The Making of The Richard Nixon Presidential Library & Museum

How to tell the story of one of the most contentious American figures of the 20th century? 

From the native habitats of Georgia to the dystopian wilds of The Hunger Games, Thinkwell’s exhibit designs have gone to many vibrant places and told some amazing and unexpected stories over the years. But we were offered a new—and deeply relevant— arena to explore in 2013 when the Richard Nixon Foundation came to us with a challenge: to redesign the permanent exhibits at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum, which opened its new doors in October 2016. This task offered rich and exciting possibilities, but also posed these vital questions.

Even from the very start there was one thing we knew for sure: there wouldn’t be any hiding from the tough parts of the story. We needed to blow up the expectation that controversial topics like Watergate would be swept under the rug. Instead, we needed to bring them up at the very start, allowing the audience to see that this exhibit was aiming for a level of openness that can be difficult to achieve in many spaces—let alone a presidential library. The award-winning orientation film that guests can watch before entering the exhibits begins with Watergate and with Richard Nixon’s televised announcement that he will resign the presidency.

The next big hurdle Thinkwell faced was where to begin our story inside the exhibits. Richard Nixon was born in 1913, into an America that can feel almost unimaginably distant for the younger age demographic that the museum was hoping to attract. We wanted to start in a moment of action, a moment that would energize and connect with guests. Inspired by the dramatic tradition of in medias res, our exhibit begins in the middle of the story: amidst the turbulence and tumult and change of the 1960s, in a country that is deeply polarized and divided, when Richard Nixon is elected president in 1968.

With the starting point decided, the rest of the exhibit’s structure began to fall into place. We wanted to combine immersive spaces, powerful scenic vignettes, and bold and striking graphic imagery to shape spaces that felt alive and carried guests from moment to moment along their journey. Following Nixon’s first election, guests get to step into a fully explorable recreation of his Oval Office and then move into a series of galleries focused on the major issues, events, and ideas of Nixon’s presidency. These begin with a space dedicated to the war in Vietnam where a life-sized, gray scale vignette shows a pair of soldiers moving through the grass on the battlefield, juxtaposed against a graphic backdrop of photos of the protests at home on the wall beyond. In another standalone gallery that captures the scope and scale of Nixon’s world-changing trip to China, a pair of statues capture Nixon and Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai in the moment of their historic handshake, set against a large-scale graphic and scenic backdrop of Air Force One at the Chinese airfield. A frozen moment in time from a celebratory balloon drop scored with the catchy election anthem of “Nixon Now” provides the environment for another exhibit on Nixon’s landslide reelection victory in 1972, a sharp contrast to the Watergate exhibit that immediately follows.

It was here that the combination of the topic and the space provided a unique opportunity for Thinkwell to change the way we traditionally experience stories in museums. We decided to give our exhibit a flash-back—the first one to ever be used in a museum exhibit, as far as we know. Having reached Watergate and Nixon’s resignation, the exhibit narrative was in a place that called for reflection—how did Nixon get here? At the same time, we had a location at the far end of our exhibit space where windows overlooked the little house where Nixon had been born. With a little media and design magic, guests are able to transition back in time, following the Nixons as they flew back to California after the resignation and arriving in California not in 1974, but in 1913. A more subtle transition occurs here as well, shifting the perspective that the exhibit is following from the impersonal and external viewpoint of the outside world to a more personal, inward-looking sequence. This flashback concludes with an immersive and theatrical- ized version of the Lincoln Sitting Room, where guests are brought back to the “present” moment immediately following Nixon’s resignation.

Redesigning the permanent exhibits at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library gave Thinkwell an incredible opportunity to be a part of capturing a fascinating and important piece of history. More than that, it asked us to think in new ways about the stories we tell ourselves every day — stories about politics, about citizenship, about democracy, about America. In a time in which our political landscape has become turbulent and challenging, in which mass protests once again fill the streets of cities across the nation, taking on the story of Richard Nixon and his approach to the challenges of his time never did bring us all of the answers to the questions we started with. But it helped us begin to shape some of the questions that we will need to consider as we look to the future.

Museum of the Future

MUSEUM CONUNDRUM
Recently my colleagues and I were discussing museums over lunch. We all have a passionate interest in museums of all kinds, to one degree or another. We each had a memory to share about a favorite exhibit, a particular artifact, or even a favorite display technique, but something else came up that was very intriguing. Although we pronounced our undying affection for museums of every type, none of us had actually been to one as a guest in months. In fact, as it turns out, this relatively diverse group of writers, producers, creative directors, and artists, the so-called “interested” individuals who would seem to be the heartiest museum-goers, were all uniformly unenthused about the promise of a museum outing. Why?
We had the typical excuses: the museums are too hard to get to, the parking is a hassle, the price is too high, I can only go on the week-ends when the crowds are bad. All of these are legitimate, but none of them so daunting that they would really keep us away if the museum were compelling enough. And there’s the rub– they just… aren’t. The more we talked, the more we realized that generally museums aren’t worth going out of our way for. In some cases, they aren’t compelling enough to even warrant a spot on our recreational pastimes list (when discussing why we choose to go to museums when we do, one person replied, “When there’s nothing better to do”).

