When I met exhibit designer Richard Bentham last summer while in Washington DC, I immediately wanted to have him come on the show. Museums play such a pivotal part in our understanding of history, and I thought it would be fascinating to explore that with someone who actually *designs* the exhibits we see. We started off talking about Richard's work at the [National Museum of the American Indian](https://americanindian.si.edu/), and he shared how he first got interested in exhibit design. From there, we discussed the role of the museum in modern times, and Richard talked about where he sees exhibit design going in the future. He even shared some advice for designers out there who might be interested in getting into the field. It's vital that we see more people of color in museums, not just as attendees, but as people behind the scenes as well. I'm really glad to have Richard on the podcast to not only talk about these issues, but to show a new possibility for designers to pursue!
When I met exhibit designer Richard Bentham last summer while in Washington DC, I immediately wanted to have him come on the show. Museums play such a pivotal part in our understanding of history, and I thought it would be fascinating to explore that with someone who actually designs the exhibits we see.
We started off talking about Richard's work at the National Museum of the American Indian, and he shared how he first got interested in exhibit design. From there, we discussed the role of the museum in modern times, and Richard talked about where he sees exhibit design going in the future. He even shared some advice for designers out there who might be interested in getting into the field. It's vital that we see more people of color in museums, not just as attendees, but as people behind the scenes as well. I'm really glad to have Richard on the podcast to not only talk about these issues, but to show a new possibility for designers to pursue!
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Maurice Cherry: All right. Tell us who you are and what you do.
Richard Bentham: Hi. My name is Richard Bentham. I'm a full-time 2D and 3D exhibit designer at the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian, and I'm a part-time grad student studying interior design. Currently living in Washington, DC.
MC: Nice. Nice. Now, usually I will ask guests to walk me through like what's a typical day like where you work, but I would be remiss right now if I didn't mention that we are recording this during a time when you're currently furlough because of the recent government shutdown. I don't want to get too political here about parties or affiliations or anything like that, but how are you feeling?
RB: I'm sad, of course, mostly because as a public institution, we're here for the people. I think about kids who have planned and family who have planned their time to come to Washington, DC and they aren't able to come to all the museums that we have to offer when it's their taxpayer dollars. Of course, the Smithsonian is bipartisan and we don't choose sides, so it's just sad in general.
MC: Yeah. I mean I've been reading the news and I've been the watching the news and seeing how it's ... I mean it's not just affecting museums. It's like the national mall and parks and things like that.
RB: Oh, yeah.
MC: It's a bad look for the country overall.
RB: Yeah. The whole Washington, DC area is built on those things. I mean those attractions are all shut down. We have some museums who are non-government associated, but for the most part, there's not a lot to do in DC when it comes to what DC is known for.
MC: Well, hopefully by the time this airs this will have cleared up. I know we're recording this kind of earlier in January right now, but by the time this airs, fingers crossed, knock on wood things will have cleared up. Now, I think that most folks that are listening to this they've been to a museum at some point. They've seen exhibits and such. What exactly is exhibit design?
RB: I've thought about this a lot and I think I've summed it down to exhibition design is the three dimensional translation or manifestation of a narrative, story, idea, concept, question, or memory. As exhibit designer, we create transformative experience that try to educate or inspire and essentially engage visitors.
MC: I like that definition. It's taking that idea and turning it into a tangible experience.
RB: Correct. One that you can experience through all the senses, which is I think pretty amazing.
MC: Yeah. Now, when we met back in July, like in late July, some members of the Revision Path audience, as well as some past guests, we all went to DC. We went to the National Museum of African American History and Culture, but then we also went to the National Museum of the American Indian, which is where you work. Can you talk a little bit about the museum for those that might not be familiar?
RB: The National Museum of the American Indian Museum, which I've only been there for a year, so I feel like I am still learning so much because our education system is usually only one day for most people, but we are here to support the American Indian people or Native Americans in any way possible to bring awareness and highlight that they do exist, they are here, and also to take away any misnomers that people might have in America or all over the world. We have a lot of work to do. I am African-American and I try to stay in my lane when it comes to talking about other groups, but I'm seeking everyday to learn more in what I can do in my work too for Native Americans as a whole.
MC: We'll put a link in the show notes so people can kind of check out the museum. It's a gorgeous, gorgeous building. Even just outside, of course, but inside seeing all the different exhibits and everything, it was really something powerful. I think the one that really stuck out to me was, you probably know which one I'm talking about, the one that's ...
MC: Was that the one that had all the different advertising signs? Like the different ads and things?
RB: Yeah. Americans just opened recently. It's an incredible exhibition that essentially poses the question like Native American iconography is all around us and asks like why is that and getting people to take another look. This is so ingrained into our culture and we don't even like to think about it. Why is that? Then it goes into taking stories that people are familiar with like Thanksgiving, going into Pocahontas. Those are just like some of the stories that we go into detail and try to break down any misnomers and tell the honest truth and do what really well exhibitions and thought-out exhibitions do, which is start a conversation.
