Glowing fish anuses


I'm walking to the end of a high diving board, and can barely dog-paddle. That's what blogging feels like, for all the reasons that Andrew Sullivan mentions in his essay on blogging.

This will be a blog about museum exhibition development. It will have a split personality:  some of it will be about theoretical or practical issues of exhibition development. It’s the only thing that I feel qualified to write about, I'm passionate about this subject, and have been doing it, testing it, thinking about it, and writing about it for the last fifteen years. The other part will be updates on fun, cool stuff happening in our department.

This is Blog Day One. From here on out they'll be less focused on me and more focused on exhibition development.  Many thanks to Field Museum Social Media Strategist Jane Hanna for helping me launch this.


But first, the disclaimers:

  • The Museum doesn't edit or control this blog. I'll try not to do stupid things that might embarrass or offend my employer or my colleagues. But if I do, you should know that it's all my fault. The Museum provides me with this page, but that doesn’t mean that this blog represents the people of the Exhibitions Department, The Field Museum, or anyone else (except those who are guest-blogging).
  • I know something about developing exhibitions (see my grandiloquent bio), but every day I feel that there is even more that I don't know.
  • Sometimes the site will have guest bloggers on board (occasionally from the Exhibition Development staff). This is partly to keep a stream of fresh ideas headed your way, but also because these people are smart, funny, creative, and experienced, and have some great things to share.
  • I welcome any and all responses, especially ones that will help other readers. But please be civil. If we were sitting in the same room, talking with each other, would you really say that to my face?
  • “FUN” is a mission-critical component of this blog. If it isn’t fun for me to write this, and fun for you to read it, neither of us will bother. But it will be fun of a low-key sort:  there won't be tons O’ knee-slappers, or, as one staffer said it is referred to in her own family, “Dad jokes.”
  • The blog will be updated once a week. Maybe twice a week.


Here are some of the things that will be featured.

  • tidbits—notes/stories/photos/videos—on exhibits in progress here in the Field Museum Exhibitions Dept.
  • recent visitor-study findings (trimmed down to a tasty chunk and written in plain English, since I don't know enough about statistics to do otherwise)
  • stories about how the FM Exhibit Developers--and others in our department--tackle the challenges that other exhibits people do
  • shaky cell phone photos of cool stuff we're working with
  • tricycles...  or other topics that seem unrelated to exhibition development, but which will be cleverly used as introductions to issues or questions.  I am so crafty.

Let me know if you’ve got any preferences, or if there are other topics you’d like to see explored, in the comments box, below.


Where is Matt Matcuk?

Here’s a Google maps satellite shot of The Field Museum.

I’ve marked the position of my office windows, here on the Museum's fourth floor. I could be there! Right now! Using exclamation points! Contrary to what the map currently indicates, we don’t have a “colossal Olmec head” sitting in the middle of the stairs on the south side of the building. Extra credit if you can tell everyone where we do have one.


I’m a lucky dog. I’ve been working for The Field Museum for a really long time, and one of the benefits of staying at one job for a really long time is that eventually you get a good office. I even have a sink and a microwave.

And a fabulous view of the rooftop HVAC equipment.

Another benefit to being with one place for a long time is that you can see how it’s changed. In the 15 years I’ve been here, The Field Museum Exhibitions Department has evolved. In the interests of transparency, I’ll admit that I initially wrote up a laundry list of what things were like fifteen years ago (boo), contrasted with what they’re like today (yay). I know that understanding your institution’s history is critical to understanding its culture. But I decided to set aside the historical narrative because, at some point, you realize that what’s important is where we are now.

And that’s a pretty good place.

Right now—despite the fact that the Museum overall is tightening its belt*—we have a lot going on. Since exhibitions take so long to create (anywhere from four months to nearly four years), they need to have their funding in place years before anything is announced to the public. So, paradoxically, the Exhibitions Dept. is currently busy as all get-out because of gifts from some very generous donors and sponsors up to two years ago. The next time you’re in The Field Museum take a look at those “donor recognition labels” and give those people, foundations, and companies a virtual thumbs up.

*This isn’t the place for me to discuss the museum’s finances, but if you’re reading this blog you probably already know that across all departments budgets are being cut. I didn’t want to refer glibly to a process that may have significant consequences (like possibly losing your job), especially for some of our academic and research staff. It’s a tough situation to be in:  no company or institution ever wants to have to lay people off, least of all people like our collections and research staff, who are an exceptional lot. We wish them the best in these challenging times.


News and Updates

Back to the fourth floor. What’s going on, two floors above the public museum spaces?

We’re about seven months into an exhibition about biomechanics. Don’t have the official title yet, but this will be a traveling exhibition that debuts here in Chicago then travels around the U.S. and Europe. It will use specimens, digital media, and mechanical and digital interactives to show the “machines” beneath the surface of every animal or plant. I’ll be saying a lot more about biomechanics in the future, and will probably ask some of the development team members to step in to guest blog about it. For now here’s a quick picture about process. This is from Amy (Assistant Developer on the project):  illustrations of how a Venus fly trap works. I think that’s a brain coral (NOT a FM specimen) that she’s using to hold down her LAN cable.

We’re also working on a new permanent exhibition on China. The last imperial dynasty in China was the Qing (pronounced  “ching”) dynasty, and we have one of the best collections of Qing artifacts in the U.S. Rubbings taken from the tombs of emperors, an ancient bronze cooking stove, carved oracle bones, swords, robes, ceramics, silks, and carvings in jade and cinnabar. And guess what. I’m not going to show you any of them right now (but check in next week). Instead, here’s a fascinating and dramatic shot taken over the shoulder of Sarah S., as she’s reviewing a draft of the object database. 

Sarah and Libby are the lead developers on the China project, which opens in May of 2015—so there will be plenty of time for me to send you cool photos of the stuff. We're just getting started.

In just a few weeks (March 7, 2013 to be exact) we’ll be opening an exhibition of animals that glow (a process that the cognoscenti call bioluminescence). It’s called Creatures of Light.  The show was developed by the American Museum of Natural History, but two of our FM curators contributed to the project. Leo, (who you can see below), works on, among other things, poisonous fish; Invertebrates curator Janet V. (not pictured) studies octopuses, bivalves and the creatures at hydrothermal vents on the ocean floor. In our staging of the show, we’re adding a small section that displays specimens of deep-sea creatures that use bioluminescence to attract prey and mates, and to communicate. In fact, in this last part of the show we’ll have a huge display of fluid-preserved specimens. Here’s a picture of production shop supervisor John (right) showing Leo and Developer Isabelle the case that will hold them. It’s one of the longest John has ever built:  27 feet.

And this is Leo showing Isabelle and one of our media producers, Patrick, a specimen of a fish which (when it's alive) has glowing bacteria in its anus. I couldn’t make this stuff up.  Both photos courtesy of Project Manager Janet H.

That’s it for now. Please make The Field Museum Exhibit Developers famous by linking to this site like mad through all kinds of social media sites that I don’t even know the names of.