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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.

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Museums & War with Jasminko Halilovic

Museums & War with Jasminko Halilovic

Guest Jasminko Halilovic
January 25, 2023
Subscribe now on Apple Podcasts and Spotify
“It all started when I put online a simple question: What does childhood in war mean for you?” - Jasminko Halilovic In a world affected by tension, polarization and war, can museums act as a voice for love, unity, and peace? This week’s guest tackles this very question. Jasminko Halilovic is the founder and managing director of the War Childhood Museum, and in this episode shares how a book about objects and their stories from war survivors inspired the birth of a museum."
Jasminko Halilovic is the founder and managing director of the War Childhood Museum—the world's only museum exclusively focused on the experience of childhood affected by war—which has been awarded the Council of Europe Museum Prize under the European Museum of the Year scheme. Halilovic developed the War Childhood Museum from the War Childhood book, a mosaic of short memories that he collected from more than 1,000 people. Before the WCM, he founded several not-for-profit and for-profit entities. Jasminko holds a master’s degree in financial management. He has been a keynote speaker at various museum, peacebuilding, and entrepreneurship conferences in more than ten countries, and is regularly invited to present or teach at leading universities around the world. His books have been translated into six languages. For his work with the WCM, which expanded to become an international organization with offices in four countries, Halilovic was selected for the Forbes "30 under 30" list.




Abby: Hello and welcome to Matters of Experience. My name is Abigail Honor.


Brenda: Hello, I’m Brenda Cowan.


Abby: Welcome to this week’s podcast, Museums and War. We are thrilled to be speaking with  q in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina, the world’s only museum dedicated to children affected by armed conflict. Since the museum’s opening in 2016, Jasminko has been expanding the War Childhood Museum exhibitions, taking them around the world to places where children’s lives are being altered due to war and conflict, like Kiev in Ukraine.


Jasminko, welcome, and thank you so much for joining us today.


Jasminko: Hi, thank you for having me.


Brenda: Jasminko, I’m going to get us kickstarted with just a very fond remembrance of my own meeting you just as you were opening, and I remember so well the spirits of you and your staff being so strong and so confident. Starting from the first seed idea for the War Childhood Museum, where did the idea come from? And given that it takes tenacity, determination, and a little luck, how confident were you that you would succeed?  


Jasminko: Yes, I think you said it well. It takes some determination but also some luck. I think we had both. In the very beginning, we were very confident. However, it was not always easy and smooth journey. Just a couple of days to go, I stumbled upon an article about the museum from this period, and the first sentence in the article is Jasminko Halilovic is tired. And so it was funny to me that the journalist used this as the first sentence in the article, and I think it turned out well that we were really exhausted creating the, creating anything, but especially creating a museum which is community-centered and around such a topic which carries some gravity with it. I think it’s a really demanding process. But if you take this as your mission, if you would take it as something that has to happen, then I think regardless of challenges that will happen, and it happened in our case, and today we are very lucky with the fact that we succeeded. But even before the museum existed for us, this was not the question, of if we would get there. It was only the question of how to get there.


Abby: Why for you – you know, Jasminko, we only walk this way once – what made you, like, tell us a little bit maybe about your history or why did you decide to focus and devote your life to the War Childhood Museum?


Jasminko: Well, it’s both easy and not easy answer. The easy part is obviously that I’m also part of the generation and the generation which are who have been affected by the Bosnian war. And this is obviously the very straightforward explanation why I’m interested in the topic. However, on the other hand, I had nothing to do with museums in my life.


So the museum as a medium, as a tool is not so straightforward for me. I was involved with culture and actually, I started this project with the desire to do the book about this experience, and I did the book. But through the process for creating the book, I started communicating with people, and I understood that there is something around objects that they tend to connect their memory to objects, and that’s how the idea for the museum was born.


Brenda: I’m wondering if, for our listeners who aren’t familiar with the unusual way that the museum started, if you could just give us a description of the rather brilliant book project that you’re describing about objects and their stories from war survivors.


Jasminko: So the easiest way to imagine this book for someone who never saw it would be to imagine the collection of tweets. Because the format of the book, it was 2010 when I started the project, and I limited people’s answers to 160 characters. So very similar to tweets. And more than 1000 people responded, and I made a mosaic of these short recollections. So that’s actually the concept of the book, and that’s the reason why the community was created around the book, and out of these interactions, the idea for the museum was born.


Abby: Well, this is the first time, actually, Brenda, that I’ve ever heard of a museum coming out of a book so directly in this way and absolutely poetic and wonderful. And I love the idea of, you know, limiting the number of characters to get feedback because then you get feedback, right? The gateway to admission is a lot easier than if you want, expect people to write these long copious stories.


So I think that’s absolutely fantastic. Now, the title is very arresting: War Childhood Museum. It really makes me sort of pause and take a moment to think deeper about what it represents. Why didn’t you call it something like the Children’s War Museum or maybe Children Affected by War. You know, why did you name it War Childhood Museum?


Jasminko: Okay. It’s not a children’s museum. You know when we say children’s museum, someone would assume it’s for children only, and this is not the case. I wanted the name to be pretty straightforward. Some people told me the word has some difficult meaning with it; the brands, the corporations will not, will not be very happy to be associated with it and stuff like this.


But I wanted the name to really represent what the museum is. And it’s not only childhood in war. It’s also childhood affected by war. And just to touch upon what you mentioned, the museum created from the book, but there is one very famous example in Europe. Orhan Pamuk is a Nobel Prize-winning novelist, and his novel Museum of Innocence was turned by him into a brilliant Museum of Innocence in Istanbul.


And that was one of the most inspiring case studies I witnessed while I was taking this similar journey on a very different topic in different way. But there is one thing which I think Museum of Innocence and the War Childhood Museum share, and this is the focus on very personal stories of, let’s say, ordinary people, and this is something Orhan Pamuk mentioned in his manifesto for museums. He says it’s not a big challenge to tell the history of nations or countries, but what we need to do is to tell the stories of people. And this is also at the heart of the War Childhood Museum’s mission.


Brenda: One of the things that I particularly appreciate about the War Childhood Museum book is that it is the reality of people all around the world and in the voices of so many different people. And the stories that you wanted to tell were really the stories of the people who contributed to the book and who contributed, frankly, their own vulnerabilities, their own spirits, and their own souls to the development of the museum.


I’m wondering, can you talk to us about how it is that the museum evolved over the years since you’ve opened its doors with those initial stories?


Jasminko: The museum evolved a lot, of course, in the scope of its activities. They were born in one context in Bosnia, and then we expanded. Now we have projects in over ten countries, I guess, then also our collection grew. Now it includes objects and stories from different places, different conflicts, and then obviously, all other activities have all developed like our peace education programs, our interactions with the community.


There was a lot of change, but maybe the biggest change was within our team as well. We were a group of people with no previous experience in museums, but I think over the years, of course, being exposed to the industry and being part of the industry, getting some awards within the industry, I think that all of this helped us to understand better how powerful museums can be and how we had a huge opportunity to interact with audiences in so many different ways.


And we are really trying to use this and to connect even more with people and to connect people with our collections and also to connect people with other people through our museum.


Abby: Lorem Ipsum has worked on a number of tough subjects in museums, tackling the content of war and survivors. Now I always find it’s incredibly difficult. You have to understand the societal and the global nuances of the stories being told, and it’s often very complex, especially when you’re creating museums around the world, deciding what angles of a story to highlight and whose voices and how is really at the heart of a successful museum experience.


How did you adapt the book into a museum? How did you choose which stories to tell and how to tell them? Because obviously, a book is a very different medium to a museum. Could you take us through that process?


Jasminko: Yes, of course. During the work on the book, people already submitted some personal belongings by email. They would say, can you publish this in the book as well? This was not part of the plan because the book was meant to be only a collection of these short memories. But then, inspired by these emails, I added the third part of the book, where I already showed some of these personal belongings and the stories that that explained them and their meaning. And this transfer from the book to the museum was actually, for me, a very natural process.


There was nothing strange in it. Of course, the focus shifted more towards the objects, but we certainly remained, and we still are a platform to tell these stories. And the objects are there only to illustrate the stories, and of course, there is a special dynamics around these objects and the way that visitors interact with them, and that’s why I think museums are so powerful because you really are able to witness in front of your eyes a part of someone’s history. And this is, this can be very, very powerful.


Abby: Who was your target audience for the museum? Who were, who were you ideally targeting as a visitor?


Jasminko: It’s a, we are a small medium, but we have very broad audience. And as a small museum, we cannot have like a special exhibition for each target group, but we have to communicate all target groups at one exhibition, and of course, there are a couple of special target groups within the general public, which we especially target. It’s the survivors themselves, people who share this experience.


This is very important for us because I think museums such as ours, it doesn’t make too much sense to have these museums if they are not accepted by the community. So my biggest fear may be what will be the feedback, and immediately after the first temporary exhibition, I was there every day talking to people, and after this one, I was certain this is a good idea, and it should be a permanent museum.


And then, of course, the new generation. For our peace education programs, we work with hundreds of schools, thousands of children every year, and this is specifically important for us because, as you know, around the world, there is so much tension and so much polarization in the society, so we want to be one additional voice for peace, and I think that is a critical part of our mission as well.


Brenda: I was able to do a study with you about the impact that was happening on people and specifically when they were seeing the objects and engaging with the objects in your collection, and you are directly contributing to people’s mental health, to their well-being, and you’re enabling people to heal. And I think that that’s just an important thing to sort of add in there; the level of depth that we’re talking about here is rather extraordinary, and it’s risky, and it’s working very well.


Jasminko: I agree. I continuously and consistently get the feedback that the fact that you are able to tell your story, to donate your object, to contribute your object to the collection, to have it exhibited to a broad audience, that this can have some kind of healing effect. And we are very proud of this. There are so many beautiful stories of people deciding to come back for the first time to their home city because of our work or reconnecting with some family members, or starting some discussions that they never could start otherwise. So this is very rewarding, and this is what keeps us moving forward. And this is very central to our work.


Abby: So, for some of our listeners, can you take us through a few of the objects and the stories that move you?


Jasminko: There are many. We have now more than 5000 objects from 20 different armed conflicts. So there are many, many different stories. I don’t know which one to pick now. People are sometimes surprised because when they see the type of the name of our museum, they always expect only dark stories and only sad stories. But we also have beautiful stories about friendship, about love, about learning, about play, stories that make you laugh.


We have very diverse objects and belongings from some that highlight the creativity of children during war, for example, the ballet shoe or guitar or some other musical instruments like violin. And then we have like some very basic things you use at your home, like radio or, or even we have even a laptop. So like many, many different things in this diverse collection.


And the focus is on the story that this person tell. And the story is sometimes completely connected to the object and sometimes just mentions the object. So this diversity of voices, is something was the most beautiful about our collection, and even after 5000 objects, I still get surprised by what people choose to contribute and how they tell their story. And now we see some shifts, for example, with Ukraine and some contemporary conflicts, we see a shift in our collection towards digital objects.


For example, during the Bosnian war, no one had a smartphone and you couldn’t produce your own video or photograph or something like that. But now we get many digital objects because kids have smartphones and they are taking photos and videos. So there is, if you look at from this perspective, changes that happen with time.


Brenda: When talking about the objects that are shared and the particular stories and the fact that they aren’t all sad, that a lot of them are affiliated, like you said, with play and with moments of childhood that are uplifting and enjoyable, and I remember speaking with some visitors to the museum who were almost excited to see some of the childhood toys and even some, you know, little wrappers from candies that they were familiar with and that they had had as children.


And the response was one of familiarity and of connection. And that’s something that I think is really underscored by the work that you’re doing, is that the stories and through the objects that you’re sharing are relevant to us all, and they’re important to us all. And I think that it’s a brilliant example of the relevance of a museum on the most intimate level.


Jasminko: Another thing is also the universality of these objects because when you are familiar with something, it’s easier to understand, to get the message, to connect. If you can connect it to your own childhood, then you can better understand the narrative. So I think this is something which has helped us to communicate our collection. And I think this universality is beautiful because wherever we go in the world with our exhibition, it’s the same. People still can recognize some things, and they connect with them.


Abby: Is there a way that visitors can tell their stories, their personal stories when they’re actually inside the museum?


Jasminko: Yes. At the entrance of the museum, they are interacting with our staff, and if they mention that they also share this experience, they are invited to access our website and to share their memories as well. This happens regularly, yes.


Abby: That’s lovely.


Brenda: I’m wondering if you could talk just a little bit about the challenges that museums need to consider and that you might be experiencing when seeking to expand in new ways and into new places.


Jasminko: It’s always challenging. It’s particularly challenging, I think, if you are coming from developing markets and countries as we do because then everything is expensive, and many things are out of reach. But the biggest challenge here is actually different contexts, some cultural differences, and how to establish trust wherever you go. And this is why we rely a lot on local expertise.


Wherever we have a project, we always just support local people to implement projects for their community. And I think this is critical because it’s much easier to build the trust with the community if local people are doing it. Aside from the trust and the relationship in the community, of course, logistics are always the challenge. You need to do a lot of fundraising. You need to do human resources.


But I would say logistics, the money, resources, everything is possible to solve if you have a good foundation.


Brenda: I’m wondering if you could share a little bit about your recent speaking engagement at ICOM’s conference. This was in Prague, and it was when ICOM launched its new definition of what a museum is. And this is a hotly anticipated definition. So as the founder of a museum dedicated to social change, societal well-being, can you share your thoughts on this new museum definition? Do you think it captures what it is that the profession needs to be?


Jasminko: You know, I think that the question of the new definition of museums is not an easy discussion because obviously it’s a huge industry, and hundreds of thousands of museum professionals around the world are trying to contribute to it or to discuss it. And if you ask even five different people from the museum industry to put together a definition, you will get five different definitions.


I knew, and it’s very clear, that it’s impossible to create a definition that everyone would be happy with. With the definition which was in the end established, I think it more or less captures well some of the concepts. I think it doesn’t speak about the future. I think museums are not only places where we document past and discuss present, I think we also can imagine our futures in these places.


I think the word future is missing from the definition. I also don’t like some words which were included, like not-for-profit, this is the first, the definition starts with “a museum is a not-for-profit, permanent institution.” I don’t think it should be; this should be like it. I think that beautiful initiatives can be for profit as well. I think by enabling museums also to be for profit, I think it also gives some additional fuel to the industry because then there is more motivation for entrepreneurs, founders, and others to engage with the industry and create something interesting or like new concepts, experiments, and other things. So I don’t know why it’s so critical to be a not-for-profit.


Brenda: I think it’s really interesting when the current newly revised definition includes inclusivity, equity, accessibility, transformation, and yet they’re being specific to not-for-profits. I think that that challenges their very own definition.


Jasminko: Even the concepts that you mentioned now, the sustainability, the inclusivity, accessibility, diversity, all of these standards, these are not imposed by the definition. This is something we already created in our institution. And then the definition only confirms this. And that’s why I don’t think that the definition is here to show the way. I think the definition is here to acknowledge what we already built.


Abby: Yes, overall, I completely agree. I think the definition comes on the heels of what good museums are actually already doing. I feel it’s pretty long overdue. I mean, two years, a lot of changes in two years, and ICOM, far from leading, is reacting to pressures to modernize. So I’d like to see them leading a little bit more and as you said, the not-for-profit, and there’s a few other things in there that, you know, open to discussion.


The other thing I had an idea of, well, why does it matter anyway? As you mentioned, Jasminko, it didn’t stop you creating what sounds to me, and I know what Brenda’s enjoyed an incredible experience. Brenda, from your perspective, is it irrelevant what ICOM calls a museum?


Brenda: I don’t know if it’s not, you know, whether or not it’s leading the charge per se, and I have to say I definitely agree with both you and Jasminko that this is work that museums have been doing for a long time. I think putting the language together is essential. I think that it’s important to have some kind of a handrail, especially for new institutions. But even as our existing and our sort of venerated old institutions are doing strategic work and reframing their own missions, I do think that these messages of inclusivity and equity, the call to sustainability, it’s important to have these reminders out there. 


It’s making me think about when the Smithsonian secretary, Dr. Lonnie Bunch, who really led this charge, was leading this moment to reimagine institutions and relationships with audiences, business models, the way that museums serve their countries and communities. He said that ultimately all of our job is to define reality and to give hope and to challenge our institutions to be places of inspiration, curiosity, learning, I think very importantly, to be places of listening and of course, to be the voices of their audiences. And personally, coming from the world of design, I can tell you, man, there’s a lot of work to be done just to aspire to that level of thinking.


Jasminko, with all of this in mind, I’m curious what you think museums can do to help raise greater awareness and specifically in your world, about war children. How can people participate in making a difference and, you know, what kind of responsibility do our museums need to take?


Jasminko:  Yeah, I think it’s not only about the topic we deal with, I think it’s about any important topic or cause in our society. I think there is something what I call the shared responsibility of the whole industry. I think any museum can find its own way to contribute, and I think for this century we are currently in, one of the biggest things museums will need to stand for together is equality and human rights. And this is why I think this is a shared challenge and I’m very, very happy to see museums engaging with these causes. 


Abby: Seems to me that you’re very entrepreneurial and have always sort of trodden along your own path, despite what other people may have said. For others listening who may doubt themselves as we all do, what words of encouragement would you give them for going along their own path, having the courage to continue along and have that vision while other people may say, oh, don’t do that, you shouldn’t do that, that won’t work?


Jasminko: Yeah, as someone who created a museum, people get in touch with me when they want to create museums. What they all have in common is none of them go to check the museum definition. So, they have their own idea, they have their own vision of what they want to create, and I think this is good. I think we should not be binded by what already exists or how someone imagines the industry should be, or these places should be.


When I decided to create the War Childhood Museum, I knew nothing about museums. I was just an average museum visitor. But then you learn, and you navigate. I think there has to be some kind of force of special motivation. Creating a museum is not a short journey, and there are no easy answers. It’s like any startup I want to say, even if you create ten startups, the 11th one will come with some questions you never answered. So that’s how it also is with museums because it’s a place that interacts with so many communities, so many audiences. It’s a place which carries so much gravity for people, people trust museums, they have high expectations from museums, so it’s not something that you can do as a side activity.


This is what I tried, but then it became a full-time job, but also the main occupation of life. So it’s something you really need. If you want to make it happen from scratch, you really need to devote yourself to it. You need to be ready to give everything you have. And I think with that kind of approach, I think you can create anything in life, including a museum.


Abby: I completely agree. Very inspiring words, Jasminko. So, what’s next for you? What’s next for the museum? Tell us some of the things you’re looking forward to over the next, I’ll keep it small, next few years.


Jasminko: Yes. I mean, I, currently I try to work towards our 2030 goals, and we have 2030 strategy, and what they are doing continuously is expanding our collection. We want our collection to include objects and stories from any major conflict which happened after the Second World War. Also, with our peace education programs, we are now working to expand them globally and not to work with hundreds of schools and thousands of students, but to work with thousands of schools and maybe millions of students. So this is the path we are following, and I’m confident that the War Childhood Museum will become an international platform for everyone and will reach millions around the world.


Abby: Jasminko, do you have any plans to bring the exhibit over to the U.S.?


Jasminko: Yes, we opened a very small office in New York City recently, and we plan to start documenting and collecting and creating our U.S. collection and then doing some temporary exhibitions, and then we will see, but yeah, this is the plan.


Brenda: Jasminko, listening to you, I can only say that I believe wholeheartedly that you and your institution will indeed become this global platform for dialog, for sharing, for hope, and for promise. And I want to give you a hearty appreciation for all that you do and for all that you’re continuing to do.


Jasminko: Thank you so much. And thank you for mentioning the word hope. This is something that’s very important for me and this is something that I really believe will stay consistent in the feedback that we get. Because now, when I take our guest book, I see this word very often, and I want it to stay like that.


Abby: It’s been amazing to chat with you. Jasminko, Thank you so much for sharing your story with us today.


Jasminko: And thank you for having me. Thank you.


Brenda: Take care.




Producer: Matters of Experience is produced by Lorem Ipsum Corp. Please tune in next week for another conversation. Thank you all for listening. 


Show Notes

War Childhood Museum

A Museum Where Every Object Helped a Child Endure War – The New York Times

Book ‘War Childhood’


ICOM – Museum Definition


Museums & War with Jasminko Halilovic

Museums & War with Jasminko Halilovic Guest Jasminko Halilovic

January 25, 2023
Storytelling in Experience Design

Storytelling in Experience Design

January 11, 2023
Subscribe now on Apple Podcasts and Spotify
In experience design, the stories we tell must touch the visitor in a very personal way and help them connect with the world around them and inspire them to think about their place in history. This episode is for the storytellers, creatives, and designers in search of a toolset to develop truly immersive narratives. Abby and Brenda focus on storytelling in experience design, why it’s essential to tell stories, and how to create narratives effectively.





Abby: Hello and welcome to Matters of Experience. My name is Abigail Honor.


Brenda: And this is Brenda Cowan.


Abby: Today on this show, we’re focusing on storytelling in experience design; why it’s important to tell stories, how experience design has an amazing toolset for creating truly immersive narratives and how to tell stories effectively. This whole topic is very near and dear to my heart, as you know, Brenda, since my background is filmmaking. Why don’t we kick off with the idea of story and why it exists at all?


Brenda: Well, it exists because humans exist. Stories exist because they are the means through which people at the earliest age make sense of their lives, of their relationships between themselves and the world around them. It’s something that’s inherent to all human beings. So think about it like this, Abby. Think about, you have children. I have a child and think about the four-year-old or even the three-year-old who comes home from a play date or a young child coming home from school or whatever, and just telling you endlessly about what happened during school, what the teacher said, what the other kids did, and also interspersing a lot of questions.


Where did that come from? Why did that happen? How does this work, Mom? What do you think about that? Etc., etc., etc… These recountings of daily experiences are the earliest forms of storytelling and they are literally how it is that young children figure out how the world works and how things work around them and what their relationship is to it and that’s storytelling, and it’s the basis of communication, it’s how human beings make connections with each other. So these, these are stories. They’re our earliest stories, and they’re evolutionary. They’re just simply a part of how we need to function as individuals.


Abby: Yeah, no, I completely agree with you, and it felt a little bit like you were obviously a fly on the wall in my house as well, the constant barrage of questions. But I think if we look back at our earliest forms of storytelling, I think about cave paintings. So humans really want to connect. It’s like, as you said, our basic instinct.


It’s how we survive and multiply. And when you think about it at the next level, a little deeper, we now want to communicate our emotions. It’s not just a story about what we did. It’s about how it made us feel. And that’s one of the very basic reasons why we tell stories to communicate and share our feelings through these personal stories.


When I think about experiences we create, the stories we tell really must touch the visitor in a very personal way and help them connect with the world around them and think about our place in history. In order to do that. There are a few things you need to think about in order to tell a good story.


Brenda: Absolutely, and I think that at its most fundamental level, I think that a really good story, I think that a great story is one that is an archetype. It’s one that is universal to all people. So, folks, if you’re familiar with Joseph Campbell, yes, I am pulling from the Joseph Campbell playbook and The Hero with a Thousand Faces, and I’m talking about how stories that are archetypal are things such as the story of the hero’s journey or stories of love and hate, or challenges to be overcome. These are stories that are familiar to people across culture and throughout time and even throughout age. Very young children can understand great archetypal stories in the same way that somebody who is in their senior years is going to be able to understand and have their own specific relationship to a story.


When you’ve got really archetypal stories that you are telling in whatever form you’re telling them, they’re going to be unifiers of people, and in our cases, people who come into exhibitions will come together, will have pro-social behavior even when the story is one that is familiar to all of them and that is very meaningful to all of them.


Abby: And I think as well as understanding the type of story you’re telling, the next question is, what’s your plot? And we always think, what are the key moments? And this is how we break up and decide actually on our zoning plan. We start with the story we’re telling and break that up into episodes. Very, very top line, but then we start to spread them around in the space already because our discipline is wholly unique.


I really think we’re telling an overall story in a physical space. I don’t know anybody else or any group of people who are able to do that and face that challenge. It’s a really amazing challenge. It’s one of the things I love about what we do—that challenge of moving people through a space and controlling how they feel.


In a film, you’re a captive audience. You actually pay a ticket. You sit down and you’re willing to contribute the 2, 3 hours to the film. But in a museum experience or a retail experience or any other sort of immersive experience you really have freedom as a visitor to select moments of the story and what you focus on and take in.


And I love trying in some ways to be able to control and manage and curate this visitor emotional experience to make sure that we’re really connecting, telling the stories we want to tell in the most effective and visceral way.


Brenda: Well, I really want to underscore, when you were talking about people having freedom and choice when they are experiencing the stories, and that freedom and choice of participation is something that is in some ways unique to the exhibition or the experience-designed space and exhibitions that attempt to function in a very linear narrative way, like a film, I think are probably the least effective kind.


But instead, when you give people a narrative or a story that is designed into a space where people have freedom of choice to experience it in a number of different ways, then you’ve got people who are going to be able to really engage. And you’re making me think of the timeless words of Jerome Bruner, who talked about narrative experience.


So we’re talking about story. What is story? And then there is the way in which people experience the story. And there’s actually a field called narrativity. And the brilliant museum scholar Leslie Bedford does a lot of terrific writing about narrativity and narrative experience and how it is very different, actually than the story. It’s how you are telling the story and how people are experiencing the story through narrativity. When we’re talking about narrative experience, we think about how people experience the stories, and in the exhibition forum, there still needs to be emotional arc, there needs to be variances of pace, there needs to be moments of great drama, and great heightened emotion, but then also moments of pause and moments of quietude, let’s say. Just like a great book. Just like a great film.


Abby: Yeah.


Brenda: Just in a unique form.


Abby: I completely agree. Drama is about a juxtaposition. It’s about a conflict. So you have to have the moments of the highs and the moments of the lows. I see it almost like music. It needs to ebb and it needs to flow. Moments when they’re fully immersed in the experience that really reaches and touches you to the core and truly moves you. And then you often need after that moment, you need to reflect. You need a space to breathe, especially when you’re dealing with some of the harder subject matters. Otherwise, it becomes overwhelming and I think, becomes an unsuccessful experience.


Brenda: And also resonance. I mean, I would argue as well that when you have high drama of whatever sort it is, even even if it’s something very hilarious, right, something particularly funny that you experience; if there isn’t a space and a moment of pause afterwards, it’s not going to be able to kind of reverberate.


Abby: One of the things I always think about is some people are visual learners and some are oral, and your exhibit really needs to work for both of these groups, and it needs to be very succinct and straight to the point. When you think about a 30-second commercial, for example, some of the best move you and you have a takeaway, right?


You watch them, they’re quick, they get their message out there and you’re moved. People can’t retain huge details after a museum visit. It’s usually just a few key points, key emotions, key things that they actually remember and share with friends and family afterwards. I always challenge our team with answering the question: what are the key points from this museum design, from this experience design, that you want the visitor to leave with? What are we trying to do? And we constantly refer back to that at every moment to make sure that we’re hitting that at the very least, and make sure your narrative reiterates it over and over again.


Brenda: The thing that I love about crafting story and thinking about narrative experience like you’re describing is understanding that stories always have a point of view. And when you take that as a touchpoint in the beginning of crafting your experience, it really enables you to make a lot of, I think, really intelligent design decisions. One of my favorite things is thinking about first person narrative, and especially thinking about exhibitions that are, let’s say, very challenging, or exhibitions where there are multiple truths, which is kind of almost like every exhibition, but taking a position of first person narrative, for example, as a way of telling the story could be a very, very effective way to shape exhibitions.


Also, I think about other great strategies of storytelling in exhibitions are using questions, questions as a strategy, questions that allow visitors to direct their own experience, questions that enable visitors and encourage them, or prompt them to really craft their own stories and to personalize things in very deep ways.


Abby: Yeah, I completely agree with you. Picking up with that idea of the first-person narrative. I was actually just in London and visited Churchill’s War Rooms and the museum there. I was listening to the voiceover explaining the story, which was fine, but it didn’t really touch me. It was very factual. It’s informational; it was interesting, right? But I wasn’t moved until there was a moment when one of the ladies who’d worked in the war rooms at this period started to talk to me and she started to tell me her story.


And then another one told me her story. And why it was so moving is because the stories they told were sort of odd and interesting and obscure and not what you’d expect. And the way they painted the picture of what it was like from their perspective really broke through that ice and resonated with me, and I got chills up my spine, and I imagined them in the space and it really transported me back in time.


Brenda: I think that thinking back to the idea of archetype as well, when you take a great archetypal story, something that is just as if it were pulled out of today’s headlines, something about, you know, love and hate or peace and war or any kind of conflict or forbidden love, stories such as this. All of the sudden, you really need to have multiple voices telling these stories because there are multiple truths.


And I think that what we’re finding in terms of storytelling in exhibitions now is that there’s a responsibility for that to be the case. We need to hear the audiences in our visitors voices as a part of the telling of the stories in our exhibitions. And I just love thinking about how powerful first-person narrative is, just experientially in terms of emotion. But I’m also thinking about how it’s really necessary if we’re going to really do an honest job of creating experiences.


Abby: The idea of listening to the stories from visitors broadens the net of the stories around the subject – you are curating, you have to curate, and so you have to make decisions. And I think it’s a wonderful opportunity to enable the visitor to expand those opportunities by telling us their perspective on this story. And I think it also enables museums to not become static, to constantly evolve with the visitor and share new perspectives.


If we’re talking about historical museums or anything that’s sort of from the past, hearing different people’s perspectives enables the visitor to enjoy putting them together like a puzzle and feeling that more palpable truth, I’ll say, that more alive truth and also more believable context of the story.


Brenda: Sure.


Abby: We’re talking about the voice of the story. I want to shift it a little bit now and talk about how you can tell a story without words. Very powerful stories can be told in just a simple image or emotions conveyed with a sound or a piece of music. I think it’s too easy to fall back on simple storytelling conventions or ways to tell stories when maybe there is a better way to tell that story. So, for example, we look at first, are there any artifacts that tell this story really well. For us, it’s a lot about curating what’s the best way, most effective way to tell the story.


So it’s really important to look at the story and not always default to a convention of, maybe a voiceover or a piece of media or a text panel. There’s lots of other ways, very efficient, simple ways that will resonate with a really broad audience. So I think it’s just important to note that there are so many ways to tell stories.


Brenda: And I have a wonderful example of sound in exhibitions that relates directly to stories. I am going back many, many, many years to the Minnesota Historical Society, the exhibition If These Walls Could Talk and it was a history exhibition, and all you need to know is that you were in a room that was loosely mocked up as a living room, and you could press your ear against the wall, and you could hear the neighbors talking.


And it was through this experience of listening and in a very voyeuristic, which is so human and so natural, but in a very voyeuristic fashion, you are listening to your quote neighbors having a conversation and you are gaining story through that. And it is absolutely compelling and such an intelligent use of audio.


Abby: I love that.


Brenda: It’s so simple.


Abby: So simple, completely immerses you as if you are the neighbor listening to the story, I mean, putting you into the story. And that, I think, is phenomenal experience design. So I think our experiences should utilize all the senses. One of our recent projects for the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center, we used a lot of props. So we had bread, seeds and it gave off this smell, naturally, that was so immersive and so nostalgic that just that was enough to throw people back to the period and it really helped convey the mood that we were trying to create.