MC: When you mentioned earlier about how exhibits kind of involve all of the senses, I remember going in the side from just a huge scale of seeing all of the different advertisements where you see American Indians, but then going into the little sections where you have a little movie that's playing or you have like an interactive diagram of sorts where you turn a crank and you're able to see how things move. I mean all of that really sort of puts you right in the middle of what that topic is about in a very tangible and real way.
RB: All of us are different types of learners. Within an exhibition, we want to make sure that, like you said talking about the senses, there's something for tactile learners, there's something for visual learners, there's something for people who likes reading a lot of text, there's something for visual and audio learners. Just thinking about all the type of learners you can think about and we really try to add a little piece everywhere so we're serving and hitting that message over and over when it comes to our visitors.
MC: Now, do you have an exhibition that you've designed that's currently in the museum?
RB: Not currently unfortunately.
MC: Can you talk about some exhibits you have designed?
RB: Yeah. I used to work at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. I was there for about six years. One of the exhibitions I did there that I really loved, and in the show notes you'll see my portfolio, you'll be able to take a look at this one, and it was called EVA 50 Years of Being Outside of the Spacecraft. Within that exhibition, it was essentially like a photography exhibition where you walk through and it took you through the history of us being outside of the spacecraft. The Russians basically sort of beat us to it, or well, they did. Then we did it really shortly afterwards. Then it takes you throughout the whole history up to like going on the moon and everything like that.
RB: Within that exhibition, I had like a really interesting case that had space suit gloves that went in a spiral and that actually spun around on a turntable really slowly. It basically showed you the inner layer of a glove and the outer layer of the glove. There's many layers that are built up and each layer is there for a different reason. Then we had an interactive where you're able to put in a short link into your phone and actually click on each of the gloves and get more information about it. We had oversized images. We had some sounds in that exhibition. That was probably my first large show is about a little over 4,000 square feet. It was up for I think about a year or two.
MC: Wow. That sounds really impressive.
RB: Yeah. It was pretty impressive specially coming from being in school and doing graphic design. I never really thought necessarily that I would be doing exhibits and dealing with space in general, which I find interesting, from the spacial aspect of three dimensional and also of course actual space.
MC: Right. Right.
RB: The sky.
MC: Let's talk about your background. You went to The Art Institute of Washington. You studied graphic design there. While you were there in school, what was your time like there?
RB: At The Art Institute, the nice thing, I was coming in with a background in learning all of the main programs, all the Adobe programs basically, because in high school I took about four years of what they call computer graphics class so that I had the basics down. I was able to come into school just worrying about solving design problems. I thought that was very helpful in general for asking different questions with my fellow ... What its called? Yeah.
RB: The other students in the classroom. Yeah, classmates. While I was there, that was around the time when we had the crash, the housing crash or whatever, and then people couldn't find jobs and everything like that. I was like focused on like I'm trying to have a job when I graduate. My mind was very focused on like how can I get a job. I was like really invested in being a part of AIGA and DC and the chapter and networking while being at school. We had a school chapter and being a part of that and then also doing internships because every job that I looked up was asking for you to have one to two years of experience. I'm like how do you get one to two years of experience and I'm still in school.
RB: Thankfully, my parents were able to provide for me to not do these internships where you had to do it for free. I was able to do multiple internships and one of the internships happened to be at the National Air and Space Museum.
MC: Oh, nice. That's how you sort of ended up kind of getting your foot in the door there was through an internship.
RB: Yeah, and that internship they were ... I went to the career center and they said, "Hey, this person is looking for someone to work on a very specific project." It was branding for the space shuttle Discovery, final flight over DC atop of a 747 plane because the museum was getting this shuttle and they needed somebody to brand it. Basically the posters, the things that we're going to be on the stage, like the works of any good branding project. I'm just an intern. I'm like shocked they even gave me that project. They're just like, "Just do this poster." Once I did the poster, they were like, "Oh, well, you're just going to do everything."
RB: Thankfully after that project they were like, "Oh, we have a position here. Would you like it?" I'm still not finished school, which just again blows my mind. I started there part-time and after I graduated, I had a full-time job.
MC: I feel like getting your foot in the door in that sort of way is really good and it's good that AIGA was able to really help out with that too.
RB: Yeah. They're amazing.
MC: Now, you've talked about the exhibits that you've done. I'm curious to kind of know what your creative process is when it comes to designing an exhibit. Because as you've said, it's a sensory experience. It's not just a graphic or it's not just building a diagram or a model or something like that. How do you approach building exhibit? How do you bring all of that together? Are there certain tools you use or anything like that?
RB: Yeah. I can answer this question in two different ways, but let me try it this way first. Yeah. I use 3D software Vectorworks and I also use the Adobe products. That's basically as far as like my tools. But essentially like bringing an exhibition together, it takes a lot of specialized people, curators, fabricators, contract officers, project managers, loan officers, registers, mount makers. I mean the list literally goes on forever. I mean I couldn't do it without these amazing people who are specializing in their respective fields. When an exhibition comes to me, it usually comes from the higher ups. They're like, "Okay. This is the idea that was approved by usually each ..."`
RB: At least at The Smithsonian, we have like a review team that takes in ideas for exhibitions and they look at schedule, budget, space. They approve it or they don't. Once it gets approved, they bring the team together and they say, "Okay. Richard, you're going to be exhibition designer." Then for the other professions that I mentioned, they'll bring all those people together and usually we'll have a core team. We'll all meet. We'll figure out who's writing the script and that script essentially has all the objects that are going to be in the show. It has what all the labels are going to say, but not always. Sometimes it's just like this is the concept. We need to figure everything out.
