, how are we going to make this. Can you sort of talk to us about your process and then how you work in the larger project process?

 

Nicole: Much of our process follows, a similar path to a larger project in that we have an idea or concept and then we do design development. But I would say our design development is less based in like rendering and mockup worlds and actually prototyping and making it. I feel like a lot of the studios in experiential design were doing so much prototyping and then the like older I’ve gotten, the studios have moved away from it, and I think in order to make interesting work and really explore the possibilities of certain interactions and materials, you have to make things to figure it out. So, that’s a big part of our process. And then in terms of communicating that to a client, it’s like trying to find ways to document that constantly and capture that, and making that our 2D deliverable.

 

Abby: Yeah. That must be your biggest challenge in a way.

 

Brenda: Do you try to push to be a part of the earlier stages of the process?

 

Nicole: Yeah, ideally we’re part of concepting, so we can really flesh out the ideas together and build, build a creative trust because that’s, that’s a big hurdle. And we talked about this a bit. I think a lot of people are very excited about the new ideas, but then they want an example of it. It’s kind of like, well, we’re doing a new thing, so we don’t have an example and you kind of have to trust and it’s hard to build that trust. Yeah.

 

Brenda: It’s one of the things that we work with our students to try to really sort of teach them and enable them to be prepared for the, you know, inevitable question from a client, which is, day one, you’ve just met everybody: what’s it going to look like? And to fight against that, in, you know, a kind way, but to basically, for as long as humanly possible, not know what it is going to be, and it’s a tough, it’s a tough trick to teach a designer actually to, you know, not get visual for as long as possible and instead to really think about the story and the human factors and, you know, in the audience and so on and so forth, and it’s frustrating for, I know for a lot of the designers that I work with, it’s really frustrating to not know what it is.

 

What’s that process like for you? Do you get frustrated? You seem like you’re having too much fun to be a frustrated person.

 

Nicole: Do I get frustrated working with materials that don’t live within the same spaces? It’s so frustrating. But, as someone who’s done coding and hardware engineering, I feel like the biggest thing, and doing creative technology, so doing things that people don’t, haven’t done before is I have like a high amount of patience when things are broken. and I have this like, I can’t let it stay broken. So, I just keep going at it.

 

Brenda: It sounds like broken to you is an opportunity.

 

Nicole: Yes.

 

Abby: So, I would like, I’d like to ask you a question. What would you tell ten-year-old Nicole, if you could talk to her now, and here she is, ten-year-old Nicole, what would you say?

 

Nicole: I don’t know, I say this to my husband a lot, I say we’re living the dream, because New York can be hard and being a creative in New York can be hard. And I’m like you always have to remind yourself that, you know, in—to ten-year-old Nicole, in 25 years you’ll be living a dream.

 

Brenda: What’s coming up next? Can you talk about what, what we can expect from you in the near future?

 

Nicole:  Yes. Craftwork is part of NEW INC. NEW INC is the design incubator at the New Museum. They work with artists, they work with studios, they work with a wide range of creative practitioners in helping them make their work more sustainably. So they’ll have a big festival called Demo Festival in June, and there will be a big, group exhibition, talks, presentations, and that is a big, kind of thing we’re looking forward to where we will have a large scale version of Ancient Futures that is up, down in Financial District.

 

Abby: Oh, fantastic.

 

Nicole: Yeah.

 

Brenda: That’s excellent.

 

Abby: Doesn’t that sound amazing, outside, see how it weathers the, because that was my other question was like textiles. I think we chatted textiles, water, like, are you dealing with waterproofing? Have you worked in water before, when you’re thinking about different elements?

 

Nicole: Yeah, we’ve dealt with waterproofing. And I think also when people think about textile, they think about it as a fragile thing, and actually there are industrial scale textiles. So thinking about whether it goes inside or outside, there really, there’s lots of possibilities there, and there’s lots of ways to treat textiles so that that might be stiffer in some parts, looser in others, so it has that flexibility, but that there’s, there’s different scales of what a textile can be.

 

I think the biggest thing is just, thinking about textiles as a building block is is a big thing for us. And I think it would be great if designers and everyone thought about that more. We would have such a richer, richer architecture, richer spatial design if we folded textiles in in a way that we fold technology or hard materials into things.

 

Abby: And for me, it kind of feels like one of those, why aren’t we doing it already? You know, like, yeah, of course, it should be part of our training, the training of students.

 

Brenda: Is it expensive? If I were looking to create some fabric architecture for space and stuff, does that like, are the budgeting conversations on a really crazy level or how accessible financially is this kind of technology?

 

Nicole: I think there are different scales, right? We were just talking about, this was for an exhibition, they’re going to put up drywall. We were like, we could put up fabric scrims instead, and the difference is, not crazy different.

 

Brenda: Right, negligible.

 

Nicole: Yeah.

 

Brenda: That’s really good to know and that, because that’s like the first question that I know always comes in. And it sounds like, you know, it might be really expensive, but it’s really nice to know that it’s scalable.

 

Abby: And long lasting, right? There’s a misconception that material will just wither away and disappear. But it lasts just as long in some cases, right?

 

Nicole: Yeah. And also, if you think about the amount of, like, money that goes into technology, if we could just think of textiles as technology, the amount of money to build something that’s textile and interactive would not be more expensive than something that’s hardened technology.

 

Abby:  Just the plastics industry will be weeping. 

 

Nicole: Yeah.

 

Abby: Which wouldn’t be a bad thing right. Exactly. Nicole thank you so much for opening up this window on textiles and technology and sharing your vision and experiences with us today. I hope everybody enjoyed listening. It was absolutely incredible.

 

Brenda: Amazing.

 

Abby: And thanks to everyone who tuned in. If you like what you heard, subscribe for more episodes of Matters of Experience, wherever you listen to podcasts. Make sure to leave a rating and a review and share with a friend. See you next time!

 

Brenda: Thank you everyone. Thank you, Nicole.

 

Nicole: Thank you.

 

[Music]

 

Producer: Matters of Experience is produced by Lorem Ipsum Corp and recorded at Hangar Studios. Tune in next time for more fun discussions about experience design.