Brenda: Smell is the most immediately linked sense with memory.


Abby: Yep.


Brenda: It’s really extraordinary. And we mentioned props, but there’s another way in which objects serve as really critical storytelling devices. And I’m thinking about how it is that increasingly you’re finding in museums objects that are everyday, that are mundane. I’m thinking about the 911 Memorial Museum that uses the ordinary, everyday objects that people donated and how the objects are used by the Memorial Museum to tell the story of the events of that day, and we’re talking about things like people’s, you know, burnt and tattered ID badges.


We’re talking about a crushed wristwatch and on and on. There are so many objects used in that, in the entire institution, to tell the story of what happened and from all of the different perspectives, and I think about a couple of different things. And again, this is not unique to the 911 Memorial Museum; this is a device for how to tell a story and how to tell, we were talking about multiple truths using personal objects, ordinary, everyday objects to tell a story can be one of the most authentic and truth-bearing ways of telling a story. And also, in some instances, I think the most effective.


Abby: I agree.


Brenda: The most emotional, the most powerful – great objects are archetypal. Think of a key. Think about how universal a key is. Cutting across age, cutting across culture, cutting across time. You’ve got certain things that are so symbolic and so relatable that when you see them in an exhibition, you’re going to have a very personal connection with them. And I think that as storytelling devices, curating with objects is one of the best modalities for telling a great story. And the objects will do the lifting for you. They really, they really will. Objects will do the storytelling for you.


Abby: I think the critical thing is making sure that you’re selecting and using the object or showing the object in support of the story and the moment you’re trying to tell. I think that’s in the curating, it’s in the design, it’s in the lighting, it’s in the flow of what somebody’s just seen. And it all has to come together to tell that story point in the right way.


I think that’s what’s really tricky, because in the example you just gave, we all recognize what those objects represent. As you mentioned, there are imbued with a history, with a narrative that when we see them, moves us, and you don’t need to see a lot of those to be moved. They’re, they’re wonderfully descriptive objects.


Brenda: Think about shoes. Shoes, as they’re used in the Holocaust Museum so brilliantly. Shoes in an exhibition that I saw not long ago about Syrian refugees and a little child’s pair of sneakers. With shoes you’ve already, you’ve got an age, right? You’ve got an idea of a stature, of a human body. You’ve got an idea of a culture, right, or a place in the world or even maybe a type of work. They’re hugely personal.


Abby: Yeah. And having the courage to display sometimes a few things rather than a lot. I think an effective story is told efficiently. It doesn’t need extra things around it to support it.


Brenda: So, Abby, when you’re talking about visitor overload and when you’re talking about this temptation with objects in particular to, to just pack them in, sometimes that makes a lot of sense. Sometimes it doesn’t. I think it really depends on the, you know, the situation and the uniqueness of the experience that you’re creating and the story that you’re telling. But it makes me think of something that, I learned this from museum scholar Leslie Bedford, who talks about how it is that great exhibition environments can be designed and the narrative can be constructed in the subjunctive mood, which is actually taken from literature.


But the idea of subjunctive mood is you leave blanks in the information, which means maybe you don’t put in a hundred objects, maybe you put in ten objects. And when you put in those ten objects, people can for themselves automatically construct the story. They can believe that they are in this other time or in this other place. They can relate to these objects and understand: young child. Young child who was in some kind of a difficult situation because it’s all covered, the shoes are covered in mud or whatever the case might be.


Abby: So it’s editing, editing, editing.


Brenda: Its editing, editing, editing, and it’s editing towards really understanding that human beings, they will bring the story in. Garrison Keillor, this is another wonderful reference that Leslie loves to make, Garrison Keillor, the great storyteller, talks about this in his work. You can listen to a radio program and you’re not seeing the pictures. You’re not seeing that living room.


You’re not seeing exactly what the dining table looks like or what those chairs. But you’re getting a visual in your mind of living room, of dining table, of mom’s best china or whatever, you know, the setting might be. People will fill in the blanks.


Abby: Yeah, they use their imagination, and they create the visuals.


Brenda: Which is such an important and it takes a lot of courage – you used the word courage earlier and I’ll reinforce that as well – it takes a lot of courage for a curator, for a design team to kind of think in that way when telling a story. But it is, when it is done right, it’s so much more, it’s so much more powerful. So much more effective.


Abby: Yeah. I often think that it’s those simple design solutions that are always the most effective, and I mentioned courage, but having the confidence to know that that’s going to be effective and work, that takes years of experience. You know, you’ve got to overcrowd a few things before you like, nope, we need to strip this down and start seeing what works.


And there’s also visitor overload from just coming into the museum or the experience and starting to read and sit and listen. And I think there’s a moment where, at least for me, you’ve seen enough, like it’s too much, or you start switching off, or you can’t absorb anything else, and you need a rest. You literally need, need a break from info coming in.


So after a few hours in an amazing experience when you’ve had some deep emotional engagement, even when you’ve had moments of relief, we just all need a time out. You need to go. You need to rest. Come back to the museum a different day. You don’t have to get around. There’s no obligation to complete things. I think if you’ve gone, enjoyed even part of a story, or it’s resonated with you, that’s enough.


Brenda: Well, I know in another episode we’re going to be talking about prototyping, and we’re going to be talking about engagement in the exhibition, in the whole development process, and all of that, because fine tuning these things, getting them just right, these are these are the reasons why we prototype and why we engage target audiences in our development processes as well, because it is telling these stories well and getting it just right is a real trick.


Abby: So this one thing is the story when you actually visit the museum and the other, as you were mentioning, this arc, the arc within the museum, and then there’s the larger arc before you visit and after you visit, and hopefully when you repeat visit. So there’s that overarching story. And how do you incorporate the visitor into that and how does your story change over time?


Which I think is, you know, also another thing to think about. It’s overwhelming. It’s very challenging to replicate the story from within the museum outside. And I think what’s exciting is we have things like social media, we have the web to be able to talk about the story in a different way because you’re not physically in the space, so you’re not designing physically, but you’re still designing and telling that story, and I find that really fascinating, using all the different types of tools we have at our disposal to, I would say, magnify the story.


Brenda: I mean, I’m listening to you, and I tend to think of it as the extended visitor experience. So there’s always the pre-visit, there’s always the post-visit, and a great design team always accounts for that. I love the idea of really this metanarrative that, you know, the actually being on-site at the institution or being in the experience, whatever it is, is really just one piece of it.


And we see increasingly in recent years how much sort of personalization and customization people doing things online through social media before going to the experience or the exhibition is increasingly really an expected tool. I’m also thinking about post-visit where again predominantly through social media or even repeat visitation that these things are being accounted for to enable people to be engaged in sort of taking the story that they experience in the space into their own everyday lives in one way or another.


I’m thinking as well, though, of a very recent read that I did that was just so fun. I was talking about TikTok with my colleague and how museums are increasingly using TikTok, and she kind of sighed and she said, yeah, I guess it’s not going to be a fad after all. And, so I love TikTok.


I think it’s a really terrific tool. And just as an example, Abby, I see it as a storytelling tool, I really do. And I think about curators who use TikTok to tell a very quick one minute little personal stories related to the content of the exhibitions that are charming, quite frankly, and that are just extending the narrative.


Abby: I also think with tools like TikTok, social media, that it reaches a new audience, and I think that’s really important to bring that new audience, that younger audience into the fold, into these experiences and eventually, hopefully through the walls of the museum and actually experience it themselves.


Brenda: And use social media to collect people’s story, which is why places like the Hip Hop Museum, Washington, D.C., they use hashtags, and they are collecting tons and tons and tons of personal stories, all related to hip hop music and people’s experiences with hip hop culture.


Abby: Because the stories continue. Oftentimes you can go to any historical museum and those stories need to evolve and they need to be relevant today. So enabling people to tell their story about whatever theme or message is in your museum, I think just builds the legacy of the story.


Brenda: Perhaps unlike a film, there really is no big, the end.


Abby: No, there isn’t.


Brenda: When it comes to this particular work that we do, which is kind of gorgeous.


Abby: It is. It’s very unique, and we’re very lucky. Thank you, everyone, for tuning in this week. I hope you heard something useful for your practice. We want to hear from you, so please send us in your questions, thoughts, or observations on any and all your experiences. Bye for now.


Brenda: Thank you so much, everybody. Goodbye.




Producer: Matters of Experience is produced by Lorem Ipsum Corp. Please tune in next week for another conversation. Thank you all for listening. 


Show Notes

Visit Churchill War Rooms – Plan Your Visit | Imperial War Museums

Open House: If These Walls Could Talk | Minnesota Historical Society

Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center – Lorem Ipsum Corp

Storytelling in Experience Design

Storytelling in Experience Design

January 11, 2023
Taming of the Wild Beast with Rob Cohen

Taming of the Wild Beast with Rob Cohen

Guest Rob Cohen
December 28, 2022
Subscribe now on Apple Podcasts and Spotify
Business mogul Rob Cohen switched lanes from being a lawyer to becoming an entrepreneur in the experiential industry in the mid-90s and has been helping agencies and institutions bring their immersive environments to life with the companies he’s built. In this week’s episode, he speaks on how to tame the wild beast that is business ethics through gratitude, trust, and giving back.
Rob Cohen serves as Vice President and General Counsel of Display Supply & Lighting, Inc. and its related companies. He is responsible for managing all aspects of sales, marketing, product development and manufacturing as well as the legal affairs and advocacy efforts of the companies. Rob received his undergraduate degree from the University of Hartford - Barney School of Business (’83) and his Juris Doctorate degree from Suffolk University School of Law (’87). He engaged in the full time practice of law for 10 years focusing on general business matters, mergers, acquisitions and technology licensing transactions for small to large sized companies. In 1996, Rob purchased a distribution company with other investors and in 1999 merged that entity with 2 other companies to create Display Supply & Lighting, Inc. Several off-shoot companies have resulted from this venture. Rob has helped to start, and has sold off, a variety of start-up companies. He has also volunteered his time as a board member of a variety of not for profit ventures. Rob is married to his wife Lisa, has 2 grown daughters (and his wheaten terrier) and lives in Framingham, MA.

Abby: Hello and welcome to Matters of Experience. My name is Abigail Honor.


Brenda: And I’m Brenda Cowan.


Abby: Welcome to this week’s podcast, Taming the Wild Beast with our guest, Rob Cohen. Rob is VP and general counsel of Display Supply & Lighting and its related companies. He is responsible for managing all aspects of the business as well as the legal affairs. Yes, Rob is also a lawyer. Rob has also helped to launch and sell off a variety of startup companies so he has a range of experiences throughout the business world.


Rob, this is a pretty formidable resume and an interesting path into our industry. I look forward to learning more. Thanks for joining us today.


Rob: Well, thank you for inviting an aging man to share some thoughts.


Brenda: Rob, for our listeners, could you share the work that you do in the exhibits industry and how did you get here?


Rob: I guess my story is just like everyone else’s with a little sarcasm there. In 1996, while practicing law and wanting to get back into the business world, I had a group of clients that were willing to back me to buy a company. And then I found a small company that manufactured clamp-on arm lights, and it took us ten months to buy this little company.


And then three years later, we pulled off merging three significant companies together to create what is known as Display Supply & Lighting. We sell supplies products, lighting products to resellers of folks that build and design trade shows, as well as all types of experiential environments.


Abby: So, what happened to you then? Your trajectory changed to sort of running a business, right? Were you the CEO, were you at the helm of it?


Rob: I was the CEO of the company. I actually hired my father to work for me, which is a very, very strange thing that I can talk about in therapy someday. It was a good three years together that we got to spend while growing the first company and living through everything from after acquisition, finding out that the seller had lied to us and that there was a big manufacturing defect that existed, to growing the company, expanding its product base, and learning a new industry at the same time.


Abby: So it sounds like you started the company, and you already had a business ethics issue close at hand.


Rob: That’s great insight. And I also found out that the person I bought the company from withheld inventory from me and competed against me for a period of time. So, learned a lot of lessons very quickly.


Brenda: Rob, you have a formula for success in business practice. So, what do you mean by success? Are we talking financial success or something more intangible?


Rob: There are lots of ways of defining success. And if you asked me this question two years ago, I wouldn’t have been ready to formulate the response, but my dear friend Brenda Cowan pushed me and asked me and was kind enough to request that I write a piece for an upcoming book that she’s working on for the museum industry. And I came up with a really simple equation to hopefully explain success, and that was gratitude plus ethics equals success, and success comes in many forms.


Certainly there’s monetary success and if we’re in a for-profit business world we have to drive profit. But along with that comes customer satisfaction, company longevity, satisfaction and opportunities for our employees, as well as industry impact. And I think all of those collectively are elements of what I think of as success.


Brenda: Rob, where does this formula come from? You are, of course, a lawyer, a business owner, and I know that your Judaism is an important part of your life. Does that come into play here as well?


Rob: It certainly does, and I don’t want to be preaching religion. I’m a very traditional person. My upbringing, a family business, taught me to always be thankful to customers. I had parents who instilled in me to appreciate what we have and to always give back. My ethics go back, I think, to my immigrant great-grandfather, who is a founder of an organization down in Rhode Island called the Providence Hebrew Free Loan Association, which gave interest-free loans to new immigrants.


My religion has a teaching and a book that’s very close to me. The book is called Ethics of Our Fathers, and this particular teaching states that the world is based on three pillars: study, prayer – and interestingly, the Hebrew word for prayer is also the Hebrew word for work – and also acts of loving kindness. So being grateful for what we have and helping others in need is a cornerstone for so many faiths.


And I think if you take those and incorporate them into your work, again without preaching, you can have a really good ethical base for how to go about running a business.


Brenda: I think that it’s a really important model, the fact that you’re willing to talk about it as a part of your business world and the work that you do and everything. I mean, I think that there’s a really good teaching in that, that we’re whole people. We don’t just turn on and turn off who we are.


Abby: My kids go to UNIS and it’s really not about how well you do. It’s about what kind of a person you are; who are you holistically in this world? And I think Rob, that’s really important in business. It’s who you are from a 360, and what you bring to your business should be all of you, should be the same as when you’re at home and all of those values.


I think that people who think that it’s about making money any way they can end up completely unfulfilled. Let’s talk about Albert Camus’ quote that “a person without ethics is a wild beast loosened upon this world”. Is that how you feel in terms of business ethics?


Rob: I would think so and I’m not a perfect person. I want to be really clear about that. But I want to be around other people who are good people and who want to make our industry better. And fortunately, there are a lot of those people in our industry, which is really quite like a family in many ways. And I can appreciate and respect them for their beliefs.


They can appreciate and respect me for mine. We can know that we’re all going to fall down at some point and make a mistake, and we can say, as long as you’re there to correct the mistake, we can continue to work together.


Abby: So let’s say you have a employee who favors the blame game, they are never to blame for anything and they can talk their way out of everything. How do you handle that?


Rob: I try to have a straight-up conversation with them and say, listen, we all make mistakes. The important thing is admitting to the mistake, working together to see how we get through the mistake, and make sure that it doesn’t become a pattern.


Brenda: Rob, nurturing good relationships is obviously a huge part of your ethos and I’m curious specific to the exhibits industry. I’m wondering is there something particular about our profession that makes these kinds of good relationships particularly challenging?


Rob: This is an industry that’s very much in the now. I need this now. Time is everything. And people are under that pressure, and things can get personal when you get in the heat of the moment. We also travel a lot together and socialize together on the road with these people. I urge the members of my team, even though this is business, to go and create personal relationships with these people, get to know them, relate on a personal level, and show that you care.


I enjoy just as much checking in with colleagues on their families or personal problems that may have struck them as I do trying to sell the next project. And, you know, people remember you if you just act as a good person, and that brings with it opportunities. So relationships are critical in my book.


Abby: Another thing I think is critical is trust. In my business, we’re always looking to make sure that our clients and our colleagues can trust that we’re going to deliver, can trust on the quality of what we’re going to create, and can, you know, trust that we stand behind everything that we’re creating. And with that, obviously, there does come a little bit, as you said, tension in the moment as you’re installing or as you’re turning on the technology, which can sometimes be a little fickle.


You have to sort of take a deep breath, take a step back and understand and believe that it’s all going to be okay at the end of the day, because I think we get very overwhelmed in that moment, Rob, and it’d be interesting to find out how, sort of, do you have any techniques to help the team see the bigger picture when they’re in the rabbit hole?


Rob: It’s a great point you make about trust, Abby. We even take a selling philosophy within our organization, and we’ve taught this to our team and they use it that when you’re presenting to the customer, tell them we can be one of two things. We can be a vendor and we can sell you product when you want product. But our value comes when you allow us to be a vendor partner.


And when you give us insight into your project, and you share about your vision with us so that we can then share alternative strategies and alternative products to bringing your vision to life. When we are in that rabbit hole, the first thing that that we teach our customer service people is solve the problem for the customer. Don’t worry about who’s going to pay to solve the problem.


There are times when products are just defective. There are times when there are programming issues. There are times when there are lots of things that can go wrong. Solve the problem, and if we have a real partnership, we’ll be able to talk with the customer afterwards and sort everything out.


Brenda: Rob, I’m curious about the past few years, the COVID years, and I’m wondering, have the COVID years presented any opportunities in the exhibit industry or, you know, has the decimation of so many businesses sort of challenge the idea of altruism as a means to success?


Rob: Sadly, I think that the COVID years have actually afforded an opportunity to build deeper bonds within the industry. All of a sudden, people have time on their hands and some chose to go hide in their rabbit holes. Others chose to get involved a little deeper, and getting involved was on different levels. For me, I had never been involved in federal advocacy work, and this afforded me the opportunity to demonstrate a sincere and caring dedication, I hope, to the industry.


I also observed many groups that formed that met on Zoom to support one another. People were talking about everything from am I going to be able to keep my doors open to, as things came around, have you heard about things like the employee retention tax credit and how you can go about applying. Also, taking the time to reach out one-on-one with people in the industry and stay in touch created deeper, more sincere relationships.


So those were three things I was thankful for. We were very fortunate in our company that we had a big chunk of business that we had landed outside of the industry before COVID hit. So, we were able to do that while still staying in touch with the industry and keeping ourselves financially healthy.


Abby: As a business then, Rob, it sounds like being able to pivot quickly and being able to leverage different opportunities sometimes outside the industry, that brings, you know, most bang for its buck that that’s a good thing and something that you would encourage businesses to always do, so all their eggs are not in one basket, so to speak.


Rob: Yeah, you said my least favorite word, Abby, and that’s pivot, because I don’t think anyone should be pivoting. I think that they should have a broader landscape of how they conduct business from the beginning. We’re fortunate in that even during economic downturns pre-COVID, we never had more than 7% of our business with any single customer. And that’s an important thing to understand, is the diversification of your customers, because if you have a concentration with a particular customer or two particular customers and they fall on financial hard times, then your goose is cooked along with theirs, and the more you can spread that risk out over a wider landscape, the more insulated you are from the financial success or metrics of your customers.


Brenda: How do you then, how do you advise a startup with this frame of thinking, folks who are only just starting to build a client base and get themselves established? Can you give any particular bits of advice to how to actually begin to create, as you put it, that broad landscape?


Rob: Don’t just focus on slaying the big dragon or, you know, to reel them in as a customer. The more you can put small pieces of business together with more customers, the more solid of a foundation you’re going to have. You’re also spreading, you know, your risk with smaller bets, so to speak. If I can place $5 bets with 20 customers rather than one $100 bet with one customer, I have a much better percentage rate of success in all likelihood.


So spread that risk out as much as you can. And yes, that may take more work on your part to begin with. But if business was easy, everyone would be an owner.


Abby: You have to have a certain appetite to be an entrepreneur I think, Rob, and it’s a very…


Rob: I don’t know if it’s an appetite or craziness, you know.


Brenda: Well, Abby, what’s what’s it for you being a business owner?


Abby: It’s craziness.


Brenda: Okay, so it’s craziness for your part. Okay.


Abby: Definitely enjoying a bit of craziness. So in terms of building a business, you’re an entrepreneur, as Brenda mentioned. Yours essentially was a sort of startup, Rob, in the very beginning. Sales teams. How big is your sales team now, and were you it at the beginning?


Rob: Oh, I was the chief cook and bottle washer at the beginning. I’d go from writing orders to strapping packages together in the back at night, and I remember when the box company delivered boxes, they would drop them outside in the parking lot, and I had to walk them up a flight of stairs.


I still think it’s important for the business owner though to always get their hands dirty. It’s not that you’ve become the CEO and you just wear a white collar all the time. When I’m out in my office in Illinois, I like to make sure everyone at headquarters understands the fact that there’s no job I’m not willing to do. And I make sure I spend time in the warehouse, working with the guys, assembling product, working with the team, and in stocking shelves.


The guy who empties the garbage cans, I try to find one night to walk around with him while he’s emptying the garbage cans. And it’s not just to empty the cans, but it’s for me to get to know that person a little bit better as well. I think that’s, that’s pretty important here.


Abby: But Rob, that all sounds wonderful and like a harmonious, amazing place to work and we all want to come and work for you, but what about…


Rob: No, you don’t, because you got to listen to me, too. That’s not that much fun.


Abby: What about when you’re trying to protect your employees because maybe you didn’t have enough money in and so you’re taking a pay cut yourselves or you’re taking some hits that you don’t necessarily want to share. I know open communication is really important, but sometimes from morale perspective or any sort of particular reasons, you may want to hide things from your colleagues, from your team.


Rob: I’m still a lawyer, and I do believe that there’s still a difference between stockholders and employees. And we have to find that correct balance of what do you share and what is not out there to be shared? You know, I don’t think that necessarily our employee base is entitled to know what my partner and I make financially. But at the same time, that’s only fair if the employees are all being treated fairly, both from a normal compensation standpoint, as well as bonuses based on the success of the business.


That’s an individual line that has to be drawn. When we merged the companies together, I found that nothing was being shared before from the bigger company and I had to sit down and explain to the folks that worked in the warehouse what all the widgets cost to make the component, because many of them had the understanding or belief that if we sold a product for $75, we made $75.They didn’t understand the cost equation and what was a gross profit margin and how valuable all these little pieces were. And when you drop a piece of glass and it broke, that cost us money.


So, education of the employee and understanding the business is important. They’re not going to understand every aspect of the business, but certainly taking pride of ownership for their portion of it, I think is critical.


Brenda: Abby, I’m curious. I want to ask you a question actually, as you’re listening to Rob and his works in the exhibits industry and a lot of the trade show and corporate interests, now you do a lot of work for museums and non for profits. And I’m just curious what’s resonating with you or are there things where you’re kind of thinking inside that fabulous head of yours, well, it doesn’t really work across the board though.


Abby: For us, the biggest thing is they want the world, and their budgets tend to get smaller and smaller. When we start a project, there’s a lot of talk about what we can do and what we can achieve, and then when the rubber hits the road and it comes time to signing and okay, let’s move ahead, things tend to shift.


Rob: So, it’s interesting because the corollary over to the world I live in, if everyone could just be honest about budgets, we could go a lot further a lot faster.


Abby: Yeah.


Rob: And customers think that we’re asking so that we can increase how much money we’re going to make.


Brenda: Right, right.


Rob: And that’s not the case at all, and so we can be recommending products and technology that fit in so that people aren’t disappointed at the end, that they can only afford this as opposed to that.


Abby: That’s exactly right. We face that all the time, Rob. And I say to people, I say, you’d like a house. We could build you a house for $100,000 or we can build your house for 10 million. How much money do you have? Let us approach even concepting with that in mind.


Rob: When we get the benefit of going in and speaking to students in the industry, we try to teach these students right from the beginning about the partnership and that it’s okay to share budgets. Their clients are investing in their designs. They have to be investing in the right technology, too, and quality of product.


Brenda: Well, Rob, let me also just throw out a big gratitude to you for all of the work that you do with with students on the undergrad and on the grad level. What do you say to folks who think that that is nice, but really not of benefit to you and perhaps doesn’t equate to the time that you spend.


Rob: One, I’d let them know that I think the most important thing we can do is give of our time and help teach and educate. It’s critical to be giving back and whether you’re doing a sales presentation and teaching, whether you’re at a conference and giving up your time to speak of an area of expertise or stepping into a classroom on the graduate, undergraduate, trade school level, high school level, all those things are critical. And what we have to share as participants of an industry can go a long way to help molding the future of the industry.


Abby: I don’t think we do a great job, or we haven’t in the past of sort of promoting our industry. You know, when clients think that they have a new job, they’ll maybe go to an architect, or they’ll go to an agency. One of the things I feel is that they don’t necessarily think about us, and we are the ones with all the experience in designing these immersive, pun-intended experiences.


So Rob, how can we do a better job of advocating for our industry and letting people know what we bring to the table in terms of all of our services?


Rob: You can join the great trade association, the Experiential Designers and Producers Association, the EDPA and become a part of a new initiative of theirs, which is the future workforce. This group, which I am a part of, is actually developing slideshows to have members of our industry go out and reach out from the trade school level on up to talk about our industry and all the jobs that are available in it. From working in a shop and bringing carpentry skills and electrical skills to the show floor or shop floor through project management, account management, design, and letting them know that there’s this great hidden industry out there to be a part of. And by the way, we’ll be more than glad to tell you about employers in your area.


Abby: But it’s not sexy. Architects have this aura about them, and when people have the purse strings, they do want to emotionally spend. They want to be associating with people who seem to be very uber-creative and dress a certain way and act a certain way.


Brenda: Glamour. Glamour sells.


Abby: So how do we make ourselves a little bit more endearing or at least competitive with with that group?


Rob: Glamor sells, but you invited me for a reason on a podcast and there’s no…


Abby: You’re saying you’re not glamorous, Rob Cohen?


Rob: No. This is a face for radio.


Brenda: Ladies and gentlemen, he’s going to be here all day.


Rob: There is a sexy aspect to the industry. You get to travel. You get to see new places. You get to meet new people. You get to have great experiences. We have to talk about that as well, and we have to talk about how sexy it is to create and then see our creations. From a museum standpoint, how wonderful is it to sit back and actually watch people partake in the experience?


Abby: Tell me about a recent project that went well and personally why you felt a lot of gratification.


Rob: I’ll talk about the biggest one we did, which was several years ago. We got called in by a very large customer. They said, Could you help us to update down at the old Atlanta Braves baseball stadium known as Turner Field, The Coca-Cola Bottle out in left field. So we want to bring technology and life to a 50-foot-tall Coca-Cola bottle.


I said, sure we can. And then I ran back and grabbed my lead engineer and said, how the heck can we do that? And we got brought in to meetings with our customer and people from the world of Coke, and we helped to bring along a realistic vision of a 50-foot-tall Coca-Cola bottle with changing colored light in it with a ten-foot-tall 360-degree LED screen, custom built to the contours of a Coca-Cola bottle for the label of the bottle. And inside the bottle, they kept the guts of a dumbwaiter, an elevator, that brought fireworks to the top of the bottle whenever the Braves hit a home run or won a game, and they shot fireworks off, which we took an exclusion in our warranty on our products, too.


But to collaborate with so many different people, we had never done anything like this before in our lives, but we joined in with a team and pulled it off, and it was a great project that, to this day, people still talk about even though the stadiums gone and they moved on to a new stadium, and the bottle was taken apart and thrown away.


Abby: Oh, did you have to end on such a sad note? Well, it obviously lives on in a lot of people’s memories, and I just really want to do a shout-out to those phone calls from clients and you say, yep, we can do that. And then you turn to your team and you say, how the hell can we do that? I love those moments. That’s when I feel the most excited, the most alive when we’re given a challenge that’s never been done before.


Rob: Absolutely.


Brenda: Rob, I wish we had all day to talk with you. And I want to give you a hearty thanks for your time and for sharing with us. This has been wonderful.


Rob: Oh, thank you, Abby. And thank you, Brenda. I truly appreciate and am honored to have been asked to be a part of your podcast. And I hope that your listeners can at least find one tidbit to take away and help them to grow their businesses and careers.


Abby: Thank you so much, Rob.




Producer: Matters of Experience is produced by Lorem Ipsum Corp. Please tune in next week for another conversation. Thank you all for listening. 

Show Notes



Taming of the Wild Beast with Rob Cohen

Taming of the Wild Beast with Rob Cohen Guest Rob Cohen

December 28, 2022
Art and Experience in the Metaverse with Raina Mehler

Art and Experience in the Metaverse with Raina Mehler

Guest Raina Mehler
December 14, 2022
Subscribe now on Apple Podcasts and Spotify
As the Media Arts Director at Pace Gallery, Raina Mehler is devoted to exhibiting artists and interdisciplinary groups pioneering in the emerging field of immersive, experiential art and the Web3 space. She joins this week to talk about the metaverse: what it is, what it isn’t, and how it can be the next step in the evolution of technology, design, and communication.
Raina Mehler currently serves as a Director at Pace Gallery where she has worked for over a decade. She acts as artist liaison to Pace’s interdisciplinary artists, such as teamLab, Drift, Carsen Nicolai, Rafael Lozanna- Hemmer, and others. Additionally, she is part of Pace Verso, the gallery’s Web3 hub. Prior to this position, she was part of the founding team who created and launched Superblue, a new enterprise dedicated to producing and exhibiting large-scale, immersive art installations for ticketed experiences. She oversaw the production, installation, AV integration, and the programming of artwork software for the exhibits at Superblue Miami (the first brick-and-mortar location). She worked closely with the artists on executing their vision, from the inception of the idea to the realization of the work on site. She was integral to the development of the organization and building out the exhibitions team. Raina was the Exhibitions Producer for the Drift: Fragile Future exhibition at The Shed in the Fall of 2021. Previously at Pace, she served as the Director of Media Arts at Pace Gallery, founding this new department dedicated to developing best practices for exhibiting analog and digital artworks, as well as working on sales strategies, which directly contributed to increased sales of digital artworks and aided in expanding Pace’s program of exhibiting interdisciplinary art collectives. She oversaw Pace’s Art + Technology initiatives in 2016, which was Pace’s first foray into ticketed experiences, and FuturePace, an initial that commissioned artworks that embedded into the landscape or existing urban infrastructure. She also co-curated Pace’s Staff Show in 2019. With 15+ years’ experience in the fine art industry and a Masters in Art History, Raina is an emerging authority in the pioneering field of experiential, time-based art, and the Web3 space seeking to bridge the gap between fine art and NFTs. She speaks globally about time-based media and NFTs, and has been published in Sculpture Magazine, the Australian Registrar Journal, and online blogs. She has given lectures at The Metropolitan Museum of Art (NY), Christie's Education (NY), Hunter College (NY), and The Australian Registrar Conference (AUS). She also participates on panels, most notably at South by Southwest (March 2022), SEDG (November 2021), Ars Electronica (September 2020), ADAA (November 2021) alongside Jacolby Satterwhite (Artist) Christiane Paul, Ph.D. (Adjunct Curator of Digital Art, Whitney Museum of American Art), Elena Soboleva (Global Head of Online Sales, David Zwirner), and moderated by Brian Droitcourt (Editor in Chief, Outland), as well as is a frequent speaker on Clubhouse and Twitterspace.




