Exhibits at Sandy Spring Museum get an Extreme Makeover -- Gazette.Net



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Some reality show contestants compete to redo a kitchen, cook a meal with strange ingredients, or survive on a deserted island.

In Sandy Spring, the local museum is the platform. Contestants there used innovation and creativity challenged to redesign its exhibits.

Allison Weiss, the museum’s executive director, said she came up with the concept last summer to get teams competing to overhaul sections of the museum and bring in visitors.

“The exhibits have not changed in 15 years,” Weiss said. “We could have gone the traditional route of redesigning the exhibits, but tying it into the reality TV show concept let us take a serious process and make it fun and accessible to the public.”

It also accomplished something that would have otherwise been expensive. Weiss said professional museum exhibits typically run about $300 per square foot.

The original exhibit provided a general overview of life in the old days, including several different bays that featured a general store, a schoolroom and a kitchen. The contest provided new elements to enhance the exhibit.

“The exhibit hall has been transformed by their work and we are estimating that the project would have cost about $50,000, if you factor in all of the materials, expertise and time that was donated,” Weiss said. “The actual costs were just over $6,000. I’m so impressed by the dedication and professionalism of all of the participants.”

The project was funded by about $3,700 raised through crowdsourcing — a public appeal in which many people contribute — and a $2,500 grant from Heritage Montgomery.

As a bonus, the competition created more of a buzz than just revamping the exhibits would have done.

She posted on several different art and museum message boards, looking for experts in the field, as well as the general public. Twelve people applied, all with experience.

The contest began with two teams of five. By the end of the project, there were seven participants, including a graphic artist who worked with both teams.

Each team’s budget was $1,200, and the participants received a $200 stipend. The teams were given complete freedom and five months to do an “extreme makeover” of the museum’s exhibits.

The players

Two teams of museum professionals — Team Jersey Shore vs. Team Kardashian — competed to design the best makeover, as selected by a panel of celebrity judges. Weiss chose the team names, in keeping with the reality TV theme.

Participants ranged from exhibit designers to researchers to museum directors, each bringing expertise and connections to the process.

Andrea Jones, 33, of Mount Rainier, is director of programs and visitor engagement at Accokeek Foundation. She is a former teacher who became a museum educator, specializing in designing immersive, experiential programming.

“This means that visitors are asked to place themselves in another person’s shoes and to become part of the story,” Jones said.

She got involved in the project in September after moving to the area from Atlanta, Ga.

“I was unemployed and wanted to keep my head in the museum business while I was looking,” she said. “I also had an interest in exhibit development that I had never been able to pursue. Exhibit development, especially at larger museums, is usually done by a team of professionals that have been trained in the process.”

Jones said educators usually are not brought in at the concept phase of exhibit creation.

“Because exhibits are teaching tools, I’d always had a hankering to design an exhibit that speaks to people’s learning styles and engages them in critical thinking, rather than passive label reading,” she said. “I see so many exhibits that read and feel like textbooks on steroids. And who likes a textbook? I wanted our exhibit to say something meaningful.”

Andrew Scott, 35, describes himself as “a fledgling freelance exhibit designer,” although he has been in the field for about 10 years. The Alexandria, Va., resident graduated with a master of arts degree in museum studies from The George Washington University and co-teaches an exhibit design class in the program.

He learned of the project through a posting in an alumni newsletter and thought it sounded like an interesting approach to exhibits.

Both teams dealt with multiple challenges due to geographic coordination, time commitments, scheduling problems, and fundamental differences. For these and various other reasons, some of the team members were “voted off the island,” or jumped ship on their own, leaving the surviving members with an increased workload.

The tasks

Team Kardashian, led by Jones, created an entirely new exhibit “From Soldier to Civilian: Returning Home.” It’s about the transition veterans make as they leave life in a combat zone and are faced with becoming a normal citizen again. It’s designed to help start conversations about how a veteran’s life is different in war, so civilians can empathize and help them make the adjustment.

They interviewed a member of the Maryland 224th National Guard unit in Olney and created an immersive space based on her personal photographs of her tent and environment in Afghanistan.

Team Jersey Shore, led by Scott, took a different approach and recreated an exhibit that was already there, based on the concept of the community gathering space.

In the beginning, he had a number of ambitious ideas, but ran into constraints and scaled back.

“Fortunately, the original message of community gathering places — areas and landmarks of Sandy Spring where people could come together, exchange ideas, and keep up with the town’s goings-on — has remained,” he said.

“I think the final product will be interesting to the Sandy Spring viewers and hopefully get them thinking about their current gathering places, why they go where they go, and why these spots are important,” Scott said.

Weiss said both teams successfully completed their challenge.

The winner

Both exhibits were completely installed from beginning to end Saturday and Sunday.

On Sunday afternoon, celebrity guest judges Mary Alexander, Jose Dominguez, and Larry O’Reilly, all well-known and accomplished professionals in the museum field, announced that Team Kardashian, with their exhibit “From Soldier to Civilian: Returning Home” was the winner.

Jones was proud of her team’s winning exhibit, even though she went home only with bragging rights.

She said that on Sunday morning, as they continued hammering and sawing, an older man and his wife stopped in and watched the video they produced as part of the exhibit.

“He told his wife a little about his experience at war decades ago, maybe things he’d never said to her before,” Jones said. “And he admitted that he got a little lump in his throat thinking about his past experiences and how hard it is to go to war. This kind of response and discussion amongst family members makes all that work worth it. This was exactly what the exhibit was designed to do — provoke meaningful discussion.”

Weiss said they expect to leave the new exhibits up for about a year and are planning some programming based around them.

thogan@gazette.net