Textiles and Technology with Nicole Yi Messier

Textiles and Technology with Nicole Yi Messier

April 17, 2024
Being Successful While Balancing it All with Trent Oliver

Being Successful While Balancing it All with Trent Oliver

April 3, 2024
Subscribe now on Apple Podcasts and Spotify
In this episode, discover the transformative power of mentorship, visitor-centered design, and innovative storytelling with Trent Oliver. From fostering diversity and inclusion to balancing work-life as a parent, Trent shares insights on shaping the future of interactive experiences. If you’re curious about the unique perspectives and challenges of a successful woman-owned business, this episode is for you.
Trent is the Principal + Managing Director of Blue Telescope, past president of the Themed Entertainment Association Eastern Board, and a Praxis Member. Her background in stage management led her to experience design, where she has pushed the boundaries of interactive experiences with clients like Kennedy Space Center, The Henry Ford Museum, and Illinois Institute of Technology. Trent seeks out projects that engage the human experience, embrace diversity, and push the boundaries of technology.

Blue Telescope

Harriet B’s Descendants

Praxis Museum Projects Group

Injection Simulator – Ipsen Biopharmaceuticals

National Women’s History Museum and Blue Telescope Named 2023 Gold Winner

[Music]

 

Abby: Welcome to Matters of Experience, a podcast produced by Lorem Ipsum, an experience design company headquartered in New York City. Our podcast explores the creativity, innovation and psychology driving designed experiences and encounters. Thanks for tuning in today and supporting our conversation. My name is Abigail Honor.

 

Brenda: Hello, this is Brenda Cowan.

 

Abby: So today we’re focusing on a woman who has done it all in our industry and finding out what some of her challenges were professionally and personally, as her career has gone from strength to strength. It is a pleasure to welcome Trent Oliver, the principal and managing director of Blue Telescope.

 

BT, as it’s fondly referred to, creates location-based, interactive experiences for museums, executive briefing centers, and brand experiences. Trent has a desire to blur the lines between reality and technology, in honor of the good, Well, Trent, a big welcome to the studio today.

 

Trent: Thank you. I’m glad to be here.

 

Brenda: Trent, I’m going to kick us off focusing on your incredible history of work in interactive experience design technology, entertainment, leadership. Abby and I would love to know what on earth attracted you to this industry in the first place, and as I was thinking about this question, I was thinking about how so many of us in this dynamic profession find ourselves here, having come from totally, seemingly unrelated backgrounds or just plain weird lines of work, right? Really weird. And the attraction in experience design to me anyway, is that everything seems to apply.

 

Trent: Yeah.

 

Brenda: And there seem to be no limits in either direction. So, I’m curious to know, is that your take also and what brought you here?

 

Trent: I was in theater. I was a stage manager. I moved up, I became an equity stage manager, and it occurred to me I could stage manage the best show ever, and it could still be terrible. I could be well run, yet terrible. And I found myself in commercials in LA. I found myself doing corporate theater here in New York, and I would interview here and there, I did videos, I did film, and I saw a little car go across the screen. And this is a very long time ago. This is pre-2000. And I was like, oh, how’d you do that. And I was like, that’s cool. I want to figure that out.

 

I got lucky. I started telling my clients back then when I was a producer, don’t call me unless you don’t know how to do it. If you don’t know how to do it, I’m interested. If you know how to do it, call somebody else. They can dance faster. I don’t want to dance faster. And I found myself owning a company, and we ended up doing interactive multimedia. And then wandered my way. I mean, I couldn’t have aimed for it.

 

Abby: You know what I was going to say? One of the things that really resonated with me is when Trent, you said that if you can’t do it, if a client can’t do it, you wanted them to call you. What do you think that is, that, not being scared to help people solve problems that you don’t have the answer to? What is it about that in you that motivates you?

 

Trent: I always found that when I wanted to learn something I’d go get a job doing it. Nothing makes you learn it faster than, oh dear God, I might get fired, you know, like, oh, if this doesn’t work, I’ve got a problem. But diving in and going to the best people you can find that do that and interviewing them, it’s phenomenal. They’re not worried about you. You’re not going to take their job and they’ll give you great advice. And I like learning. Learning’s great. If I weren’t learning, I would probably blow up my career and run away.

 

Abby: So just jumping back then into this idea that our industry is very multidisciplinary, not only for the people and where they’re coming from as they come into our industry, but sort of, the way that we need to have multiple people from lots of different disciplines sitting around the table to be able to do what we do really well. You need everybody there and I remember thinking as I was growing up, well, I’ve got a broad interest in lots of things. I like to do this, the painting, the video, the sound, the music. But thinking about my growth and how I ended up here, it helps to have mentors.

 

Trent: Yeah.

 

Abby: Did anyone ever mentor you along your road to success and how did it help you? At the time?

 

Trent: I would just go find people who were good at—like I didn’t know how to make a DVD. I called up a friend and said, let me take you to lunch and pick your brain. I joined, back when it existed, the Inc. Business Owners Council, because I was like, all right, I own a business. Do I know what I’m doing? I don’t know, and that was really interesting to learn that businesses all have the same problems, everybody has employees, overhead, health care. They’re all dealing with the same problems. And it’s useful to talk about those problems and hear from others that have found a way.

 

Brenda: Well, I want to pick up, and move along a little bit more of the conversation about mentorship, because I know that you yourself see mentorship and being a mentor as very important. And, you have been an advisor for an organization called Harriet’s Descendants, and the organization, folks, if you don’t know what it is, it mentors the next generation of themed entertainment leadership to embrace, engage in the work of equity, access and justice and mindfully expand representation, inclusion and diversity within guest experiences and creative works. And they’ve got this great tagline, which is, “think of us as a feminist, intersectional Dumbledore’s Army of themed entertainment.” I’m looking at you laugh, Trent, did you know that this was one of the taglines?

 

Trent: No.

 

Brenda: You must tell us how did you get involved with this organization, as a mentor, as an advisor.