​​Abby: Hello and welcome to Matters of Experience. My name is Abigail Honor.


Brenda: And I’m Brenda Cowan.


Abby: Today on the show, we’re focusing on experiences in the metaverse. Yes, another heady topic in its early stages, but never afraid to shy away from a hot topic, I’m excited to welcome Raina Mehler, Pace Gallery’s director, where she has worked for over a decade. Among the many things Raina does at Pace, she’s part of Pace Verso, the gallery’s Web3 hub.


And prior to this, she was part of the founding team who created and launched Superblue in Miami. It’s a new enterprise dedicated to producing and exhibiting large-scale immersive art installations for ticketed experiences, definitely a must see for everyone traveling to Miami. Raina is an emerging authority in the pioneering field of experiential time-based art and the Web3 space, seeking to bridge the gap between fine art and NFTs.


Brenda: So, let’s start at the beginning. Raina, what pulled you into the fine art space initially? And well, why is art important to us?


Raina: I actually got interested in art very early on. I went to a liberal arts Catholic high school, which is kind of an oxymoron, but I was able to take classes on ceramics, photography, drawing, and art history, and I was much better at the writing and art history part than art. But I saw from a very early age about the importance of art, the significance of it, how it can enhance lives, and just how, you know, it really conveys contemporary life.


And I studied art history in college, and I got a masters in it, and I worked in both museum and gallery worlds and ultimately, you know, preferred the gallery route because I really love working with living artists and having the opportunity to talk with them and figure out the best way to execute their artistic vision.


Abby: It’s interesting, Raina, you and I actually share similar heritage in terms of I also went to art school. I studied painting, actually.


Brenda: I did too. 


Abby: And Brenda did too, so we’re all budding artist wannabees. And so can you sort of elaborate a little bit? Tell us about your perspective on the importance of art to humanity. 


Raina: Yeah, definitely. I always go back to the very first painting of humanity in the cave of Lascaux, those handprints, and how even very early on, our ancestors were acknowledging their existence and who they are, and what they were seeing. And I think that also coincides with technology. You know, we developed tools which was integral to our survival as a species. And so for me, art and technology has always gone hand in hand, in a sense, and it is an important part of our evolution. 


And I just remember when I learned about how dictators and authoritarians banned art and were burning it and destroying it. It really, for me, was this, like light bulb that went off because it showed the power of art, especially the power of, you know, abstraction in a sense, too, and the way that we can interpret it and all get meaning from it.


Brenda: It is definitely telling that when, you know, a society is being upended, art, education, books, literature, those are the first things that get attacked. And I think that it is not only because it’s where original thought exists and where cultural and individual expression exists, but it is also where intellectualism and ideas and idealism exist.


Raina: Yeah, and I also just find it so interesting because artists, you know, they just have this innate motivation to create. And I also think we as a species have this like hunger and drive to see things and experience things and to experience them with each other.


Abby: Yeah, that’s interesting you bring up that innate need to experience things together. I think it’s fundamental when you think about art when you think about visiting an exhibition. I think deep down there’s this shared connection, the shared bond that we want to have with each other. I think there’s something at our core that needs to be satiated by these group activities.


Brenda: No, absolutely, and I think the things that elicit wonder and awe, they absolutely promote and prompt pro-social behavior. It’s just built into the human animal.


Abby: I think that was one of the big things during COVID that a lot of us experienced was you didn’t have those shared experiences anymore. How did it affect you, Raina, personally, and how did it affect you in the workplace?  


Raina: It’s interesting that you said, you know, you didn’t have that shared experience, and I really think that’s when digital realities became more important in our life, is because of COVID. There was a shift from going to the office and having meetings in person to having meetings on Zoom. And you’re seeing everyone’s faces, right, but you cannot read their body language.


And also, the way you remember is different. One way that we remember things is through like spatial awareness. And I just find that really interesting because when you’re in a meeting, you remember things that were said based on kind of the spatial and audio awareness, which you really don’t get in Zoom. And I think that’s a really interesting thing that’s being developed with VR and headsets and stuff like that.


But going back to COVID and how that personally affected me, I was working at the time on, you know, a ticketed experience and we had to do everything over Zoom. But honestly, a lot of the artists that I work with live in different countries around the world. So I’m very used to having to log on to a screen and have a meeting and figure out things.


And I think the biggest thing was not having any kind of human contact and having to do everything virtually. And I think it made it a lot harder. I mean, you get Zoom fatigue. You’re sitting all day. It was back to back meetings. It was really exhausting in some ways. And I think it, you know, it hindered the ability to have like a free-form brainstorming session.


Abby: You were into digital before COVID, though, so what sort of drew you to the darkside? I’m joking, jokingly referring to digital as the darkside, as it’s one of my favorite places to be. But in my work, I’ve been interested in that balance that you mentioned between technology and art and how they collaborate together. So what interested you and still interests you about digital art?


Raina: Well, when I first started working at Pace, one of the first shows I worked on was teamLabs’ first exhibition at any Pace location in 2014 in Chelsea, and it really was like a game changer for me and inspiring because the way people were interacting with it compared to when you go and are looking at contemporary painting – and I just want to, you know, before I get into this, I love paintings, and I love photography, and I love sculpture, but I think that the generations growing up right now with like a phone in their hand, they’re more open in a sense, to seeing it as fine art rather than this like inferior medium of digital media. 


And, you know, after that show, I wanted to work with all of these interdisciplinary art collectives because I do feel like there’s a shift from wanting to possess something or own something versus wanting to experience it. And there’s been this huge, you know, just a lot of excitement about the experience economy. And I think, you know, sometimes immersive and interactive installations, they allow you to participate and to have that experience with somebody else in a different way than looking, you know, maybe at an abstract painting where everyone’s seen different things, whether it’s textures or colors and they apply different mediums.


I think it in some ways allows for this kind of shared connection and also this idea that the viewer kind of completes the piece, like really goes back to conceptualism and performance art and other, you know, earlier movements. So I really see it coming out of the arc of art history and looking at artists like Bob Whitman, James Turrell, they were, you know, using the medium of their time. You know, Turrell was using these cutting edge like laser photography and started using light. And I think technology’s just ubiquitous in our lives. You know, everyone has a laptop now, everyone has an iPhone and having access, unprecedented access to information like what is happening globally around the world, but also misinformation and how does this all affect us and how will we live and exist in this world when we’re becoming increasingly more intertwined with the digital and the physical?


Abby: You’re so right. Artists working today have so much meat to chew on in terms of responding to the world around us, the situations we are in and reflecting those back to their audience. I think now is a very exciting time to be – a very worrying maybe – but a very exciting time. Just thinking back to discussing propaganda, misinformation. It’s such a fascinating area to immerse yourself into, and as an artist, I think it’s really challenging and a fun challenge.


Raina: Yeah.


Brenda: I’d love to be able to just talk a little bit about the metaverse. I have a really difficult time grasping all of what the metaverse really is and what it means. And I’m wondering, Raina, if you could give us a sort of point of entry to understanding what metaverse really is and also what it can be. And for the sake of our conversation, we can say that it’s a group of technologies that includes VR and metaverse includes AR. But it’s important to note that these spaces don’t have to be exclusively accessed via VR or AR, or headsets. It could be a desktop, a laptop, a game console, it can be your phone. And these are all starting to refer to themselves as being able to access the metaverse, so if you could just give us a quick intro to how do you define the metaverse and then how you see it as a transformational tool and experience.


Raina: Yeah, I mean, how, how I would start off explaining it is that it is a virtual environment that allows for people to have real-time interactions and experiences, you know, across the globe. And as you mentioned, you can experience this through your web browser or in like a VR headset, and you have all these different virtual environments that people can log on to, and in the future, the goal is to really have all of these different metaverses connect and communicate with one another so you can jump from place to place and have these different kind of portals.


Abby: I’m going to jump in here because how realistic is that? Businesses are never going to collaborate. Like, what’s your feeling on that in reality? 


Raina: I mean, I think it’s just going to cost a lot of money to have the infrastructure. But ultimately if you’re not pigeonholed to one metaverse, you know, you want people to kind of jump around and go through all the things, and businesses could have theoretically different buildings or spaces throughout the different metaverses, just like there’s chains of restaurants and fashion stores where you can visit them in different cities around the world, you know, you have Chanel in New York and London and Paris. I think it’s just more about who’s going to build this infrastructure that then everyone can kind of benefit and use it. 


And I am glad you mentioned companies because for me, I think the biggest concern about the metaverse is that it isn’t just ruled and run by greedy corporations that are feeding us content or things that we don’t even really need or want. And I curated this NFT sale that was about this, it was about inclusiveness in the metaverse, and how do we kind of prevent this cycle that continuously disenfranchises the same group of people and minorities? How do we truly make the metaverse accessible and inclusive for all?


Because that is what people are saying, right? Like about NFTs and the metaverse, you know, it’s for everyone, but in a sense it’s not, right? You have to have the understanding of it, the knowledge, and the tools too. So I think that’s something that’s kind of touted by the Web3 community, but not necessarily true, and I think there needs to be more education about 3D tools in general and, you know, taught in schools and just kind of a massive, I think, education rollout in every community so that it truly can be accessible.


But, think about the future of the world, like where are we going? There’s a lot of concerns about climate. And let’s just say fast-forward 100 years and really go to like a doomsday scenario. Maybe you can’t even go outside during the day because it’s too hot or there’s sandstorms or there’s flooding, and the only way that you can really connect with people is through VR.


And at that point in time, if you can go to the metaverse and see your friends, see your family and connect with them and do things and do activities and see music, that will feel more like the life we know now, right, than being stuck inside all the time, which we totally had a glimpse of through COVID when we were isolated and stuck at home all the time and didn’t have access to the things we were used to. And what effect did that have on future generations? 


And then the other idea about the metaverse is very like Westworld, Westworldy if you’ve seen it, is that like literally people’s consciousnesses can be uploaded to the metaverse and like exist and have like their own lives in this complete virtual world. 


Abby: Well, you’ve just mentioned a number of very interesting things in terms of like the doomsday scenario where we’re all stuck in our little tiny box with a bathroom, and not even a pet, and everything else is sort of inside the metaverse. I immediately jump to, how am I, are we atrophied and we’re just a brain with some arms lifting the device on and off. 


Brenda: Oh now we’re back to, what is it? Wall-E.


Abby: Oh, Wall-E.


Brenda: The movie, remember that? They were on target.


Raina: But you can work out, you know.


Abby: You can. Yeah, that’s true. Well, I’m guessing that we would have a small box we would be able to move in. So, the near future for you. What do you find about the metaverse that is exciting, personally?


Raina: I think the metaverses will become more high fidelity and more realistic, and I think that will make it more interesting to go to, because some of them right now have this, I don’t know, like Sims kind of quality, you know, like cartoony and I don’t know, I can see why some people are kind of turned off by it, but I think it’s going to get more like high-res and high fidelity.


But I think, you know what Krista Kim has been speaking about, and she created a metaverse that’s launching this fall called [0], which is supposed to be super high fidelity and high quality. And she looks at it as this place for meditation and reflection, and higher thought. And I think that could be a really interesting thing is the therapeutic aspect, how like lights and sound could be used to kind of help, I don’t know, just to help people, like whether it’s relax, or meditate or you know, there really hasn’t been any studies into like whether it could help with trauma.


I think going back to art, though, what’s so amazing about the metaverse is that you do not have the same constraints of reality. You’re not refined to scale or weight. You can have things upside down or ever turning, you know, deep in the ground, like high above the ground, any shape. And I think that’s going to allow for really cool architecture in the metaverse and artistic landscapes. I mean, artists don’t need to even be confined to like a specific space, like they can just create the whole space. And I think it’s going to be super interesting to see how the digital and physical will merge through exhibitions.


Brenda: Raina, I’m wondering if the architects who are listening are feeling a sense of dread. How do you think that whole profession is developing and what do you think experiences in general could evolve there from an architectural perspective?


Raina: Well, a lot of architects that I’ve been meeting with are architects in real life, and some of them were super excited because a lot of things they couldn’t realize in real life, they’re able to in the metaverse, because you just don’t have the same limits to reality because of gravity and weight and time and space. You can have buildings that are like in ruins or moving or constantly changing or any material you want.


You can walk into a room that looks like something you recognize with four white walls, but open the window and go out and you’re like, on top of the moon, and I just think the possibilities are endless. And for artists and architects, I think it would be a really exciting time when they’re partnered with the right people to create something just new and something that we can’t even fathom now.


And I think that’s what’s amazing about you know, artists in general. It’s like you give them a tool and they discover something completely new. And I think those, those accidents that will happen in 3D or in the, you know, in the metaverse will be really interesting and exciting that then become commonplace.


Abby: So there’s three things I want to address that you mentioned, Raina. I’m going to go for the first one. The idea of this immersive environment in VR where you have therapeutic sessions for, potentially people with PTSD or who have experienced anything tragic in their lives that they’d like to escape and get well in sitting in these environments. I know of a company called Reulay. They’ve actually done a lot of white papers on this. They’ve created an immersive experience, VR experience that does just as you say. So I think there’s a lot of companies out there now starting to create these relaxing environments, and I think that’s fantastic. 


And then you mentioned AR. There’s now been launched by Mojo Lens; They have contact lenses which have the augmented reality on top. I feel, as you mentioned, that this technology goes incredibly quickly. So I could imagine coming into Pace, popping my lenses in, and off I go with those amazing, incredible artistic overlays that are AR, maybe it’s also supplemented in some way by VR, and then in putting on a headset, who knows, that’s for the artist to decide, but I think it’s going to get there incredibly quickly.


Raina: Yeah, no, I completely agree. I mean, Meta partnered with Ray-Bans to create these AR glasses that actually have a camera inside it and it’s so small that you can’t even see it. And they can take a photo or take a video. But yeah, I think it’s going to develop quickly, and just like all tech it will be super expensive at first and then, you know, everyone’s going to have it pretty soon. Just like the iPhone.


Abby: Yeah, yeah, I know, completely. And then talking about architects, you know, we work closely with architects when we’re designing our experiences. And even if I think internally to Lorem Ipsum and our staff when we’re building out our 3D spaces, they use completely different software to what our architects are using. I feel like the metaverse is very multidisciplinary. What happens internally with us is we have our renderers, we have our 3D modelers, but even they are starting to have to use gaming engines and work out how their software can collaborate with an Unreal, for example. Like it’s very complicated from a technological perspective. It’s not just, oh, just build it in the metaverse. And so there’s a real deep understanding and a whole team, is what I’m getting to, that needs to be able to create these things.


Brenda: Well, this brings me to something that, you know, I think about quite a bit, honestly, when I think about these new tools and technologies. I’m really curious about co-creation, though, between artists and museums, but also if you see visitors, the broader public, also supporting, informing, you know, the subjects of the museum’s content or the experience’s content as well as the shape of the environments, the shape of the experiences. How much is co-creation on a visitor level and on a public level, do you think is going to play into the future of, you know, the kinds of spaces that we’re talking about?


Raina: Yeah, I do think co-creation is a huge part of it, especially in the beginning of a new, like, genre, I guess in a sense. Because I even think about the interdisciplinary art collectives that I work with, you know, there is kind of a head or a duo or something that are the head creatives, in a sense. They think about the content, but then they have on their team engineers, sometimes architects, mathematicians, CGI animators, AV, IT. You really need so many different levels of expertise to create these immersive multimedia installations or even digital realities. And people really have to collaborate and partner to execute something and I think, you know, as the public goes to view it, there are these layers of education that is needed.


Like I just think about sometimes when you go to shows, you get this email kind of like telling you no running or, you know, this might have flashing lights and could cause a seizure, like, I don’t know, just kind of like the warnings and rules, which is like the really unsexy side of it.


But then you also have the meaning behind it from the artist, which is more of a concept. And that explains to you, like if the intention of it is for you to lay down, or the intention is for you to stay in it for the full cycle. And then there’s often people on site that explain to you, how do you interact with something?


And even, you know, in the metaverse there are these like live chats with people that can help you navigate through it and also explain to you how you can run or jump or move, and even with the metaverse, like, I think there needs to be ethical rules, and people should really understand their privacy settings. And, you know, you can, you can give distances about how close people can get to you or like where’s the freeze button or the exit or stuff like that, like that seems so simple, but like in the moment, if you’re feeling shock, you really want to understand how to get yourself out of the situation.


Brenda: That’s such an extraordinary arena of thought. How do you think an ethos will evolve that protects people and that enables people, like you’re saying, to know how to behave and to have, sort of, guidelines of what’s appropriate. And you know, what isn’t appropriate.


Raina: One thought is you don’t really want a world, right, where there’s Big Brother oversight. Is there a world where you have like AI moderating the universe, just looking for, like, certain words, you know, or actions or something that then it can like pause you, or you can get warnings. But then, yeah, who develops that sort of system?


I, at this point don’t really know. I just think that this sort of governance system should be a group of people, but like from every ethnicity, you know, every kind of background, female, male, self-identifying, male self-identifying, female, like every single person needs to have a voice in this to figure it out and decide.


Abby: So looking at the art world in general, embracing the metaverse, these new digital realities, tell us from your perspective what’s working and also what’s not.


Raina: Yeah, I think, you know, because of COVID, we saw this really huge emergence of the online gallery and online viewing rooms and art fairs. They all became virtual. And I think, you know, from the gallery perspective versus like an NFT marketplace where artists can upload their work, you have no control over like who you’re next to, and there’s just like, on some of the sites, like hundreds of images next to each other, and it’s very overwhelming. And I think as a gallery or a museum that’s doing something virtually, you know, you really need to consider the whole experience of how one moves through the space, what artwork is next to another, how people can read about it. You really want to be, I think, really user, user friendly. And also on brand with your gallery or institution. I think it’s important to show quality art. I think it’s important to have curated content. And to you know, have shows that have a purpose and convey the issues of our, of our time. It should be meaningful and thoughtful and not just random and spontaneous.


Abby: And what about the role of the curator, then? How is that going to be different in the metaverse?


Raina: Curators are always so important. I see them as mediators of, you know, mediators of art. You know, they, they mediate between the artist and the viewer, and I think it’s going to continue to be a significant part of that dynamic. Curators kind of explain why something is important or significant. They contextualize it, and it’s a really important part of the whole process.


Abby: Yeah, Raina, I think that ultimately as we move into the metaverse, my takeaway is it’s still about stories, it’s still about connecting at a base level, it’s still about connecting with each other. Whether we’re in a dystopian future or not, at least what happened back in the caveman times is still needed today, that idea of communicating with each other our emotions, our feelings and telling stories.


Raina: Yeah, I see the metaverse as the next step in our evolution, and it’s going to help preserve contemporary life. It’s going to allow us to imagine a different future without the restrictions of reality and, you know, going to be the next step that allows us to kind of transform and transmute.


Abby: Well, Raina, thank you so much for joining us today. And for everyone listening, please write in with your thoughts, comments, or suggestions. We really want to hear from you. Email us at ask@loremipsumcorp.com. Thanks for listening. 


Raina: Thank you so much. I had so much fun chatting about the future of the metaverse with you.


Brenda: It was fantastic. Thank you so much.


Show Notes

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Reinventing the Retail Experience with Giovanni Zaccariello

Reinventing the Retail Experience with Giovanni Zaccariello

Guest Giovanni Zaccariello
November 30, 2022
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The way we consume is changing. It started with technology helping us buy whatever we want, wherever we are, with a simple click of a button. And it’s now affected the idea of the retail store’s purpose. We’re thrilled to be joined by Giovanni Zaccariello, Senior Vice President of Global Visual Experience at Coach, to talk technology, innovation, and how to start leveraging experiences to reinvent retail.
Inspired by the creative world of visual experience at a young age, Giovanni Zaccariello has spent over 20 years in the fashion industry revolutionizing consumer experiences. Born in Italy and graduating from Oxford with a 1st Class Honors Master’s Degree in Business & Branding, Giovanni has traveled the world residing in the UK before moving to Holland and Hong Kong for various professional opportunities. In 2014, after 4 years in Hong Kong, Giovanni relocated to New York to lead the Global Visual Merchandising team. His level of responsibilities have consistently increased and most recently, he stepped into a new role as Senior Vice President, Global Visual Experience where he currently leads Visual Merchandising, 3D Creative Studio (windows, showrooms, pop-ups), Brand Events (including the design & production of the fashion shows) & and most recently the Digital Experience Team. Alongside his current professional role, Giovanni is an avid exercise enthusiast – passionate about health and fitness he spends time each day training and enjoying the finest coffee shops in New York City – a place with which he has fallen in love and calls his forever home.

Abby: Hello and welcome to Matters of Experience. My name is Abigail Honor.


Brenda: I’m Brenda Cowan.


Abby: Today on the show, we’re focusing on retail experiences, how we consume stories at retail, the shift to Web3, and what constitutes a successful brand experience.


It’s not an original thought, but worth restating that the way we consume is changing. It started with technology helping us buy whatever we want, wherever we are, with a simple click of a button. And it’s now affected the idea of the retail store’s purpose. Things have changed and are changing. They now have to be more than a place to transact, but they need to start leveraging experiences to customers rather than products. Retail strategies are also being shaped by a new generation of customers who shop in a very different way to earlier generations, and we appreciate that technology is a differentiator, not a constraint.


So this group really challenges us to create these unique, immersive moments that include technology as a driver. So, with this in mind, I’m excited to introduce our guest on this journey, Giovanni Zaccariello, who is the senior vice president of Global Visual Experience at Coach. Born in Italy, he’s worked around the globe before landing here in the Big Apple. He currently leads visual merchandising, 3D creative studio, brand events, and, most recently, the Digital Experience Team at Coach. Gio, welcome to the show.


Gio: Thank you for having me. I’m so excited to be here with you today.


Brenda: Well, we’re very excited to have you and Gio; I’m going to kick start by mentioning the very interesting journey that has led you here today. Could you tell us the path that you followed to get here? And what are some of the obstacles that you had to overcome?


Gio: Yeah, so I think, as you mentioned, originally Italian, from my long name and surname, which you did really well pronouncing by the way, and really lived across, first Oxford, where I went to university, then London in the UK, Holland. And then I really took a chance in my career and I joined Coach, which I’m very happy about, and moved to Hong Kong. And now I’ve been in New York for over six years. And what I think all of these experiences have in common is the idea that you know, we do live in one world, and this idea of globalization, it’s part of everyday life, and I think one of the obstacles has always been about, you know, kind of being an immigrant in some of those countries and really trying to understand, you know, the country, the region and really learn and get educated before you really get immersed. The beginning isn’t always easy, right, but then once you get to it, it can unleash so much creativity and so much new bonds and new friendships. So I definitely would do it all over again.


Abby: The future of retail includes embracing ecosystems like offering free classes or workshops, so, you know, we see a number of brands doing this. It’s not purely about selling the products anymore. You know, I think the future of retail will probably all be experiential. I want to put my neck out and say that, it will all be the experience economy, so, what does a consumer want to feel when they walk into a store in general Gio, and how are stores changing to meet consumers needs?


Gio: Yeah, I think this is kind of like a $1,000,000 question and it’s something that I think we’ve all started to think a lot more about, especially because of the pandemic. But, I think at Coach, we kind of started to have those conversations way before and I think today the statement is that stores are not just the place where there’s bags on shelves, right, because the consumers kind of learn how to buy those bags online.


So I think about my job and the creatives jobs around the world is to really create that emotional connection with the consumer. And we’re using some words in my team, you know, one of the words is hyperphysical. The physical, the way it used to be is not enough anymore, so we are calling it hyperphysical in this way that is the nature of creating immersive experiences, thinking about connecting with the consumer across the five senses, creating immersive spaces where people can hang out. They don’t just need to shop the brand, but they can consume the brand, so I don’t think one of the elements is the solution, I think it’s about this diverging of creating the full immersive space because we’ve been at home for such a long time, and now that we’re starting to go out again, we really want more.


Brenda: Because you do so much tailoring of your experiences to different locations and different cultural centers, we’re curious to know, how do you exercise certain sensitivities? I’m wondering if you could give us an example, perhaps, of how you’ve had to really understand a local culture and tailor an experience for it.


Gio: Yeah, so I think one of the way that we do it here at Coach from a creative perspective is this idea of “glocal” experiences. So it’s a mixture of like a global idea, but then with a local touch. For example, in the past three years, we’ve been opening a few digital stores around the world where the customer can be fully immersed into the brand ethos. And what we’ve been doing is, as much as the design of the store is unified across the globe, the content of the screen is actually made in partnership with the local artist. Not even of the actual country, but of the city where the story is in, or the actual town where the story is in, and we are giving the artists a little bit of a free range. We’re just saying, okay, this is some of the Coach codes, this is, those are the value of the brand, and really express yourself through our Coach stores and I think we’ve seen a huge resonance.


We also partner with a lot of local hospitality vendors. If I think about what we did in Singapore, for example, last year with the bagel shop, or even like the way we are bringing to life craft and heritage around the world, we love to partner with artists to create motifs in different artwork on the bag. We have a program called Coach Create in the majority of our stores globally. We invite artists into stores to support customization, and this has been very, very, very, very successful. We also have incredible talent in the region, within my team, and within the larger Coach ecosystem, so, we really work with them closely before we go to execute an idea.


Also, we do some campaigns that are incredibly local, and they are only local, if I think about Ishii, the way we also bring our efforts around Lunar New Year. This is our very first time that we have launched a Diwali campaign in India. We have used our incredible Coach mascot Rexy, the Coach dino, and we partner with a local artist to create and celebrate the Festival of Lights, which is Diwali. And we have had incredible success. We are not going in and kind of trying to take over the brand or the culture, but really partnering with local ambassadors.


Abby: Talking about your Diwali activation, you activated, you know, throughout the store, the windows, the packaging, I know there was a photo moment, and digitally, you have the AR game. Where does that seed of the idea originate from? Tell us some of the ingredients that need to be present to make a successful activation.


Gio: Yeah, so I think, you know, it all starts with the Coach India team coming to us just saying, hey, we think we have a big idea here. We really want to celebrate the Festival of Lights this year. We really wanted to go a little bit bigger to really create an immersive space, an incredible experience. Once that brief was sent over, I think, you know, my team huddled and we kind of knew, kind of like, that we wanted to bring Rexy to life, but what was missing was a little bit of an understanding of the culture and what Diwali really meant.


Of course, we know it from our own perspective, but we did a little bit of a deep dive with the Coach India team, and then from there, the creative team really goes, goes wild usually, right, and creates a lot of different options that we were able to bring to life. And I’m happy that we were able not only to do a physical installation, but through the augmented reality game that we did, everybody around India, but also around the world, was able to celebrate Festival of Lights.


Abby: How do you work with vendors, like who’s creative on your team, and when do you go outside?


Gio: Most of the creative that you see through windows, pop-ups, installations, it’s done internally at Coach. What we do externally is production, so we have really strong production teams around the world across North America, China, and Japan, Korea, Singapore, Malaysia, you name it, Europe, London. So those are the teams that kind of take the idea and then go and do some bidding with some of the vendors from a production standpoint.


Due to the number of activations, we have started to actually go out and pitch to some agencies, and I think that’s kind of like what the future holds for us, to even challenge the brand a little bit and really create a little bit more innovation and creativity at the forefront. But most of the creative is done in-house.


We have a very small but very talented team here in New York, and the team is incredibly diverse. Their background is diverse. They come from all around the world and they’re able to really understand what each region really needs, and I think so far has been incredibly successful.


Brenda: Gio, this question is a bit of a build off of what you were talking about. What is it that you and your team do to always put yourself in an innovative mindset?


Gio: Yeah, there’s one piece that we say when we start a new season, a new idea, we say no idea is a bad idea. And I think when we kind of start brainstorming, you know, no ideas come from the top. You know, we work really closely together, but starting the conversation with we are not going to do something that we have already done. We’re not going to do something that someone else has already done. We really want to come up with something that feels a little bit new and different. And then the other thing that I keep saying a lot to the team is, if you don’t feel uncomfortable about this project, that means you’re doing the same thing again,  right? So you really need to feel like you’re taking a risk. You’re really pushing the barriers because that’s when you’re doing something new and that’s when you can really touch the hearts and minds of the consumers. Consumers don’t want to see the same thing twice, right. Also, I think as a leader, I get really bored of doing the same thing twice. And I think that mindset has trickled down to the organization, to the team, not just the creative team, even the production. The way we produce needs to change, the way we embed technology and digital and AI into the conversations and to the projects that we have, the way we embed events, entertainment, hospitality, pop culture.


So we really start with a blank slate every single time. One of the other things, as well, that we talk a lot about at Coach is test and learn mentality, right? Some ideas are big, some ideas are small, but testing is fundamental, and learning from either success or failure before we start the next project is fundamental, so we do a lot of regroups internally around what did we learn, what went well, what can we do better?


Brenda: One of the things that really stuck in my mind was when you talked about a position of discomfort within the creative team. Now, Abby and I work with a lot of creative teams and a lot of creative individuals, and it is something that I think we might agree is really necessary, and I’m just curious what it is that you do that really fosters creativity and innovation while putting creatives in a position where they don’t know what’s going to happen.


Gio: I guess as a leader and a creative thinker, I guess I’m never too specific about the creative. I do share with them a lot of research, a lot of swipes. I’m online all the time, really trying to read a lot, watch seminars, literally a social media fanatic, to really understand what’s happening in the world. And when that happens with your team, you start seeing trends, right? You start understanding, okay, this is where the world is going. This is what the Gen Z are reacting to. And I think having a dialog with like-minded creatives, like me, even in New York, I mean, I made a lot of friends through this business and really sharing that with my team versus just saying I want you to create a Rexy for Diwali.


Right? And I think that sparks imagination because they think they have an opportunity to make great things. And I think when that becomes part of the culture, I think not only you have a great creative as an output, but you also have an inspired team that wants to continue to do greater and better things every day.


Abby: Yeah, I think it’s a lot about the leader and feeling comfortable being uncomfortable and also wanting to constantly challenge yourself creatively. Because I’ve had people join our creative teams and at first they’re like, whoa, we’re doing like, what are we doing? Where are we going? And it’s about really just letting them know that failure is great. We learn from failure. It’s important. True innovation only comes from stumbling and falling time and time and time again. So it sounds like you also imbue that in the team that works with you and that’s their fuel as well. You know, like when you’re with other people who feel the same way, you can’t help but bubble with inspiration and ideas. And I really feel like amazing things, magical things happen that one person didn’t create. I think it’s really key in a team to have everybody contributing to make that experience even better than it could have been.


Gio: I love it. If I can give you an example of this, exactly what you said, so last year was challenging, right? Every region was in a different part of coming out of the pandemic. We had this holiday campaign with animals going through the snow, and we ended up calling it Give a Little Love, and they were literally finding hearts around New York City, and then you share love with friends, family, loved ones. And two weeks before we launched a game, I just said to the team, those animals are so cute. What if we make them into NFTs. Two weeks before the launch.


Abby: I bet they loved you. They were like, oh yeah, Gio, no problem!


Brenda: Thanks Gio! No problem!


Gio: Right? So rallied a lot of individuals that were totally obsessed with this project, and we launched it on time. We crashed the Coach.com website, and we sold out within 2 seconds.


