The Role of Museums in Transitional Courts and Legacy

Studio Tectonic was interviewed by the International Judicial Monitor about the role of museums in court legacy building.

One Door Closes and Another One Opens:  The Special Court for Sierra Leone and the Sierra Leone Peace Museum

Excerpt below:

“What is the legacy that courts leave behind?  This is one of the questions that the Special Court for Sierra Leone asked itself as it was facing that it would be the first international court to complete and accomplish its mandate. There is the obvious fact that courts leave behind such as judgments, sentences, and jurisprudence, but what else can courts leave behind?  Could that something else be a peace museum and public archive?”

Broncos Superbowl Museum Wager!

If you haven’t heard, the Denver Art Museum and the Seattle Art Museum have wagered on the Superbowl. The winning team’s museum will be temporarily loaned a work depicting the vanquished mascot.

So, in the spirit of all things Superbowl and Denver, Studio Tectonic is making itself available, pro bono, to design the winning exhibition to celebrate our victory. We promise unabashed showmanship, a lack of humility and plenty of Seahawk shaming – of course in a tastefully DAM way.

Denver Art Museum, take us up on the offer! Broncos, put us to work.


Forehead Mask, Nuxalk, ca. 1880, alder, red cedar bark, copper, pins, paint, 4 1/8 by 11 3/8 by 5 1/8 inches.

Seattle Art Museum Object – Forehead Mask, Nuxalk, ca. 1880, alder, red cedar bark, copper, pins, paint, 4 1/8 by 11 3/8 by 5 1/8 inches. (Image from press release, 1/27/14)

The Anti-Cartoon : Screenless Animations

It’s unavoidable that we think in animations. We’ve watched them for decades. Video screens at home and in museums are the norm.

In a recent exhibition on earthquakes located at the Hatfield Marine Science Center, Studio Tectonic worked with Pacific Studio, the project fabricator, to develop an animation-like interactive without the electrical cord. Why?

The client’s concept was simple. The earth compresses at differing rates depending on location. This translates to differing GPS monitoring data and is critically useful in understanding and tracking the malleability of the earth’s plates. The development team, led by Shelley Olds, an UNAVCO science educator, believed that the concept was critical for visitor understanding. Digital media costs, durability for an exhibit that may travel, and user experience (i.e. screen overload in science centers) factored into a desire to create an analog expression beyond 2D graphics. We felt that a hands-on mechanical interactive would be far more likely to be engaged by the visitor at this location, and it became clear that a single-action mechanical interactive fit the desired user interface.  This kind of interactivity engaged the visitor to directly control the rate of motion, the amount of motion and the rate of release. This level of interactivity is not possible with electronics. The physical feel of control can’t be mimicked on-screen.

Because of museum developer’s commonly-held leanings to use computer animations, we often slip into exploring  vast array of content that can be delivered within computer interactives. With a single-action mechanical interactive, even the most Rube Goldberg contraption forces the designers to focus on the just relevant and conveyable content. This stripping down was beneficial in the planning process. It demanded us to eliminate. Ultimately, this is a benefit to the visitor. With no learning curve, within a mere seconds of time commitment the visitor gets the concept through the physical act of doing. The direct hand-to-mind connection allows more room for the mind to pay attention to just what matters.

Still, the design of an interactive that effectively shows an animated-style state-change with variable movements is a technically high hurdle.

Through various concept testings, materials explorations and prototypes, the team settled on a fabric solution that uses differing levels of resistance applied to the weave to allow a single section of the printed graphics to react differently to a single motion. The fabric aligns to a 2nd-surface glass printed series of crosshairs that show the “normal” position of the GPS units. Moving the spring-loaded arm show the simulated Earth moving at the differing rates desired.

The exhibit is newly opened. Hatfield Marine Science Center will use its summative evaluation team to test the exhibit and determine if the concept is well-delivered with this interactive. Results will follow as testing provides us with the details.

Project was created under the direction of UNAVCO, with funding from NSF and NASA.

Potent Objects

Studio Tectonic is currently planning and designing the Peace Museum in Sierra Leone which communicates the story of its brutal civil war. On a recent planning trip, I worked with the museum team to help develop the master plan for the museum which will open in phases – starting in late 2013.  Part of the site visit was a field trip into remote places in the country to meet with the community task forces that are actively collecting objects that were used during the war. Read more »

NEWS: Project Award – Idaho Tetons Scenic Byways Visitor Center

Studio Tectonic and Plan One Architects were recently awarded the design for a new visitor center and 2,000 sq. ft. exhibit for the Teton Scenic Byways. Located in Driggs, Idaho, this center will focus on the “quiet side” of the Teton Mountain Range. It will feature the rich natural and social history of the area from Swan Valley, through Pine Creek pass and north through the Upper Snake River Valley. The exhibit also will integrate a collection of art by Thomas Moran and William Jackson.

Project completion expected in 2014.

A bit about this byway can be found at: Teton Scenic Byways

NEWS: BEER! Boulder’s History on Tap

Pleased to report that Boulder History Museum’s BEER! Boulder’s History on Tap opened to the public on March 1st. The exhibit is on display until October 27th.

