welcome to the InPark Magazine media hub & IPM editors' blog - please stay, browse, share & sign up for a free subscription

05 April 2012

Better Museum Exhibits Through Collaboration

Looking ahead to the annual conference and expo of the American Association of Museums (AAM) in Minneapolis April 29-May 2, IPM takes a close look at the collaborative design/build approach advocated by Cinnabar - exhibit producer/fabricator with a string of innovative successes including the California Academy of Sciences, Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County and the JPL Visitor Center.

by IPM co-editor Judith Rubin


Young visitors have an entertaining shopping experience that teaches about making eco-friendly choices at the supermarket inside the "Eco Challenge" exhibit at Discovery Science Center, Santa Ana
Cinnabar CEO Jonathan Katz has never balked at change. He is always prepared to seek and implement ways to update and improve his “company of designers, artisan builders and producers creating unique experiences for the museum, entertainment and cultural industries.” In his quest for better ways to do business in step with evolving conditions, he freely borrows models, best practices and tricks of the trade wherever he finds them – embracing the principles of supply chain management from the manufacturing sector, for instance (more on this below). Katz is always ready to challenge the standard phrase, “that’s the way we do it here.” That readiness has helped Cinnabar to develop a substantial market niche in the museum and nonprofit community over the past 15 years. The company’s clientele includes the California Academy of Sciences, the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, the Discovery Science Center, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the Autry Museum of the American West.

Cinnabar has developed a substantial market niche in the museum and nonprofit community over the past 15 years.

Golden Gate Bridge Pavilion image: Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy
For two new visitor centers in San Francisco, Lands End Lookout and the Golden Gate Bridge Pavilion, both run by the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, Cinnabar fabricated the exhibit/retail elements of the public experiences, for the design firm Macchiatto. The experiential nature of the displays and the collaborative production process both departed from traditional models, as Jeremy Regenbogen of Macchiato describes. “While most visitor centers make a clear distinction between interpretive and retail spaces, we took a new approach. The client (Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy) creates unique products with true interpretive value, not the knickknacks commonly found in visitor centers. Early in the planning process, we decided to fully integrate interpretive and retail moments for both projects. The synergy between an interpretive product and an accompanying exhibit panel can be quite strong, especially when the visitor brings a product home and the interpretation carries on for them eternally.
Designer Jeremy Regenbogen at the site of the Lands End Lookout visitor center
“Marrying these two features presented some unusual design and fabrication challenges. Cinnabar’s broad reaching, in-house expertise in media integration, graphic production techniques, metal fabrication and traditional cabinetry really helped keep the fabrication process efficient and without surprises. Cinnabar matched the design intent exactly, with an incredibly unified look. Whenever we had a thought about how a complex element might be constructed, we discussed it in great detail with one of their experts relevant to the fabrication method we were discussing. We were able to really push the limits of constructability and utilize some nontraditional building materials, making for a truly unique finished product.”

Less-flexible, bureaucratic structures are giving way to semi-permanent networks of small, autonomous, project-oriented teams.

As boundaries increasingly blur between market sectors such as gaming, entertainment, sports, retail, and museums, less-flexible, bureaucratic structures are giving way to semi-permanent networks of small, autonomous, project-oriented teams. The members of these teams, be they writers, designers, producers, technical specialists, etc. are selected by how their talents fit the project, as opposed to being identified with a particular sector.
Scion Tour, customized Airstream
Applying principles of supply chain management
Supply Chain Management (SCM), a term used in large-scale corporate manufacturing, refers to the management of complex chains of supply, goods or services. In the SCM literature, the lowest level of transaction is “low bid, get the order” and the optimum level is one in which the business relationship becomes an alliance – a highly collaborative partnership. This level of cooperation and feedback results in higher sustainable productivity and increased long-term profitability, which are key measures of success in the business sector. Most importantly, these benefits apply to all actors in the chain.

Instead of a top-down, one-way bid system, we can spin a network of activity in which the primary creative personnel participate earlier and more comprehensively.”