 

Trent: Cynthia Sharpe is a principal at Thinkwell, and she’s a very creative, very opinionated, intelligent woman. And she and I were having a big discussion around 2016, and we had very strong feelings and this is what came out of that. One of the first years we went to IAPA and we had this interesting kind of round robin talk about like how, how can you go forward as a woman? Women haven’t been in the workforce that long. We don’t have, a lot of times, mothers that did it before. We don’t know how to go forward and how to make it not personal but breaking it down and making it kind of more of a math problem and not a personal problem.

 

But I will say that it’s something that all people should be involved in. If we are really looking at finances, adding half of the citizenry into the economics, adding people that we don’t see, that don’t look like us, that, you know, they’re not part of our everyday experience into what we’re doing. We’re going to expand our audience. That’s going to make everybody more money. So even if you are against it, it will make you money. And I think that financial case is a good thing to put forward when people don’t agree with just kind of the basic idea.

 

Abby: Why is it called Harriet’s Descendants?

 

Trent: It’s after the first female animator at Disney.

 

Abby: Oh, wow. I did not know that.

 

So, you started talking about women, so I’m going to keep going. I played, like, a lot of sport in school, and often we trained with guys, right, and I learned that you need to be agile and strategic if you’re really going to have success when you’re playing with the boys. And so, Trent, as the principal and managing director of Blue Telescope, tell us about being a woman in a leadership position in this largely male dominated industry, and do you have any stories to share or things that you had to overcome.

 

Trent: I never walk in thinking, oh, I’m a woman here. My mother told me I was smart. Whether I am or not, my mommy told me, therefore I believe it. And I’ll walk into anywhere thinking I should be here. It’s taken years to get that, and I often am clueless when I’m faced with either, you know, a male who isn’t enjoying a female having a conversation with him, or other women who kind of—there’s games in the playground that I never learned.

 

And then there have been times where it’s been overtly bad. We used to have a large client, the biggest pharmaceutical client in the world at that time, and I was at a conference and ended up with someone who could have put us out of business, got off the elevator behind me on my floor, and ended up having a full-on wrestling match. And I got lucky. I got my door open and got myself in and slammed the door and he wasn’t inside. And I was furious. I was furious for years. I could do nothing about it. There was nothing I could do. And that’s crazy.

 

That was the most over. You know, coming up in my life, there was lots of crap. I remember also after then a partner, a fabrication house that we partnered with, I had hired, a man from another company, and I brought him with me. We went to go talk to this fabrication partner. Suddenly, I didn’t exist. And, you know, they had a complete conversation, and I didn’t matter. And I was like, wow, this is very interesting. And also having the name Trent, quite often people will say, oh, Trent, he and I go way back, and I would just grab a guy and say, here, you talk to him and I’m out of here.

 

I keep thinking it changes and it kind of does, but it kind of really doesn’t.

 

Brenda: Yeah.

 

Abby: I totally agree. How do you, how do you see leadership? What are you aiming to be? Or at least, let’s say your colleagues think about you as a leader, what sort of things do you want them to say?

 

Trent: That I have their back. We’re selling a service, yes. Our service is out people, and our people need to feel that they matter. If you don’t feel like you’re important in your job, you slack off, you stop coming in. It’s not that important. And the people who feel that way shouldn’t work for us. But its helping people go to the next level. It’s picking the right people and putting them together to create. And I tell everybody, being a stage manager, taught me to enable creative people to do what they need to do.

 

Abby: How do you teach this, Brenda? So, when you’ve got a room full of all these amazing students, how do you teach leadership?

 

Brenda: I teach leadership by teaching how to listen, how to speak even when you don’t want to speak or you’re not sure what you’re about to say. I think that a lot of the leadership skills that I really break down with my students have to do with being able to have really challenging conversations and to listen and to be engaged and to be mindful.

 

As I’m listening to the two of you, Abby and Trent and we were talking about mentorships and important people in our lives, and I have to share a story of when I was 30 years old, and I just had my daughter and I had a friend, and she was 88, and Kathryn had been a fashion model in the 1930s. This woman had moxie. I think the word was invented for her. And spending time with her always involved smoking cigarettes, drinking beer and talking about men and talking about being a woman. And I’m getting a crazy flashback to that right now. And outside of, you know, her, endless words of wisdom, one quip of which involved her saying, “Brenda, let me tell you something. The legs, they’re the last thing to go.”

 

But more seriously, she would tell me, get out there and talk, and she would say, no one’s going to listen if you don’t talk, and so in a way, to your point, you know, when you asked a question about how I teach leadership, it really is about those conversational skills. And it might sound feeble but if you really look around you and if you really watch people and if you really watch the dynamics, it’s the people who, yes, can talk, but the people who have the skill of listening, they’re the people who go far.

 

I want to sort of extend this conversation about womanhood by bringing up the next absolutely obvious talking point, which is going to be about family, because this just seems inevitable in a way. You know, before I was a professor, I was in practice, for many years and raising a family and traveling constantly, working far too many hours. How’s this sounding, my friends?

 

Trent: Yeah.

 

Brenda: Yeah, sounding about right. So, I also ran a company which meant that I was always on the front line when things needed to get decided upon, when things needed to get done, and when I was interviewed for my current position, this professorship, one of the questions that I was asked was how I would feel about not traveling so much, about how would I feel about not being in the action and everything else. And they were really genuinely concerned about this. And I swear to God, I practically choked back tears. And like the idea was such a relief. And so, Trent, you’ve got a family of your own and your very busy, active position at Blue Telescope. How have you managed to balance your work and your life?

 

Trent: I don’t know that I do.

 

Brenda: Tell us more.

 

Trent: Becoming a parent was a lesson in futility. You can’t do anything completely, Just can’t. I can’t be there to be the perfect mother. There is no such thing. I can’t be at work and, you know, be a workaholic because I need to go home. You know, there’s so many things that when I was freelance and I was single, it was like, oh, I dove in, I did it completely, I walked away, I was done.