RB: From that point of view, I go and do some research, figure out like what this topic is about, what things I could add, has any other museums done exhibitions of this topic or concept or whatever, bringing all that together because at the end of the day, it makes no sense reinventing the wheel if another museum has done something pretty amazing when it comes to certain things. Then also, communicating with the curator to make sure that I'm fully understanding certain things. It's a really collaborative effort. I'll have an idea. I'll present it to the team. The team might say, "Oh, that's great. Let's incorporate that," or they might say, "No, that doesn't make sense."
RB: Because these exhibitions are such a grand scale and they can go on for one, two, maybe five years of planning before the exhibition even opens, there's just like no way I could do it all on my own. Because there's so many different pieces, I have to understand what those specialized jobs are and what they do and how they function because essentially I'm at the center communicating it along with the project manager and the curator or design developer. Usually it's the three of us trying to communicate with everybody and me communicating with the actual fabricators who are going to be putting things together, how things are going to work.
RB: There's a lot of email traffic and communication that has to be done that is like not even included into the design. Then sometimes we might contract certain pieces out. Like I might not be that knowledgeable about lighting design, so we might contract a lighting designer. Then I have to work with them and tell them like, "Hey, this is the team's vision." I'm the only one who understands how to communicate with him directly because I know enough about it or more than anybody else on the team, then we'll be going back and forth. I'm like, "I want it to be dramatic, and I want it to be like spot lit really closely, I want it to sparkle, and I want the background to be black."
RB: That's like in my head and he or she can figure out how to actually make that possible, get that into the design, and then we can figure out who's going to actually build it. Sometimes some museums, and my museum included, have in house teams. That's always lovely because it's always easier working with the in house crew versus contractors. Sometimes we do have to work with contractors, which is fine. We make it work, but it can get really complicated. Every single exhibition that I work on there's always like completely new challenges that I'm like, "Okay. Never done this before, but let me roll my sleeves and get it done."
MC: What has been kind of the most challenging exhibition that you had to put together?
RB: I did a Leonardo da Vinci Codex exhibition, which is was one of Leonardo da Vinci's Codex books. It was a very simple or you would think it was a very simple show where it was a book that was on display. If I remember correctly, the book is only on display every 10 years. This was at the Air and Space Museum. We had it and it was a case ... Essentially it was just a book. That was the only thing being on display and then we had some interactives. We had some signage. It was really complicated because of this is a very delicate book. It's very old. It was sent to us within a case and then we put it within another case. Then finally, that case within another case.
RB: We had to put data readers inside of the case that measured temperature and humidity, outside of case as well inside of the interior first case, the first layer. We had to send that information back overseas to the museum that we borrowed it from. That got really complicated because it's going through ... The Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum is going through a major renovation to fix this HVAC system and bring it up to code and all that stuff. But at the time, the air handling system wasn't the best and we had multiple issues. The construction documents for it were very specific on like what needed to be done in order to protect the object.
RB: We put it on display. Everything's okay. Then I come back from vacation after the exhibition has closed and then there's a big vacuum next to it because the humidity level started to drop or the air wasn't correct. We had to figure out how to put it in place to still look nice, but not be completely in the way. It was just like a whole bunch of back and forth and email traffic. It was difficult to deal with it, but I mean it's a gorgeous object. I think we had plenty of lines and plenty of people coming to see it. But for just a small one object, I didn't think it would be as much work as it actually was, but it got done.
MC: Okay. I have a question here. This comes from one of our audience members, as well as a guest who's been on the show, Dewan Hall. Now, he says that on his design bucket list, he wants to do an exhibition design for a museum. How would a designer find out about or connect with a museum to possibly do what you're doing, like to do an exhibit design?
RB: I think the easiest way to do that and to start off is probably with a tiny museum or a small museum. Small museums, usually the exhibition designer, if they even have one, is doing a lot of the ... When I talked about those specialized people within our museum or museums of our size, are usually just one person. If you reach out ...
RB: Are usually just one person. If you reach out to a very tiny museum and say, "Hey, I just want to get my foot in the door, I just want to help with a exhibition or design a exhibition for you guys", then I feel like you could probably be pretty successful in reaching out to them and like getting a project at some point.
MC: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
RB: Or even trying to talk to somebody at that museum or see if you can use your network to get into it and then from there, you have something for your portfolio that you can say like, "Hey, I've done exhibition design before at a museum" and then built it from there. I think it's probably the best way to go because a lot of the larger institutions, they don't want to just go with anyone who doesn't necessarily have a certain level of experience.