Abby: Wow.


Brenda: It’s amazing.


Gio: So you can make the impossible possible if you have a vision, but also if you have the team to come on that vision with you, right? So I guess what I’m saying is, it keeps going back to its about creating a culture of change and creating a culture of accepting failure, creating a culture of empowering innovation. Just because we’re doing well doesn’t mean we’re going to keep doing well, right, because the customer is changing so rapidly. We need to move as fast as them.


Abby: So let’s talk about community. People want to come together and share in a common experience. If we didn’t know that before COVID, we certainly know it now. Human connection is fundamental to who we are and how we relate to one another in the world around us. So tell us about the importance of human connection for you. Why do people want to go into a store rather than buy online?


Gio: You know I think I know I say this a lot, but we do have the best workforce in the industry. I am always so inspired when I go into our stores, not just in the US, everywhere around the world. And you know, starting with the store managers, they treat the stores as their houses. Especially during the pandemic, we learned that most of the store staff were actually getting to know the customers’ families, their habits, what do they do, what are they going through in their life? And I think you cannot do that online. And I think creating those meaningful connections are fundamental for the physical world. And I think that’s one of the reasons why I’m still here after 12 years. I think that those connections, not even in stores, but even in the corporate office, like it feels like it’s a big family, and that is very hard to find.


Brenda: I love what you’re saying about the personal relationships and the feeling and the sense of family that’s being generated. And it’s making me think of a recent quote from Paco Underhill, the retail researcher. He recently said that the hardest thing to change is operating culture and suggested that one of the things that many senior executives are asking these days are about what kind of operational changes they should be considering, and it sounds like you at Coach and your team there are already thinking like this. He said that shortening the distance between the executive suite and the front door is essential, and that is, as stores reopen, senior management need to commit to spend at least one weekend a month on the floor being visible to their staff, listening and watching what customers do, and that leadership in times of crisis is about leading from the front. Would you agree with this?


Gio: 100%. I do think that is part of our culture. The corporate team can learn from the field. The field can learn from corporate, so it’s an exchange of education, it’s an exchange of knowledge, but also it’s a big thank you when we travel, right? The store staff are at the forefront of managing all the challenges that we’re facing culturally, politically, also how consumers are changing, and I think once you get there and you really speak to some of the store managers and sales staff, you really understand what’s going on. Actually, as part of training, everybody at corporate spends time in the field as part of their role. It doesn’t matter what team you work in, whether it’s finance, procurement, creative, visual merchandising, HR. So it is a big part of our culture, so I’m glad you asked that question because it’s really true to our values here at Coach.


Abby: When we look at experiential exhibits that we create, we really try to focus on using and stimulating the five senses of visitors. We created an exhibition for the Jewish Museum, which had props that were food that we actually switched out once a week, and the smells that they created, it was a period piece, really took people back to the time.


So the five senses are so powerful in creating a connection. I really think the best shopping in a store isn’t driven by this sort of necessity to purchase the product. It’s driven by a sense of discovery and the excitement of finding something new. So how do you use the five senses in your work?


Gio: The touch comes to mind the most just because we mainly sell leather goods. So in our stores, we have, we call it the heart of the store, is our craftsmanship bar. We have leathers that you can touch. We also have details of the bags. You can actually see how the bags are made, so the touch is an incredible part of that.


Some of the other elements that we have started to look into are things like, for example, sounds, music, and smell. A lot of our activations include entertainment. Most of our brand ambassadors, including Lil Nas, which was just announced, are musicians. So music is a big part of our pop culture heritage. But also food. I mean, we’ve been bringing a lot of activations through hospitality.


And then also things that you can actually see, like we love things like color, but also bold experiential, bold moves, bold installations, so that even from ten meters away, you can actually see and then you can kind of get attracted to the experience, then once you are close to it, then things like smell and music become a little bit more dominant, but I think from far away, you always kind of start with the eye, right, the eye component, so, we talk a lot about ten meters, seven meters and one meter in terms of how we activate the five senses, Not all experiences count for all five, but I think we are trying to emerge, depending on what we are trying to do.


We do the same thing online. We are about to launch our very first virtual store. We have been discussing a lot about music because music can really create that immersive experience, it’s why you shop and actually what we are doing for the first time, we are activating pieces like Shop with Friends, for example, so you can actually, because you cannot do that on a website, you can shop by yourself, of course a friend could be next to you, but we are launching a Shop with Friend facilities as part of our virtual stores. So, you can do it in different ways. And I think this is an area that I think we will continue to evolve, and it’s fast moving incredibly fast moving and it fascinates me.


Abby: I just want to sort of pop in something that our team is working on right now. We’re part of the Ghost program with Snap and so we’re creating a Lens right now that, we feel like a lot of the AR try on, it looks very fake. It doesn’t realistic. The colors aren’t true. So we’ve developed a Lens where it’s completely realistic.


Our clothing matches the swatch in person, matches the swatch online. So you would walk into a real changing room and then you, for example, could be wearing a white or a black or a blue version of a t-shirt, and then using the lens you flick through and you can try on different colors. Thinking about that idea of collaboration and shopping with a friend, our hope for the next generation of it is this collaboration that you will be able to do on the Lens where, you know, I could be trying something on, and I could share it with Brenda, and she can flick through and show me what she thinks I should be wearing.


Because, you know, when you shop with a friend, you come out, do you like it? You’re not like it or boyfriend or girlfriend or whatever you with, and so there’s a lot of fun things that we’re working with AR right now in the retail space that we really think are going to be so useful and so much fun for the consumer in the future.


Gio: I love that. And you know, one thing that resonates with me is this idea of hidden digital, right, like what you are saying. Something that feels very seamless, I think for me, like just adding screens for the sake of adding screens, like it just doesn’t make sense for the brand. You know, we are such a heritage brand, and I think the way we are going to use digital is seamless, right. To your point, AR could be a great way of doing this, but I think some brands are doing it better than others. And I think what you describe for me is genius because it’s invisible, right? It’s an invisible layer.


Abby: Yeah.


Gio: And it’s going to make your experience smoother.


Abby: Yes.


Gio: And I think that for me, is what success looks like.


Brenda: I’m curious to know, sort of as an extension from this, Gio, what’s the role of social media in the work that you’re doing now?


Gio: Wow. I think social media, I would say, is at the heart of everything that we do because everything that we install, everything that we produce, it’s everywhere on social, right? People love to take photos. People love to share their experiences, and that’s why we actually design the spaces with that in mind. The ecosystem is complex, right? Because everybody’s everywhere. There’s so many different platforms, and I think we definitely, that’s at the heart of our creative process, to be honest. We work very closely with our social media team here in New York City so that not only we have their support from the beginning, but also when we launch something it’s widely distributed on our social channels so people know what’s going on.


Abby: Now let’s focus on Web3 and the metaverse, everybody’s favorite subject. How do you think this is going to affect your industry? Is it something you have to jump into because the risk of not getting in is too big?


Gio: So, you know, I think the word metaverse is being used so much and somehow has become a little bit of a buzzword. I think the way I see metaverse is somehow the future of social and just another channel about how people are interactive. I think about, for example, before social media, right?


Abby: When was that? I don’t think I remember life before social media.


Gio: Exactly, so I think that, that’s really for me, what metaverse is, it’s this kind of like new ecosystem that’s kind of taking off, and NFT and gaming are becoming the heart of the metaverse, but what this is going to look like in the next 4 to 5 years, it’s kind of hard to tell. And I think what we are doing in my team is again, testing and learning.


We’re going to try and experiment. That’s actually the word I was looking for. We’re going to try and experiment, and I think what we’re going to experiment in the US is very different to what we’re going to try and do in China because the consumer is in a different place with Web3 adaptation, and we’re going to have fun with it.


We’re not going to be in the Web3 world because everybody else is in the Web3 world. That is not how we’re going to do it. It’s just a trend. We’re not going to do something because, oh, it’s a PR stunt, you know, like we’re going to do it because it’s going to make sense for us and because it’s going to help us reach a new audience and maybe is not consuming Coach today.


Abby: That makes perfect sense. I hope there’s a lot of your peers here listening in because I think that’s good sound advice.


Brenda: I’d love to follow up by asking, how do you personally measure success?


Gio: Wow, big question. I think, I think for me it’s seeing consumers reactions to what we’re doing, not just in sales but also about changing that perception of the brand, which is true. It’s more like qualitative feedback than quantitative feedback. I think seeing consumer happy makes me happy. And you know, there’s a lot of things that we do because our consumers want it, right?


And I think the work that we do, especially in the creative world, is so hard when it becomes so personal, right? You need to make every creative more objective about the customer, not about you. Once you do that and once the customers are happy, I think the possibilities are really endless, and I try to get a lot of feedback from our local teams in region for every project so that we know whether we have reached the consumer in the right way and what they have to say. So for me, that’s a critical part of the process.


Abby: So before we wrap up, talking about personal things you actually enjoy, you know, I know you like coffee, maybe almost as much as I love my coffee. So, my favorite coffee shop right now is Coffee Project on Seventh Avenue. I think they really serve the best espresso. And I wanted to ask you what your favorite coffee shop is here in New York?


Brenda: The question everybody’s waiting to hear.


Gio: Oh, my God. You know what? I live in Hell’s Kitchen in Midtown and I would not survive without a small café that’s on 45th and 9th called Bird & Branch. They were my savior during the pandemic, you know, when we were all stuck inside the house, and I literally used to take my 30-minute break and go and get the coffee through the window, because you couldn’t get in. And there is such a sense of community. Every single neighbor goes there. We chat in the morning very early. It’s about the quality of coffee, but also like a place that’s become like a neighborhood hangout if you know what I mean. It’s one of a kind. They also try and recruit kids that maybe have difficulties and have maybe hard, it’s hard for them to find a job. So I kind of love all about it, to be honest, culturally, and I will give them my business every day. So, but also incredible coffee.


Abby: Yup, key, key.


Gio: Incredible coffee and I love my strong coffee, so, being from an Italian heritage.


Abby: Me too.


Gio: Great question. I wasn’t expecting that.


Abby: Well, it’s such an amazing experience going into a great coffee shop. And, you know, as you said, the smells, the people, the community, you know, and another place to gain inspiration. So, Gio, it has been amazing to have you with us on Matters of Experience today. Thank you so much.


Brenda: Thank you, Gio.


Gio: Thank you for having me, and chat soon.


Abby: Bye.


Brenda: Ciao, ciao.



Producer: Matters of Experience is produced by Lorem Ipsum Corp. Please tune in next week for another conversation. Thank you all for listening.

Reinventing the Retail Experience with Giovanni Zaccariello

Reinventing the Retail Experience with Giovanni Zaccariello Guest Giovanni Zaccariello

November 30, 2022
Where's the Bathroom? with Alex Bitus

Where's the Bathroom? with Alex Bitus

Guest Alex Bitus
November 16, 2022
Subscribe now on Apple Podcasts and Spotify
Architect Alex Bitus believes that the bathroom is the most important room in a building. Can a lavatory really have the potential to be an indicator of the quality of the structure’s overall design? Beyond the bathroom, this episode explores how architects and designers create comfort through design.
Alex is the founding director of Buro Bitus, responsible for the design direction of the office. Alex leads key client relationship management, collaborative environment design, workflow design, and practice financial management. Alex has extensive experience of large scale masterplanning, commercial hi-rise, transport and residential sector projects. Trained as an architect as well as a structural and civil engineer, he has over 20 years experience in the construction industry and blends his considerable knowledge of technical documentation with a passion for conceptual design. Alex maintains an ongoing involvement with all his projects to ensure design clarity is achieved throughout the detailed development and ultimately the delivery of these projects on site. Alex’s experience included leading teams for architectural, interior and fit-out projects for major UK, Russian and Middle Eastern clients.




Abby: Hello and welcome to Matters of Experience. My name is Abigail Honor.


Brenda: And I am Brenda Cowan.


Abby: The title of our show – Where’s the Bathroom? – may seem odd, but in our work the bathroom is an excellent subject to represent the difference of opinion, and let’s call it, that we experienced designers have with architects. I think it’s a good place to start exploring the sometimes tumultuous relationship we have with each other. Brenda, I’m referring to the stereotype that the architect thinks people come to see the building, and we think they come to visit the content.


Brenda: Well, with our special guest today, we’re certainly going to get the very important architectural perspective so that maybe we can battle the stereotype. But, as regards what the visitor is coming for, I think that they come for both the architecture and the designed experience. We can’t separate the two, which is why I think in my experience, like yours as well, Abby, it’s difficult to understand why it is that the two are often separated when the process is underway. One cannot work well without the other.


Abby: Yep, completely. And I’m looking forward to today’s podcast discussion because I’m very proud to introduce Alex Bitus. Alex, hello.


Alex: Hello.


Abby: Alex is the founder of Buro Bitus, an award-winning international architecture and urban design firm that values cooperation, not competition, and ideas, not egos. Buro Bitus is 100% employee owned and very proud of it. Alex trained as a structural and civil engineer as well as an architect, and his early days were spent working closely with British architects Tony Kettle and Will Alsop.


Brenda: Alex, I’m going to kick it off with the title of this podcast, Where’s the Bathroom, and why the bathroom is illustrative of the battle between the architect and the design firm, and also why it’s indicative to a visitor as to the thoroughness and care of the design and the architecture of the building. Alex, what does a bathroom mean to you?


Alex: Well, in my opinion, the bathroom is the most important room in the building, and when I visit any public buildings, I’m trying to make sure I visit bathroom, just to see. In my opinion, it’s an indicator of the quality of work, and personally, I’ve had lots of experience designing bathrooms, and at Buro Bitus we put a lot of efforts in designing bathrooms.


We designed Platov Airport, and we spent lots of time designing the bathroom in that airport, and a few years later, we were doing another airport, and I went on the web to search, sort of I would say, common trends about modern design. And when I typed modern bathroom airport design, I swear, a quarter of the results that Google threw back at me was that bathroom we designed at Platov Airport. I would never imagine that so many people would take a picture of a bathroom and post it on the web.


Abby: Look at that. It’s not just this obsessed with bathroom, it’s the users, too. I’m so happy about that. Well, I have many bathroom, or as I’ve been known to call it, loo stories. My most relevant to this conversation is when we are brought on midway through the design of a building and not at the very beginning. And a really prominent architectural firm had provided us with client-approved designs for a five story building, which is about 10,000 square meters, and it had one bathroom, I kid you not. Not one per floor, just one bathroom. We had to have several meetings to explain the importance of more than one bathroom. Clearly, none of these people ever needed to use the loo.


Brenda: Or have children.


Abby: Exactly. Because what I feel some architects forget is that we’re creating an experience and it has to be a comfortable experience. In the case of museums or, as you mentioned, retail experiences, which means things have to be practical. Nobody really wants to be dragging that child along who’s desperate to go to the bathroom up three flights of stairs only to have to stand in a really long line.


So I also really enjoy themed bathrooms, and one of the toilets stalls I’d like to highlight is there’s five stalls at Liberty Market in Gilbert, Arizona, where each stall, Brenda, reflects the individual contributions that go into running that restaurant. So each one’s like designed by a member of the staff and has things like a unique playlist and unique artifacts and photos.


So, for example, the co-owner and chef there, David Traynor’s stall has recipes, photos of his creations, and dangling cooking tools. I love this because it’s not just design. It tells you a story while you sit.


Brenda: This is so mind-boggling. I am so creating a playlist for my bathroom at home. I’ve got to tell you, you know, Judy Rand, museum great, created the Visitor Bill of Rights back in the 1990s. And the right for a visitor to be comfortable is a top item. Nothing has changed since then, and yet the right to have this level of comfort is still a question, which I find mind-boggling. Alex, what are your thoughts about the rights for visitors to have comfort as a top priority? How is it that you’re thinking about things like site, and, pardon the pun, visitor flow?


Alex: Yes, one of the key drivers that we consider is the visitor’s comfort. We do lots of airport design, and air travel for some people is a stressful situation. What we find that calm, sort of calm environment can be created by lighting and natural materials. We tend to provide a comfort, visual comfort and actually, it works. It works, I must say, I’m reading lots of reviews on the web, and people are happy with the environment.


Flow, I believe it needs to be predicted. It shouldn’t be a maze. We tend to do a predicted experience, predicted flow, so people do not get lost, they know where they are going, and high ceilings, big rooms, they tend to help. Yeah. We always consider that in our design.


Abby: Oh, that’s interesting you mention high ceilings. So you’re saying that high ceilings make people feel more comfortable than lower, more, sort of cozy ceilings?


Alex: Lower ceilings tend to provide sort of tension and – well, that’s how I feel.


Abby: Yeah. Yeah.


Alex: High ceiling gives more air. You can put a sign that’s easier to observe from a distance. So if space allows, if design allows, we would have a high ceiling, definitely.


Abby: Let’s talk about the visitor flow in the Arctic Museum that we worked on.


Alex: Yes, I think you were the first to come up with the idea of the museum. And I believe that at that point, you didn’t have any information about the site. In your vision, you had sort of five areas, and those five areas supposed to be five different floors in the building. And when I saw the site, it’s actually a thin, narrow site that the building with five stories or six stories, it actually wouldn’t fit with the surrounding.


So I was trying to find a way to make it flat to fill the site as much as we can. But I also knew that there has to be another area, the common hall, where we enter, where we leave, where the restaurant is, where the auditorium is, cloakroom. So that sixth area has to be somewhere between those five areas, and as the site is thin and long, I put that area right in the middle. And I also was trying to find a way how we visit all the areas by a single floor, entering through and leaving the building through the same area, because, in my opinion, the returning experience is also experience.


A returning experience in Guggenheim Museum in Manhattan is quite interesting because it’s a spiral rotunda. You’re going up visiting all the areas, and then to return, you’re going back the same route. So I was trying to find a different solution that you shouldn’t go through the areas you visited before. So it’s a clockwise direction, but shifting the areas would allow us to visit them once and not bypass them on your way back.


Brenda: I’d love to zero in even further on the exhibition space and a real classic challenge that can oftentimes come up between the design firm and the client and the architect is on the subject of windows. So, when we have collections and when we have artifacts that need to be preserved, that sets up kind of an automatic challenge regarding planning for windows and how that could work within concept and visitor experience.


Alex, can you talk to us about how it is that you design solutions is for spaces where you have to either incorporate windows in new and unique ways or somehow convince a client and or exhibition design firm that they can’t have what they want.


Alex: Yes, in Arctic Museum, we, I think initially we had more windows and then you guys said that, no, no, no, we don’t want them. So we left them in the central core and we left them in one of the areas that you actually find a nice solution to, to include them into your experience area. But yeah, there are some buildings that by nature has to be without windows like a retail mall.


With one of the retail malls, we found a quite interesting solution by wrapping the facade with a tensile fabric. It’s a folded fabric. It represents ballerina skirt, and it was the main idea because it was in a city and the city was famous for its ballet, and it looks fantastic, even without windows. So, buildings without windows is possible. It’s a challenge, but it’s an interesting task to find a solution.


Abby:  Well, I love that solution because as you mentioned, it’s a city had a large focus on ballet, taking that narrative and using it around the building continues that story. I just think that’s like a wonderful design solution and content moment. Let’s focus on inspiration for a moment. Do you have a style, and where do you get your inspiration from for a project?


Alex: Well, I think there are a few key drivers. First is environment. I think the building needs to fit with the surrounding location. I don’t say it has to blend with it. No, it can stand on its own, but with respect to what’s surrounding it. Materials is another source of inspiration. As I mentioned earlier, the tensile fabric that we used on one of the retail malls. Historic contexts. If there is a site history. Shapes. If you’re looking to design an interesting, exciting building, then shapes of the building could be another source of inspiration.


Brenda: I’ve got to say, I’m really, really happy to hear you talk about not having this, you know, sort of signature that you just stamp on every single project, and it’s making me think of a question that I received from a student not long ago who was very, very concerned, and he pulls me aside, and he’s like, “Professor, I don’t have a style. And what am I going to do? I’m never going to get work. I don’t have a look.” And I told him, you’re doing the right thing because it’s not about you. It’s about the audience. It’s about everything. It’s about the context and the story. It’s really, really about those things. And no one should ever go into an exhibition and ask themselves about the exhibition designer. It’s our job to allow everything else to speak for itself.


I would love to hear an example, Alex, of a time when you have been able to work with a client, the experienced design company, and you all worked together really, really well. What was at the heart of the success?


Alex: Well, I think the latest project that we had with Lorem Ipsum, Arctic Museum, was a nice example of collaboration between architects, experience designers, and the client. Client is definitely one of the key factors because client never sort of pushed in terms of design. They were happy with our competence, with our experience, and they left it entirely to us.


So, maybe one of the key factors that we knew each other before starting this project, we sort of on the same wave, so we work together respecting each other opinion. And as I think the result is, is quite nice.


Abby: Yeah, I think it’s interesting that you mentioned the client, and their role is so key. They need to listen to the consultants, to the people with experience. Oftentimes, if it’s a very large institution, some of our clients, it’s the first time ever doing this. We need to collaborate with them. They need to also trust and collaborate with us.


I think. Brenda we need a whole other podcast about getting a client to trust you and how do you do that because it is a real skill, and there’s a real effort, and sometimes you win, and sometimes you don’t.


Brenda: Oh, we are going to get a lot of caller comments for this one.


Alex: Yeah, we actually had experience with a client. It was Platov Airport, when client had a vision on how the airport needs to be designed, and in a design brief, they said that they want to have a flat roof. And when we started with the first design ideas, we realized that it’s a box shape and all we do is just skinning that box. It’s just like a facade design. It’s not, we’re not designing a building, and we, I don’t remember why, but for some reason we decided to ignore the client’s vision. And we came up with the arched roof like a bridge going from the front to the apron where the airplanes are. So, the idea was a sky bridge, and we thought that at least if we don’t win the competition, at least we have something that we will not feel ashamed of. You know, we can be proud of our concept. And when client saw all 11 proposals, all the other architects, they were following the brief, and they did a flat roof, and our building was the only one different, completely different. And then clients thought, hmm, do we really want to have a flat roof? And we won the competition.


Brenda: I would just imagine that at some point you have to determine, and it’s great in a way if it can come up in the bid, will you be able to collaborate with your client if right out of the gate the ask is unreasonable or completely lacking in vision? So, if the client was not amenable to the change that you had proposed, I can well imagine that you still, you know, dodged a bullet, perhaps because, you know, you could have won the competition but been utterly miserable or never been able to really, truly collaborate, to work together. And, you know, a successful collaboration is essential for a successful project, I think.



I even had experience when client, with some residential projects, that a client had an initial idea from done by other architect and they would approach us and say, look, we like the areas, the plan, but we don’t like the facade and architects don’t want to change their facade. They said it’s their vision, and they just refused to, to do anything. So we have the experience when clients approach us and asking to redesign someone’s design. It’s an interesting experience, I must say.


Brenda: Now, I’d love to get just a slight shift of perspective on this and ask you, Alex, what do our listeners need to know about working with an architect?


Alex: Well, I think it’s like with any design team, when you need to collaborate with different parties, it’s just respect each other opinions, but mind your vision as well. It’s probably like playing in a music band. If band is playing jazz and you’re trying to play country, then it won’t fit with the rest of the band, and you will be just kicked off. All members of the team, they play different music instruments, but at the end it sounds like a proper jazz. So working with architects is just not to push your ego and not to allow for architects to push their ego first. It’s, it’s respect at the end, I think.


Abby: Yeah, I love that analogy to playing in a band. I think that’s exactly how it feels. Everybody has the different competencies, experiences and job to do, and they all have to work and respect each other and know those boundaries.


I have a quick question about, you know, I think you’re a unique architect, Alex, because of your history, like you did structural and civil engineering, so when we’ve got all this technical equipment, we’ve got tons of screens, we’ve all our watchout, all our hardware and, you know, often it’s forgotten and it’s, oh, you just need this amount of space, but you’re always planning and making space for us. So can you talk a little bit about your background and how it really helps make sure that the boring stuff is remembered from a structural engineering perspective?


Alex: Yes, I started structural and civil engineering first. I got my diploma, and I realized that it’s not really what I want to do. It’s a bit boring, and I was looking for something more creative, and architecture was the closest sort of thing, and it blends quite well. On all my projects, I do structural design, all the technical areas, they actually come from experience. But at the later stages when structural engineers, mechanical electrical engineers joining the team, it’s always a fight. They need a room, they need a space to run the ducts. And at the design stage, I sort of can predict where it’s going to be and how it’s going to be run just at the concept level, you know, I’m not an expert, but I have a general idea how it works, so that’s how it works from my, for me.


Abby: It’s fantastic from our perspective because we don’t walk in during a build and see a bunch of ducts that weren’t supposed to be there but now have to be there because nobody’s thought about it. So I think having that skill and that expertise really sort of fulfills that gray area between us and you that often is sort of left and forgotten about and really enables us to really design and build what we say we’re going to design and build. There’s no bait and switch. There’s no changing. There’s no large structural problems that come up that mean we only have to have one bathroom just to bring it around to bathrooms again.


Alex: Yeah. Yeah. Well, I think it’s down to client. If they want at the concept stage, they can invite structural, and they can invite mechanical electrical engineers just to do a concept on structure and mechanical and electrical. It helps a lot and the end.


Abby: And then, when you think about the future in your work, what are you excited about?


Alex: New countries. I think exploring new cultures is interesting, and learning from those cultures and designing something that we never experienced before is quite interesting. So yeah, that’s I think, the future I see for Buro Bitus.


Abby: Do you have any solid advice for young architects?


Alex: It’s not an easy job, I would say. We do lots of concepts, we do lots of competition, and I think we maybe are one out of ten, one out of 20. So, so many efforts and thoughts and designs, they are never going to be implemented, never going to be realized. So it’s a hard thing to do and be prepared that you’re not going to be you’re not going to win on every level. That can demotivate, I must say, but if you’re prepared for that, then go for it.



Why did you like being an architect then, Alex?


Alex: It’s very exciting. I must say. It’s like a message to future. You leave something behind. You’re not going to live that long, but your building’s going to live, and people are going to use them. It’s an extremely nice feeling. It just gives a warmth inside, and it gives a strength to carry on.


Abby: Thank you so much for joining us today. I hope at the very least you all look at bathroom design and museums in a different way, and at most, the architects listening will recommend to their clients to bring in the experience design team at the beginning, not after the building has been designed.


Brenda: Hear, Hear.


Abby: So thank you, Alex, so much for joining us.


Brenda: Thank you, Alex.


Alex: Thank you.




Abby: Now we’re going to do a double take where we focus on things we heard, read, and saw in the media that a noteworthy and we want to punctuate.


Brenda: So, Abby, it is not just us who are obsessed with, as you call it, the loo. July 29th, the American Alliance of Museums put out on their blog The Best Museum Bathrooms, According to Museum People, and I highly recommend this read. So in this blog, you’ll read through if it’s the Smith College Museum of Art or if it is the John Michael Kohler Arts Center, you will read about a number of different bathrooms that are designed by artists, and that include things such as objects from museum collections.


Abby: Oh, I love that.


Brenda: At the Mariners Museum and Park, they have panels in their stalls that explain bathroom elements on ships and about how to use the bathroom at sea. Who doesn’t want to do that?


Abby: That’s fantastic.


Brenda: It is fantastic.


Abby: It’s like putting you in the position of being at sea. I never thought about what it would be like to go the bathroom.


Brenda: At the Glore Psychiatric Museum, according to Ann Bennett, they are “nightmare inducing bathrooms, but in a good way.” They are artworks that, according to Sara Elizabeth Wilson, they are “awesome, but the clown and optical illusion bathrooms are the best.” I think I should just leave it at clown and let all of our listeners imagine for themselves what they would encounter in that particular bathroom.


Abby: There’s a very interactive bathroom at the Denver Art Museum, which sings ‘Row, Row, Row Your Boat’ while you’re washing your hands. And I think if you can get them all activated at the same time, they’ll sort of sing in this canon, so you can obviously spend a lot of time in the bathroom playing along with that. That was developed by Denver artist Jim Green, who’s also known for a laughing escalator at the Colorado Convention Center. So again, talking about sound and how you can use sound to interact.


Brenda: I just, I have to conclude my appreciation for bathrooms. Actually, this one is not in this particular article, but this is my favorite bathroom experience – this is like True Confessions time, my favorite bathroom experience ­– was at the Boston Children’s Museum, where they had inside the bathroom displays of scat, as they put it, of different animals. So, you know what scat is, right? Do they? They don’t say that in in the UK. Oh gosh. Poop. They had displays of animal poop. So, talk about being topical and on theme in every environment, talk about extending the experience in the story.


Abby: I love it. So I think overall our point is the devil’s in the details. And if you’re designing an experience, you have to design the whole experience. There shouldn’t be a blind spot.


Brenda: Hear, hear.


Abby: So I hope that our listeners will do a double take at least next time they’re sitting in the bathroom of a museum and really decide, is this a good experience or not?


Brenda: Don’t miss an opportunity. The bathroom is not an interstitial space, although interstitial spaces are critical. Every stairwell counts, every hallway matters. Definitely use the bathroom. People are captive audiences, folks. Make good use of it.


Abby: Tell your story. Thank you, everybody.


Brenda: Thank you.




Producer: Matters of Experience is produced by Lorem Ipsum Corp. Please tune in next week for another conversation. Thank you all for listening.

Show Notes

Buro Bitus

Liberty Market

Judy Rand’s Visitors Bill of Rights

Yamalo — Nenets Autonomous Region – Lorem Ipsum Corp

The Best Museum Bathrooms, According to Museum People

Where's the Bathroom? with Alex Bitus

Where's the Bathroom? with Alex Bitus Guest Alex Bitus

November 16, 2022
Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in Museums with Monica O. Montgomery

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in Museums with Monica O. Montgomery

Guest Monica O. Montgomery
October 26, 2022
Subscribe now on Apple Podcasts and Spotify
In this episode, Abby and Brenda discuss Monica O. Montgomery’s decades-long journey from unpaid intern to director of Community Engagement and Programs for Historic Germantown, and how using community engagement as the primary lens of her work has allowed her to utilize the museum as a hub of humanitarian activity to serve society.
Monica O. Montgomery believes museums must be in service to society! She is the newly minted Director of Community Engagement + Programs for Historic Germantown in Northwest Philadelphia. She works at the nexus of culture, community and creativity, through a lens of equity. She previously served as Curator of Social Justice for the FUTURES exhibit celebrating the Smithsonian’s 175th Anniversary. She has directed historic houses and cultural centers, and independently curated 40+ social justice, contemporary art and public history exhibits, and festivals, with renowned organizations like the South African Embassy, Brooklyn Museum, Portland Art Museum, T Thomas Fortune Cultural Center, Weeksville Heritage Center, Teachers College and more. As a museum consultant she works with a myriad of organizations on DEI and community engagement, building diverse representation for BIPOC audiences and careerists in museums. Additionally Monica is a keynote speaker and professor who loves engaging students in discussions around society, humanity and activism. She teaches graduate courses around Museums, and Social Justice at renowned institutions like, American University, Georgetown University, Johns Hopkins University, Harvard University, Pratt Institute and NYU. She holds a Bachelors of Arts in Broadcast Communication from Temple University and Masters of Arts in Corporate Communication from LaSalle University.