 

We’re 24 years old, the company is, and I haven’t finished anything completely in 24 years. But I read this amazing article from a woman who said, don’t give up. At the time, there’s so many women who would have kids and they’d leave the workforce and they felt that, you want to be there for your family, you want to participate. You had kids because you wanted them, not because you wanted to leave them behind, but that continuing down the work path and becoming really successful, she was like, I have been allowed to take my family on amazing trips. I have been able to do all these things for my kids. I’ve also been able to go to their recitals, and I think that that’s really important. I have not made everything my kids have done. I’ve made a lot of them. But my daughter will tell you I wasn’t there.

 

Abby: They’ll remember that one time.

 

Brenda: That one time, forever.

 

Trent: Yeah. But, at a certain point, it was either I was home, or my husband was home. And travel comes and you do it. And then you come home, and my kids have gone with me and set up a booth, you know, I took my daughter to Munich because I had to go there, and it was like, you’re coming with me. Now, that’s amazing.

 

Brenda: That really is.

 

Trent: That’s amazing.

 

Brenda: It’s important. Let’s take a little pivot. Let’s talk about Praxis. So, dear listeners, Praxis is a consultation group of industry practitioners, and they provide this comprehensive list of services in exhibition development and design, media, software, hardware, interpretive and master planning, and so much more. And as a part of your work, Trent, you’ve recently put together a survey of best practices on how new technologies can help us navigate the new challenges our profession is facing. What are some of the challenges that technology is addressing and how is it that technology addresses them best?

 

Trent: Everybody, you know, they’re like, oh, tell me your offering, what’s your latest technology? And it’s like, throw that out. That has nothing to do with anything. We have to figure out why. Why are you doing this? What is it, what is the kernel of what you want people to do, feel, think, you know, how do you get to them emotionally? What is that? And then once we know why, there are a million ways to figure out the how. And technology is a tool. It’s a hammer. It’s a nail. It’s you know, okay, a touch screen, not that anybody needs more screens in their lives, but how can we find ways to spark joy, to educate, to surprise, to have fun? You know, fun is a perfectly good why. Looking cool is not a good why, because that will fade very quickly.

 

And the technology, it’s just going to keep rolling. I don’t think we’re surprised where it’s going. Okay, Apple Vision Pro, all right. It hurts my head. Yeah. the HoloLens was quite good also, but the idea of AR, augmented reality, virtual reality. AI is remarkable. I think that it’s going to be the most fascinating thing in our lives. I think it’s going to be good and bad. And I think it’s really interesting and I’m happy to watch it.

 

All of these things will happen, but they aren’t the important part. How can we use technology to help all of us go forward? And how can we create things that are useful?

 

Brenda: Do you happen to have a personal favorite that you’ve done over the years that, Blue Telescope has produced?

 

Trent: We created an injection simulator for Ipsen Pharmaceuticals. I got to say, it’s really cool. That is really cool.

 

Brenda: Oh, wait, what is an injection simulator?

 

Trent: It’s actually, it’s a physical device. Here’s a bust of a human. And around the neck and shoulders is a silicone shawl, that you would use, you know, that’s like a medical dummy. And you pick up a real syringe that’s of course, attached, and you pull it back as if you’re filling it with medicine. But on the screen in front of you, it shows the medicine going in. And as you go to inject, it will tell you here’s the muscles you’re trying to hit. Did you hit them? Yes. How much medicine did you put in and how much went wild. And it’s very specific and it’s very accurate. And I think that’s really cool. That’s a nice invention.

 

Brenda: Yeah. And frankly, strangely compelling. Abby, would you want to give someone an injection?

 

Abby: I would love to do that. You used the word specific. I want to pick up on that, because a lot of the things that I’ve seen of your work have to be specific to be successful. I think it’s a challenge to try to bring that to a visitor who maybe doesn’t have the background. And, our job, in a way, is to try and frame the interactive or the exhibit moment, and I find that really sometimes a challenge, right? To put the context around this moment that you’re doing in this case, you know, injecting like, why am I doing it? How does it help? Why is this cool and all the other reasons.

whil

And so how do you go about your process? You’re obviously not focusing on the technology first, which I completely agree with. I think that’s wonderful. You’re listening to what the client needs are, but how are you planning out, can you just try to paint a picture of how you come up with an exhibit idea.

 

Trent: I don’t know. A long time ago, we used to do a lot of pharmaceutical trade shows, and we used to say, you need to be able to see it from far away and know there’s something interesting. So, a big, then a medium when you’re there, something that most people will do that engages and is interesting but allows those people who are really the nerds to dive in and really go to it. And I think the same is true for museums.

 

You have to be a little puzzling. What is that? Why is that? And go there and have it be interesting that even if I don’t know, it’s kind of fun. Let me check this out. Maybe I’ll learn something. You know, you learn stuff just by watching, you know, and there are people who aren’t going to interact. Are they still going to get stuff? Hopefully they will, but allow there to be enough content for the nerds to dive in because, you know, everybody should get to. But it does have to be something that’s accessible to everyone.

 

Abby: So, some of your work with exhibit experiences, really focuses on the visitor. How important for you is the visitor when you think about your strategy for design?

 

Trent: I think that’s the key. I mean, it doesn’t make any sense otherwise. Whatever you’re designing, if you’ve got the why, you got to know who is coming through and make sure that they feel they’re represented.

 

I have a pet peeve that sometimes museums kind of live in rarefied air and I’ve been in discussions in a big round table where everybody is extremely educated and really smart and coming up with really good points, but they’re missing the undereducated. And if you’re going to speak to people who maybe don’t have a master’s and a PhD, you have to have people in the room that also don’t have a master’s and a PhD so that you can speak to them. You know, if you want to speak to people as a community, you have to bring the community in.

 

We did a project recently and it was on black feminism. We were lucky enough that Tessellate brought us in for Women’s History Museum, and we got to create the interactives that they designed. We brought black feminists to the table to do the work because I can’t speak to anybody else’s experience but my own and I believe everybody should feel that.

 

Abby: Good for you. That’s fantastic that you did that.