RB: But I think it's definitely possible, and it helps when you have some type of way finding experience, it helps if you have some kind of architectural, interior design, some type of 3D background, that helps a lot and, yeah ... Essentially you want to build your portfolio and probably start as small as possible and go from there.
MC: Yeah, that makes sense, I can see how you'd want to go ahead and get your feet wet somewhere really just with testing out the waters, seeing if it's something you even want to be interested in because like you said, if it's a small museum and they don't even have an exhibition designer, I would imagine they probably wouldn't have all those other team members that you're speaking about when you say you're putting together somewhere, you got people that are doing the mounts and all that sort of stuff, like that's a big team to be able to put together a grand scale exhibit like that.
RB: Right, that's why I said like a smaller exhibition.
RB: Smaller museum would definitely probably be open to that, and I mean if you Google museums, there's like a museum seemingly in every town I go to. Even the smallest, like cities or whatever that I've been to, I'm like, "Oh, you actually have like a small art museum or a small history museum, that's just like local." Just, you'd be surprised by just Googling a city by how much museums are actually out there.
MC: I'm not gonna lie, I really didn't like museums growing up, it was not my thing, I grew up in a small southern town and I felt like the town itself was a museum, just in terms of it being old and, I mean I'm from Selma, Alabama.
MC: So in terms of its place in history, it's like your kind of living in a museum and they have a civil rights museum there it's okay, it just seems like, 'Why do we keep rehashing the past?' So I didn't really used to be a fan, I guess more, I don't want to say historic museums cause I guess all museums are historic by some standard, right?
RB: Right, yeah, I mean ... Most are, I mean there's definitely ones that don't really have their, like, DC has a place which I don't know if some people would argue it's not a museum but art tech house in DC which is kind of like dedicated towards 3D experiences, basically projection mapping on to like, walls and creating some kind of visceral, almost like Instagram-y experience.
MC: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
RB: But yeah, I totally agree with you, a lot of the smaller museums sometimes can feel like they're in the past in a lot of ways and I feel like a lot of that is due them just not having enough money and two, just like, "Look, we'll hire or find anybody who we can to do this exhibition" or they have amazing people but they're just overburdened and they don't have enough money to actually do the exhibition well or completely thought out, which is a plug for museums, you know, the majority of them need money and it's great to donate to them.
MC: Yeah, I know we have a few, well we have several museums here in Atlanta, we have a design museum, we've got art museums, etc, and I think it wasn't until I came to Atlanta and was able to see different types of museums that I started to appreciate what they were about. Because back home in Selma, it's pretty much just history museums and the history of the city is everywhere you go, so it's kind of like you're stuck in Groundhog's Day in a way. Like, everywhere you turn it's like the same sort of thing. But it wasn't til I came here and I was able to see, you know, art and different exhibits and stuff. Like, right now and hopefully I'll be able to go see it, we have a Yayoi Kusama exhibit, which tickets are like impossible to get. Hopefully if someone is listening and can float me one, I would really appreciate that. I'd like to see it before it leaves, but I don't know if that's gonna be possible.
RB: Did you see it here in DC? We had it at the Hirshhorn Museum.
MC: No, was it there when I was there back in July?
RB: No, unfortunately it was probably there like a couple months before. But it was definitely there and they probably have one or two art pieces but it isn't the full exhibition which you must see, I got to see it, and it was just wonderful.
MC: I've seen some pictures and I've seen definitely, on Instagram, I've seen people take pictures for the gram. I guess if there's one thing that I see, it's like, and we'll get into this but there's one thing I see, people utilizing museums for, in a modern sense, it's like backdrops for selfies.
RB: Yes. Which I have a love/hate relationship with, because I'm like, "Are you looking at what's going on? Are you looking at the objects? Or did you just come here literally to get another hashtag?" I mean, it's great, I'm not gonna complain because it's bringing people through the door and I really don't care what they're coming in for, once they're coming through the door.
MC: And I mean museums now have become a part of the national conversation I think, over the past few years, I mean one; we're talking about social media. But then also a few years ago when the National Museum of African/American History and Culture opened, that was a huge deal because I think, wasn't that the newest Smithsonian museum to open, that one?
RB: Yeah, it's the newest Smithsonian museum to open, it's the newest of them all. Just backtracking here a little bit; I think museums, like early museums for made for the elite, the educated, the top people who had the most money or whatever to entertain themselves. But I think today, like the African/American History and Culture, I think what they're moving towards or doing right now is they can be agents of change and development, you know they can mirror events and society and become instruments of progress by, you know, calling attention to specific actions or events. They could be a part of the bigger community they serve and reach out to pretty much every group and society.
MC: And I would say, even now, you know I talked about before with how museums are being part of the conversation now, of course within the past few years there's been talk about removing these confederate monuments, statues etc, and putting them in museums. Like, not saying, destroying them, but just taking them and putting them in a place where they could be appreciated in terms of a proper historical context. And we're even seeing, like in France for example, Emmanuel Macron is saying that there are gonna be artifacts and acquisitions that are in the Louvre that are gonna be going back to their home countries in West Africa, so it's like museums are old and historic but they're also modern because they're part of how we document and really preserve culture as a whole.