Abby: Hello and welcome to Matters of Experience. My name is Abigail Honor.


Brenda: And I’m Brenda Cowan.


Abby: Today on the show, we are focusing on diversity, equity, and inclusion, specifically in museums – what it means, how to do it right, and why it’s still important.


Brenda: Abby, this is a topic that’s near and dear to my heart, which is why I’m so excited to be able to welcome Monica O. Montgomery to the show today. Monica, you are the director of Community Engagement & Programs for Historic Germantown. That’s in northwest Philadelphia. And there, you work at the nexus of culture, community, and creativity, all through a lens of equity.


I’m also excited to add that Monica is contributing a chapter on this subject to a book titled The Flourishing Museum. And this I’m co-editing with museum scholar Kiersten Latham. Monica, hello and thank you for chatting with us today.


Monica: Hi. Thank you so much for having me. It’s good to be here.


Abby: So, we’re glad you can join us, Monica. Can you tell us what was your path to where you are today?


Monica: Well, I originally was working as a teacher, teaching early childhood education, pre-K. And while I was teaching, this year was the year where Trayvon Martin was ruthlessly murdered by George Zimmerman. And that incident really rocked the nation and brought up a lot of angst and anxiety for adults, but also for children, who are sponges, right.


They’re hearing everything that’s going on, things are being whispered and said, but not necessarily to them. And so the kids in my class would ask me questions and say, you know, are we safe? Or can people shoot us if we eat Skittles or if we wear a hoodie? Is that a bad thing? So they were asking these like really heavy questions that no one prepares you for when you go into education.


So I decided to help my children process through their emotions to create a curriculum around community care and Black Lives Matter and help them understand what was happening in the world. We did a lot of service learning. We did activities where we made Mother’s Day cards for Trayvon Martin’s mom, and we talked about prejudice and what’s the root of it.


And at the end of that school year, everyone was feeling much better. We had done all sorts of good things for the community around us and had a better understanding and a better handle on our emotions. But as a result of that, the principal called me in my office on the last day of school and said that she didn’t hire me to be an activist. She hired me to be a teacher and that I was not welcome and my ideas and approaches weren’t welcome, and she fired me.


And it’s from being fired as a preschool teacher that led me into this path of museums and seeking to infuse museum spaces with social justice and equity. So that is how I got my start.


Abby: Did you try to explain to the principal how what you were doing was educating your students and empowering them for the future, and enabling them to understand more of who they are and where they come from? Which, isn’t that what a teacher supposed to do?


Monica: One would think that, yes, I did. I did try to explain that. I had parents that were happy with what we did and wrote testimonials, but ultimately, this is a charter school system, and it is their discretion on whether to invite teachers back. There was no union, so I didn’t have much recourse. But I am happy to say even though I miss the classroom, it was great to be able to realize even if I can’t talk about social justice in a classroom, where can I do that? And that space is a museum where informal learning happens, where socialization and contextualization happens, and I decided to bring that ethos to the museum spaces, so it all worked out in the end.


Brenda: You know, Monica, one of the things that I really appreciated about what you just said was when you were referring to your work as a teacher and referring to the students as your children. It’s reminding me of a project that I just did with my kids who happened to be graduate students, but they are my kids and I think, God help me the day that I don’t think of them like that.


But we were doing a project working with a photographer activist who works with juveniles in the justice system. And I remember day one, he came and he met with my students and we kickstarted, you know, what turned into a museum exhibition project relating to these young people in the justice system.


And he said, here’s what you need to know. These are our kids. And he said, they’re not kids in juvenile, they’re not kids in, you know, the justice system, they’re not, you know, incarcerated. He says they’re our kids, and that’s how you’re going to refer to them. And I just thought, here is a human being who really gets it.


Monica: There’s a term called mother work. You know, what is the work of mother work? How do we bring mother work to our professional spaces? You know, whether that’s to nurture or to convene or to be the cheerleader in the company. And certainly being an educator, especially for little ones, is a form of mother work. And I’m proud to have had that identity, to have done that career, and then to take it forward in a new way.


Abby: You mentioned you were a teacher, and they decided to fire you. They didn’t like what you were doing. They didn’t feel it was education. Tell us a little bit about how you landed on the sector you’re in and the museums.


Monica: So coming from being a teacher and caring a lot about what was happening in society with current events and social issues and wanting to find a place where these discussions can happen, I realized that the place where my students came alive the most was on field trips to museums, and I thought, what if a museum could be a vehicle, not just for art, history, culture, science, media, but what if a social justice message can be carried through a museum experience?


And so in going into the museum field, I had to start from the very bottom, worked my way up from unpaid intern to per diem educator, up the ranks through many gigs and many institutions, and to a point where people wanted to hear what I had to say and I was able to become a keynote speaker, a curator, and executive director, and many of the other titles I’ve held.


And so in that process, I was able to prototype my idea, my belief that a museum has to serve society and can talk about social justice issues. I got to try that out at the institutions I worked with, and curate exhibits and have festivals and events to this and prove, like proof of concept, that this is valid, that this is good, it’s real, and that the audiences want this.


So in that decades-long journey from unpaid intern to museum leader, I’ve been able to show through the course of 50 different exhibits and festivals that social justice has a place in museum spaces.


Brenda: Monica, you talk about how social responsibility in museums is an everyday piece of business. It’s an everyday affair. And I’m curious if you could tell us about any uphill battles or anything that’s challenging in the work that you’re currently doing that would help our listeners understand the complexities of DE&I work.


Monica: Sure. So diversity, equity, and inclusion is the work of people and the work of drawing out common threads and consensus among people. And some people represent institutions. Some people represent neighborhoods. Some people have very particular perspectives. And in my current work with Historic Germantown, we are doing a deep dive into community engagement as the primary lens of our DEI work.


And so the Northwest section of Philadelphia has many different neighborhoods. And within those neighborhoods our historic sites and museums are located. So we have 18 museums and history sites as part of our consortium, and we realize that we can’t use a one size fits all treatment, and for us to understand how we could be a resource as a museum to the community, we need to ask them, and what does that look like?


So we are engaging on a campaign of survey work and outreach by doing good old-fashioned things like a lemonade stand. You know, here’s a lemonade. Will you take the survey? Give us your feedback. We’re going to have digital touchpoints. We’re going to be asking people through focus groups and one on one what it is that they need, what are they seeking? What is their perception of us?


And as we do that survey work, we’re using the results, along with our general interpretive content, to create customized community engagement plans for the 18 different neighborhoods where our 18 museums are located. So that means whether the neighborhood is affluent or low income, whether it’s full of multilingual persons and or native-born English speakers or any variety or facet of diversity, we have to engage meaningfully and fully and create a plan for how the museum can be socially responsive, how the museum can reach out to their neighbors, how they can overcome challenges and legacies in the past where they haven’t been so inclusive to now focus on that. And it’s going to be a fraught process. I am diving in and looking forward to it because I love the work of people and the messiness of humanity, but I know that already there are folks who are kind of doubtful, like, oh, you all are coming to the neighborhood now. What is it you want? We don’t necessarily want to tell you everything we’re thinking, but yet we still have to show up. We still have to ask. We still have to be earnest and forthright and have integrity in our dealings. And we can’t say, oh, this is too hard. We’re going to go back in the office and lock the door and see you again next festival season, but rather we have to be present. And so myself and a fleet of community engagement coordinators, unpaid interns, and other staff and volunteers are about to go out in the community and stand outside and hear what people need and want from us. And that is one example of a way that we are enacting DEI.


Brenda: And in response, I’m wondering how do you identify the communities that you need to reach? What does that look like? How do you do that outreach and identify the people that you need to really be engaging with?


Monica: So we’re looking through a few different parameters. We’re looking geographically, that is all households, businesses, residents and citizens in a ten block radius of each of our museum historic sites. We’re also going to be looking at census data and working with other human outreach organizations, you know, people that do human services work, whether that be social work, or mutual aid, or giving out pantry items, groceries, food boxes. And then we’re also going to be looking at the school systems and the educators and the students and what it is that that audience needs.


And hopefully, through that combination, that multifaceted approach, we can then draw out, here is who is in the community, here is what they say they would like, and not just to take that back and then, again, shut the door and never come back outside, but then to be responsive in how we plan things. So to take that feedback and create a model of shared authority where we’re taking what has been said, revealing this to the museum leadership, and putting everyone in conversation together so that they can start to change, right, plan and pivot based on that feedback.


So maybe that looks like there is a new festival or holiday celebrated. Maybe that looks like local residents want yoga or they want to do something that is a leisure activity or a recreation activity that’s not currently happening. How that can happen. Maybe local residents are upset. Maybe there’s something happening that they don’t like and the museum and its leadership and its board need to know that and be aware of that and be able to pause and pivot and say, oh, we don’t want to offend our neighbors. And ultimately, what can it look like that neighbors again become stewards of the museum, are invited to the board, are invited to committees, are invited to positions of power, even to work in the space so that our neighbors become those who are leading these spaces.


Abby: What happens if we look at a museum like the Met, for example, a large establishment, a huge tourist attraction. It had about 4.5 million visitors in 2007, and ten years later, that was up to 7 million. When you think about these larger museums, do they really need to engage their local community? Do they have that responsibility or even fiscal need, really?


Monica: They definitely should focus on their communities. Everyone should, and everyone can, and it’s not only for smaller spaces, but it is the work of the industry, the work of our sector. Large museums have a lot of hurdles to overcome because oftentimes, they are seen as places that are just for tourists or that are inaccessible. There is a term that’s coined by a museum scholar named Nina Simon out of California. She’s written some great books, one of those being The Art of Relevance. And she talks about something called threshold fear, where people are nervous, anxious, scared to come in the door of a museum or to go in a museum because they think it’s not for them or they think that it’s too expensive or they won’t have accessibility considerations.


Whatever it is, there’s a perception that is stopping them from a visit. Oftentimes those people are locals, so we have to go above and beyond, especially as leaders of larger spaces, to make sure that our audiences feel welcome, that they know that they belong, they know they can get their needs met, and that all of what is happening is being considered for the everyday local as well as the tourists.


And the Met is also in a process of remedy, right, as most large museums are, reconsidering their internal structures, the diversity initiatives, as well as what they put out to the world. I’m happy to share that recently they had a project where they created an Afrofuturist period room called Before Yesterday We Could Fly that featured textiles and furniture and artwork of different contemporary Afrofuturist artists. And this is interpreting the history and the legacy of Seneca Village, which was a black colony in what is current day Central Park, where many black persons who were escaping enslavement went to live and ultimately, the city decided it needed to be torn down to make way for the park. And so they got rid of it and there was a lot of other human rights abuses there.


But it’s great to see that they are embracing that story, imagining new narratives, and meeting the needs of those who are interested in Africa, African-Americans, and this type of art and history. So I’m excited to see how the Met and other large institutions can challenge themselves to be better stewards and socially responsive.


Abby: And Monica, it’s interesting you bring up that whole notion that there is a large group of people that don’t identify with the actual architecture and museum buildings. Because we recently worked on a project for the Smithsonian, where our goal was to reach a broader audience than usually enter the doors of a museum. Because these older institutions are often in these very formidable buildings that are not very inviting to many communities.


And we really wanted to bring the museum on the streets where the people were. And so we created an app called Doorways Into Open Access, where you load a portal on your cell phone, so it’s accessible, free to everybody. Anybody with a cell phone could use this app and walk around and experience artifacts from the Smithsonian’s collection.


So it’s interesting you mention that. I completely agree that a lot of the buildings really are exclusionary, and trying to find lots of different ways using different technology to break down these physical boundaries, to bring more people into museums and more people to experience these amazing stories is really important.


Brenda: Monica, I’d like to ask you about the term community care that you use in your work and community care with specific actions related to engagement and advocacy. Can you tell us what community care looks like for you practically?


Monica: So community care is a term that has existed probably since time began, and I’m using it in a way that applies to museum spaces, and I define it as a museum practice that honors our humanity, centering advocacy, empathy, and social responsibility. Community care embraces partnerships, programs, visitors, our community, and ourselves. I first began speaking about this in 2017 at the MuseumNext Conference and have since tried to canonize this term.


And to me, it looks like many of the things we’re seeing museums do now. So, for instance, beyond the exhibits, museums are really turning into a hub of humanitarian activity. There are museums like the Queens Museum that have what’s called a cultural food pantry. They give out food and free access to the arts, to anyone who needs it, anyone who wants it, starting during the pandemic, continuing today.


There are museums that have really pivoted towards making much of their offerings digital. Museums that are taking a stand on social issues, standing in solidarity against wars, right, or in solidarity with persons who are marginalized and affected. There are some museums that are employing docents, particularly there’s a museum that used to be a penitentiary that are creating a docent track of people who were court involved and formerly incarcerated. So taking those who have been in jail, who have suffered through that criminal justice system and training them to be docents, to tell a story about law enforcement, historic penitentiaries and ways that we can evolve today.


And so many other spaces. When I think of Bryan Stevenson’s museum, the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, how they interpret the legacy of lynching. That is a somber space but a necessary space. So when we think of social justice in museums and community care in museums, it’s not so far-fetched to believe that a museum can be a space that helps, a space that heals, and a space that offers people a platform for whatever they are trying to champion. And that’s what I’m excited to see happening more and more. There’s a groundswell of that happening today.


Brenda: Monica, I really appreciated you referring to museums as increasingly hubs of humanitarian activity. You know, when I think about your work, I, you know, I’m going back to 1909. I think about John Cotton Dana, him saying that good museums fit the museum to what the community needs. And I just think, thank goodness you and other folks are doing the great work of keeping that essential idea alive and thriving, and I’m curious about content. When you work with communities and museums, are you listening for content or themes that the museum needs to put on their agenda or particular ways in which a story should be told to meet the community needs?


Monica: So any time you’re doing the work of outreach, it’s good to try to record everything because you never know what could come up later and how it can be shaped and molded for a variety of uses. So, the curator in me, when I hear people talking about their neighborhood histories, public histories, personal stories, I think of exhibits that can go on the wall. The DEI consultant and practitioner in me is thinking about, okay, we might need to release a statement or have a special task force or a truth and reconciliation commission around themes that are coming up. The community engager in me just wants to talk and wants people to feel comfortable talking and sharing and not feeling surveilled. So I’m just encouraging a spirit of open discussion and exchange.


And then, you know, the other hats I wear have other agendas, certainly, but I am always excited when someone shares something, right? Like right now, I’m creating an exhibit about Juneteenth in Philadelphia and the area that we’re in, Germantown, Philadelphia is one of the first parts of the city to celebrate Juneteenth before it was ever made a federal holiday, before it was even popular. I’m excited to tell that story, but not just to tell it institutionally, but to tell it through the eyes and the accounting and the oral histories of people. Right? So there’s always different ways we can take themes and content and put it on these different tracks.


Abby: When we’re thinking about content, Monica, some of the museums that we design for have already sort of a very specific mission. They have artifacts in their permanent collection that they want to have on display to support that story. What we try to do is, as we’ve been talking about today, bring in the local community. My question is, when you know the story you’re going to tell, and you’re working with a design group that could be from somewhere else, how does the community itself get interpreted into the design? How do they work with the designers, and how do the designers work with the community?


Monica: That’s an interesting question. I feel like there’s probably many different approaches. I’m not sure quite how design firms work with communities. Sometimes it is through, you know, focus groups and open houses and town halls. Sometimes it’s more discreet, one-on-one or small group experiences. But I do think that is an important part of the process that can’t be skipped because when people in the community know that something has been put up and they haven’t been informed or consulted or involved, there is a resentment, there is a lingering mistrust.


And certainly, people feel like, oh, well, this happened, but I didn’t know about it, and no one asked me. And I’m not going to patronize this. I’m not going to support this because this was done without me. Right. And there’s a saying in movement activists circles, nothing about us, without us, so it’s really important to include community voices. However that comes forth in the ways that, you know, a project can.


Abby: So we did a museum up in the Arctic Circle. And it’s interesting you mentioned how important all the details are to the local community and how they will definitely call you out if anything’s wrong. And in that particular project, it was a lot about the local community, their history, their art, their culture, and a lot about their way of life.


And so we consulted with them completely. I would say we shared 50/50 on the content that we were creating, and there was a video that we were making all about their cooking and the unique foods that they use and make. And there’s a fish up there in the Arctic. We couldn’t find this fish because it’s only available during a short season. Our prop master found a fish that looked to the naked eye almost identical to this fish. And it was really Monika, like, almost identical. So we shot this fish. It’s beautifully frozen, and you just sort of slice it, and it curls up, and we put it in the video, and we showed it to the community, and immediately they just said, that’s not the right fish. And we were like, we can’t get it right now. It’s not the season. We have to shoot this video now. So we ultimately had to keep the fish out, but you are 100% right in terms of you can’t fake it.


Monica: Agree, and there is a saying that, you know, who speaks for whom in a museum. Half of the contention in museum spaces is that one person’s art culture or, you know, foodways is being elevated on a pedestal, but oftentimes the people who are curating that experience are not from that culture. And so there is a whole process by which people feel left out, marginalized, silenced, and erased when their culture is being put on display, but they were not consulted.


Similarly to, if you have a house or a place that you live and let’s say 100 years in the future, they want to build a house museum to honor you and they take what they saw in a few pictures and they think about, oh, what did they put on Facebook, let me look at their Facebook memories, let me look at a few different things and they try to recreate what your house looks like in this house museum, but they get it all wrong because they only have shadowy glimpses of what your life was like through very select mediums and never consulted you or your descendants. And so the house museum ends up looking like someone else’s house, and it wasn’t your house. And I reference the movie Interstellar, that’s what happened at the end, the character came back, and they did a house museum, and it was like not like what his house looked like. All of that to say, there just has to be authenticity in the process.


Brenda: The design process is often thought of as being this kind of closed-door kind of thing, where maybe you open the door for a few minutes, have a chat with your target audiences or the community, and then the door is closed again, and all of the big secret work happens where presto, a big exhibition pops out at the end.


And that’s really not how it should work. And there are amazing people and companies out there that are doing work where communities are at the table, really knuckling through the development of concepts and themes and really developing the story to create listening exhibitions. That means that every perspective possible is listened to as well as shared. Thinking about exhibition creators, Monica, what kind of advice can you give to folks in the creative disciplines who are creating exhibitions and striving to embrace diversity, equity, and inclusion in their work?


Monica: I think number one is to always have an interactive element where people can leave their feedback, their views, where they can make their mark on that exhibition. In curating Futures, I realized that we were showing some really great work, speculative technologies, historical artifacts, art commissions, but there was nowhere for the visitor to have an outlet. And so I conceived of a space simply called the Action Center, which is a simple feedback wall, but with one main prompt; how can we create a hopeful future?


And I wanted people to be able to gather and write out and read each other’s sentiments about what we can do to create a hopeful future. And people from all different ages and walks of life were invited to write on these feedback cards, these colorful postcards on the wall. So all of that to say, feedback mechanisms are super important.


Give people that outlet to express and create in whatever ways they can and to really, I guess, assumption test your exhibit, your experience, you know, as oftentimes their exhibit advisors or, you know, evaluators who can go through and give a first, second pass, give feedback, let people experience your space in small doses and small groups and get their feedback and tweak based on that.


Don’t get it all shiny and new and perfect and thinking, okay, we are done. And then people come through and are not having the kind of experience that they could have because you never actually gave them a chance to give that feedback. So assumption test at all points. I think those are some good things to keep in mind.


Abby: And I think one of the things when I listen to you talking about museums and what they need to be is that basically at our heart, humans need to communicate with one another, and we do this through stories which we share. And museums need to be less about a monologue and much more about a dialog with the visitors, and to also be a place where you can leave your mark when you walk away, and you feel like you’ve made a difference as a visitor. Monica, it’s been amazing to have you with us on Matters of Experience today. Thank you so much for joining us.


Monica: All right. Enjoy your weekend, all. Take care.


Brenda: You too, enjoy. Thank you, take care.


Abby: Thank you.




Producer: Matters of Experience is produced by Lorem Ipsum Corp. Please tune in next week for another conversation. Thank you all for listening.

Show Notes

Historic Germantown
The Art of Relevance 

Before Yesterday We Could Fly: An Afrofuturist Period Room

Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum – Lorem Ipsum Corp

La Jornada and Queens Museum Cultural Food Pantry

National Memorial for Peace and Justice

FUTURES | Smithsonian Institution

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in Museums with Monica O. Montgomery

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in Museums with Monica O. Montgomery Guest Monica O. Montgomery

October 26, 2022
Follow the Crowd with Joy Bailey-Bryant

Follow the Crowd with Joy Bailey-Bryant

Guest Joy Bailey-Bryant
November 2, 2022
Subscribe now on Apple Podcasts and Spotify
Joy joins Abby and Brenda to explore what DE&I means to cultural institutions of all types and what it takes to design meaningful exhibits and memorable museum experiences. Joy reflects on her journey, consideration for the future of our profession, and shares how she connects with diverse communities to create welcoming spaces that foster feelings of ownership for everyone.
Joy Bailey Bryant is the President of the U.S. office of Lord Cultural Resources and a specialist in municipal engagement around culture. A certified interpretive planner and outreach facilitator, Joy works with city officials, institutional leaders, and developers, in global municipalities like Chicago; New York; Dhaka, Bangladesh; and Dharan, Saudi Arabia to creatively plan cities and bring people to public institutions.




Abby: Hello and welcome to Matters of Experience. My name is Abigail Honor.


Brenda: And I’m Brenda Cowan.


Abby: Today’s show is called Follow the Crowd, and it is the second part of a show focusing on diversity, equity and inclusion. And we are thrilled to be chatting with the wonderful Joy Bailey-Bryant. Joy is the president of the U.S. Office of Lord Cultural Resources and a specialist in municipal engagement around culture. A certified interpretive planner and outreach facilitator, she works with city officials, institutional leaders, and developers around the world to creatively plan cities and bring people to public institutions. Hello, Joy, and welcome.


Joy: Thank you, Abigail.


Brenda: Joy, we are so delighted to have you. To get us kickstarted, can you tell us what led you to the position that you are in today?


Joy: I worked for years in public relations, and then I found my way to a wonderful program at American University in Arts Management. And that program actually led me to the Institute of Museum and Library Services, which is a granting agency for our country. And through that process and through that work, I started to do some work with particularly African-American institutions.


I then moved on to work at Lord Cultural Resources because they were working with what became the August Wilson Cultural Center in Pittsburgh. And so that was one of my first projects working with Lord, and realization of this entire world of opportunities with consulting with different organizations, arts organizations, artists, individual artists to help them to realize their goals in creating organizations and creating public spaces that would really help to tell their stories.


Abby: So one of the things, when I look back over my career, Joy, I reflect on one of my first visits to a museum that really sticks in my mind. And we were at the Tate in London, and I was there with a school group, and we were going through the rooms, and I suddenly became fascinated by the Seagram Murals by Mark Rothko.


And I remember sort of sitting down, being surrounded by these paintings and experiencing something that I’d never felt before. It was very transcendental, and I actually sat there for over an hour while the rest of my schoolmates moved throughout the museum, and I was running a little late, so they all came back to find me, and now I reflect back on that and what large impression it actually made on me. Do you remember one of your first visits to a museum or a gallery, and how do you think it impacted you?


Joy: Absolutely. One of the things – I’m a native of Atlanta, Georgia, anybody that knows me knows that, and we have a few really excellent art spaces. And one of them is called the APEX Museum – African Panoramic Experience. And at the APEX Museum, you learn both the history of African Americans in Atlanta, as well as kind of this broader story of people of African descent.


Combined with that there’s also a large arts campus called the Woodruff Arts Center. And the Woodruff Arts Center has the High Museum of Art. It has the Alliance Theater. As I was growing up, my mom was part of this group called The Black Involved Parents, and they would take us to various and sundry shows. And I remember that there was a Faith Ringgold – it wasn’t a show – and this is so interesting because there’s a Faith Ringgold show at the New Museum that just closed here in New York.


Brenda: It’s incredible.


Joy: But there was a storytelling experience, and it was around The People Could Fly, it was Virginia Hamilton’s The People Could Fly story, and Faith Ringgold had done the illustrations for it. And the paintings, the pictures that the book showed were just so vivid and so imaginative. It captured me, captured my imagination. I wanted to see where it went. I wanted to know where it came from. I wanted to read more of the stories. I was a voracious reader, but that was the first time I had been captivated not just by words, but by pictures as well. And I heard Faith Ringgold give this talk, and she was talking about the way she draws flat. And that also, I didn’t know that was what she called it, but that’s also what really, I said, oh, my gosh, I can, you know, this doesn’t just, it doesn’t have to be real, photorealism, three dimensional. You can have flat images and still depict a story and really still captivate people. That was one of my first experiences and it was just such a full-circle moment for me. We went to the show and I was able to take my five-year-old daughter, my seven-year-old son, and they so enjoyed, they enjoyed the images, the quilts, of course. But what they really enjoyed was sitting down with the books just like I did all those years ago. It was just such a wonderful experience for me.


Brenda: What a delight to hear you talk about the Faith Ringgold show, which I was fortunate to just go see before it closed with my daughter.


Joy: Yes!


Brenda: Yes. Oh, and Faith Ringgold was an early point of entry for me, too, in my career. And I grew up in a context where, you know, museums were not for people like my family. They were for people who were well-educated. They were for people who were wealthy. And it wasn’t until I was out on my own when I started actively going to museums, really, for the first time. My question for you, Joy, is in your work, what is it that we should be aiming for when we create truly inclusive and welcoming – I like the word welcoming because I think that’s really what this is about. What are we aiming for? To create welcoming experiences where everyone can feel like they belong?


Joy: You know, you’re right. So many people do not think that museums are for them. I, along the way decided, it was a decision that I wanted to get more people who looked like me to enjoy these spaces, a lot of them public spaces that are paid for by tax dollars or certainly get grants from tax dollars. And I would ask people, I would say, oh, let’s go to X, Y and Z and see this show or let’s go do this, they’re having, such and such is having, you know, having this kind of program. Oh, well, I mean, I don’t I don’t have anything to wear. It’s the first thing you probably hear because there is this thought that you have to have a special attire on and you have to be a part of this particular crowd. And that is an indication that people don’t feel like they belong, right?


So, when you talk about, we talk about these words of inclusion, we talk about the word you just used, welcoming, people feeling like this is their space. If people feel like it’s their space, they truly belong in this space. They truly own this space. If we I mean, you know, there’s always pushing, pushing, pushing, so we’ve moved from inclusion to welcoming to belonging to owning, right? I own this space. If I own my house, I can wear whatever the hell I please in my house. So I feel the ultimate sense of ownership. These stories are mine. I should be reflected, I should have connection. Everything that is here is mine. I share that with others, and it is mine.


So I think it’s really pushing ourselves to get to the space of ownership, everyone having ownership. And this is where you get into the stance of, you know, power concedes nothing, of course, is not my quote. Power concedes nothing without a demand. And so we all have to demand that the places that we own reflect us.


Abby: So, let’s talk about ownership and how a museum can start to reflect their communities. A lot of your work centers around cultural management consulting, and you talk about process helping you go from the big idea through to final execution. Can you tell us a little bit about your process, what it is and how it really helps with the end result?


Joy: Absolutely. One of the things I’m super proud of is being able to work with people who have amazing ideas. Sometimes they have great collections, sometimes they just have really compelling stories and helping them to really think through in a methodical way what that can mean for their communities.


And I define communities in two ways. The first is your kind of communities of practice. So those are your affinity groups, people who are naturally attracted to you. You know, if you were to take something like a collection of toothbrushes, for example, you might make a safe assumption that there might be a dental community that is interested in a collection of toothbrushes, you know, but there’s also, if you have a collection of toothbrushes and you’re located, for example, in Prince George’s County, Maryland, then you want to know the people in the communities of your geography, right?


So you’ve got your communities of practice, so people who are in the dental practice who I’m assuming would be interested in this collection of toothbrushes. And then you’ve got a second community, that other community of your geography, right, so people who are walking around right outside your doors, these are the people who are going to come to your afterschool programs. These are the people who are going to come to your weekly toddler times. These are the people who are going to be your most frequent visitors because you’re accessible to them. So the important part is you’ve got to make yourself accessible for them.  


So the first part of what we do when we’re figuring out this process is really to understand who those communities are. So when we are identifying your communities of practice and your geographic communities, really taking a methodical approach to looking at that and examining that and really moving forward from there and allowing those communities to tell us what they want and most importantly, what they need.


And that’s important because a lot of times people feel like I know what my community needs, and so they want to make X community do what they want X community to do. But that community is saying, actually, no, that’s not what I need, because actually because I have other obligations and therefore this is not going to work for me. So they tell us these different types of things and we’re able to then build programing. We’re able to think about what that means for exhibitions. We’re able to think about what that means for collections. We’re able to think about what that means for the types of spaces you want to have. And what’s exciting is that we’ve been able to then take that information and put dollars signs to it. Talk about how much staff are you going to need? What are those staff going to need to be doing?


All of these different types of things to build up to a business plan. And we’ve done this with so many organizations and institutions, and I talk about the National Museum of African American History and Culture, and that’s been one of the highest honors of my life, to be able to have these conversations with communities, to understand what that means for what the Smithsonian calls general museum requirements.


Abby: Joy, it’s great that you just bring up the National Museum of African American History because I know you had almost a thousand stakeholders, which sounds pretty overwhelming. What were some of those challenges, juggling all those people and voices and what was some of the positive outcomes as well?


Joy: What was really great about the process was that we were able to, in multiple cities across the country, really talk about things that previously people had just kind of said, oh, you know, we need to be talking about what happened in Tulsa, Oklahoma. We need to be talking about what made the civil rights movement so powerful that the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was passed. What were the implications of enslavement, of 400 years of enslavement, on people of African descent today?


What was really powerful about that process was that we were able to have these conversations, grapple with these conversations, and really start to write down on paper what that would look like in a museum. We were not, and I say we, but I really mean Dr. Lonnie Bunch and Kinshasha Holman Conwell and many, many, many people who really led that process were not afraid to talk about, okay, where do we start?


We were present, and a part of the identification of the framework of what people said and what people said was – tell the truth. People said we need a space to celebrate. People said we need a place to commemorate. People said we need to know about agency, right? So in telling the truth, yes, you are sharing the hard stories, and in sharing the hard stories, we want to talk about the agency that people of African descent used in a lot of times, being super active in freeing ourselves. And so that was a really great opportunity.


I think when we think about what was hard, what was hard was exactly what I said. Where do you start? And making sure that you’re not daunted by the fear that you are not going to tell the right story and the understanding that the process is iterative, meaning that over the years the stories can change and that the museum can change with those stories.


Brenda: Something that’s a definite takeaway from all of this is the need for museums to be highly descriptive about their communities and the persons that they’re speaking with. I’m curious. You use the term, Joy, follow the crowd in your work. Tell me, what do you mean, what do you mean by that?


Joy: So it’s actually quite simple. Where are the people that you want to speak to? So when I talk about the communities of practice and your geographic communities, there are watering holes where, we have a client that’s using that term a lot, where are the natural places that these communities are gathering? And instead of trying to create your own watering hole, okay, you know, why don’t you save yourself some money and some heartache and go to the places that already have created themselves? They have proven themselves to be natural spaces where people gather.