 

So, let’s chat a bit about AI because you touched earlier. How do you see museums of the future? Do you think that they will be heavily designed with the use of AI? Do you think a lot of our industry will become obsolete?

 

Trent: Have you seen the meme that as long as clients don’t know what they want, our jobs are secure? I don’t know for sure. Yes, some jobs will become a little obsolete, but, like, AI takes all our meeting notes. How fantastic is that? If you need to create—all right, I need a picture, kind of like this, kind of like that. I personally can still see when it’s AI, and I’m like, eh, but sometimes it can give you an idea of where you’re trying to go. And maybe it can cut down some of your discussions of like, do you mean this, do you mean that, you know, and then go to the people to create it. Authentic human experiences, I think are going to be very important. I think we’ll know the difference. I’m fascinated to see where it goes. I could see where terrible things could happen, and I could also see where amazing things could happen.

 

Abby: Well, that sounds like the fate of human nature.

 

Trent: Yeah.

 

Abby: The good and the bad.

 

Brenda: Well, I want to know, Trent, what is it that you’re currently passionate about in this big world of yours? What is it that you’re just really excited to be showing up for every day?

 

Trent: Blue Telescope is the Rubik’s cube I get up and I work on every day. Now, I know I should have solved it by now, but it’s interesting. What’s the right blend of jobs? You know, we need to have stuff we care deeply about because that’s why we get up in the morning. But we also need to have stuff that’s fun, fast and profitable because without profit, you can’t do the stuff you care about. It’s kind of like, I’ve heard flying a helicopter, you’re constantly moving, you can’t stop your hands because you’re constantly doing it. And I feel like that.

 

Brenda: Well, I know what you’ve got to do next, okay, being that you are willing to keep learning and interested in constantly learning new things, and you clearly have the ability to be in endless motion, right, all the time. It is time for you, Trent Oliver, to learn how to fly a helicopter.

 

Trent: Oh no, no.

 

Abby: Yes, I second that notion.

 

Brenda: You heard it here first.

 

Abby: Yeah, yeah. Trent, up in the air.

 

Trent: When I was young, I was never afraid of heights. I was never afraid of rollercoasters, any of it. Now I’m like, oh no, no, no, I couldn’t. If I got four feet off the ground, I’d be scared.

 

Abby: I think it’s something, yes, it’s something to do with aging, and the fear starts to kick in.

 

Trent: Yeah. Something in your head. You get dizzy.

 

Abby: Another biological thing that happens as we age.

 

Brenda: Oh, here we go. And, well, that’s another whole podcast.


Abby: Well, Trent, I cannot thank you enough for coming on today and sharing some of your experiences.

 

Trent: What a fun thing.

 

Abby:  It’s been really—I feel like I’ve met a kindred spirit.

 

Trent: Oh, me too. This is great.

 

Abby: Yeah. This has been amazing. Thank you so much.

 

Brenda: Thank you so much, Trent.

 

Trent: Thank you.

 

Abby: And thanks to everyone who tuned in today. If you like what you heard, subscribe for more episodes of Matters of Experience, wherever you listen to podcasts, and make sure to leave a rating and a review and share with a friend. We’ll see you next time.

 

Brenda: Thanks everyone!

 

Trent: Bye.

 

[Music]

 

Producer: Matters of Experience is produced by Lorem Ipsum Corp and recorded at Hangar Studios. Tune in next time for more fun discussions about experience design.

Trent is the Principal + Managing Director of Blue Telescope, past president of the Themed Entertainment Association Eastern Board, and a Praxis Member. Her background in stage management led her to experience design, where she has pushed the boundaries of interactive experiences with clients like Kennedy Space Center, The Henry Ford Museum, and Illinois Institute of Technology. Trent seeks out projects that engage the human experience, embrace diversity, and push the boundaries of technology.

Blue Telescope

Harriet B’s Descendants

Praxis Museum Projects Group

Injection Simulator – Ipsen Biopharmaceuticals

National Women’s History Museum and Blue Telescope Named 2023 Gold Winner

[Music]

 

Abby: Welcome to Matters of Experience, a podcast produced by Lorem Ipsum, an experience design company headquartered in New York City. Our podcast explores the creativity, innovation and psychology driving designed experiences and encounters. Thanks for tuning in today and supporting our conversation. My name is Abigail Honor.

 

Brenda: Hello, this is Brenda Cowan.

 

Abby: So today we’re focusing on a woman who has done it all in our industry and finding out what some of her challenges were professionally and personally, as her career has gone from strength to strength. It is a pleasure to welcome Trent Oliver, the principal and managing director of Blue Telescope.

 

BT, as it’s fondly referred to, creates location-based, interactive experiences for museums, executive briefing centers, and brand experiences. Trent has a desire to blur the lines between reality and technology, in honor of the good, Well, Trent, a big welcome to the studio today.

 

Trent: Thank you. I’m glad to be here.

 

Brenda: Trent, I’m going to kick us off focusing on your incredible history of work in interactive experience design technology, entertainment, leadership. Abby and I would love to know what on earth attracted you to this industry in the first place, and as I was thinking about this question, I was thinking about how so many of us in this dynamic profession find ourselves here, having come from totally, seemingly unrelated backgrounds or just plain weird lines of work, right? Really weird. And the attraction in experience design to me anyway, is that everything seems to apply.

 

Trent: Yeah.

 

Brenda: And there seem to be no limits in either direction. So, I’m curious to know, is that your take also and what brought you here?

 

Trent: I was in theater. I was a stage manager. I moved up, I became an equity stage manager, and it occurred to me I could stage manage the best show ever, and it could still be terrible. I could be well run, yet terrible. And I found myself in commercials in LA. I found myself doing corporate theater here in New York, and I would interview here and there, I did videos, I did film, and I saw a little car go across the screen. And this is a very long time ago. This is pre-2000. And I was like, oh, how’d you do that. And I was like, that’s cool. I want to figure that out.

 

I got lucky. I started telling my clients back then when I was a producer, don’t call me unless you don’t know how to do it. If you don’t know how to do it, I’m interested. If you know how to do it, call somebody else. They can dance faster. I don’t want to dance faster. And I found myself owning a company, and we ended up doing interactive multimedia. And then wandered my way. I mean, I couldn’t have aimed for it.

