Interpretive planner eyes Discovery Park with enthusiasm
Posted: Wednesday, September 15, 2010 6:47 pm
By: By GLENDA CAUDLE
The Messenger 09.15.10
By GLENDA CAUDLE
Special Features Editor
“You get paid to be a lifelong learner.”
So says Madeline Chinnici, senior interpretive planner with Thinc Design in New York. The firm is working with area volunteer committees and the board of directors of Discovery Park of America in Union City to bring local ideas of what the multi-million dollar education-entertainment-tourism project should encompass to life. The project is aiming at a completion date of late 2012.
“It’s a wonderful field to be involved in. I’m one of the luckiest people in the world to have the job I have. It’s taken me so many places and I’ve met so many different kinds of people and seen a world I wouldn’t have had a chance to see otherwise. It’s a wonderful field for someone who is adventurous and has a lust for learning,” she says.
Ms. Chinnici’s educational preparation for her job appears to bear little resemblance to the work she does on a day-to-day basis. She pursued a degree in plant biology — even to the master’s level — and worked in that field for a time. Soon, however, she came to see immersion in a scientific field as too limiting for her range of interests.
“I liked the subject matter, but in science you have to get very in-depth with a particular area of interest. I found I wanted something more stimulating in a broader way. Scientific research is rather isolating, too.”
That preparation, however, was not wasted effort. Instead, it opened the door to an “interim” career as a writer for a science magazine. That, in turn, led to experience in television. And this, eventually, opened the door to the world she thrives in today — interpretive planning for museum exhibition design.
“If you want to become a museum professional and work at a museum, you can go to college and get a degree in museum studies. The path to becoming an interpretive planner for a museum design firm, however, is not as direct. The job is unique. First and foremost, it requires good communication skills. But you also need real life experiences to draw on and a lot of on-the-job training,” the Thinc intrpretive planner says.
Ms. Chinnici adds that people who work in her field of content development tend to come from varied backgrounds. The common denominator, she says, is an ability to take in a lot of information and distill it, or express it, in a way that talks to a broad audience and gets at the essence. Practitioners of her particular art-science-communication trade must also have an ability to interact with 3-D designers. Their common goal — to take content and turn it into a three-dimensional experience — is advanced when a broad swath of people from a variety of backgrounds combine their expertise.
Once the future interpretive planner evaluated her future and decided her roots should be planted in some field other than scientific research, she took a bold step. With no training as a writer, she nevertheless returned to a home base in New York and managed to get her foot in the door of a science magazine geared to a general audience.
“One thing just led to another. I started writing and really learned on the job. I had a base of knowledge and that was important,” she recalls.
Next came a fellowship opportunity to work with a public television station in Boston at WGBH.
“The idea was to take people who had already demonstrated an ability to teach science in print and teach them the tools of the broadcast trade. That was in the 1980s, and there was a feeling that science reporting was lacking on TV and in radio, so there was an effort to get people who already had some experience and teach them different communication skills. My colleagues warned me that if I accepted the fellowship, I would never be able to come back and write about science again.”
In fact, their doom-and-gloom projection could have proved accurate for someone with less passion to explore and learn. Instead, Ms. Chinnici latched on to the opportunity and, in so doing, prepared herself for a future in a multi-media world.
In Boston she learned broadcast communication skills and honed them in both radio and television, doing some science documentaries in the latter. At that point, she says, she could boast experience in science, writing and visual language. Her résumé could have appeared “scattered” had she applied for jobs that were mainstream in that era. Happily, though, her drive to explore meshed perfectly with new ways of encouraging exploration and presenting discoveries.
When Madeline Chinnici heard about a job working for a museum design company, she was intrigued. The job description called for an employee with a knowledge of science and work-tested communication skills. She could submit her qualifications with complete confidence.
“The ability to communicate in words and pictures and sounds was a huge advantage. Suddenly, everything was multi-media. The person who had been comfortable in a narrow field was now at a disadvantage. As a lark, I decided to give it (the museum job) a try and that was my entrée into the whole realm. After that job in 1987, I did some freelancing and then went to work for another museum design group for about 16 years. I came to Thinc a little over two years ago.”
In retrospect, she says the advent of digital technology and a ubiquitous, or omni-present, media made her broad palette of communication skills an advantage.
“I remember thinking it would be fun to bring subject matter, the desire and the ability to write and the media aspects all together. It would be great, I thought. But, in reality, the museum world is even more than I anticipated, because it also includes a physical space, or environment, that can be manipulated and constructed to create a memorable experience. It’s about as broad a story-telling palette as you can get.”
What is involved?
Ms. Chinnici characterizes her profession as one that involves both listening and talking. “There is the talking through and then there is the checking in. We never get so afar that we haven’t checked back.”
In their work with DPA committee members, the design team has made repeated trips to Union City to engage in carefully scheduled multi-day sessions that allow representatives of the local volunteer groups to — first of all — present the objects they already possess which will be showcased in the DPA adventure, to define the ones they hope to claim soon and/or to describe the ones that will have to be created from scratch to tell a story or provide an experience.
The Thinc team visits in multiples, with each member making notes and sometimes taking turns at encouraging “what-if” thinking and creative brainstorming among the committee members themselves.