We always are talking to people that are saying, I don’t know where young people of, you know, a certain age or, you know, where are young people who are college-aged or young people who are moving from this kind of, you know, I’ve just graduated from college, I’m trying to find my footing. Where are they going? Well, number one, if you want a college-aged students, go to colleges. Right. That’s the first part. Go to where the colleges are. If you want students who are particularly knowledgeable about a particular piece, you know, say you have an automotive museum. Why don’t you go to those places where those students are training?


We have this thing because we are always trying to make things fun. We would go to conferences, and we would sponsor, you know, a happy hour, right? You sponsor a happy hour, give everybody one drink ticket because you want them to be sober enough to tell you what you need to know. And, you know, 45 minutes to an hour of your time, you’re going to tell me what you want to experience in an Urban League museum, an Urban League experience.


So, by following the crowd, it really just means going to, genuinely going to where they are. And I’ll tell you something funny. A woman was speaking and she said, well, you know, it’s in truth, it’s what we’ve always done in the church tradition. You’re meeting people where they are, mentally and physically. So things like Alcoholics Anonymous, things like hosting a food pantry, things like having a closet, you know, a work closet, so that people who are going for jobs can come to your space and get clothing. And I never realized that that’s what I was doing. I did not realize until a few days ago the woman said, yeah, you know, this phrase, meet people where they are. That comes from religious practice. So I hope that I’m known as a person who brings both the bars and the religious spaces onto your podcast. I’ve been able to mention them both in one in one podcast.


Abby: So when we think about actual the design process for the exhibit itself, I’ve heard you use the term first voice before. Can you explain what this means in terms of the exhibit, the design landscape, and why it’s important?


Joy: Essentially, it’s ensuring that the people whose story is being shared are the actual voice of the story. If we’re telling an indigenous peoples story, if we’re working with indigenous peoples to tell their story that they are at the table from day one and being paid and a part of the team that is paid and that the experience of creating the exhibit is centered on them and that that table is really set by them.


You know, when I think about it, like I’m bringing process to the table, but at the end of the day, at the beginning of the day, middle and end of the day, the most important piece is actually the first voice. The first voice that we hear, the last voice that we hear and understand and listen to has to be the voice of the peoples whose story is being shared.


Abby: Within those voices, those stories, those narratives, would it be a group decision then, on which specific stories to tell because often I find when we’re designing museums, there are a ton of different directions you can go. But because of restrictions, either financial, logistics, space restrictions, you have to cut some of the stories out. So, you know, whose responsibility is that decision?


Joy: It’s always the first voice, right? Like we, you nor I as the interpretive planner or the designer, we can’t make that final decision. You know, Alice Greenwald from the 9/11 Memorial and Museum always tells the story of when she was at the national Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, that they had a massive exhibition that was of the hair; before people went into the concentration camps their hair was cut off, and the exhibition designers had gone through so much red tape and everything to get this out of the country. All the permissions had been signed, all of the different documentation that was needed had been put through. You can imagine the amount of money, effort, and time and one of the family advisory groups and committees, one of the women who was a survivor – this was many years ago, of course – said absolutely not.


And the question, of course, was what? Why? Because that might be my mother’s hair. And so the exhibition was scrapped immediately. And the story there, I mean, that’s an extreme story because it illustrates the importance of making sure that at the end of the day, if it is truly the first voice, then that is the last voice that has to be heard before it goes up.


Brenda: Wow. Joy, what kind of advice do you have for people who want to do work with diverse communities, which, by the way, everyone should be doing? But what’s your advice for folks who, for whatever reason, might just be starting out?


Joy:  Great question. Okay. So first of all, listening, everybody wants to talk, but it is important to listen. There’s two things that we do when we start a program. First is to start with a land acknowledgment, because it does something for you to you to really stop and think about the heritage of the people who came before you.


And then we do what’s called meeting agreements. And one of the meeting agreements is to recognize your space of privilege, to say, okay, I’m an African-American woman who is blessed to have come from a family where my mom and dad were present. I have a college degree. I have a master’s degree. I’m able to sit in a space where people ask me questions and want to hear what I say.


It is imperative of me to be quiet and listen when people who don’t walk into the room with the privilege that I just expressed, listen when they speak, because maybe they won’t be in the spaces that I am in tomorrow, and maybe I’ll have the opportunity to say, Hey, I was just in this room with X person. Why don’t we invite them in to speak so that we can hear their stories, first voice?


Brenda: You know, I’m listening to you talk about first voice, and a translation for me is thinking about the work that I do, as a professor. And where I teach, my students are very, very diverse. And when I say diversity among my students, you know, it’s race, ethnicity, their identity, socioeconomic status. It runs the gamut. I’m endlessly in a position to have to be keenly aware that not everybody is like me. Everybody brings different perspectives, backgrounds, life experiences. And I’ll tell you something, if I ever lose sight of that, I’ve got about, you know, 40 young people who are very eager to correct me and make sure that I am back on the course.


Joy: I love that.


Brenda: Oh, boy, it’s a real privilege. And it’s also, it’s really good exercise for me, God’s honest, and I’ve got to tell you, you know, there’s never room for presumptions or assumptions. Joy, how do all of us continue to exercise this kind of inclusivity in our work, whatever that form might be?


Joy: I think, Brenda, it’s questioning ourselves and allowing ourselves to be questioned. I practice not being jealous, but I’m a little bit jealous of your experience in the classrooms because I do know that you are continuously being questioned and pressed because those students are saying, well hey, this is different from what I thought it would be. Or why is it not?


And they imagine this future or they know a future that we never could have imagined because we assume things should be a certain way. And so I think that what you are doing, you’re making yourself vulnerable, right? Like that’s that space of vulnerability and, oh my God, it’s so tiring, but really great, right? Because wow, when you look up and think about how you’ve grown, right? But it’s continuously allowing yourself to question and to be questioned.


Abby: Yeah, I completely agree with you, Joy. I think too many of us are happy within the safety of the environment we know and enjoy familiarity. I remember as a little kid, my mom came in. I was trying to go to sleep and had some big worry on my mind, and she said, Abby, life’s like a trapeze. When you’re holding on, going backwards and forwards, you’re not going anywhere. You’re truly alive the moment you let go and reach for the next bar. And that’s really stuck with me in life, that idea of really sort of questioning, pushing yourself out of that comfort zone. And I think museums really should do that for their visitors. They need to be places that make the visitor question, and as you said earlier, Joy, press them.


Our last question of today is, why do you think a visit to a museum is so memorable?


Joy: One of the things that we do need to keep in creating ownership is that kind of event opportunity. And by that, I mean excitement about being in a space that’s doing amazing things for whatever reason. And I think that the event opportunity is nothing without the connection. And the connection comes exactly through that ownership. We think about that Faith Ringgold story I told at the beginning. I was so excited about the connection of the flat drawings and then connecting to my daughter. Now, all these many years later, that is why I will remember that event. It is that connection that is most important.


Abby: Well, Joy, this really has been a joy. Your parents definitely named you accurately. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and insights with us today. It truly has been a real pleasure.


Joy: And thank you. Thank you both for doing the work that you do, and thank you for your questions. This has been such a thrill. Thank you for the conversation.




Producer: Matters of Experience is produced by Lorem Ipsum Corp. Please tune in next week for another conversation. Thank you all for listening.

Show Notes

Lord Cultural Resources

APEX Museum

The Woodruff Arts Center

Mark Rothko: The Seagram Murals – Display at Tate Britain

National Museum of African American History and Culture

Follow the Crowd with Joy Bailey-Bryant

Follow the Crowd with Joy Bailey-Bryant Guest Joy Bailey-Bryant

November 2, 2022
Satisfaction as Ultimate Experience with John Falk

Satisfaction as Ultimate Experience with John Falk

Guest John Falk
November 9, 2022
Subscribe now on Apple Podcasts and Spotify
In this episode, Abby and Brenda talk with John Falk, social scientist, educator, and author, on the meaningfulness of museums, their role in our well-being, and how satisfaction is a critical achievement in the museum experience. The three explore the meaningfulness of museums, why they matter, and what motivates us to visit them. This episode analyzes how designers can push boundaries, impact how the visitors value the experience, and how their experiences inside the museum can affect them long after they have left the building.
Dr. John H. Falk is Executive Director of the Institute for Learning Innovation and Sea Grant Emeritus Professor of Free-Choice Learning at Oregon State University. He is internationally recognized as a leading expert on free-choice learning; the learning that occurs while visiting museums, zoos, aquariums or ecotourism sites, watching educational television or surfing the Internet for information. Dr. Falk has authored over 250 articles and chapters in the areas of learning, ecology and education, two-dozen books, and helped to create several nationally important out-of-school educational curricula. His most recent books are The Value of Museums: Enhancing Societal Well-Being (2021, Rowman & Littlefield), Learning from Museums, 2 nd edition (2019, Rowman & Littlefield, with Lynn Dierking), and Born to Choose: Evolution, Self & Well-Being (2018, Routledge). Prominent in all of these books is a new model related to well-being that provides direct insights into why and how people (and other living things) make the endless set of choices they do, every second of every day of their lives. His current research focuses on studying the impacts of free-choice learning settings on the public’s understanding of, interest in and engagement with science, history and art and understanding why people utilize free-choice learning settings during their leisure time. He also has a keen interest in exploring new ways of thinking about, measuring and supporting lifelong and professional learning. Falk earned a joint doctorate in Ecology and Science Education from the University of California, Berkeley.




Abby: Hello and welcome to Matters of Experience. My name is Abigail Honor.


Brenda: And I’m Brenda Cowan.


Abby: Welcome to this week’s podcast, Satisfaction as Ultimate Experience, with our guest, John Falk. John, we are excited to welcome you to the show today to discuss this very intriguing idea.


Brenda: John, you were the Executive Director for the Institute for Learning Innovation and the Sea Grant Professor Emeritus at Oregon State University. You have amassed decades of experience in leadership, audience research and practice on the subject of why and how museums and exhibitions matter. Could you tell us about your work with museums and audiences, and, well, what led you to your current role?


John: Well, first of all, thank you, Abby and Brenda, for inviting me here today, and I am delighted. So where to begin? I’ve been working for nearly 50 years to better understand why people go to places like museums, what they do there, and what value or outcomes they derive from such experience. And over those decades, I’ve worked variously at the Smithsonian Institution, Oregon State University, and for the majority of that time as executive director you mentioned, of the not-for-profit Institute for Learning Innovation. And across all these years, my goal has been to understand these issue, first and foremost through the lens of visitors themselves. What do actual users of these experiences believe is the value of their experiences? And why?


Abby: In your current work, you think museums can and should provide experiences that enhance well-being in their visitors. Let’s talk about that. In fact, you see museums as excelling at supporting well-being. So what do these experiences that help our well-being look like?


John: Well, to really answer those questions, I need to step back and explain how I came to this conclusion in the first place. So starting over 40 years ago, I began to ask people to tell me, why did you go to a museum? Do you remember going to a museum? Tell me about your experience. What do you remember? And over those 40 years, I have interviewed hundreds of people.


Three things stand out. So, first of all, virtually everyone who you ask, have you ever been to a place like a museum can recall that and say, yes, I can remember that. And that’s true whether it was days or months or even decades. And the other interesting thing is virtually everyone has something positive to say about their museum experience.   


And the third thing is everyone remembers something, but virtually no one’s memories are comparable. Everyone remembers something unique and idiosyncratic. In fact, even to the point where I purposefully interviewed groups of people who had gone through the museum at the same time, and they all remember the experience, but they tell entirely different stories about what their experiences were.


So of course, various people, including me, have interpreted this data in various ways, but more recently, when I looked at it and stepped back and tried to make sense of it, I was really struck by a couple of things. And the most significant is this non-trivial reality that everyone remembers their museum experience. Most people remember virtually nothing of what they’ve done in the past, and research would suggest the only things we remember are things that are meaningful, and what is meaningful to someone are things that affect their well-being.


We’ve evolved four big categories of perceived well-being, what I have called personal, intellectual, social, and physical well-being. So let’s talk about personal well-being. As people, we derive great satisfaction from feeling a sense of amazement and wonder, from being spiritual, from feeling creative, from feeling like we have an understanding and can enhance our sense of who we are, a sense of identity. And it turns out that places like museums and exhibits are pretty good at stimulating these things.


People also work really hard at what I call their intellectual well-being. We derive great satisfaction from being able to exercise choice and control over our world, and we seek to accomplish this by being curious, by learning and understanding our world and using that information to affect future decisions as well as to make sense of what happened to us in the past. And again, museums are great places for people to do all those things.


But humans are highly social creatures, and so we have this desire to love and be loved and to show respect and be respected. And it turns out that, again, places like museums, turn out to be pretty good places for enacting those kinds of experiences.


And then, finally, not to diminish it, going back to the beginning, life evolved the ability to work really hard to make sure that it’s well-being was enhanced in terms of food, shelter, also safety, and security. If anything, events of the last couple of years with COVID would suggest we are very adverse to doing things that we think are going to make us sick or ill or going places that we think are going to make us sick or ill. The reason people historically went to museums is because they did feel safe and secure in those places.


So the specifics are unique, but you can generalize that the basic outcomes can be categorized into these four categories, and that’s really important, and that’s pretty cool.


Brenda: John, this is high praise for museums, and I love the idea that you suggest that everyone experiences or can experience the sense of awe when they go to a museum. So I just wanted to really underscore what, what I think is really very hopeful work.


There are folks who would say that well-being is, it’s intangible, it’s squidgy. But can you actually measure well-being outcomes in museum experiences?


John: So the short answer is absolutely yes. Most of the ways people are collecting well-being data these days is by asking people these generic questions about their life over the past year. What is true for health is equally true for my social situation, because, you know, today I may be feeling good because my spouse and I are getting along, but tomorrow we may have an argument, and I feel terrible about my relationship with my spouse.


These things go up and down and that’s just the way it is. That’s life. Life is always fluctuating and so our well-being is always fluctuating. So if you want to accurately measure well-being, the long and short of it is you have to say, ask a question about a specific event over a specific time period. And guess what? We can do that with museums. We can say, so when you went to the museum yesterday, or a month ago, did that experience make you feel good or bad, and in what ways? Because that’s a discrete, definable time period, and I can reflect on that and give you a reasonably valid and reliable answer. And as a consequence, we can quantitatively measure the degree to which people have well-being as a outcome of those experiences.


But the other caveat to that is well-being develops over time. It’s not instantaneous. So my perception of well-being of a museum experience changes over time because the quality of that experience depends on what happened, not just at the museum, but after the museum. So it suggests that if you wait longer, if you wait days, weeks, ideally months to ask people, their ability to say, yeah, not only did I have a good experience, but over those couple days and weeks and months since then, I’ve continued to have a positive experience. We keep talking about our museum experience and the value of that experience actually increases, and if you’re clever, which I tried to be, I found that I could actually not only measure the quality of museum experiences, I could monetize it.


And lo and behold, I could find that even though the average cost of going to a museum was on the order of tens of dollars, $10, $20, $30, the mean value that people ascribed to those experiences because of their persistence were on the order of hundreds of dollars. And if you even go further and calculate the return on investment, what you find is that the return on investment is on the order of 1,000%, which is really important and significant.


Abby: So first of all, I think our minds are blown with that type of return on investment. That is fantastic and very heartening.


Currently, your work looks at the idea that meaningful experiences are satisfying experiences, that visitors are sort of innately driven to museums to experience satisfaction as part of their well-being. How would you define this notion of satisfaction?


John: So satisfaction is immediate feedback. Well-Being is longer term feedback. So as you remember, we can’t really accurately measure well-being when people are still in the museum. We have to wait weeks and months later, but we can measure satisfaction as a proxy for well-being immediately. Satisfaction, as it turns out, is an anticipatory reaction.


Satisfaction is not really about what has happened. It’s about the anticipation of what’s to happen. And that anticipation is based on our expectations and perceptions of novelty. So, I have higher satisfaction for something if I hope that this would happen, and I have a sense that it’s about to happen, and I have even higher satisfaction if I think that what’s about to happen is really surprising and novel and is likely to exceed my expectations.


So the good news is, over the past decade or so, biologists, neuroscientists, psychologists have made a lot of progress in trying to figure out how satisfaction works and what are the important clues that help to determine whether this complex phenomenon is going on. So we can build on that information to not only understand how satisfaction acts as a precursor of well-being, but to measure it and to use this as a tool to begin to disentangle whether people are having satisfying experiences or not within the museum.


And it turns out one of the reasons this is really critically important is that satisfaction is really closely tied to a couple of really, really important things: long term memory, long term motivation and future action. Satisfied people are significantly more likely to repeat an activity than unsatisfied people, and satisfied people are significantly more likely to want to share that experience with others.


Abby: I don’t understand something, though, John. So you mentioned that there’s a lot more satisfaction before you do the thing, for example, before you eat the ice cream, than actually when you’re eating the ice cream. So how does that work with a museum visit, for example? So wouldn’t there be more satisfaction about going to see the exhibit or the experience and more potential for a lack of satisfaction during and therefore after the experience?


John: Yes and no. So actually, what my research suggests is that virtually everybody, whether they are conscious of it or not, goes to the museum with expectations of what they’re going to experience.


When I first started working in museums some 40, 50 years ago, it was estimated that something like 25 to 30% of the public went to a museum-like setting at least once a year. These days, pre-pandemic, mind you, those numbers were more like 60%. It’s really hard to bump into anybody these days who’s never been to a museum, an adult, in their life. And so even if I’m going to a museum I’ve never been to, I have some expectations of what I’m going to see and what I’m going to do. And satisfaction is deeply tied to those expectations. And so, more than anything else, I’m using the museum to fulfill those expectations, and I find that very satisfying.


Abby: To play devil’s advocate, do you think there is that expectation to answer, yes, I was satisfied because there’s that pressure to have been satisfied after you’ve visited a museum.


John: That is also there. It turns out that those are self-fulfilling prophecies and people work really hard to make those come true because there’s a cost to you and being disappointed. I’ve invested a lot of time and energy in doing this activity, and so I’m highly motivated for it to be successful, and so I’m going to bend over backwards to make it successful, and in fact, there’s evidence that people will do that, that they will ignore negative information because they want it to be successful.


You know, there’s such a thing as bad design, but people will work hard to overcome that bad design. You can make it easier for people to be satisfied. You can make it harder for people to be satisfied. But overall, most people are satisfied because they want to be satisfied.


Brenda: On the subject of design, though, people are bringing very high expectations and desires. They’re motivated in many different ways to go to a very wide variety of experience spaces these days, and we have many folks listening to the program who do work in museums of all different forms, but also branded environments and different kinds of events and spectaculars, really the world of design as we have it today.


And I’m wondering, how do you think that we can all better serve visitor satisfaction and well-being in the work that we create?


John: Yeah. So one of my favorite quotes is from the psychologist Kurt Lewin, who said, back in the fifties, there is nothing so practical as a good theory, and I want to believe this is a good theory. I want to believe that this new model of museum experiences represents a figurative Rosetta Stone. It’s a way to basically decode what’s going on in these visitor experiences.


And once decoded, professional experience creators can use this information to figure out how to create better and more satisfying, and engaging experiences. Because if we more deeply understand why people derive value and what it is about these experiences that create perceptions of value, then we can build on that information and reinforce it.


Abby: Just thinking about a satisfying experience, that must differ depending on who the person is, because I would imagine a mother with a child, for example, a young two-year-old going to a museum for something a bit different, take myself out the rut, hopefully, the kids will be quiet, they’ll see something visually that entertains them for 5 minutes. How do you think designers should work to create satisfaction in different types of visitors?


John: So, first of all, our historic use of demographics is a bankrupt way of thinking about needs and diversities, because understanding that, for example, I’m a sixty-year-old white male with a college education gives you no clue as to why I showed up that day or what my needs are. Because today I may show up by myself, and as you say, tomorrow, I show up with my grandchild, and my needs and interests would be entirely different on those two days, although my demographics would be exactly the same.


So we need to get deeper. We need to understand people’s expectations. We need to understand what is going to give people well-being on that particular day. And that’s a really tall order. But we can begin to unpack this and at least come to some initial approximations and do what in industry is called mass customization, as opposed to total customization of experience.


So I can at least create choices. I can at least attempt to create some kind of interface. The best one would be a real person who greets me at the door and tries to understand what I’m interested in today. Or you could use technology and have people answer a couple of questions on their website before you come so that you can give people suggestions on where to go and what to do.


And in some utopian future, we would meet everybody’s needs uniquely. But in the short term, we at least have to create more customized experiences. But the key ultimately, the reason these experiences are considered so valuable by so many people is because they afford choice and control.


Abby: John, yeah, I’m really happy that you mentioned people, visitors before they actually enter the building and engaging them before they engage with the museum itself. I think that is so important.


John: And I would actually go so far as to suggest the corollary of that is equally true, that we have historically defined and seemed to think that the only thing we have control over is figuratively what happens in the box when somebody comes to the exhibit. And that’s just not true. We can push those boundaries out and we can try to influence why people come and what their expectations are.


And we can influence and continue to have impact on what they do afterwards and how they value that experience. And the better we get at that, the more successful we will be at supporting people’s enhanced well-being as well. And satisfaction.


Brenda: You said something quite a while back about awe and the power of awe, and I’m listening to this idea of mass customization and the customization and the individual, which is so critical, and I keep thinking about awe and something that we know about the experience of awe that can happen in museums and happens, right, oftentimes in nature and in grand moments, as well as in quite small, intimate moments.


But we know that awe is a pro-social experience, right? We know that awe is a human unifier and that it unifies people in really powerful ways. And as you were talking, as I’ve been listening, I’ve been wondering, is there such a thing as mass well-being?


John: I mean, at some level, the answer is yeah, I mean, there’s a reason why tens of thousands of people every year go to gawk at Niagara Falls or Iguazu Falls or to look at the Grand Canyon. Those are mass awe experiences. And every year millions of people go to the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History to see the Hope Diamond, and I think there are some museums and some contexts in which we can tap into that. But those are really few and far between and exceptional experiences. The awe that most people get from museums is more of a lowercase awe than the uppercase awe of seeing Niagara Falls or the Hope Diamond.


And so those too can be shared experiences. And virtually every museum has its own version of the Hope Diamond. It’s just maybe a lowercase Hope Diamond, in the sense of a little less awe inspiring then maybe something like that. But those represent shared experiences, and I think museums can tap into that, but not to the exclusion of other kinds of experiences.


Abby: Returning back to the concept of satisfaction. It seems sort of like a low benchmark in a way. Is satisfaction enough? It provides us with a memory, it seems. But how does it influence us to action? When you think about going to museums, seeing stories, being impassioned and wanting to leave and make a difference, do something after our experience, satisfaction seems a little too comfortable.


John: Well, that’s if you trivialize satisfaction. But if you think about satisfaction as a mechanism for determining whether an experience is worth paying attention to, is memorable, is something that will be meaningful to you in your life, then if we don’t achieve that bar, which is a fairly high bar, nothing else is going to happen. You aren’t going to take further action if it wasn’t perceived as a valuable and satisfying experience.


But I would also hesitate to suggest that many professionals have rather overinflated expectations for what they can accomplish through the medium of exhibits or museum experiences. We’re talking about for any particular exhibition in a museum, this is a 15, 20, gosh, 1-hour event in somebody’s life. So what reasonably would you expect would come out of that? How many 20-minute experiences in your life have changed what you do for the rest of your life?


Well, if you’re lucky, maybe one or two of them have, but it’s really hard to script that. That’s not a reasonable expectation. It’s not. For people who are inclined to move in that direction. Going to an exhibit can be a catalyst, can reinforce and help move people in that direction. But it’s totally unlikely to dramatically change the trajectory of someone’s life.


And the fact that people hold those expectations is misguided. We should be grateful that these are memorable, long-lasting experiences. We should be grateful people feel that these experiences have value to them and enhance their well-being. But we should be humble about in what ways they do that, for what reasons they do that, and for what the outcomes of these experiences should be.


Brenda: Well, I think that measurable well-being in museums is extraordinary, and listening to you, John, it’s, it’s so hopeful. And I think of it, it feels almost like fuel. And from the designer perspective, anyway, the idea of measurable well-being, the idea of the meaningfulness of satisfaction, it can drive us to really know that what we do is purposeful. And for that, I’m really grateful. And I want to thank you very much for sharing that and sharing your work with us today. I’m also going to add in a quick plug for your most recent book. This is The Value of Museums: Enhancing Societal Well-Being. And I’ll also point out that, to our listeners, John is going to also be writing an upcoming chapter in a volume that I’m coauthoring called Flourishing in Museums.


John: Well, thank you. It’s been a pleasure to have an opportunity to chat. And hopefully what I’ve said, I’m sure is provocative and hopefully will get some people thinking.


Abby: It certainly was.


Brenda: It’s fantastic. 


Abby: Yeah, thank you John. 




Producer: Matters of Experience is produced by Lorem Ipsum Corp. Please tune in next week for another conversation. Thank you all for listening.

Show Notes

Institute for Learning Innovation

Why Well-Being Is at the Heart of Museum Experiences – John H. Falk

Episode produced by Anton Baptiste

Satisfaction as Ultimate Experience with John Falk

Satisfaction as Ultimate Experience with John Falk Guest John Falk

November 9, 2022
There’s No I in Team

There’s No I in Team

October 19, 2022
Subscribe now on Apple Podcasts and Spotify
In this episode, Abby and Brenda shine a spotlight on the creative team: people, processes, war stories and success stories, as we explore the questions of who takes ownership, what’s gained when a team works well, and what’s at stake when it doesn’t? We share techniques for breaking through creative blocks and our thoughts on the role of good communication, thoughtful leadership, and managing emotional moments. In a special Tech Talk segment, we discuss AI: friend or foe? Episode edited by Stephen Maneri and produced by Anton Baptiste.

Abby: Hello and welcome to Matters of Experience. My name is Abigail Honor.

Brenda: And I am Brenda Cowan.

Abby: Brenda, I’m really looking forward to today’s podcast because it’s one of those things that seems so obvious, especially in what we do. But whenever you bring together a team or work with teams, there’s always an ego or two lurking.

Brenda: Or four or five, or, yeah.

Abby: And dealing with these personalities so that the group can work harmoniously is critical but sometimes difficult, and it can make or break a project. And I’ve seen other vendors or the client be the culprit who wants to dominate and assert themselves in meetings. So coming up with ways to handle and manage these people is necessary, and so is knowing when to throw the towel in and part ways.

The first thing that’s clear is if you want to work in the exhibition or experience design profession, you need to enjoy working with others. You have to play well. We’re not artists who work alone and then, presto, we appear with all the answers and are ready to build design set. We need designers, engineers, architects, modelers, fabricators, AV integrators. There’s a huge cast of colorful characters involved, and they all have to have patience and respect to make a project truly unbelievable.

Brenda: I couldn’t agree more that we don’t enter into this thinking that we’re fine artists. And I’ll also say that you have to have an ego in order to be in this business. But there’s a big difference between behaving poorly but having the right kind of healthy ego where you can make decisions, put out suggestions or even push back against an idea.

And oftentimes, clients kind of expect you to be like that. A client will say, okay, ready, set, go. Come up with all of the answers. And that’s not collaboration. That’s not teamwork. And the design firm’s job, I believe, is to really sort of help educate the client oftentimes anyway, not always, but often times that we are going to work together, which means that you are going to be valued and we need you to participate, and we need you not to expect us to have all of the right answers right from the gate.

It’s really difficult to do what we do. It’s hard enough to create. It’s hard enough to work together. And egos just block it everywhere. It can’t be one person’s vision.

Brenda: I think another way of really thinking about this is the idea of knowing who you are, knowing how you individually, personally work the best. What is it that makes you really great at what you do? And then being able to allow for and recognize that in others, in a great team, everybody shines in one way or another, in one piece of the process or another.

And I come across people often who will suggest that, well, I don’t work well in the team because I’m an introvert. And listeners, let me tell you, introverts everywhere – you are essential to the process. And you can be an introvert. You can be a quiet person, you can be a shy person at the table, and with a good process, with a good team process, you will be heard, and you will be expected to participate and contribute.

Abby: And it starts at the very beginning, I think, with setting those goals and the parameters of the project, right, so establishing those solid relationships with the client, being inclusive, as you mentioned, of all stakeholders, everybody at the table from the get-go is vital. And I just can’t emphasize this enough.

Brenda: Abby, I would love to hear about some of your experiences recently during our COVID years, and how has the collaborative team process changed as a result of being in Zoom meetings and things being handled remotely more?

Abby: So, the loudest voices often dominate on Zoom, so you really need to make sure everyone’s included, and I encourage people to turn your cameras on. Seeing each other is really incredibly important, especially when your team’s remote. It’s really important to provide a platform for everybody to be able to contribute, not just the usual suspects. And it’s also the same if someone says, I have an idea, it’s probably bad, that self-deprecating –

Brenda: Oh, never start a sentence with I’m sorry and never start a statement, right, or a suggestion with –this is probably absolute rubbish.

Abby: No, no, no, no. There’s zero bad ideas. No, no bad ideas. And there’s no dumb questions. Trust me; I’ve asked them all. I can’t count the number of times someone suggests a left-of-field idea that spurs someone else’s imagination. That’s what I’ve noticed. Somebody will say something. It seems a little sort of obtuse. And then somebody else is like, Oh my goodness. And they’ve made a connection. And then you start ideating together. So you have to have patience with ideas. The aim isn’t to get to the idea fast. The aim is to have ideas and germinate and enjoy the process.

Brenda: Well, how does diversity in a team play into that?

Abby: You know, everybody has a different perspective and a different point of view, which is why it’s really important to have diversity on your team. So not only diversity in terms of background, ethnicity, religion, and gender, but also of the jobs they do. What role you have on the project really contributes to what ideas are brought to the table, and through collaboration of multiple disciplines, we really can create something truly fantastic, because our AV team, as we’re ideating something, will say, oh, you know what, you can do that, that’s been done before, but we were wondering if you wanted to project it this way or do this with it, or wouldn’t this be interesting? And suddenly, you have an idea that is owned by everybody. It’s imaginative. It’s creative. It’s new. So I really think diversity all around is hugely important, especially when we’re working on our projects.

Brenda: It’s great that there’s an ideal out there, and I wish I could say that, you know, everybody has that kind of experience. But over the years I’ve kept a running list, this is what I do in my spare time, I keep running lists of stuff that doesn’t go right. So here’s a quick list. Number one, no one is clear about who gets to make decisions, and it ends up being the loudest voice in the room or the Zoom. So we’re talking about the lack of clear roles, and that can kill any team process right from the get-go.

Here’s another one. There isn’t a real balance of contributions from everyone in the room. So that’s a lack of an inclusive process. And Abby, that’s what you were just giving this great, robust example of. Here’s another war story. Boy, you’ve never experienced this. Coworkers are emotional, unpredictable, and lack trust. So, having guidelines for how we’re going to respect each other, they need to be established and oftentimes, they’re not.