RB: Right, I mean our museum, the American [inaudible 00:28:10] deals with that a lot, which called repatriation, where we've been given objects back to their communities, they can essentially like fill out some paperwork and get their objects back in their community if they want them, because of how they were originally acquired. So, it goes into the same thing that you're talking about, they're dealing with their own history and past and saying, "Hey, we realize that this was wrong. And we're gonna send it back." And sometimes from the places that they come from, they say, "You know what? It actually makes more sense for it to stay in the museum, like maybe we want to change how it's contextualized and maybe say something differently about it or add a certain contextual element to it." And I think that's amazing and awesome and I love that I'm seeing that change and museums are trying to be more thoughtful in that.
MC: Yeah. Where do you see exhibit design going in the future?
RB: I think of myself a lot of a futurist, so I think about the past very little, I'm always thinking about, "Okay, what's next?"
RB: Like, what things can we do? And what does that look like? I do think about augmented reality a lot and how a lot of the difficulties I have is I will just like, the content expert for exhibition, they will give me pages upon pages, way too much that can actually go on to the walls of exhibit and then I'm like, "Ugh, this is so rich. I wish I could put everything up there." But you're seeing this movement right now of customized experiences where you think of the simplest thing like going up to those new Coke machines, that have like a million options.
MC: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
RB: Where you're able to come to and like, "I can pick my favorite drink." Before you only had like maybe, six, seven, eight options, so the same thing in the museum, using augmented reality, I'm hoping that one day like wearable get sexy enough that they just look like glasses and people bring in their own devices and I'm able to apply more content [inaudible 00:30:26] the exhibition through the glasses. So as a person is moving through the exhibit, let's think about at it's simplest form, an art museum and they look at the object and usually you have the label, who it's coming from a specific voice to contextually fit in with a specific topic and the things around it, coming from the person at the top.
RB: Where a lot of times, you can go online and find so much more information. So if you're a kid and you're studying something very specific, you could say, "Well, I want to know about this about this object? How much doe sit weigh?" And not all exhibitions have that information there, how much pounds this is, and if we're able to insert that information into some kind of like, database that has it, then that information can come up onto their glasses or whatever device that they're carrying with them, or if it's maybe their phone, that just adds more content.
RB: And enriches the experience that the person is having because it's customized to what they're looking for and what they want. Now we're talking about, like, in a digital world exhibition growing by five, six, seven, maybe ten times the size that it actually is. Which is probably a little crazy, and I think we're like, maybe 20 years from this or more, you might have different thoughts, but I think it can be really interesting thinking about how people move through space and the information that provided to them, or the information that's taken away sometimes and not overbearing people. But I feel like it has a lot of possibilities.
MC: Actually, two things came to mind as you mentioned that, the first thing, when you're talking about augmented reality and these devices, is just the relationship that museums have with technology. You know, earlier I spoke about how people look at museums as like, just backgrounds for selfies and certainly I've been seeing a trend with museums sort of banning selfie sticks, or I think it may have at the Louvre, may have been at other museums I've seen where they ban selfie sticks because it's sort of, I guess, impedes the whole museum experience. So as museums start to hopefully adopt technology in a more holistic way, they can look at other ways to include the viewer as part of the experience, as opposed to it being kind of a passive experience.
MC: Because the other thing I thought about was tempo. Museums tend to be a slow experience, you don't really breeze through a museum in 10 minutes.
MC: Because of the way things are structured, there's multiple floors, there's ample space, it invites you to take your time and in this world, everything is fast, fast, go, go, go, go, go, you know what I mean?
MC: And museums tend to be this pace where, and maybe this is just because of its historical function, it sort of functions like a time capsule, where it feels like there's a different sense of time as you're in a museum. I would like to see what a fast museum would be like. Like, what is a museum that you ...
MC: Well, I'm saying that I guess what I think about, not just tempo but also size because we have a design museum here in Atlanta and it's fairly small and you can get through it in like 20 minutes, you can pop in and out, on like your lunch break. It's pretty ... but it's not a big museum, that's the thing, and like right across the street from it is the High Museum, which is four levels, multiple exhibits, it is an afternoon experience, it is not something that you can just go in and out on your lunch break. So I think about that with museums is having like, different types of experiences, because the interactivity is certainly invites you to spend more time with the interactivity of exhibits invites you to spend more time with them but because of how museums are kind of this slow experience, I'd like to see more fast museums. I don't know, what do you think about that? Is that weird? That I just got all riled up about a fast museum?
RB: You know, I like pulled back a little bit because I'm like ... very large museums I feel like, can do one exhibition that's like really fast. Like a large museum of multiple exhibitions, just the whole thing being fast, I think would be like a disservice in some ways to larger museums. But for smaller museums, I feel like, yeah, that's ... if your mission and your vision and your goals align with that fast pace, then yeah, I think that makes sense. I don't know if that rings any, like, true to you.