 

Abby: You know what I was going to say? One of the things that really resonated with me is when Trent, you said that if you can’t do it, if a client can’t do it, you wanted them to call you. What do you think that is, that, not being scared to help people solve problems that you don’t have the answer to? What is it about that in you that motivates you?

 

Trent: I always found that when I wanted to learn something I’d go get a job doing it. Nothing makes you learn it faster than, oh dear God, I might get fired, you know, like, oh, if this doesn’t work, I’ve got a problem. But diving in and going to the best people you can find that do that and interviewing them, it’s phenomenal. They’re not worried about you. You’re not going to take their job and they’ll give you great advice. And I like learning. Learning’s great. If I weren’t learning, I would probably blow up my career and run away.

 

Abby: So just jumping back then into this idea that our industry is very multidisciplinary, not only for the people and where they’re coming from as they come into our industry, but sort of, the way that we need to have multiple people from lots of different disciplines sitting around the table to be able to do what we do really well. You need everybody there and I remember thinking as I was growing up, well, I’ve got a broad interest in lots of things. I like to do this, the painting, the video, the sound, the music. But thinking about my growth and how I ended up here, it helps to have mentors.

 

Trent: Yeah.

 

Abby: Did anyone ever mentor you along your road to success and how did it help you? At the time?

 

Trent: I would just go find people who were good at—like I didn’t know how to make a DVD. I called up a friend and said, let me take you to lunch and pick your brain. I joined, back when it existed, the Inc. Business Owners Council, because I was like, all right, I own a business. Do I know what I’m doing? I don’t know, and that was really interesting to learn that businesses all have the same problems, everybody has employees, overhead, health care. They’re all dealing with the same problems. And it’s useful to talk about those problems and hear from others that have found a way.

 

Brenda: Well, I want to pick up, and move along a little bit more of the conversation about mentorship, because I know that you yourself see mentorship and being a mentor as very important. And, you have been an advisor for an organization called Harriet’s Descendants, and the organization, folks, if you don’t know what it is, it mentors the next generation of themed entertainment leadership to embrace, engage in the work of equity, access and justice and mindfully expand representation, inclusion and diversity within guest experiences and creative works. And they’ve got this great tagline, which is, “think of us as a feminist, intersectional Dumbledore’s Army of themed entertainment.” I’m looking at you laugh, Trent, did you know that this was one of the taglines?

 

Trent: No.

 

Brenda: You must tell us how did you get involved with this organization, as a mentor, as an advisor.

 

Trent: Cynthia Sharpe is a principal at Thinkwell, and she’s a very creative, very opinionated, intelligent woman. And she and I were having a big discussion around 2016, and we had very strong feelings and this is what came out of that. One of the first years we went to IAPA and we had this interesting kind of round robin talk about like how, how can you go forward as a woman? Women haven’t been in the workforce that long. We don’t have, a lot of times, mothers that did it before. We don’t know how to go forward and how to make it not personal but breaking it down and making it kind of more of a math problem and not a personal problem.

 

But I will say that it’s something that all people should be involved in. If we are really looking at finances, adding half of the citizenry into the economics, adding people that we don’t see, that don’t look like us, that, you know, they’re not part of our everyday experience into what we’re doing. We’re going to expand our audience. That’s going to make everybody more money. So even if you are against it, it will make you money. And I think that financial case is a good thing to put forward when people don’t agree with just kind of the basic idea.

 

Abby: Why is it called Harriet’s Descendants?

 

Trent: It’s after the first female animator at Disney.

 

Abby: Oh, wow. I did not know that.

 

So, you started talking about women, so I’m going to keep going. I played, like, a lot of sport in school, and often we trained with guys, right, and I learned that you need to be agile and strategic if you’re really going to have success when you’re playing with the boys. And so, Trent, as the principal and managing director of Blue Telescope, tell us about being a woman in a leadership position in this largely male dominated industry, and do you have any stories to share or things that you had to overcome.

 

Trent: I never walk in thinking, oh, I’m a woman here. My mother told me I was smart. Whether I am or not, my mommy told me, therefore I believe it. And I’ll walk into anywhere thinking I should be here. It’s taken years to get that, and I often am clueless when I’m faced with either, you know, a male who isn’t enjoying a female having a conversation with him, or other women who kind of—there’s games in the playground that I never learned.

 

And then there have been times where it’s been overtly bad. We used to have a large client, the biggest pharmaceutical client in the world at that time, and I was at a conference and ended up with someone who could have put us out of business, got off the elevator behind me on my floor, and ended up having a full-on wrestling match. And I got lucky. I got my door open and got myself in and slammed the door and he wasn’t inside. And I was furious. I was furious for years. I could do nothing about it. There was nothing I could do. And that’s crazy.

 

That was the most over. You know, coming up in my life, there was lots of crap. I remember also after then a partner, a fabrication house that we partnered with, I had hired, a man from another company, and I brought him with me. We went to go talk to this fabrication partner. Suddenly, I didn’t exist. And, you know, they had a complete conversation, and I didn’t matter. And I was like, wow, this is very interesting. And also having the name Trent, quite often people will say, oh, Trent, he and I go way back, and I would just grab a guy and say, here, you talk to him and I’m out of here.

 

I keep thinking it changes and it kind of does, but it kind of really doesn’t.

 

Brenda: Yeah.

 

Abby: I totally agree. How do you, how do you see leadership? What are you aiming to be? Or at least, let’s say your colleagues think about you as a leader, what sort of things do you want them to say?

 

Trent: That I have their back. We’re selling a service, yes. Our service is out people, and our people need to feel that they matter. If you don’t feel like you’re important in your job, you slack off, you stop coming in. It’s not that important. And the people who feel that way shouldn’t work for us. But its helping people go to the next level. It’s picking the right people and putting them together to create. And I tell everybody, being a stage manager, taught me to enable creative people to do what they need to do.