Katz sees equivalent benefits for the museum world. “Openly sharing information, not just about a specific project but about goals in general, allows for much more productive solutions. Instead of a top-down, one-way bid system, with scant information sharing, there is dialog about the best use of each participant’s resources and assets. We can spin a network of activity in which the primary creatives participate earlier and more comprehensively. We are now seeing such projects in museums: where, for instance, the institution engages the architect and the exhibition producers on the same timeline, sparking synergy between the building envelope, and the experiences created in and around that envelope.”

Exhibits produced by Cinnabar for the Kimball Natural History Museum at the California Academy of Sciences, San Francisco

Simon Adlam, Director of Exhibits & Creative Director at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County (NHM) has headed successful project teams of all kinds. “On a number of the projects we’ve worked on with Cinnabar, we started out with a very formalized RFP process, like we did for the award winning “Age of Mammals” Exhibit. On the current project that we are doing now, we brought them really early on as a full partner in the creative and production process with the larger team.”

Adlam speaks favorably of a “partnership” model: “Cinnabar’s emphasis on working with one another as a team and finding solutions as a team is very similar to the way the NHM builds exhibit teams, so it becomes a very easy marriage of, say, a contracted team and an NHM team. It becomes very, very easy to communicate the transmission of ideas and find solutions. I think the word ‘partner’ is a really good way to explain how both the museum and Cinnabar and other contractors put it together. A partnership means that all parties have some kind of stake involved – they are all invested in one way or another.”

It becomes very, very easy to communicate the transmission of ideas and find solutions. I think the word ‘partner’ is a really good way to explain how both the museum and Cinnabar and other contractors put it together.” – Simon Adlam, Natural History Museum of LA County
Hands-on: Katz and employee in the shop at Cinnabar
Commenting on the project process for the aforementioned San Francisco visitor centers, Macchiatto’s Jeremy Regenbogen validates the team approach and early involvement of creative personnel. “We had two projects with the exact same finish date, yet dramatically different start dates. Cinnabar was brought in to provide preliminary pricing and guidance on the first project (Lands End Lookout) in the middle of the design process. They helped us tailor our project and keep it within budget. Since we had them on board for that project, they were extremely helpful in guiding our second project (Golden Gate Bridge Pavilion) from the very beginning of design. Often value engineering comes at the end of the project, where difficult sacrifices must be made. Cinnabar’s early involvement meant that we could constantly bounce ideas off them and keep the intent of the design intact.”

Often value engineering comes at the end of the project, where difficult sacrifices must be made. Cinnabar’s early involvement meant that we could constantly bounce ideas off them and keep the intent of the design intact.” – Jeremy Regenbogen, Macchiatto

Balance
In Katz’s vision the producer is a fulcrum balancing creative and educational goals, and practical requirements. “You have certain, very clear, content-driven objectives, you have a range of individuals making the contributions – whether designers, educators or curators – and you have the realities of the space, the budget and the timeline.” He pointed out that adapting this type of model, similar to those used in film production, where one assembles a creative and technical team to fit the work, is not a new idea. He cited Tom Peters, author of the 1988 management classic “In Search of Excellence: Lessons from America’s Best Run Companies,” who predicted that this model will take over in modern business. Further, in a 2001 article in “Curator: the Museum Journal,” influential museum consultant Janet A Kamien looked at exhibit development models and suggested that the “Theatrical Model” may be the most effective.

Race to Recycle is part of the "Eco Challenge" exhibit at Discovery Science Center. Working on this project sparked heavy discussion on the shop floor at Cinnabar about how best to recycle individual plastic cream containers.

The Theatrical Model has stood NHM in good stead. Simon Adlam says, “Here in Los Angeles, one of the most creative cities in the world, we have the entertainment business all around us. Our exhibit development model reflects more of an integrated approach – something closer to an entertainment model, whereby we assemble all the right people and the right teams to do the right job at the right time – and get amazing results. When you do things differently and innovatively, you have to partner with people who understand where you’re going, what you’re doing and who can add to the process. And I’ve found that our model fits in very easily with Cinnabar, a company that has a natural understanding of what we’re doing. A number of our projects are winning many national awards, so I think that our process – being integrated and working with great partners like Cinnabar – is starting to be proven.”