And here’s the last one. I hear this a lot from folks in industry, that during a collaborative team process, they can actually feel alone. They can feel separated out. And we have the responsibility for ourselves to step up and to insert ourselves in the process, and at the same time, if the process is not truly collaborative, you’re going to have people who are just pushed to the outskirts, and that can kill.

Abby: You mentioned a lot of things to talk about.

Brenda: That was the shortlist everybody.

Abby: Well, when you have a new team, you’re right. It’s so important to explain roles and responsibilities to the whole group. So everyone is clear who has the final say. Because that somebody, at the end of the day, has to have the final say. And since COVID being remote makes it very easy for people to not participate or multitask, it’s very hard to focus on a call when you don’t have your camera on. Again, my pet peeve. Another reason I ask everyone to turn the cameras on is because, you know, I’m a victim of this. When you camera’s off, you can be on Slack, you can be on your phone, you can be shooting off an email. But if my camera is on and I know people are looking at me, then I actually have to pay attention.

So sometimes the reason someone isn’t contributing is that the call is sort of overstaffed and some people have nothing to contribute. So making sure the people that need to be on the Zoom, for example, are the people that are on it, is very important. I’ve been in meetings where I was just like tons and tons of people, and some of them don’t know why they’re there. I don’t know why they’re there. So you have to make sure that people have a purpose. They know their purpose. We all know that purpose. That’s another key. I think it’s a common error. You know, the more, the merrier. I don’t think I believe in that.

Brenda: I couldn’t agree more that communication over Zoom is so tricky. I think that things work so much better when we can allow for nuance. And I’ve got so many thoughts about communication, so, you know, settle in, folks, get comfortable. Let’s talk about things that sometimes can be considered overkill – meeting notes. How often does somebody come up to you after a meeting, and they’ve either completely forgotten what was discussed or they’re confused by what was discussed. How often do we just simply need to have detailed meeting notes that are then distributed to a team and that these always will have action items? What an incredible difference, as well, for people feeling included when they are a part of the resultant notes and if nothing else, the action items, again, clear roles, clear responsibilities.

Brenda: Abby, how does this work in your experience?

Abby: Yes, I completely agree. Action items from a top-line perspective which say what was decided, what needs to be done by who is imperative. Otherwise, project management breaks down, and things start to fall through the cracks. I am often surprised after a meeting when a group has all listened to the same thing and come away with very different conclusions. So, these short recaps really help at least flag any differences that are interpreted in a meeting. Make your notes simple, quick, and really easy to understand. This sounds straightforward, but people also misinterpret notes. So think about what you’re writing.

Brenda: So let’s talk about the E word. Let’s talk about egos. How does a creative ego help the team process?

Abby: Creative egos are good, right? I don’t think you could aspire to create without one. But there is a real difference between a healthy ego, which allows me to genuinely appreciate my strengths and accept my imperfections, and an unhealthy ego which will tell you to stick to what’s comfortable and avoid uncertainty. It makes you have unrealistic expectations of yourself and then your team.

So an unhealthy ego is sort of rooted in fear, anxiety and often results in a designer who is reactive, defensive, or easily triggered. Can you tell that I’ve worked with some people with unhealthy egos? So I’ve worked with designers who personalize what others say and see everything as a criticism, or they feel the opposite, a sense of entitlement or grandiosity, and they’re shocked when someone discusses their work and its effectiveness.

Brenda: So when I say Abby, you know, X, Y, and Z person is going to be in your creative team and, you know this individual and this individual has what you would consider to be a healthy ego. You’re really excited because they’ve got a healthy ego. What is that person doing?

Abby: So when we’re talking, when they’re showing us their work, when we’re workshopping together, they are open to criticism. So I ask them why they did this. What was their purpose? What were they trying to achieve? What does this communicate? And then, they can defend their design decisions. And you have a very constructive conversation. It’s not just what I think. It’s not my role to insist upon them what I think. My job is to have them question what they’ve made in terms of the client’s mission, the mission of the museum, the design mission. Is it aligning with those points?

Brenda: Right. But with the goals, with the project, and this is another thing that I find fascinating. When a project does not have a very clearly articulated audience and when a project does not have clearly, clearly defined, and even differentiated sets of goals, at the end of the day, any kind of a conflict or a challenge or a debate or whatever, oftentimes can be resolved, not everybody might be pleased, but at the end of the day, it’s about the audience, right? And it’s about why are we here and what are we aiming to do?

Abby: And I think that’s key about a healthy ego. It’s not about the designer. It’s about who we’re designing for. And the flipside, like an unhealthy ego, the designer tries to defend everything they’ve done. They’re not listening. They’re not hearing you. You know, you get a very defensive, well, you know, that wasn’t what I focused on. It’s like, okay, that’s cool, but I think maybe in the next iteration you want to think about that, or you want to think about ADA compliance or children or whatever the issue is with the design. And so making sure that it is somebody who is open-minded, that’s what I mean when I say they’re not defined by their design. And so too many people define their success on if everybody’s going, bravo, we love it. Nobody’s ever said that.

Brenda: That’s what I experience all the time. I don’t know what your problem is, Abby, but you know. I think that, and part of this I’m sort of feeling at this moment a number of designer listeners going well, and then there’s the client who can be a little bit difficult, or it can be upper administration, who can be a little bit difficult, or project leadership can be a little bit difficult. And I will say this, if you’re in a situation where you’re kind of in a lower station, if you will, within the sort of hierarchy of the project, and you are having to respond to or not respond to somebody who’s in a position of greater authority than you and there’s a conflict or a mistake has been made, let’s talk about having the very difficult conversations that nobody wants to have to have. But in order to move forward or fix a mistake or address a problem, we have to approach somebody else and kind of put it out there.

Abby: Well, you know, my mom brought me up really well. Honesty is the best policy. And when you see a mistake, you let everybody know immediately. I have never had a problem with anybody telling me they’ve made a mistake. I’ve had a problem when somebody has tried to hide a mistake, it always just goes down the rabbit hole and it gets worse and worse and worse and inevitably always gets found out.

So, if I see that I’ve made a mistake, or, on behalf of my team, someone on my team has made a mistake, I explain the mistake, and I always present the solution. And I’ve found that clients are always really forgiving, they’re like, okay, great. They know you’re human, they know they’re human, and then you’ve just got to fix that mistake ASAP. But they’re never fun conversations, especially the awkward conversations I have to have with team members because you have a personal relationship with everybody, you know, you know where the heart is, you know they care about what they’re doing. But I realized that some of these conversations are necessary.

Brenda: And I think the same thing applies certainly if you are not the owner of the company, but you have to kind of have that conversation up or very often if you are the firm or the project manager, the representative of the project, and you have to have that conversation with the client. So I’m going to share a tried and true teamwork tidbit. How’s that for alliteration? And I promise you, it really works. And it’s a series of steps. And you’ve got a conflict, create that moment, as horrible as it might be. Schedule that moment, ask your colleague, your partner, whomever it is to describe to you what’s on their mind. And you’re going to actively listen and try to be very present in a state of mind. It is so hard to actively listen.

So here’s how you can make sure you do it. You’re going to pause. When you are in this particular dynamic, give it wait time, take two beats before you then paraphrase, okay, here’s what I heard you say. Okay, so on and so on and so forth. What you’re doing, this is so important, you’re slowing down, and you’re letting the colleague or the other individual know that you heard them. Sometimes that moment can even just be enough. You’re making sure that you’re not operating on your own assumptions, and that check-in makes an incredible difference. At the end of the day, you’ve all got a shared mutual purpose, and that’s ultimately what this is about, is you go through this process so that you can get to the, okay, we’ve addressed what happened, we clarified what happened, we’ve heard each other and we have accepted feelings. Mostly we have clarified what it is that now needs to happen. So getting to that, that’s your endpoint. That’s your end goal.

Abby: So, Brenda, a job done well. The client’s overjoyed and –

Brenda: Of course.

Abby: – head of the project gets all the praise. This is natural sometimes because that’s the person maybe who’s been working 24/7 with the clients, the point person, the conduit of most things. But how do you make sure that everyone feels that praise and appreciation throughout the team?

Brenda: Oh, you give it. If you’re a team leader, give appreciations. Say thank you. It makes a difference. I’m always shocked when I hear, well, I shouldn’t have to say thank you because you’re doing your job, and I’m not going to say thank you for your job. Yes, folks, if you haven’t experienced this, there are indeed actual human beings out there in the world who say things like that. I think that giving a thank you to folks at the end of any given workday, as you’re saying goodnight or goodbye or good morning or whatever it might be, say thank you. It really does go a long way. And appreciations need to be an everyday thing. Even, you just had a rough conversation with somebody, right? Say thank you. Say, look, I am, you know, this was a really rough moment that you and I just had, but I want to let you know, I appreciate you bringing this to my attention.

And certainly, when the team does something great, the project lead does get all of the praise. Project leads, follow up and not just with a verbal appreciation to everybody on the team, but write it down, put it in an email to the entire team and copy higher-ups, copy in the client, copy in whomever it is that is frankly in the highest positions of authority so that it is well recorded and known that the team, that everybody with their feet on the ground did a fantastic job. What that does is obviously it should hopefully engender really good feelings among the team, create unity, really help that shared purpose. But what it also does is it models behavior, and you will see this. You will see team members giving appreciation to each other, and you will see clients, and you will see upper admin, whomever it is that’s kind of on the, on the upper tiers of a project, you will see them offering appreciations as well.

Abby: And I think, you know, saying, hey, thanks, everybody is important, but I try to speak to individuals, and it can be for small things, things that, you know, they think you didn’t notice they did. Taking a moment to just thank them.

Brenda: Yeah. And do it up as well. I mean, tell the client, I appreciate how much you brought to the table right now, and I want to let you know, you were so clear, so descriptive, I understand where you’re coming from, and I just want to appreciate you because I know that you really listened. Always, always give appreciations up, and know that it’s not, you know, being a goody two shoes or trying to be a suck-up, if you will, or anything like that. Give genuine appreciations that are descriptive even to folks who are above you.

Abby: Yeah, because when a client’s done a great job for you, they’ve laid something out, written something that’s helped us do a good job. I want them to know, this is great. This is exactly the kind of thing we need. Thank you so much for helping us because, again, we’re all in the trenches together. I think about teamwork as I played a lot of sports growing up, a lot of team sports. I love team sports. You very quickly realize that, why you need a team around you to succeed, you know, it’s not that –

Brenda: Say it, it’s basketball. Abby is actually seven foot three, for those of you who have not met her in person, she’s a dynamo.

Abby: Very bouncy.

Brenda: Dynamo.

Abby: Jump very high. Oh, my God. Absolutely not. So being in it, being, playing sports, I think was great for me because you realize the different positions, the different skills everybody has, and that it all has to come together for success. And that’s how I think about our teams. Everybody brings something to the table which is really important, and without it, we can’t have success.

Brenda: Abby, let’s talk about something that is really part of your wheelhouse, which is making film. There’s so many similarities; there’s so much that is comparable between the process of creating a film and working and experience design in terms of processes, protocols, the structures of teams, the roles, the responsibilities. Tell me about what a great creative team process looks like in filmmaking that you think would really inform folks in our industry.

Abby: That’s a fantastic question. There is a lot of analogies with filmmaking and experience design. You’ve got the team that write the script, and often now it’s a team. And then you have the director who really is the creative vision. That’s usually our equivalent of a creative director or the lead creative on a project, and then you have everybody else under that. That can be the actors that bring it to life, but without the DP to shoot it and the way that the camera moves and how that tells the story and the lighting and the way that tells the story, exactly like in design. You have sound – just as important in exhibitions, you have the sound team and you have people that edit the story. When you’re telling a story in a museum like in a film, information and emotion has to ebb and flow. There has to be those moments of reflection.

Brenda: So when you’re talking about moment of reflection, are you talking about within the designed experience, or are you talking about is a part of the team process? Because I’m listening to this, and I know you’re talking about product, but part of what I’m thinking is how much this, I think, also applies to a great creative team process. A great team process is one that has ebbs and flows, and it has moments of intense productivity, the brainstorming, the ideation. You need to have a lot of energy. You need to have a lot of openness. You need to basically make a giant mess. A wonderful, beautiful, creative mess. And then you need to have moments of pause, moments of reflection, moments of review.

Abby: You know, when we’re working on projects that can take anywhere from two, three, four, five and counting years to complete, you have turnover of staff, and then you have sometimes people who are on them, you know, they get married, they have babies, they get divorced, like a lot of things happen. So you are right. It’s making sure to celebrate the stages and have those moments of rest and bring the team together because otherwise, everything just blurs, and then everybody burns out.

Brenda: You absolutely, I think, have to build in a moment’s reflection for the team to then look at the work that is sitting in front of them before moving forward. And I don’t care if it’s one hour in one day, but let’s talk about what we just did in that great, crazy outpouring of product, whatever the phase is. How completely insane is that, Abby, from your perspective?

Abby: The sad thing is I think it’s absolutely not insane at all. I think it’s much needed. I think the insanity is in not pausing, and it’s hard to pause. It’s really hard to pause because once you’ve accomplished something, human nature is to, we accept that immediately and we move on to the next challenge. So it’s almost about like going against yourself and saying, no, we all need to pause. But I think the key is that it can be an hour.

Brenda: Sure, sure.

Abby: Very quick brief. You have to schedule it. It’s got to go in, and you just look back and reflect on what you’ve accomplished.

Brenda: And add in some appreciations.

Abby: It’s like a wrap party. That’s how I think about it. On a film set, you finish, you finish, you have a little wrap party before you go into the next year of editing, right? So it’s taking that little wrap moment. I think it’s incredibly important and you should write a book on it. I don’t think we do it enough.

Abby: I think we should rename today’s podcast not there’s no I in team, but hit pause.

Brenda: Hit pause. I like that very much.


Abby: So Brenda, let’s move on to our next segment, Tech Talk, where we look at any advances or trends in technology that are happening that may have a use in or in creating an experience. Today, we’re going to talk about your favorite subject, AI.

Brenda: AI.

Abby: Well, specifically, we’re going to talk about collaborating with AI, because it’s happening in a more interesting way every single day. The last month we’ve been collaborating with AI on a project, and it sort of was initially working with us as kind of spitting out these random images, and it wasn’t really working, and it wasn’t easy to understand, I mean, if it was some sort of wacky high art, maybe it was really cool. But for what we were trying to do, which was collaborate and design with AI, it wasn’t really working.

Brenda: Can I ask a question on behalf of listeners who, like me, may not be up on the absolute latest and greatest? Can you give us just a quick definition of, as you’re using it, what do you mean by artificial intelligence?

Abby: Basically, in the context of what we’re talking about, we are inputting information, and the artificial intelligence is taking what we’ve inputted and all its storage of, let’s say, for example, images, if we’re talking about collaborating on an image, it’s millions and millions and billions of images in its library and taking our direction, for want of a better word or our words, and sending us back a composited image, an image that reflects what we input.

Brenda: What is it that is just really getting you all so excited about this new tool?

Abby: I think it’s how quickly it’s learning. We’re hoping soon that it’ll be at a stage where we’ll be able to work with AI to design with us. So we don’t draw anymore. You won’t need to draw. You’ll have to be able to explain what you want and use words, and so it’s words that produce images. So it’s a very different way of working.

Brenda: How is this impacting your process? Will it help your creativity? Will it bring ideas to the table that, you know, a human being sitting at the table just wouldn’t have thought of?

Abby: I think that as long as you have a focus on an end goal of what you’re trying to do and a problem you’re trying to solve, it’s going to be really helpful. I think right now we’re just working to start to be able to collaborate in a meaningful way with AI and to get results that are not too leftfield. There is a moment when you create that you don’t know what you’re creating. It’s that inspiration. We all iterate, and so potentially with AI, maybe there’s some new outcomes.

Brenda: It’s unique.

Abby: Yeah.

Brenda: Who would you recommend work with AI or use AI as a tool?

Abby: I think our industry needs to lead and I think we need to embrace technology and everybody should have an R&D wing and be willing to spend time and money and efforts in finding out how new tools, new technology can help us tell our stories. I don’t think that we should be slaves to technology, but I think we should be aware of how they help us tell stories and also creatively think about how to tell stories in a new way.

I mean, not just take the tools and serve them up. Oh, yeah, we can use that. How can we immerse people with this technology in ways they’ve never been immersed before? And that’s on us. We in our own industry need to have this appetite and this conversation around technology, around storytelling, around design, around curation. We need to start having a voice.

What do you think? Do you think the future will be you sitting with your students, collaborating with AI?

Brenda: I mean, the answer is yes. We will be working with AI. Colleges and universities that engage in design and in specialized design like ours certainly will be increasingly engaging with AI. What that looks like, I’m not really sure, but I think that a big part of it involves engagement with companies such as yours and being able to work with, and as you were saying, you know, work with companies and work with different institutions that have R&D as a part of their modus operandi and that are experimenting with AI and playing with latest technologies.

Abby: One other thing I want to notice is already companies that could take our podcast in English and translate it with the same intonation and the same tone into different languages around the world. So I see AI as nothing to be scared of, and I think that it will enable us to create new and interesting things, and I think that it will open up the world and make it a closer place.

Brenda: Like any technology is, as long as our visitors are still driving their experience and as long as it is a very human-centered design, then we’re doing the right thing.

Abby: Thank you so much. Brenda.

Brenda: Thank you, Abby. Thank you, listeners.


Producer: Matters of Experience is produced by Lorem Ipsum Corp. Please tune in next week for another conversation. Thank you all for listening.

There’s No I in Team

There’s No I in Team

October 19, 2022
Behind the Glass with Sina Bahram

Behind the Glass with Sina Bahram

Guest Sina Bahram
October 19, 2022
Subscribe now on Apple Podcasts and Spotify
Nearly 2 billion people worldwide have a disability. So, how do we incorporate inclusive design and sustainable practices into our work to ensure we create experiences that are inclusive for everyone? Abby and Brenda’s conversation with Sina explores how to enhance true inclusivity and why it makes the entire experience more enriching.
Sina Bahram is an accessibility consultant, computer scientist, researcher, speaker, and entrepreneur. Believing that accessibility is sustainable when adopted as a culture, not just a tactic, Sina and his team work with executive management, policymakers, engineering teams, content creators, designers, and other stakeholders within institutions to promulgate accessibility and inclusive design throughout the fabric of an organization. Sina collaborates with the United Nations and serves as an invited expert on the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) Accessible Rich Internet Applications (ARIA) working group where he helps shape the next generation of digital accessibility standards and best practices.

Prime Access Consulting
Smithsonian Guidelines for Accessible Exhibition Design
The Warhol Expands Award-Winning Technology-Based Accessibility Initiatives
Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art


Sina Bahram Articles:
10 Best Practices of Accessible Museum Websites
How to Procure Digital Services with Accessibility in Mind

Abby: Hello and welcome to Matters of Experience. My name is Abigail Honor. My friends call me Abby.

Brenda: And I’m Brenda Cowan.

Abby: Welcome to this week’s podcast, Behind the Glass, with our guest Sina Bahram. Sina is an accessibility consultant, researcher, speaker, and entrepreneur. He founded Prime Access Consulting to support building a more inclusive world. Sina enjoys collaborating with both colleagues in the field and individuals of diverse professions to devise innovative and user-centered solutions to significant real-world problems. In 2012, he was recognized as a White House Champion of Change for his work, enabling users with disabilities to succeed in STEM fields. In 2021, Sina was selected to be a Mission Astroaccess Ambassador, which aims to make space and space travel accessible to all. Hello Sina.


Sina: Hi. Thanks for having me.

Brenda: Sina, we’re so delighted to have you, and just to get the ball rolling, we’re really curious to hear how it is that you ended up where you are today. How did you become an expert in inclusivity and accessibility?

Sina: I think, really, it started with a lot of lived experience. I happen to be blind and so being a blind computer scientist means that you encounter a lot of the mechanisms by which society, whether it’s education, whether it’s fun, whether it’s video games, what have you, are deeply inaccessible. Also, knowing how they got that way, because I understand coding and technology and these kinds of things, led me to believe that I had something to contribute to making it not be that way.

So throughout my undergraduate and graduate career in computer science, I kept having to invent the stuff that would allow me to succeed. And then noticing that those were also the tools and the frameworks and the systems that could be useful and amplify others in the field as well, you know, people with different abilities. And that’s how I really got into inclusive design and digital accessibility.

Abby: Tell us about one of your first visits or what it’s like or what it was like when you remember visiting a museum or an exhibition.

Sina: Yeah, I mean, this has changed a little bit over the years, but it was a lot of stuff behind glass, right? Interactives and digital systems, totally inaccessible. And so, you know, when I was going there on a school field trip, as you do, it was definitely a personalized experience. They had somebody that walked me around, a docent, you know, a visitor service, a staff member that would walk me around and, you know, try to desperately find some things that were touchable or that were in some way multi-sensory.

But there was no dedicated program, right? There was no really dedicated effort around that stuff. And so that was my first exposure to museums. And then, you know, little did I know that I would be helping build them and do so much work with them, you know, a few decades later.

Brenda: Sina, I’m curious about some of the emotional aspects of your work. I’m listening to you, and it sounds like you’re almost on some kind of a mission. What’s it feel like to do this work that you do?

Sina: Well, it’s deeply important, right? I mean, for millennia, really, since the dawn of time, we’ve had different swaths of humanity, different marginalized groups of people, whether it’s women, people of color, you know, LGBTQ, persons with disabilities, etc., all not be able to fully participate in the society that we’re building as a species. And so, I tend to be long-term optimistic, short-term pessimistic, and so I believe that we’re arcing towards a more progressive and inclusive society, but we all have a role to play in that. And I fundamentally believe that technology is an amplifier, right, is a magnifying glass, and this is not a new theory; many other folks have said this. It makes the good stuff amazing, and it makes the bad stuff really terrible.

And so I want to use tech, tech-enabled solutions, and also just clever thinking and ways of understanding systems so that we can be creative and harness that creativity, not only to make the world more accessible and inclusive, but also so that we can facilitate all of these, quite literally – you know, 1.9 billion people in the world have a disability – to get those brains working on the hard problems of our time, whether it’s climate change, whether it’s space travel, whether it is virtual reality, you know, whatever floats your boat.

And those are lots of incredible creative problem solvers that are being ignored and actively prevented from fully and equitably participating in all aspects of society.

Abby: So you just said a number which sort of probably shocked a lot of people. 1.9 billion people have a disability. What?

Sina: It’s about 20 to 25% of the world’s population. It adds up, right? And again, like sometimes it’s things that you may not consider. It’s like, oh, yeah. You know, there’s somebody with a walking difference, right? They’re not a wheelchair user, perhaps. So it’s not as visible of a disability, but all of a sudden you realize that three stairs may be okay, and six is going to be out of the question.

Right? Or imagine like just spraining your ankle. So these things come up, you know, your contact lenses are bothering you that day, so you take them out. That shouldn’t mean that you can’t then still enjoy with your kids the museum exhibits because the text is nine point font. So we can do things that make it more comfortable and inclusive for people, understanding that there’s an entire vector of human difference or spectrum that we all fall along when it comes to our abilities. And then we want to be able to honor all of those differences of ability when we’re designing and making stuff.

Abby: So overall, there is this lack of accessible exhibits. I would say, in general, it’s all to quote you behind the glass. What are some of the things designers should be thinking about when they begin designing to increase accessibility?

Sina: Sure. So there’s a couple of concepts there, right. There’s accessibility, those things that we do specifically for persons with disabilities. Right. Those who may use assistive technologies like a cane, a wheelchair, a screen reader, which is a program that reads me digital interfaces, a hearing aid, that kind of thing, that’s accessibility. Then we think about inclusive design or universal design, and they’re subtly different from one another, but inclusive design is really a methodology that considers that entire vector of human difference at the beginning. It means that, when you’re thinking of a building, let’s decouple the affordances, which is a fancy way of saying, let’s think about what we want to offer people and then figure out how we’re going to offer people that thing.

So we’re building a building, and we’ve got multiple floors, okay? So we’ve got the first floor. We’ve got the second floor. How do people get to the second floor? I mean, you could use stairs. Architects love stairs. A lot of the world’s population can’t use stairs. So we’re already excluding just with a simple, you know, drawing in a file. It costs you nothing right now to fix it.

But that decision has already been made before a shovel hits the ground that we just actively chose to exclude millions upon millions of people. So we use elevators. Then we think to ourselves all right, well, now we’ve got elevators, and we’ve got stairs, I guess we’re accessible, but then we’re segregating our audience based on ability. Now, you and I go to a museum. Let’s say I’m a wheelchair user. I don’t happen to be, but let’s say I am. And now I’m using the elevator. You’re using the stairs or rerouting to come with me in the elevator if it’s big enough.

We don’t need to do any of that, right, you could have just used a ramp and everybody could use the ramp, right, and you have the elevator for maybe somebody who is unable to, those things that we haven’t predicted in advance and also to lift up and down equipment. But we just made it inclusive, and we made the experience non-othering, right? We’re not discriminating or segregating based on ability or any other difference.

Brenda: Sina, the demands for accessibility in designed experiences and to content in a variety of ways, it’s higher than ever. And we’re talking about physical access, but also intellectual access, also emotional access. Do you think that we need to be working well beyond the established national tools for accessibility? I’m thinking of the Smithsonian Guidelines for Accessible Exhibition Design in specific. Is this the time to make substantial updates and our established benchmarks in our profession?

Sina: Yeah, I don’t think we’ve nailed that one yet.

Brenda: Any minute now.

Sina: Yeah. Any minute now, that’s right. It’s like AI, it’s always five years away. So look, my opinion on the ADA and by the ADA, I mean the Americans with Disabilities Act. It is simultaneously the most landmark, significant piece of civil rights legislation the world has ever seen. And it’s also the bare minimum you can do under federal law in this country for 30 years. It’s 1% of what you need to do.

Let’s talk about the ADA and the Smithsonian guidelines you mention. Think about the National Museum of African-American History and Culture, which is a mouthful. So let’s call it NMAAHC for short. NMAAHC has an exhibit on the Greensboro counter. Greensboro is actually a city about 45 minutes away from me in North Carolina here.

And there’s this civil rights story that’s told, these men of color sat at a lunch counter, right, they were subject to horrible abuse. This is during the, you know, the civil rights movement going on in the 20th century in the states. And this is a recreation of that counter, and there’s a touch screen exhibit in the middle. And at the end of the counter, there’s a lowered section. And that’s the wheelchair section, that’s the ADA accessible area. So what you, as the museum, are telling the black woman who rolls into your exhibition on segregation is that she needs to go to the end of the counter to experience this content on segregation. This is terrible.

This is something that’s completely unnecessary. It’s inexcusable in this day and age. And it would have cost nothing to fix. You lower the counter by a couple of inches and you remove the bolts off the stools that you’ve got in front of it. Then wheelchair users can use it. Somebody with a walker or oxygen tank, or service animal can use it.

And it’s just it’s not hard, but it takes that level of thinking, and also it takes that prioritization from upper and senior management in order to do that at the beginning. Now, that exhibition I just told you about it is ADA compliant. It’s legal. It complies with the guidelines that you mentioned. It’s not inclusive, it’s not even remotely inclusive, but it is accessible. And that’s the difference, right? That’s what we try to avoid at all costs is that delineation. We want to build things that are equitable and inclusive for everybody.

Abby: So let’s discuss the experiential quality of the experience for everyone in the essence of what we’re creating. I know sometimes the question is leveled, does the overall experience suffer when you start to fold in accessibility?

Sina: Yeah, this is a classic one, right? Like I want to do something sexy and colorful, and you know, accessibility means we have to make it all black and white and all these other things, which is just, you know, terribly untrue. The suboptimal approach and haphazard implementation of making things accessible is terrible, but the suboptimal approach to making soup is also terrible. So don’t do it badly. When you do inclusion well, then you not only enhance the number of people that can access it, but you end up making the entire experience more enriching, immersive.

We had the privilege of being on dozens and dozens of projects. Not a single one of those projects has gone by, and this has never been elicited from us, it’s never been prompted, where the engineers, the designers, the management team has not come to us basically either in the middle or the end of the project and said this, you know, they always say, oh, my God, I didn’t know any of this accessibility stuff. You know, we learned so much on the inclusive design, all of those things.

But then they say, You know what, though? The thing we didn’t expect was that this would make the project better, like full stop better, not just for a small percentage of the population, not just because of cost savings or anything like that. It’s just better. And the reason is that when we do the work of inclusive design, we ask a very simple question, and we ask this of every client we ever work with.

What is your design intent? We first have to figure out what we’re trying to do and then figure out how we’re going to do it. That sounds really easy. It’s almost reductive, but if you ask yourself those questions and force yourself to answer it, then you go, What am I trying to do? Okay, I want to have people feel like they’re in a forest.

Okay, now how are you trying to do it? Then we can talk about the fancy stuff. Projectors and audio systems and vibrotactile feedback and wind blowing on your neck and all these kinds of things when you’re making a virtual reality experience. But first, you have to ask, what are we trying to do?

Brenda: So when we’re talking about the how we’re going to do it, and I’m thinking about multi-sensory rich exhibition environments, things like smell, touch, auditory experiences, and so on. Now, some folks would argue that those are highly inclusive environments, or certainly much more so than what a more conventional passive behind-the-glass kind of environment would be. I’m really curious; what’s your take on this? Are exhibitions going far enough?

Sina: Multi-sensory is not accessible nor inclusive. Good aspects of multi-sensory and multimodal design are critical requirements of accessibility and inclusion. So it’s like the whole, you know, square versus rectangle thing, right? And so people think, okay, well, it’s multi-sensory. There’s an audio piece, and there’s a lighting piece, there’s some stuff you can touch, and there’s some stuff you can see. So we’re good, right? Like we’re, you know, we’re done, you know, like solved accessibility. Next problem. And the thing is, hold on a second, are those things linked in a redundant and strategic way? For example, does the light show reflect the emotional connotations or the gestalt of the experience that you’re experiencing auditorily? Or are they synched together so that when the sound is louder, maybe the lights are brighter?

What about the stuff that you can touch? Are you receiving the information at the right time, or are they off in a corner? What is the linking in the content with respect to these multi-sensory things? For example, we had an exhibit we worked on on fire, right, and fire safety and they were like, okay, we’re going to teach people, you know, you got to check the doorknobs if you think your house is on fire before you open it, because there could be a fire behind the door and they were going to light it up to show kids, they were going to light it up in red or blue.

And then they were asking, how do we make this accessible? It’s like, hold on back up for a second. Forget about how to make this accessible. Let’s first make this just logical and reasonable. If there’s a fire behind the door, the doorknob is going to be warm. And frankly, if it’s the middle of the night, you need to be touching it anyway. You might not have your glasses on. You just woke up, etc. You might have smoke in the house, so you should touch it and see if it’s warm. You can also color it red or green, or blue for that visual reinforcement. So once we did that, then the entire experience design changed, and all of a sudden, that’s inclusive now for everybody, but it also reflects reality.

So we got that engineering and that cool tech piece, we got the inclusivity piece, but we also got the, we actually taught people something more by thinking inclusively piece as well. So that’s, that’s how I kind of approach that sort of thing.

Abby: So when you get to build, is there a cost perspective because all this sounds sort of expensive. Have you found that it’s financially viable, or will it throw off overall costs? Because I know a lot of people often have limited budgets.