 

Abby: How do you teach this, Brenda? So, when you’ve got a room full of all these amazing students, how do you teach leadership?

 

Brenda: I teach leadership by teaching how to listen, how to speak even when you don’t want to speak or you’re not sure what you’re about to say. I think that a lot of the leadership skills that I really break down with my students have to do with being able to have really challenging conversations and to listen and to be engaged and to be mindful.

 

As I’m listening to the two of you, Abby and Trent and we were talking about mentorships and important people in our lives, and I have to share a story of when I was 30 years old, and I just had my daughter and I had a friend, and she was 88, and Kathryn had been a fashion model in the 1930s. This woman had moxie. I think the word was invented for her. And spending time with her always involved smoking cigarettes, drinking beer and talking about men and talking about being a woman. And I’m getting a crazy flashback to that right now. And outside of, you know, her, endless words of wisdom, one quip of which involved her saying, “Brenda, let me tell you something. The legs, they’re the last thing to go.”

 

But more seriously, she would tell me, get out there and talk, and she would say, no one’s going to listen if you don’t talk, and so in a way, to your point, you know, when you asked a question about how I teach leadership, it really is about those conversational skills. And it might sound feeble but if you really look around you and if you really watch people and if you really watch the dynamics, it’s the people who, yes, can talk, but the people who have the skill of listening, they’re the people who go far.

 

I want to sort of extend this conversation about womanhood by bringing up the next absolutely obvious talking point, which is going to be about family, because this just seems inevitable in a way. You know, before I was a professor, I was in practice, for many years and raising a family and traveling constantly, working far too many hours. How’s this sounding, my friends?

 

Trent: Yeah.

 

Brenda: Yeah, sounding about right. So, I also ran a company which meant that I was always on the front line when things needed to get decided upon, when things needed to get done, and when I was interviewed for my current position, this professorship, one of the questions that I was asked was how I would feel about not traveling so much, about how would I feel about not being in the action and everything else. And they were really genuinely concerned about this. And I swear to God, I practically choked back tears. And like the idea was such a relief. And so, Trent, you’ve got a family of your own and your very busy, active position at Blue Telescope. How have you managed to balance your work and your life?

 

Trent: I don’t know that I do.

 

Brenda: Tell us more.

 

Trent: Becoming a parent was a lesson in futility. You can’t do anything completely, Just can’t. I can’t be there to be the perfect mother. There is no such thing. I can’t be at work and, you know, be a workaholic because I need to go home. You know, there’s so many things that when I was freelance and I was single, it was like, oh, I dove in, I did it completely, I walked away, I was done.

 

We’re 24 years old, the company is, and I haven’t finished anything completely in 24 years. But I read this amazing article from a woman who said, don’t give up. At the time, there’s so many women who would have kids and they’d leave the workforce and they felt that, you want to be there for your family, you want to participate. You had kids because you wanted them, not because you wanted to leave them behind, but that continuing down the work path and becoming really successful, she was like, I have been allowed to take my family on amazing trips. I have been able to do all these things for my kids. I’ve also been able to go to their recitals, and I think that that’s really important. I have not made everything my kids have done. I’ve made a lot of them. But my daughter will tell you I wasn’t there.

 

Abby: They’ll remember that one time.

 

Brenda: That one time, forever.

 

Trent: Yeah. But, at a certain point, it was either I was home, or my husband was home. And travel comes and you do it. And then you come home, and my kids have gone with me and set up a booth, you know, I took my daughter to Munich because I had to go there, and it was like, you’re coming with me. Now, that’s amazing.

 

Brenda: That really is.

 

Trent: That’s amazing.

 

Brenda: It’s important. Let’s take a little pivot. Let’s talk about Praxis. So, dear listeners, Praxis is a consultation group of industry practitioners, and they provide this comprehensive list of services in exhibition development and design, media, software, hardware, interpretive and master planning, and so much more. And as a part of your work, Trent, you’ve recently put together a survey of best practices on how new technologies can help us navigate the new challenges our profession is facing. What are some of the challenges that technology is addressing and how is it that technology addresses them best?

 

Trent: Everybody, you know, they’re like, oh, tell me your offering, what’s your latest technology? And it’s like, throw that out. That has nothing to do with anything. We have to figure out why. Why are you doing this? What is it, what is the kernel of what you want people to do, feel, think, you know, how do you get to them emotionally? What is that? And then once we know why, there are a million ways to figure out the how. And technology is a tool. It’s a hammer. It’s a nail. It’s you know, okay, a touch screen, not that anybody needs more screens in their lives, but how can we find ways to spark joy, to educate, to surprise, to have fun? You know, fun is a perfectly good why. Looking cool is not a good why, because that will fade very quickly.

 

And the technology, it’s just going to keep rolling. I don’t think we’re surprised where it’s going. Okay, Apple Vision Pro, all right. It hurts my head. Yeah. the HoloLens was quite good also, but the idea of AR, augmented reality, virtual reality. AI is remarkable. I think that it’s going to be the most fascinating thing in our lives. I think it’s going to be good and bad. And I think it’s really interesting and I’m happy to watch it.

 

All of these things will happen, but they aren’t the important part. How can we use technology to help all of us go forward? And how can we create things that are useful?

 

Brenda: Do you happen to have a personal favorite that you’ve done over the years that, Blue Telescope has produced?

 

Trent: We created an injection simulator for Ipsen Pharmaceuticals. I got to say, it’s really cool. That is really cool.

 

Brenda: Oh, wait, what is an injection simulator?

 

Trent: It’s actually, it’s a physical device. Here’s a bust of a human. And around the neck and shoulders is a silicone shawl, that you would use, you know, that’s like a medical dummy. And you pick up a real syringe that’s of course, attached, and you pull it back as if you’re filling it with medicine. But on the screen in front of you, it shows the medicine going in. And as you go to inject, it will tell you here’s the muscles you’re trying to hit. Did you hit them? Yes. How much medicine did you put in and how much went wild. And it’s very specific and it’s very accurate. And I think that’s really cool. That’s a nice invention.