When you do things differently and innovatively, you have to partner with people who understand where you’re going, what you’re doing and who can add to the process.” – Simon Adlam

Invested in content
Katz describes himself as “on fire about the content” of his museum projects. His group is, too. “Everybody here gets into the topics,” says Katz. “When we were working on Eco Challenge [for Discovery Science Center - click here to see feature article on this project from IPM November 2011] which is all about raising people’s recycling consciousness, exhibit fabricators on our shop floor got into huge discussions about how to recycle the single serve cream containers sitting by our coffee pot. I knew I would love working on museum projects and be engrossed by the content, but I didn’t, at first, know it would be widespread throughout my company.”

 “I knew I would love working on museum projects and be engrossed by the content, but I didn’t, at first, know it would be widespread throughout my company.”

Katz shows his commitment through personal involvement in the projects. Staying hands-on is something that running a lean company enables him to do. “We cut overhead and layers of management and found that it enabled us to be very competitive on a value equation. When we go after a project, it is a good fit for the client and us. The client appreciates it when the principal shows up,” he notes. “They also appreciate how our service mantra, ‘how can I help you,’ plays out in the professional behavior of our crew.” 
 

In other words, the collaborative, transparent model advocated by Cinnabar in the field reflects a model consciously facilitated within the company. “Effective collaboration demands that you respect the skill of other participants,” says Katz. “I encourage the project managers to work at being open, to listening. You can initiate a conversation with anyone. We believe in the critique – its not about the person, but about the work. We foster transparency, which you can see and hear in our open plan office. We make an effort to become familiar with one another’s work. My favorite saying – promoting the idea of management by walking around – is ‘the best fertilizer is the farmer’s shadow.’ I’m not going to tell you what to do, but I want you to listen when I have something to say. Once you establish that ethos you have laid the groundwork. Our origins as a fabricator provide a positive benefit at all levels of the company: we are artisans who build and make things.”

 
Highlights from Cinnabar’s museum portfolio
by Joe Kleiman

AMERICAN WEST & OPEN SPACES
In 2010, Cinnabar worked with the design from Muniz/McNeil and the Autry National Center of the American West on the traveling exhibit “HomeLands: How Women Made the West.” The exhibit, based on the book by Virginia Scharff and Carolyn Brucken, examined three different areas of the American West – Rio Arriba, Colorado Front Rage, and Puget Sound, and women’s stories from each area. Cinnabar created an exhibit that can easily be assembled and disassembled while maintaining extensive audiovisual components, collections of artifacts, and tactile exhibit surfaces for a four-city tour.

During the same year, not too far from The Autry, at Pasadena’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory von Karman Visitor Center, Cinnabar joined forces with design firm C&G Partners and JPL to reimagine the center’s exhibits. New graphics, high security artifact displays, vitrines, model rigging and a/v integration were all supplied by Cinnabar. In what has become a common practice for the company, they also fabricated modular structures that allow for easy change out of images, text, and audiovisual content as NASA’s expedition of the universe consistently evolves.
Cinnabar joined forces with design firm C&G Partners and JPL to reimagine the exhibits at Pasadena’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory von Karman Visitor Center.

FLOATING ANIMALS
For the Natural History Museum (NHM) of Los Angeles, on a team headed by Simon Adlam, NHM Director of Exhibits & Creative Director, Cinnabar worked with graphic design firm KBDA and NHM staff to create a new “Age of Mammals” exhibit, where panels can easily be switched out (if information needs updating).


In 2010, Cinnabar worked with the design from Muniz/McNeil and the Autry National Center of the American West on the traveling exhibit “Home Lands: How Women Made the West.”
But moving things around was not as easy with the specimens themselves. According to Jeannie Lomma, Senior Project Manager at Cinnabar, “There are some serious seismic factors that affect NHM. We were also dealing with large and delicate exhibits and an old 1913 floor. The artifacts in that exhibit have some flexibility, but for the most part, they’re situated permanently in place for a 15-year duration.” 
 
From the "Homelands" exhibit at the Autry
To resolve the issues with the floor, the exhibit structures are supported from steel studs welded to the main beams, floating the structures about one inch above the floor.