“The job involves a lot of listening and then creating, based on that understanding. Then you go back and share it with the larger group and hear what they have to say. It’s a real give and take process. The iteration (a problem-solving method in which a succession of approximations, each building on the one preceding, is used to achieve a desired degree of accuracy) may be about each party coming to understand better what they really want to say,” Ms. Chinnici explains.
“Our client might give us a few desires. We ask questions and then work that through and come back with a design solution and then that advances or stimulates their own thinking so they can refine it a little more. Then we hear what they have to say again, ask more questions and come to understand a little better. It’s just trying to get at the essence of what our client wants to say. Sometimes details themselves cloud the picture and you have to get at the heart of it to get a clear idea of what they want to convey. Often people who are immersed in a subject may not have a clear understanding of what they want the exhibit to actually be about, because the details are clouding it. Our design team uses the Socratic method a lot and asks, ‘What is it you want people to come away with?’
“I am usually paired with a 3-D designer who gives the exhibit a 3-D physical expression,” Ms. Chinnici says, explaining that hers is a liaison role between the client and the designers. “We want to integrate the architecture and exhibit design and create a seamless experience. And we want to carefully organize the information in physical space because even the way visitors circulate through an environment — the order in which they encounter the information – can add meaning. When visitors are encouraged by the design itself to move up or down or in or out, that enhances the story you want to tell. So we spend a lot of time thinking about what it will feel like to be in a particular environment.
“We also think a lot about the story-telling techniques that could be used. Some displays lend themselves to media, some to models, some to graphic treatment. It’s a matter of understanding the story and the ways in which it can best be told or the ways in which a visitor might be able to best appreciate it or be engaged with it.”
To be effective, interpretive planners must rely on “gut” instinct, to some degree. But there are also fundamental design principles at work in their creative musings.
“You want it to have a rhythm and to be varied. A design can’t be all ‘high’ points. Because the audience who will be viewing it will be diverse, you want an experience that allows people to enter where they feel comfortable. Some people are readers; some like to move quickly; some enjoy interacting and some don’t,” Ms. Chinnici says. “If it is the right exhibit, we try to engage as many of the senses as possible to make it very rich. We know from experience that we need a good mix.”
Some displays also require the services of specialists in a field. At DPA, a planned aquarium may necessitate talk with engineers and content experts, such as biologists, plus collaboration with lighting and acoustic consultants. The latter are important components of virtually every design team.
Noting that each project is unique in a global way, she says it is also true that the tasks and challenges are very similar. So planners go through familiar processes time after time to reach a goal. What makes the work fun, according to the Thinc interpretive planner, is that the subject matter and the people involved are every-changing and ever-challenging, as are the particular constraints and opportunities afforded by each dream waiting for a chance to become reality.
“Budgets, space allotted, the projected audience — all of that keeps the projects from becoming duplicative processes. Instead, they are very customized products and they wouldn’t be good if they weren’t. Everyone has a unique story to tell and what is appropriate for Group A will not be for Group B.”
For instance, Ms. Chinnici’s work at Discovery Park of America is vastly different from another project dear to her heart: the National September 11 Memorial and Museum in New York.
“Living in New York, I experienced that whole event first hand. It was of national and global importance. Right after the event, people were contributing in so many ways for months — fighting fires and so many other areas of expertise they brought to the job. I felt working on the memorial and museum was my turn to contribute. A museum was going to be built, and I wanted to be a part of that and contribute what I had to offer. It’s been a challenging project because of the subject matter; the wounds are still at the surface and the history of it is so new. There’s no road map, no large body of scholarly work to draw on. Just lots of people with an interest in it. It is so personal and so emotional. It takes lots of psychological energy. In the beginning, working with people who had already been on board when I got there, we would be at meetings crying. We had to look at painful pictures and listen to painful audios. It was a challenge. But things that are challenging tend to be rewarding, as well.”
“Typically, we work to the end of the design phase,” Madeline Chinnici says of her assignments. “Then the design goes to the fabricator. We don’t actually build the design, we just provide a very detailed set of drawings.
The exhibit design team, however, cannot bring the project to life alone. For that task to be accomplished, they work with specialized exhibit fabricators. In the case of DPA, the firm tapped for that aspect of the job is Maltbie Museum Management. Vice president and museum sales representative Curt Cederquist is the name and face local committees look to to take Thinc plans and give them form and substance.
“We usually have oversight to make sure the design intent is understood. We’ve worked with Maltbie before and they are very well respected. They’ve done countless exhibits. Thinc will also have oversight when everything is put in place. That may well take place over a span of a couple of months. And then there is opening day and a punch list,” she adds in describing the scope of Thinc’s work.
Does she have advice for those interested in a career similar to her own?
“Get an education in college first. I don’t know anyone in my field who hasn’t started that way. Pursue your own interests through the humanities or the sciences at a university. And be honing your communication skills, because it’s all about communicating and education. Anything you can learn about how to pass on information, about how information is received, that will all be a plus.
“Visit a lot of museums. There’s nothing else like it. Go both as a visitor and as an observer of how other people behave in museums. What do they say? Where do they spend their time? Is there intergenerational interaction and where is it taking place? Why does it seem people are attracted to one exhibit and not to another?”
It’s a dream job: helping someone else’s dream take shape with the ultimate goal of encouraging someone else’s dream to begin.
Mrs. Caudle may be contacted at glendacaudle @ucmessenger.com.
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