Sina: Yeah, I mean, it depends on the scope of the project. We have done projects with multitrillion dollar companies. We have done projects with nonprofits with barely one full-time staff member, and their entire annual budget is less than most people’s salary. Okay. And the difference has never been the amount of access they have to money. It has always been, universally true, it has always been the commitment to do the work. And the reason is because there’s different ways of doing the work. So you don’t have to be fancy with the door knob saying, right, they were doing a fire exhibition and a science center. They had some dollars so we could do the infrared stuff. But you can do other things as well, right?

You have the ability, for example, of writing visual descriptions yourself for the artwork. You don’t need to farm that work out. If you want to make tactile reproductions, you can spend thousands of dollars on each one like the Andy Warhol Museum did with us. Or you can just make some arts and crafts based reproductions, but that are high fidelity for, you know, 50 bucks, for 20 bucks. We’ve actually seen this done, there’s a woman at Crystal Bridges who does this kind of work, and she gets local supplies and reproduces incredible artworks, and they not only feel amazing, but they also look like the original artwork.

And so it’s really about commitment. It’s about sequencing, right? Adding captions to a video when you have, let’s say, a $15,000 video budget and the cost of captions is $45; this is a rounding error in Excel.

And then, when you start getting into large projects, there’s really no excuse. So yes, on very, very tiny projects, you may not be able to spend money, but you can always do something to make it more inclusive.

Abby: So Sina, you and I recently worked together on our project Doorways Into Open Access for the Smithsonian and Verizon, and we collaborated right from the start. You steered us around many a minefield, but let’s say a museum has money to spend on improving the accessibility of the museum design. How do they make sure they’re spending it on the right things besides hiring you, of course.

Sina: That’s very kind. I think the most important thing is to sequence your tasks. So what we don’t want to do is have people get excited about accessibility, and then they’re like, okay, we got some funding, we’re going to do this. And then, like next week, okay, everything needs to be accessible, and now all of a sudden it’s an overnight requirement.

So the real trick here is to sequence your approach to inclusivity against the tasks that you’re already committing to. You’re already agreeing as an institution to spend time, money, and people’s effort on this exhibition that’s coming out in the fall. Great. Are there a lot of videos in it? Maybe that’s the opportunity to nail down captions and sign language, and audio description in transcripts.

Are there a lot of paintings in it? Maybe that’s the opportunity to nail down your visual description practice. Are there a lot of like interactives and digital components, you’re doing some really cool tech stuff. That’s the time to get better about digital accessibility. And so, if we can sequence these tasks against already committed resources and time, we eliminate the cost conversation, but we also smooth out the level of effort conversation, so people don’t perceive this as an added thing that they were never asked to do before. And now they are because it’s just part of enhancing the workflow and their practice. That’s one aspect of it.

The other thing is sometimes there’s some really easy ones, right? So if you’ve got some dollars to spend, you know, caption your videos, right? Invest in audio description, make sure your website is WCAG or WCAG conformant. There’s some very simple things that you can exchange dollars for if you’ve got the budget, but the real trick is to make it sustainable.

Do you have somebody in the organization that’s like a chief inclusion officer, for example? Like what are the ways that you can build sustainable practices? Not just a flash in the pan is really what I would guide people to spend those resources on.

Brenda: Sina, you were mentioning the Andy Warhol project. I think you mentioned that there were touch elements, and did you do that work pre-COVID? And if so, what is the changing landscape post, or well, currently with COVID and in the post-COVID landscape look like for this work that you’ve been doing?

Sina: Well, remember, I’m a pretty evidence based guy, and so let’s talk about, you know, fomite transmission, right, which is the ability to get COVID through touch and how that pales in comparison to respiration. And so museums are taking away things that are touchable, but they’re perfectly okay with all of these humans occupying the same enclosed space. So just from a scientific perspective, I will argue that the lack of touch access is patently ridiculous.

But we can’t do much about that because it’s perception. Think about a touch object in a museum. Disinfecting it is not that big of a deal. Now, putting that aside, look at what’s happening now. So many people took down all the touch stuff, and they ripped all the things out of the gallery. And what are they doing now?

Now they going through and figuring out how to put it all back. But what did the people do that didn’t depend on a single modality? The people who had an app companion for their interactive, the people who had their content also on the website, the people who were already doing tours over Zoom, not just in-person because they cared about remote audience engagement.

Those people did way better during the pandemic. And this, again, is where we see these synergistic, these amazing benefits that come out of, that emerge out of thinking inclusively at the beginning instead of reactively to whatever the current trend or, you know, emergency is.

Abby: You’re a myth buster. I think we should add Mythbusters to your resume there. So I want to chat a little bit about some of the things that people think are going to help them when they’re starting to design for accessibility, like overlays.

Sina: Overlays, yeah. So for those who are not familiar, overlays are – what we were talking about with overlays, there’s many definitions of that word – are these accessibility overlays from various companies that will basically sell you something like this. They’ll call you up and say, listen, you install one line of code on your website – and this part is true – and you’ll be done, you’ll have our thing running on your website – and now we get to the false part – and it’ll make your website totally accessible, right? It’ll make your website compliant and conformant, and all these other false claims, and they end up making websites less accessible, not more. They end up causing a lot of problems. They give a lot of folks false hope. And so we need to be really careful in the community of just, you know, educating ourselves and telling our friends, colleagues, bosses, employees, boards that this stuff is not good. And it’s really building a pretty terrible web experience for many persons with disabilities. And it’s horrendous, and it’s really shameful.

Brenda: Sina, we all have a role to play, as you said. And I’d love to hear for all of the designers that we have listening out there, where do they go to learn more?

Sina: One of the things that we are working with various colleagues in the field on is there’s no good training on this stuff. There are some trainings, but you know, operative word being good and it’s a problem because design schools are not teaching it as much. Now, this is changing. There’s some cool stuff out of NYU. There’s some really great work being done in interdisciplinary programs where it’s not just computer science, it’s not just museum studies. It’s a combination of both. And these multidisciplinary programs are, I think, the way to go because then the thinking is already inclusive in a different way of different disciplines. And now we can think to ourselves, how do we use our skill sets for good? How do we think about all audiences at the beginning, not just in the middle or at the end of a project?

So some of that I’m seeing, you know, develop a little bit in terms of courseware, but it’s it’s really, your question is indicative of a pipelining problem that we have in this country, which is that there’s very few people that have this skill set, that think about this way, that were trained in, you know, to think about design inclusively. And I mean, I suppose that’s why we have so much work. But I, trust me, I would love to be out of it. Right. I mean, you know, running a vineyard sounds like a really cool thing to do. I’d rather go do that, right? But the world is deeply inaccessible so this is what we’re doing. And I think that as we get more and more awareness of these things, it’s going to take people participating in different ways.

So the work that we do on projects and capital builds and, you know, helping people roll out various technologies and inventing solutions, that’s one aspect of the work. But there is also what can you do if you’re a professor listening to this? What can you do if you are a student in a program? Maybe you’re a graduate student looking for a topic, right?

And there’s a lot of work to be done just academically and pedagogically in being multi-disciplinary and inclusive in all the ways we think about this, whether you’re in a music program, architecture program, museum studies, philosophy, it just it simply doesn’t matter. We need to be incorporating this way of thinking into these different disciplines so that then we’re churning out more and more humans that bring those values and also that knowledge to their first job and are advocating for that stuff.

Abby: And are there any articles that our listeners could use to learn more about this?

Sina: I wrote one for, actually, 2 for AAM, the American Alliance of Museums. One is some website accessibility tips and tricks, and that one is just some hands-on stuff. What do you do about media? What do you do about things like headings and links and all the stuff that people talk about when it comes to digital and web accessibility.

Another one is how do you procure? How do you buy stuff with inclusion at its core? How do you not triple or quadruple pay for accessibility where you hire somebody like my firm, then you hire your developers, then you pay them once to make something, then we critique it, then you pay them to fix it. This is a terrible cycle. We are just tripling the cost and this leads by the way, to that perception of accessibility being expensive.

Imagine, if you will, where your basic requirement, your acceptance criteria for the work is that it is inclusive and accessible. All of a sudden, people play ball. All of a sudden, if they want to go for that contract, they’re going to do it in a better way, and they’re going to listen to all of that advice upfront.

And we recently saw this, you know, the Obama folks released a media RFP, but they had some requirements in there. They said all of your proposals must be accessible. And guess what? It was the first RFP process I’ve ever participated in, where I could read every single proposal that was submitted. And so essentially, that’s the trick, right? Like, that one sentence that that team put into the language of the RFP all of a sudden made all think about visual descriptions and how they were laying out their documents and font faces and things like this.

So procurement is kind of boring. It’s dry. It’s the meeting you can sleep through. But it matters so much because the ways in which we spend the money are one of the most powerful things we’ve got as tools in a capitalistic society. And if we attach to that expenditure our requirements, real honest to goodness, not performa requirements around accessibility and inclusion, then we can have massive, you know, sustainable and systemic impact.

Brenda: Wow, Sina, well, I am a professor, and I can guarantee you my graduate students who are just about to enter into their thesis work are going to be very delighted to learn about you and your work and hold on to your hat because you might be getting a ton of contacts from them. We shall see. But it’s been absolutely delightful listening to you, and I want to thank you for your time and sharing your long-term optimism with us.

Abby: Yes, thank you so much, Sina. It’s always wonderful to chat, and a transcript of today’s show will be available to accompany this podcast.

Sina: Thank you so much for having me.


Producer: Matters of Experience is produced by Lorem Ipsum Corp. Please tune in next week for another conversation. Thank you all for listening.

Behind the Glass with Sina Bahram

Behind the Glass with Sina Bahram Guest Sina Bahram

October 19, 2022
Exhibition Versus Experience

Exhibition Versus Experience

October 19, 2022
Subscribe now on Apple Podcasts and Spotify
In this episode, Abby and Brenda respond to the current influx of questions about the differences between what industries deem to be “exhibitions” and “experiences”, and why the conversation matters. Are experiences always event or program-driven? Where do content, learning, transformation, and meaning-making fit in? Does thinking about experience mean that we are thinking more about audiences? In a special Tech Talk segment, we look at advances and trends in technology that might be useful and inspiring when creating an experience.

AAM Core Standards for Museums
Brooklyn Children’s Museum – NBBJ | ESI Design
Brooklyn Children’s Museum
Boston Children’s Museum
Mark Rothko: The Seagram Murals – Display at Tate Britain

City Museum
Carnegie Museum –Tim Pearce TikTok
Black Country Living Museum –1920s Grandad TikTok

Abby: Hello and welcome to Matters of Experience. My name is Abigail Honor. My friends call me Abby.

Brenda: And I’m Brenda Cowan. Abby, my friends call me Professor.

Abby: Welcome to this week’s podcast on the gigantic topic of exhibition versus experience. What are the differences, if any, and why does it matter? We’re going to look at how exhibitions were traditionally defined and how and why is this changing. I first want to acknowledge that this is a topic for about 10 hours of the show. Right, Brenda?

Brenda: Oh, yes. I teach in an M.A. degree program in exhibition and experience design. So, Abby, we can safely put it at several hundreds of hours.

Abby: So let’s talk about a museum. Museums have been around for a long, long, long time, and they’re traditionally places for collections of artifacts. And the exhibition portion is what the public gets to see, which is usually part of the collection of a museum. Recently, these exhibitions have been asked to become experiences. So what we’re here to talk about today is sort of any commonalities between exhibits and experiences and any differences between an exhibition and an experience.

Abby: The definition of an exhibition is, I quote, a public display of works of art or items of interest held in an art gallery or museum or at a trade fair. So I think we can probably all pretty much agree. That sounds like an exhibition to me. What about you, Brenda?

Brenda: Sure. Did you get that from Merriam-Webster?

Abby: I got it from Google.

Brenda: Google. Thank you, Google. I think that, sure, it’s important to have a grounding. And I know that we’re going to dive in in terms of really looking at the sort of the semantics. But one of the things that’s really, really important to me to point out is the idea that experiences are somehow new or that experience in relationship to exhibitions is new because it’s not.

If we go back to the 1970s and look at Ed Schlossberg’s work with the Brooklyn Children’s Museum, we are seeing pristine experience design. If you look at any children’s museum or science center, all of them museums, right, recognized as museums, you automatically are looking at all of the kinds of elements that we use to define experience design, immersion, kinesthetic, we’re looking at interactivity, audience-driven and I think that, you know, I began doing work in children’s museums 30 years ago, and I think that it’s kind of weird in a way to be talking so much about experience design because it kind of was, you know, do they use the expression in Britain, cut your milk teeth? I cut my milk teeth on creating, you know, children’s exhibits, which is all experience design. So I don’t know that you can really extract the two.

Abby: So way back then, 30 years ago when you were working in museums, children’s museums, did you ever use the term experience for your exhibitions? Like was it something ever synonymous with what you were doing or was it something you were doing and you didn’t realize it?

Brenda: Probably both. And look, you know, we talked endlessly about experience, but experience design was just not on trend. It wasn’t the language or the lingo that was being used. At the time, in the early nineties, when I was working in children’s museums, there was an enormous push to look at education and outcomes, and there was a tremendous amount of work that we were doing with the, at the time, it was the American Association of Museums, now the American Alliance of Museums. We were working tremendously with AAM and looking at their standards of excellence in museum exhibition, and they’re all experiential.

Abby: No, they are. I’m so happy you brought up AAM’s standards of excellence because they’ve been there for so long, and one of them for museum exhibitions said, and I quote, An exhibition is successful if it’s physically, intellectually and emotionally engaging and accessible to those who, wait for it, experience it. As we think about what an experience is today in a museum, one of the things I think they have to have is that interactivity, that communication, that conversation, whether it be physically or from an intellectual perspective.

Brenda: I think that the idea of human development is what drives, especially the early great children’s museums. We’re talking about Brooklyn Children’s Museum, Boston Children’s Museum, and well, I could go on from there, but those were really the first two. And the whole idea was to provide experiences and environments for experiences that help children grow and learn in a natural way.

But at the end of the day, the idea of interactivity and play and design is just as much for adults. Maybe it’s a generational thing. Abby I don’t know. The idea that adults play too and that interaction, kinesthetic experience, multisensory experience, engaging with objects, it’s not, it’s not just for kids anymore. It’s always been for adults. It’s just the profession is only just now, I think catching up with that.

Abby: I think things like, I totally agree, I think recently things like Roblox and other games, and so I agree. I think that the atmosphere that we’re designing in right now is a very open one to be able to incorporate play and maybe education also has sort of slowly turned more to understand that play and interaction actually helps people retain and learn.

I feel that that is where education has lagged and museums, more traditional museums have also lagged behind in terms of that. So let’s talk about experience versus exhibition. Tell us a little bit about the definition as far as the standards of excellence go.

Brenda: Sure, and I should just put out there, I really struggle to separate the two. Exhibition versus experience. I don’t think it’s a versus. I think that they really are two faces of the same coin or just two different perspectives.

Abby: I want to interject with a question then. Does that mean you think that every exhibition needs to be experiential or have an experience tied to it?

Brenda: I think that every exhibition does have an experience tied to it. I think that once you have a visitor in an environment engaging with content in, you know, in whatever way, engaging with the environment, you’ve got an experience.

It’s important for us to recognize the nature of humans and the physical, the intellectual, the emotional framework that is the human being. And every time people go into, especially into a designed environment that has been curated, that has been designed by a creative team that’s gone through all of the elements of design, I think that you are going to have engagement in those three primary ways, and I think that that’s what experience ultimately is.

It’s the human having the experience within the space. I think the great spaces have thought about that and have designed towards that and that welcome people to engage intellectually, physically, emotionally.

Abby: Right, and we’re not talking about a bad versus good experience here. We’re talking about an experience based on what the curator or the team were trying to share, the design team.

Brenda: Yeah, absolutely. And it’s also we need to make sure that we get in there, that we’re also not just talking about museums, but we’re talking about and certainly, these days, branded environments, retail environments, trade shows, expos, spectaculars. You know, we’ve got so much that is happening right now on intimate scales and on grand scales, and with innovative uses of media, all of the same defining elements apply in terms of human experience no matter what.

In any of these kinds of environments, we’re having the physical, the emotional, and the intellectual experience. And ideally, people get what they want. They feel good about what they have experienced.

Abby: I’m just thinking as we discuss that an experience and exhibition are one and the same. It’s interesting to even question what an exhibition is today. So I just visited a pop-up in the Meatpacking District yesterday. It was laid out, it looked very similar to an exhibition, but it was actually a store. The pop-up had a product in which like when you go into a traditional museum and they have artifacts, it had text panels explaining all about the product.

It had labels identifying the product and a call to action. Everything was really well designed. When you talk about messaging, it’s all on point. There was hands-on moments where you could touch things and interact. They had hair clips. You could take off, try on and there was a huge glass mirror there so you could actually look at yourself in them.

There was a lot of intention that had gone into the design of the space and the presentation of the objects, very much similar to an exhibition. They knew their target audience. Everything was totally geared to that. But in my opinion, one of the shortcomings was that it lacked what I would call cultural significance. Its aim, at the end of the day overall, was to sell me some stuff.

The satisfaction from an experience perspective was pretty low level. It wasn’t intellect actually, or very emotionally engaging, but I did have a basic interaction, and so I would call this an experience.

Brenda: I think that, you know, first of all, the expectations that you had going in clearly did not match up with what you got. And we’re going to be talking in a different episode with the brilliant John Falk, who’s going to talk about the meaning of, to him, education and exhibits and the idea of satisfaction as well. I don’t know that the whole point is necessarily to get an education and certainly not in the one that you were experiencing.

So if you were kind of expecting to learn something new that could certainly be why it just really wasn’t hitting the right marks for you. One of the people who I go back to as well and I think of is another one of these museum greats, Dan Spock. And he once gave a cool definition that exhibitions are the medium of media, written words, sound, image, moving image, performance, digital media. And he says that when an environment has all of these and yet it retains its inherent exhibit-ness, then you’ve got a great experience. You’ve got a great exhibition. And really, one of the delicious things about being in exhibition design is that you’ve got the entire candy shop, you’ve got it all, you’ve got so many tools and toys to work with.

Even exhibitions that are didactic or they’re static. There’s always a lot going on beneath the surface that you’ll hear the word numinous experience when people have encounters with objects and objects that are very evocative. People have sensory experiences in environments that are so moving to them, and it’s subjective, and again, it’s based on what their expectations are, what their motivations are, what their desires are. But experience is not always something that you can see happening is an important point to me.

So you could have gone into an exhibition that has not had a ton for you to, let’s say, play with or be super stimulated by. But you still could have a very moving experience, and you could still have what to you would be a really great experience in a designed environment.

Abby: I think back actually to when I was 12 years old in the Tate Gallery in London, surrounded by Mark Rothko’s and all my classmates. Yes, it was a fundamental moment in my life. For some reason, I stopped and paused, and I looked around and I couldn’t move for about an entire hour and I was completely transformed and transfixed, and that experience was unbelievable. I still remember the way I feel to this very day.

Nobody else in my class had that. That was just something that I had in relation to the Rothkos around me. I think it’s interesting also that we aim to create an experience for everybody to enjoy, but a lot of it depends on what a person is bringing into the space, what experiences they’ve had before, and what experiences they’re hoping to have.

Brenda: Part of how I really love thinking about this is that visitors are responsive, but they’re also drivers of their own experience because they come with expectations. And there are things that we want. We have chosen, we have self-selected to go to a particular place, to have a particular experience on some level we have gone there even if we’re a tagalong and are going there because, okay, the husband wants to go here. You bet. I will absolutely come along with you and I’d really rather be wherever.

Abby: Oh, come on. You’ve never agreed to go along with your husband.

Brenda: I always agree to go because he’s wonderful and I just can’t, just, I always want to spend time with him. I’m serious. But the point of the matter is we set ourselves up to have a certain kind of experience. And what is interesting, I think, is when an experience is designed for, being that it has multi senses, let’s say, or it’s accounting for as many different physical modalities as possible and there’s emotional aspects to it, then all of the sudden we get to be responsive and let’s say, you know, in a situation if I am a tagalong, all of a sudden I get to be responsive to an environment where I really was not very willing to give myself over. I can also direct my experience. I think that experience design is a dance. It’s a, it really is a dynamic conversation between an environment and a visitor.

Abby: That’s what I was going to add, because I was going to say I’d describe it as, I guess, contrary to a film, which is a monologue, you’re being talked to, you’re not being asked any questions. Your participation is purely to sit and absorb. And I feel like experience and experience design is all about the dialog, and it’s about that interaction, it’s about that conversation.

And that’s what really creates this immersive experience and something that’s long-lasting, something that you feel part of. I mean, how many times have I been in an amazing exhibit, and you are invited to give your point of view or your legacy, and then you feel like you’re part of that institution. So I think it operates on a really profound level when you can start to have those connections with the visitors and that really incredible experience.

So when we’re thinking about breaking down the differences between exhibitions and experiences, do experiences without driving narratives have an easier time of it? Is it harder to reach people when you have a specific story you have to tell? So the opposite of film, I guess, where a good story moves you and a film without much of a story loses you.

Looking at spectaculars as experiences, do they get away with a lot because they really don’t have to tell a beginning, a middle and an end. They just have to have people leaving, going. Wow. Wow. What was that, question mark?

Brenda: So what do you mean by getting away with a lot? What are they getting away with?

Abby: They’re getting away with being able to show you something big because scale is usually linked to these things. So it’s big scale either in terms of square footage or meterage or ginormous screens or something truly hugely immersive. And then, if you don’t have to tell a narrative, then you don’t have to worry about a direct story. You can show something fun and playful, and abstract.

It doesn’t have to have a set parameter. It doesn’t have to communicate any facts. A lot of the historical museums we work on have to convey facts. It’s part of their backbone, and they’ve got to be factually accurate. With some of these bigger spectacles, I think it’s more about being there with a crowd and sharing a common moment.

Brenda: So there’s a lot there. And the first thing I have to do is I have to respond to your super exuberant description of these big awe environments. And I’m just, I’m sorry, I’m going to get just slightly scholarly about this, but it is so exciting. There is work that has been done and it’s called small self. When you are in a place and you suddenly feel really small, it ignites something in the human animal.

It is absolutely amazing, and it is spectacular and true to the terms that is used oftentimes to describe or capture these really giant over the top events and experiences that are created these days. Part of why you love those moments and why so many people love those moments is that there is something in the feeling of the world as much larger than I or things are much larger than I that actually kind of helps us psychologically. It literally kind of grounds us, which is a very good kind of feeling. And it also makes us feel prosocial. When you’re in an environment like that, oftentimes, you know, maybe a stranger will sort of maybe lean over to you and say, Can you believe that? Yeah.

Abby: There’s a commonality of it, right? We’re all experiencing it together. You do feel one of many. And so in that most people take great comfort.

Brenda: Yeah. When I was listening to you, I was thinking about the super brilliant City Museum in St. Louis. And so, it’s lush. It’s, if you haven’t seen the space, I have to give a blanket apology to the creators of the City Museum because I am so awkwardly going to try to properly capture you in a description. But it is an artist generated museum and the entire space is recycled, repurposed, upcycled, crafted objects, environments made out of hand-sculpted materials, and the entire building includes elements of other buildings. And for all of our listeners, Abby is making a wow expression.

Abby: I am making a wow face.

Brenda: She is making a wow face, and it is well justified. So the whole institution is this artwork, and the narrative is the environment. And this is where I see this really gorgeous sort of syncopation between experience, designed environment, built environment, and story.

Abby: So did you leave with that feeling of the human interaction with this geographic area and the kind of people that were there and the kind of buildings? And when you walk away, when you think back on it and you remove the experience, what did you learn?

Brenda: I learned, I think about other people sharing the space with me. And part of that again is I want to pick up on your wow experience, that became, as per the nature of awe experiences, it became kind of like a very resonant, shared social connector. And because every single thing that you were seeing, touching, interacting with was literally a physical part of the city created by people of the city in terms of learning something, I feel like I learned about other people. I learned about myself quite a bit, I must say.

Abby: And I think at the end of the day, you know, we can argue semantics or experience versus exhibition. I think ultimately the goal is that of both is to learn a little bit more about who you are and your place in the world. So it sounds like St. Louis is a place that I need to go visit and check out that museum. It sounds incredible.

Brenda: It is.

Abby: I think about one of the major differences potentially between the exhibition and experience is you always want to get visitor participation upfront. It’s incredibly important if you want to make a successful exhibition, when you think about the location of the exhibition, the target audience, you really need that visitor participation ahead of time to make sure that what you build is for the community.

I think that is less of a concern when you’re talking about these pure experiences, some of the branded experiences, where of course they know their target audience if it’s a brand or a product. But there’s less of that conversation that goes on about what’s going to be created.

And then multiple touch points, thinking about multiple touchpoints before an exhibition opens. How is this museum or exhibition communicating to the public before the doors officially open? What’s that strategy? How could you replicate the narrative online and talk to the audience about the stories before it opens? And then when we look at the designer’s perspective, there are no differences between exhibition and experience design, I believe, in today’s world. I think what’s changed is all the tools the designer needs in order to design a great exhibition or experience.

So you’re talking about understanding media, video, interactives, you know how you design an interface, how users interact with that interface, how they sit and enjoy media or walk by and enjoy media. AR, a whole new arena. VR, another one. And then, if you add on top of that the metaverse, you have this ginormous toolbox that our designers have at their fingertips to create these unbelievable immersive exhibitions.

And then we move to curators. Curators really need to work with companies that can help them tell their story using this broader toolset. It’s really difficult for curators to keep up on what’s actually going to stick, so it takes them a long time to be persuaded, and sometimes I feel a little frustrated that you can see all the other industries that are providing these experiences and our more traditional museums haven’t got there yet.

Brenda: Well, large or small, I think that something I want to pull out something that you said earlier, which is that an element of design, I think, it’s definitely happening right now and it’s increasing is audience participation and I think of co-creation. And I see that as a very valuable and a really vital element of design that I think should be in those standards of excellence as AAM updates its work in upcoming years.

I think that co-creation, audience participation in the actual generation of experiences of the exhibition environments is critical. And related to that, I think that another element of design that is starting to really appear on the radar and being done really effectively is social action. I mean that specifically as an element of design, something that designers need to be trained in.

I know that we do social action as an element of design in our program and because our designers need to not only have that enormous tool kit that you just went through but in a sensitivity towards and a knowledge of all of the different roles that people are playing on our client teams. But social action, they need to understand the fact that whatever the kind of environment is, is a part of society. It is a part of our culture, it is a part of distinct cultures, and it’s a part of human culture. So to create these forms for experiences, but then also enable people to be prompted towards positive action.

Abby: Yeah, I totally agree. There’s nothing worse than actually going through an exhibition, being completely motivated, touched and moved, and thinking, Well, what do I do now? I’m now completely frustrated, I feel useless, and nobody’s providing me with any way to help or do something or any action items. And again, when you think of Gen-Zers, I think of them in this positive way, all that they’ve sort of brought to us is bringing into focus this idea of positive action. And I feel like they almost demanded it. They’ve grown up in a world where they want to make a difference, be given this opportunity to act and be heard. And speaking from experience with my two teenage girls, that’s what I live every day. So I think social media has a lot to do with why they are the way they are.

It’s provided this platform since they were born to find a community, a place to speak out, show their passions, and really get support in large numbers. And I think that’s what they demand from their exhibition experiences.

Brenda: Abby, we have only scratched the surface.


Abby: So. Brenda, let’s move on to Tech Talk, where we look at any advances or trends in technology that are happening that might be useful and inspiring in creating an experience.

Brenda: Abby, I am going to just make a quick plug about TikTok and how the app, which apparently is thought of as being most popular among 13 to 21 year olds, although I’m in my fifties and I know an awful lot of folks in my age group who absolutely love TikTok, TikTok reaches over 1 billion people.

I’m mentioning TikTok because very recently I read a piece that the Carnegie Museum of Natural History has posted 12 films on TikTok, and they have been attracting over 1.5 million views, which is more people than visited all four institutions in the Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh last year. And these TikTok videos are these brilliant little pieces of Tim Pearce, who is a curator at the museum. Who, folks, he tells snail jokes. That’s it. It is our beloved curator telling snail jokes, and it is reaching that number of audience. It’s absolutely amazing. So I want to put in a plug and highly recommend that museums play with TikTok. It’s your friend.

Abby: I think that’s absolutely fantastic. I just love the authentic delivery. I also wanted to give a shout-out to the Black Country Living Museum in Birmingham in the UK. They also use TikTok, especially during COVID, and they got a third of a million followers since using the platform in August. So this particular video features Grandfather giving out advice from the 1920s, you know, like all of our grandfathers do, tell us what we should and shouldn’t do. And it went viral. They even actually got on the official UK TikTok 100 chart, believe it or not.

So I think that’s kind of amazing. So they take their actors, their docents from the museum and brought them to life on TikTok in these very short little vignettes, really well produced. They’re all in costume. They’re in location at the museum, telling stories, singing songs. It’s really brought the museum visitor experience to life on TikTok. So not only did they get a global audience, but it really worked during the pandemic, which I think, you know, is a great use of social media and has really pushed social and pushed digital to the forefront of a museum’s thinking, given that, you know, we don’t know when the next pandemic may happen. Yes, I said it, ladies and gentlemen.

Brenda: Oh, Abby!

Abby: Sorry. Better to be safe than sorry, that’s what I say.

Brenda: Well, pandemic or no pandemic TikTok is certainly not going away any time soon. And the truth of the matter is, it’s just a heck of a lot of fun.

Abby: So that’s all that we’ve got for today. Thank you, everyone, for tuning in. Please send us any thoughts, suggestions.

Brenda: Tik Tok Videos.

Abby: And tune in next week.


Producer: Matters of Experience is produced by Lorem Ipsum Corp. Please tune in next week for another conversation. Thank you all for listening.

Exhibition Versus Experience

Exhibition Versus Experience

October 19, 2022

Meet your hosts

Abigail Honor

Abigail Honor

Abby is a founding partner at Lorem Ipsum, an experiential design agency, and has over 23 years of experience in storytelling through physical and digital design. She has crafted dynamic and inspiring narratives for global brands, companies and institutions, using cutting-edge technology to communicate compelling and thoughtful messages. Abby has won multiple design, film and directing awards such as the SEGD Honor Award, HOW International Design Award, Muse Award, to name a few, and maintains affiliation with associations including SEGD, AIGA, and the American Advertising Federation.
Brenda Cowan

Brenda Cowan

Brenda Cowan is a professor and former Chairperson of Graduate Exhibition & Experience Design at SUNY Fashion Institute of Technology. Brenda is a Fulbright Scholar in the disciplines of museums and mental health, and her theory of Psychotherapeutic Object Dynamics (2015) has been presented for the American Alliance of Museums; Museums of Hope; MidAtlantic Association of Museums; National Museums of World Culture, Sweden; and has been published with the National Association for Museum Exhibition; Society for Environmental Graphic Design; O Magazine; and Huffington Post Science. She is currently co-editing a volume on the subject of flourishing in museums.

Inspiring Encounters

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Double Take

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