RB: You know, when I think about technology, I'm always careful with museums because again, museums tend not to have a lot of money and so, usually I'm like, "Yeah, stick with the tried and true technology out there that you can sustain for a long period of time because it is not a good look if you walked through a exhibition and the interactives are down, you have blank screens, creating some of those digital experiences can be very expensive, as I'm sure you know, with the massive like CMS's, or content management systems in the background and a lot of time and effort can go into those type of things. So a lot of times, I see a lot of people complaining, "Well, there's not enough technology in this museum. We need more." And I'm like, "Well, usually I think it should probably be the last stop. We should try things on a small scale that are super advanced. They aren't super costly because a lot of funding is coming, it's just a little bit of money."
RB: And even some of the bigger exhibitions, like sometimes can be five, six, seven, eight millions dollars which sounds like a lot of money, but once you start building and you realize how much things cost, it turns out like, "Oh, this is actually not a lot of money for a huge footprint."
MC: I think, even like you said with different wearable and technology, like what would a VR museum look like? What would a Snapchat museum look like? And these are things that probably, that amount of money could make happen, just because of how quick it is to put technology together, if we think about museums less as these physical spaces, these edifices that we go to and visit, but more so the experience itself ... I don't know, I feel there's a lot of possibilities for museums and I think one of the things to think about in the future is just what does the concept of a museum look like as we think about technology and design? Is it still this white marble building somewhere? Or is it something different?
RB: Yeah, I try to convince museums all the time, especially really large ones, I'm like, "Look, just take one of your spaces and do something ridiculously crazy? Something that you don't do anywhere else in the museum? Because look, you have all this space. You have the notoriety, you have the funders you can go after, and what if you were just to throw everything out and do something completely different? What could you do?" And I think larger museums have the opportunity to do that, it's a little bit harder for harder museums.
RB: But like, I haven't see a museum necessarily take that approach, where they're like, "We're just gonna do something that just makes no sense for us to be doing." And I wish they would, like, keep that space for just those changing things. I've seen it happen outside of larger museums. Like the Architect House I was talking about in DC where they're like, "You know what? We're just gonna do this crazy projection mapping and that's just what we're gonna be about. And see what's done." But what does it look for the MET to do something like that? You see the video with Beyonce and Jay-Z in the Louvre which I thought was amazing, good for them and their visitation went up like crazy. It was something completely different that you wouldn't think would be associated with a museum and kudos to them for even allowing them to use that space for that music video.
MC: Yeah, because certainly, I think what it does, at least what I saw once the video came out, like I saw this unfolding on Twitter now, of people looking at it and examining art within the context of pop culture, within the context of historical access. And those are conversations, like you said, museums; that's what they're there for, to have those conversations, or at least to begin those conversations.
RB: For me and for other people who don't find a classroom setting necessarily the most natural way to learn, I think it can be amazing for just that, starting new conversations and get things, ideas just sparked in hot heads, especially younger people to think about ideas that we haven't even thought about yet.
MC: Yeah, absolutely. It's like I don't want to switch gears here a little bit, but like I said we're doing this interview at the beginning of the year, it's 2019, what do you want to accomplish for this year?
RB: Wow, that's something that I haven't really thought about, I usually like mesh into my years, like I don't even worry about ... like I'm just gonna -
RB: I don't even worry about, like I'm just gonna keep forward doing the same thing. I want to, which this is going to happen anyway, I'm going to be graduating with my Masterâ€™s Degree this coming year, which I'm super excited about. I'm trying to figure out what's necessarily next after that because I'm gonna have all this freed up time. Working full-time and doing school part-time is insane within itself, especially in the design field, but once I'm finished with that, which is probably the next year after, I look forward to being more of a mentor.
RB: AIGA has functions for that. I look forward for, backtracking for this year, I look forward to writing my thesis centered around augmented reality and what that means and looks like inside of a museum space. I'm gonna be starting my research and trying to figure out the history of augmented reality as it relates to museum and design and see where that gets me. I'm looking forward to actually apply that to what I do. We'll see where that takes me.
MC: Now, your Master's Degree, that's going to be in interior design, right?
MC: How does that, and this might be a simple question, but how does that help you as an exhibit designer?
RB: Right before I decided to actually start the degree, and I just had my Bachelor's Degree and my experience in graphic design and a little bit of doing a couple of exhibitions that were 3D and learned a lot there, I realized I did not understand 3D space as well as I should. I think interior design has helped me understand how spaces fit together, how people actually move through and experience space in general.
RB: I think that's helped a lot when I think about, as a person who's coming through an exhibition, what they're looking at first, what they're looking at second, what grabs people's eyes, how they locate themselves when they step into a room. What deters them, what confuses them. I think that's all been helpful in moving forward with creating my exhibitions now and moving forward. It's been an interesting journey coming from a 2D world and being thrown into a 3D world, which I think initially felt like, oh well, it's all design. It's all the same. I can do anything, but I was definitely shown that that's not true. It really is a completely different world.
MC: Does your graphic design background help you out with interior design with the work that you're doing?
RB: I think so. I think it's definitely imperative that as a 3D designer you have some background in graphics and typography. It's super crucial for information. Of course like simple things like typesetting and things of such, it works differently on a super massive scale to if it was just in a book or even on a screen. So understanding how that works on a 2D side and how that can be translated on a 3D side because it was simple things like I really didn't understand that you could have an image that's pixelated like crazy on a billboard and it be okay because people are in cars and they're looking at it from such a far distance that it will come together and look like there's no pixelization.