 

Brenda: Yeah. And frankly, strangely compelling. Abby, would you want to give someone an injection?

 

Abby: I would love to do that. You used the word specific. I want to pick up on that, because a lot of the things that I’ve seen of your work have to be specific to be successful. I think it’s a challenge to try to bring that to a visitor who maybe doesn’t have the background. And, our job, in a way, is to try and frame the interactive or the exhibit moment, and I find that really sometimes a challenge, right? To put the context around this moment that you’re doing in this case, you know, injecting like, why am I doing it? How does it help? Why is this cool and all the other reasons.

whil

And so how do you go about your process? You’re obviously not focusing on the technology first, which I completely agree with. I think that’s wonderful. You’re listening to what the client needs are, but how are you planning out, can you just try to paint a picture of how you come up with an exhibit idea.

 

Trent: I don’t know. A long time ago, we used to do a lot of pharmaceutical trade shows, and we used to say, you need to be able to see it from far away and know there’s something interesting. So, a big, then a medium when you’re there, something that most people will do that engages and is interesting but allows those people who are really the nerds to dive in and really go to it. And I think the same is true for museums.

 

You have to be a little puzzling. What is that? Why is that? And go there and have it be interesting that even if I don’t know, it’s kind of fun. Let me check this out. Maybe I’ll learn something. You know, you learn stuff just by watching, you know, and there are people who aren’t going to interact. Are they still going to get stuff? Hopefully they will, but allow there to be enough content for the nerds to dive in because, you know, everybody should get to. But it does have to be something that’s accessible to everyone.

 

Abby: So, some of your work with exhibit experiences, really focuses on the visitor. How important for you is the visitor when you think about your strategy for design?

 

Trent: I think that’s the key. I mean, it doesn’t make any sense otherwise. Whatever you’re designing, if you’ve got the why, you got to know who is coming through and make sure that they feel they’re represented.

 

I have a pet peeve that sometimes museums kind of live in rarefied air and I’ve been in discussions in a big round table where everybody is extremely educated and really smart and coming up with really good points, but they’re missing the undereducated. And if you’re going to speak to people who maybe don’t have a master’s and a PhD, you have to have people in the room that also don’t have a master’s and a PhD so that you can speak to them. You know, if you want to speak to people as a community, you have to bring the community in.

 

We did a project recently and it was on black feminism. We were lucky enough that Tessellate brought us in for Women’s History Museum, and we got to create the interactives that they designed. We brought black feminists to the table to do the work because I can’t speak to anybody else’s experience but my own and I believe everybody should feel that.

 

Abby: Good for you. That’s fantastic that you did that.

 

So, let’s chat a bit about AI because you touched earlier. How do you see museums of the future? Do you think that they will be heavily designed with the use of AI? Do you think a lot of our industry will become obsolete?

 

Trent: Have you seen the meme that as long as clients don’t know what they want, our jobs are secure? I don’t know for sure. Yes, some jobs will become a little obsolete, but, like, AI takes all our meeting notes. How fantastic is that? If you need to create—all right, I need a picture, kind of like this, kind of like that. I personally can still see when it’s AI, and I’m like, eh, but sometimes it can give you an idea of where you’re trying to go. And maybe it can cut down some of your discussions of like, do you mean this, do you mean that, you know, and then go to the people to create it. Authentic human experiences, I think are going to be very important. I think we’ll know the difference. I’m fascinated to see where it goes. I could see where terrible things could happen, and I could also see where amazing things could happen.

 

Abby: Well, that sounds like the fate of human nature.

 

Trent: Yeah.

 

Abby: The good and the bad.

 

Brenda: Well, I want to know, Trent, what is it that you’re currently passionate about in this big world of yours? What is it that you’re just really excited to be showing up for every day?

 

Trent: Blue Telescope is the Rubik’s cube I get up and I work on every day. Now, I know I should have solved it by now, but it’s interesting. What’s the right blend of jobs? You know, we need to have stuff we care deeply about because that’s why we get up in the morning. But we also need to have stuff that’s fun, fast and profitable because without profit, you can’t do the stuff you care about. It’s kind of like, I’ve heard flying a helicopter, you’re constantly moving, you can’t stop your hands because you’re constantly doing it. And I feel like that.

 

Brenda: Well, I know what you’ve got to do next, okay, being that you are willing to keep learning and interested in constantly learning new things, and you clearly have the ability to be in endless motion, right, all the time. It is time for you, Trent Oliver, to learn how to fly a helicopter.

 

Trent: Oh no, no.

 

Abby: Yes, I second that notion.

 

Brenda: You heard it here first.

 

Abby: Yeah, yeah. Trent, up in the air.

 

Trent: When I was young, I was never afraid of heights. I was never afraid of rollercoasters, any of it. Now I’m like, oh no, no, no, I couldn’t. If I got four feet off the ground, I’d be scared.

 

Abby: I think it’s something, yes, it’s something to do with aging, and the fear starts to kick in.

 

Trent: Yeah. Something in your head. You get dizzy.

 

Abby: Another biological thing that happens as we age.

 

Brenda: Oh, here we go. And, well, that’s another whole podcast.


Abby: Well, Trent, I cannot thank you enough for coming on today and sharing some of your experiences.

 

Trent: What a fun thing.

 

Abby:  It’s been really—I feel like I’ve met a kindred spirit.

 

Trent: Oh, me too. This is great.

 

Abby: Yeah. This has been amazing. Thank you so much.

 

Brenda: Thank you so much, Trent.

 

Trent: Thank you.

 

Abby: And thanks to everyone who tuned in today. If you like what you heard, subscribe for more episodes of Matters of Experience, wherever you listen to podcasts, and make sure to leave a rating and a review and share with a friend. We’ll see you next time.

 

Brenda: Thanks everyone!

 

Trent: Bye.

 

[Music]

 

Producer: Matters of Experience is produced by Lorem Ipsum Corp and recorded at Hangar Studios. Tune in next time for more fun discussions about experience design.

Being Successful While Balancing it All with Trent Oliver

Being Successful While Balancing it All with Trent Oliver

April 3, 2024