ENTER THE GRID
The floor proved to be part of an exhibit for another museum, the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco. Damaged by earthquakes, the entire building, save for one historic wall, was slated for demolishment and reconstruction. While the new building – a celebrated design by Renzo Piano – was being built on the site of the original in Golden Gate Park, a temporary location opened in a historic factory in the city’s downtown district, near the museums and entertainment venues of Yerba Buena Park. 
 
The Kimball Museum at the California Academy of Sciences

This temporary exhibition space, which featured a three-story coral reef, was a collaborative effort between Cinnabar and Thinc Design. However, when it came to the huge project of the permanent museum, the two groups took on individual challenges. Thinc designed the exhibits for the Academy’s Steinhart Aquarium, while Cinnabar produced the exhibits for its Kimball Natural History Museum.
Galapagos specimens at Cal Academy of Sciences
Cinnabar’s work entailed five different areas: “Islands of Evolution,” “Early Explorers Cove,” “Altered State,” “Tusher African Center,” and the Wilson Naturalist Center.

“Unlike NHM,” says Lomma, “the Academy was designed for maximum flexibility. Working with Renzo Piano and the Academy design team, we designed a grid system of anchoring for the building's radiant floor.” Also integrated into the grid were conduits and outlets for power and audiovisual needs.
[click here to see feature article on this project from IPM spring 2009



CHILD’S PLAY
The “Early Explorers Cove” at the Academy is a children’s play area for the five-and-under crowd. Its key features are a treehouse, a backyard area complete with garden shed and vegetable patch, a tide pool-themed infant area, and a play-structure of the research schooner Academy. (Those who remember the original Sony Metreon in San Francisco may be interested to know that Cinnabar also built “Where the Wild Things Are.”) Lomma states, “Early childhood is ALL about themeing. All the goals and objectives are designed as play, but they’re really designed to bring younger children in for educational purposes.”
Early Explorers Cove at Cal Academy of Sciences



At California’s Discovery Science Center (DSC) in Santa Ana, Cinnabar produced “Eco Challenge,” a participatory attraction/exhibit that caters to a wide range of age groups. The exhibit had been first envisioned as targeting middle schoolers, but Cinnabar’s research showed that the visitor demographic could extend to younger groups as well. This resulted in one immediate change: the “Discovery Market,” a life-size recreation of a grocery store, complete with computer-enhanced shopping carts, ended up with carts of two differing heights, so that younger and shorter visitors could also participate fully.

Another aspect of Eco Challenge, which is all about making eco-friendly choices, is “Race to Recycle.” This is a fully interactive experience: kids compete to pull actual items off a conveyor belt and sort them into the proper recycling bins. “The visitor is actually participating in the exhibit,” explains Lomma. This analytical act is not only popular with children, “but many adults get very involved with it as well,” she adds.

A TRANSFORMATIVE PROCESS
When we started this company, we were trying to decide what to call it,” remembers Jonathan Katz, Cinnabar’s CEO. “We wanted to have a name that was easy to remember, like Kodak. One of my partners was a painter and he came in one day and mentioned the red color based on the mineral cinnabar. The rock itself is mined for both pigment and mercury. And it was also used in ancient China to carve cartouches and other decoratives. It had mystical and transformative properties. We like the idea of transformation.” • • •


The Cinnabar Culture

Jonathan Katz, Cinnabar CEO
Schedule Compression and Fast-Track Methodology. Building scenery and special effects for broadcast and film taught the company how to produce complex projects within tight deadlines, without compromising quality.
Constant Business Innovation. Collaborative models of supply chain management furnished lessons for a transparent, efficient design/build process that engages all participants in the supply chain: subcontractors, freelancers, shop production systems, and all facets of the client institution including curatorial, education, development, operations and marketing.
From Analog to Digital. The digital revolution drives integration of media into the built environment, and connects exhibits to a larger virtual, socially linked world. Technology powers uniquely engaging interactive exhibits.
Sustainability. Greenbuilding principles influence the choice of materials and equipment, yet more significantly they address multiple agendas: immediate program requirements and long-term performance.
Change is the new normal. A decentralized, modular approach to fabrication and control anticipates and simplifies the process of refreshing an exhibit’s content and supports optimizing reuse through flexibility.
Know Your Strengths. Selectivity about projects and hands-on involvement at all levels fosters long-term relationships and transparency.