RB: Now, if you were able to get a really long ladder, or one of those boom machines and get up there, you would see that it's pixelated. Just understanding that fact made my life easier because I'm not struggling to get a picture that doesn't exist of a particular size. I realize the whole gamut of images actually open up for me to actually use that will work for such a grand scale because somethings up high so it doesn't have to be as sharp as if it was right in front of you.
RB: It was simple things like that, understanding those things can be crucial in working in a 3D world. It's helped a lot in solving those problems. Also, just white space and understanding that and how that can play into a 3D space. That white space still exists in both worlds.
MC: No, that's true. Yeah, that's true.
RB: It can be very helpful in allowing a person to relax their eyes as they're reading again, help with less confusion within the space. It was a lot of translations that I think were really helpful, and also, I've seen exhibitions where I'm like the 3D design isn't that good, but because the graphics are so well put together, it actually looks like a nice exhibition.
MC: To me, I felt the difference in what you're saying when I went to the National Museum of African American History and Culture. For those who might not have been, when you come in on the ground floor you have two options. You can either go to the upper floors, the second, third, and fourth. I think they have an exhibit right there on the first floor of something. I think it's like the Oprah exhibit or something was going on.
RB: Yeah, you can go down one level. Yeah.
MC: But then you have the option there's an elevator that will take you all the way down into like the third level basement, and then once you get down there you sort of walk in these series of ramps and it's supposed to take you through time from like the 1500s up until present day or something like that. To me, those felt like completely disparate experiences. It felt like what was in the basement was super well done, the typography, everything was on point. Even the scale of the items that they used, it guided your eye forward so even if you didn't know necessarily where to walk, you kind of intuitively knew how to get around.
MC: What can be difficult, especially in a space like that where there's a lot of people, there's multiple different like little islands of displays and things of that nature and then you go up to the second, third and fourth floors and it kind of just felt like storage. Now, granted I think that's also just because that's probably where they have more different types of exhibits coming in and out. Like I feel like maybe what's in the basement is permanent and then what they have on the upper floors I kind of think that are more transitory, but it did feel like it took me out of the experience a bit going from the basement on up. It just felt like they kind of threw some ...
MC: Now, some if it was good. I'm not going to lie. Some of it was good. All of it wasn't storage. The art part different felt like storage, but the music and the television parts, I mean I was like wow, this is really nice. You see the screens and they've got those sort of lithograph walls and everything so it really did kind of bring you into the space in that way, but it felt so wholly different from what I saw below. It didn't feel like it was that cohesive. I would imagine with a museum that large and that many floors you don't have the same exhibit designers doing all the exhibits, or maybe it's just a matter of different points of view, different design styles, et cetera, but it did take me out of it, I won't lie. It did take me out of it for a bit.
RB: Yeah, and not to defend him but you are correct in your thinking. One, yes, they were designed by different designers. I had the perspective that that is okay and I usually like to see that. Two, you're correct in that basement like that, the lower history where it walks you and you can see multiple exhibitions at once on different floors, that's like a permanent gallery. Then those upper levels, yeah, those are more temporary changing like shows that can be different one day.
RB: This goes back to what I said about large museums. I think we have the opportunity to create different experiences within one museum and I think that's the approach that they took, is like okay, this is our main one and these are different ones. They could have took the approach like I don't know if you've been to the Holocaust Museum in DC, a large part of that museum you just follow a path and they do have one or two temporary shows, but for the most part the majority of the museum is a journey.
RB: I think people find those really impactful and they walk out and like, "That was amazing," because it's a very focused approach. I don't think that museum and a lot of really large museums are meant to be experienced like how you experienced The African American History and Culture. There's just so much information to take in. That below level should almost, I would almost ... I tell people actually all the time, just experience that like on one day and then come back and look at both of them. Do not experience the whole museum in a whole day.
MC: We did the thing in a whole day. We did it in a whole day. It was a lot.
RB: No. Sometimes that's all you have. People are flying from all over the place and they're like, "We've got to see the whole thing because we're not coming back to DC for a long time." I get it, but I almost wish that wasn't the case, but that is the reality.
MC: Yeah, like my mom wants to go visit it and I told her if we do it we can't do it all in one day because this is, one, it's just a lot of walking. It's a big building, but really it is like separate, it feels like separate experiences. If you try to do it all in one day it's hard to process all of that.
RB: Right, and imagine if someone told you we want you to design a museum about the whole African American history and culture experience.
MC: That's a lot. It's so much.
RB: It would blow your mind, right?
MC: Right, right.
RB: You're going to leave something out.
MC: Yeah, something's going to not be represented right or something. That's a lot. There's a lot.
RB: All museums, I always say they're all a work in progress. They're learning from their mistakes. With the Twitter and social media people will let you know when you got something wrong real quick. There's several exhibitions I did, somehow all 300 of our eyes in a museum got a word wrong. Don't know how that happened, but they'll let us know and we try to figure out how to thoughtfully go about changing those things and make things better for the people we work for, which is the American public and beyond.