View this project on the Studio Tectonic website here: BEER! Boulder’s History on Tap

View a recent article and video including interview with the exhibition curator and Studio Tectonic here: Exhibit brings to life Boulder’s love affair with beer


Interactive Spinning Beer Cask Displays

NEWS: USA Cycling Displays on Exhibit

Studio Tectonic has completed the design and implementation of five displays for USA Cycling in Colorado Springs. This quick turn-around project includes showcases each of the five competitive bicycle disciplines. Objects include bicycles ridden Olympians during their medal rides, as well as images and content showcasing the history of the disciplines.

View this project on the Studio Tectonic website here: USA Cycling Exhibit

View USA Cycling’s website here: USA Cycling Website

USA Cycling Headquarters Exhibition – Track

NEWS: Grant Awarded – Sites of Conscience Project Support Fund

In collaboration with the Special Court for Sierra Leone, Studio Tectonic’s work is being supported by a 2013 Project Support Fund grant through the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience. This grant is for in-country planning of the national Peace Museum to serve as a living commemoration, archive, and memorial in this West African nation’s capitol, Freetown. From 1991 until 2002 the country of Sierra Leone was ravished by a violent and complex struggle leaving over 50,000 citizens dead and manyfold more dramatically affected.

The grant will permit planning and travel to and throughout Sierra Leone to work with local people, officials and project leaders to lay the foundation for the creation of the new museum within the United Nations’ Special Court building. The trial work of the Special Court will be ending in 2013, at which point the building will be transformed and belong to the people of Sierra Leone to serve as an enduring testament to the war.

The International Coalition of Sites of Conscience, based in New York City, is a worldwide network of historic sites, museums, and initiatives dedicated to remembering past struggles and addressing their contemporary legacies. More information can be found at its website,

More information about the Special Court can be found at its website.

Studio Tectonic will continue to update and report on the developments and progress of this important and vital work.


Van Gogh – Scraping Together an Education

I had the opportunity to view the Denver Art Museum Becoming Van Gogh exhibit early this week (now sold out until the end of the exhibition on the 20th of January). The exhibition is a broadly sourced focus on the artist’s 10 year creative journey. In short, he began his serious art endeavors around 27 and continued until his death in 1890. The exhibit’s curators focused on his artistic development to the near complete lack of attention on his troubled life, ears and cause of death. I applaud that.

Van Gogh was not what you’d call a “self taught” artist, but rather an artist desperate to learn through any and all means possible. He plowed through instruction manuals, “how-to” books, community classes and hanging out where the artists hung. By the time of his death had had little following, but was respected by the artist community, in spite of his sloppy education.

DAM’s curators expressed this well, primarily through a “layered” audio tour. Two sets of numbers on the wall indicated if the audio stop was “adult” focused or “family” focused. I attended the exhibit with three kids who frankly didn’t care which level they were listening to. The adult tracks were more focused on his education and gathering of techniques. The family tracks were more focused on learning observation, both of Van Gogh himself and the viewer’s observations of the exhibit. I listened to all of them too, but agreed with the elementary-age critiques that other than tone and length, the content was appealing across the ages. Tracks were appropriately long, loaded with music and folly effects, which deepened the content, and naturally professionally recorded with skilled voice artists.

Grasses reflect Van Gogh's experimentation with color through using multi-colored yarns.

Grasses reflect Van Gogh’s experimentation with color through using multi-colored yarns. 1887

Four “interpretive” locations were spread throughout the gallery. They focused on topics such as Van Gogh’s use of perspective frames, and ways of experimenting with color. The locations were positioned mostly adjacent to paintings that expressed the concepts being explored. They most compelling was the color stop. At it, there were several balls of mixed-color yarns in a case. The audio and panels presented Van Gogh’s frugal means of experimenting with color by laying strands of different yarns together. A nearby painting of clumps of grass nearly perfectly expressed the its colors through strands of multi-pigmented paint strokes. However, the curators missed a wonderful opportunity to implement a tactile and hands-on interactive with yarn. I for one, desperately wanted to grab the yarn from the case and play with it and experience the creative process of the exhibit’s subject. Many ways could have been crafted to keep the yarn from walking away and secured to the location. Also, rather than rely entirely on the audio and panels, a small bundle of yarn directly besides the grass painting could have reinforced the connection and offered it in different learning style and made an interpretive message immediately accessible without requiring a purely cognitive connection.

The first floor hands-on painting studio (which rocked, by the way) could have taken the four interpretive stations and had them come to life in ways that the exhibit itself didn’t. I’d like to see the museum build even stronger connections between the “play spaces” and curatorial content.

Small misses in otherwise strong exhibits are easy to find when Monday-morning quarterbacking, for sure. Still, even with temporary shows we should work to keep the curatorial and design process alive during the course of the exhibitions. We make endless changes to exhibits up to the point of opening and then too often walk away “sealing” the exhibit as final rather than continuing to add, adjust, refine and refresh.

Overall, as a savvy museum-goer, I found tremendous joy and meaning in this exhibition. I hope the others who had the opportunity to see it also found it as compelling – beyond simply seeing a blockbuster in the art world.