MC: Who keeps you motivated and inspired to continue the work that you're doing?
RB: The list is really long. I always think about it, I look at my immediate circle and then I go out from there. I have like old professors like Jessica Rodriguez was a teacher who was still to this day is super fundamental when I need feedback. I have people outside of that like Diane Kidd, which I think you've had her on the show, who's been super influential and helpful. I think everyone mentions Eddie. I think people have even mentioned his podcast, but Eddie [inaudible 00:51:58], which I think you've had him on the podcast as well.
RB: He's a person who has done some three dimensional stuff that I find really interesting. I look at other exhibition designers within the Smithsonian and other museums who are really like under the radar people where you don't see any of their stuff anywhere. I've dug through Twitter and other social media just looking for them and asked for copies for them and they've been great in just keeping me inspired on certain things.
RB: Then also simple websites like Pinterest because there's museums that I just can't get to that are amazing across the world that pop up and I'm like, "Oh my gosh, I wish I could go to Australia and look at this exhibition," but I can't. Whereas like a lot of 2D designers, you just look at the computer and you get the same experience or you can buy the book or get whatever design or it's something digital that you kan look up on your phone or your computer. Whereas exhibition, I can't get to the exhibition. The best I can get is maybe something on Pinterest and I don't even know who necessarily designed it because that's not something necessarily presented.
RB: So yeah, I get my inspiration from pretty much all over the place, including when I'm on vacation I take pictures of the oddest spatial things. I'm the person even if you look at my Instagram you'll see pictures of land and textures that I'm like, "Oh, that'd be great to use in an exhibition one day." Or random angles of how wood comes together with concrete to create some kind of interesting shadow. I don't think anybody else would be interested, but I'm like, "Wow, whoever did this detail, this construction detail, did an amazing job," because there's a quarter inch gap and this is almost impossible to get and this is a crazy engineering feat. Yeah, that's pretty much to sum it up where I get all my inspiration from.
MC: No, I think that idea of using Instagram as like a digital scrapbook or sketchbook of sorts where you keep concepts that you can go back to later.
MC: Is there any advice that has really stuck with you over the years as you look back over your career?
RB: My short career. I'm trying to think, any advice.
MC: Five years isn't that short. That's a long time.
RB: That's true. The best advice I was given was probably to give back as much as possible, to share as much as possible, to pull other people up as much as possible because that has created many opportunities for me. I try to be as ... One, my faith is drawn a lot from this very question. It makes sense just to give back and I don't do it to get ahead and I don't do it for like any applause or praise, but I just do it, give back because it's the right thing to do.
RB: Thankfully that does have benefits that come back to me, but I have had a lot of people, they're like, "You're helping me and there's no reason why you should help me." A lot of times, honestly, there's not a lot of people who are willing to give up their time to support other designers in the field, especially my field is so small it's hard to find people. So I tell people, "Look, throw anybody, I'm trying to help anybody like work on their resume, help them with their designs, whatever we can do to move forward." But I think that's probably one of the things. The best advice I've probably got is just giving back.
MC: Where do you see yourself in the next five years? You're done with grad school, you've got this free time on your hands. What would you like to be doing?
RB: It's a hard question for me because I'm always just like, "I'm just going day by day." Just try to figure it out, whatever opportunity comes to me, but I think in the next five years I could easily see myself still being at the same museum, still doing interesting things, maybe being a different museum. I try not to look at all my value coming from just my job, but how my life looks holistically. I look forward to getting more involved in, definitely for sure, in the design community in Washington, DC and being a part of that in whatever capacity.
RB: I talked a lot about AIGA, whether it's that which might get me into more trouble than I want. They're like, "Well, you talked about it in the podcast." Or with some other community, creative community in DC because I just find that, again, working with other people, working within the design community there's just something that I love to do and people in general can be so wonderful. Also can be terrible but I try to be optimistic. I'm horribly optimistic and just work in that capacity. So I probably see myself definitely being more a part of the creative community.
MC: Well, just to kind of wrap things up, where can our audience find out more about you and about your work online?
RB: You can find more of my work on Instagram @RichardBen or on Twitter at RichardBentham and on [inaudible 00:57:33] as Richard Bentham as well.
MC: All right, sounds good. Well Richard Bentham, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. I know you're doing this right now, for those who are listening you all don't know this, but he's doing this right now while you're on vacation, that's [inaudible 00:57:49], but I think it was really good to talk with you just about museums, especially the future or museums.
MC: I think now as we alluded to earlier about the historic time that we're in right now, as we look to the future and so many things being digitized and made into these virtual experiences, I think it's important for us to document in real life how much design and museums are a part of that and how we can take our own sort of active roles in making sure that we shape those experiences and really make them I think good for other people, but also I think it's good for folks to know that this is something they can do.
MC: Again, like people look at museums as like a field trip destination or something, not going into a space and thinking this is something that I can do. So I think just by virtue of you being able to share your experience, you are opening doors for people, so thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.
RB: Yeah. Thank you so much.