Bikeworldtravel / Shutterstock.com
Bikeworldtravel / Shutterstock.com

In light of all other entertainments, museums feel slightly out of touch. Even the word “museum,” feels archaic and dusty, like an invention from the 19th Century that has outlasted its usefulness. The word brings to mind the vaulted, marble floored institutions filled with relics, sarcophagi and other musty dead things behind glass or encased in formaldehyde. This is the iconic Hollywood location; the “Museum of Antiquities” visited by characters ranging from Indiana Jones to Curious George. Of course, that image doesn’t necessarily jive with the reality of today’s museums, but even the edgy architecture and the modern compulsion for Science Center interactivity cannot overcome our reluctance to go. We know it’s good for us, but so is oatmeal.
Art museums, meanwhile, elicited off-putting visions of stark minimalism: lean, streamlined galleries with a hint of erudition that left us feeling cold and out-of-place: these galleries are for experts and aficionados, certainly, but not for lay folk. The art itself is beautifully displayed, typically, but in a surreal vacuum of context. In so many cases, the works are presented with a succinct text panel, with barely any room to share even the most compelling stories about the piece, its creator, or of its time. This information is surprisingly hard to find; relegated to text on handouts or the monotonous banter of an audio tour.

TOO MUCH STATIC
While we have become increasingly spoiled by instantaneous access to information and entertainment literally at our fingertips, museum exhibits are frustratingly undynamic. The content is selected, processed and delivered down a one-way pipeline; an authoritarian board selects and presents the information that they deem worthy of our consumption. The typical museum communicates through lectures, not dialogue, and there are few ways within the museum itself for guests to pose questions or explore tangential ideas that the exhibits might inspire.
For better or worse, we live in an age of instant gratification and information access. The Internet provides an infinite web of information over which we wield complete control. Type in any subject and in a keystroke you have hundreds of relevant links that let you dive as deep into content as you want; even Wiki your own. As you do, you’ll inevitably stumble across another topic that strikes your fancy, and off you go on a whirlwind, stream-of-consciousness infosearch that could continue infinitely, if you so desire.

You don’t even need a computer anymore! Hold an iPhone in the air and with a touch on the screen and the right app, you can find out the name of the song that is playing in the elevator, and what artist or artists recorded it. Take a picture of any product anywhere with the same iPhone and another app will “look” at the picture, identify the product and then scan the Internet for more details, including make, model, and msrp. With the tap of another button, you can download the song or order the product online (after price-comparing on multiple sites for the best value, of course). And with the advent of services like iTunes, TiVo, and Netflix (along with home theater systems that rival the local cineplex’s) even television and the movies are under our beck and call.

IN THE DRIVERS SEAT
We’ve grown fond of this control. Rather than follow a designated path the curator has chosen for us, we prefer to choose our own and use the museum exhibits as a jumping off point for further investigation across many disciplines. The internet provides links to all sorts of tangential topics, how can the museum do the same and allow us to explore equally fascinating (and sometimes tangential) topics of our choosing?

Technological overlays could enhance the presentational nature of static exhibits and transform them into interactive research tools that put the guest in the driver’s seat. Imagine a digital heads-up display, integrated into a clear display case or panel in front of an art piece. With gesture recognition hardware linked to a computer database, the art or artifact becomes the touch point for multi-disciplinary research. Through the display, the guest can explore, not just the piece itself, but also the history of the object, the tools and techniques used to create it, the historical timelines that parallel its creation. You could, with the wave of a hand, learn more about the artist, link to other works that have a significant connection, grab a virtual magnifying glass and drag it across the canvas to “see” the brush work up close, or open video clips of experts and curators sharing interesting information about the item, and then record and share your own insights about the item for others to access.

Audio programs have become a ubiquitous part of the museum experience, but often they are simply dry recitations of facts and figures. These could be diversified to provide a unique point of view, to provoke a laugh, an epiphany or an opposing viewpoint. Imagine these audio devices featuring a selection of different voices each providing their own personal and sometimes biting commentary. What if, instead of the faceless avuncular voice museum audio programs currently employ, we could hear Jon Stewart’s take on this exhibit? Or David Sedaris? Or the creator of the artwork that’s on display. Suddenly, each visit to the museum takes on a new personality and a new point of view that contrasts sharply with the last, leading the guest to make their own conclusions and form their own opinions.
In this way, the audio track enhances the exhibit like the director’s commentary on the bonus tracks of a motion picture DVD. Taken to the next logical conclusion, the audio commentary might be guest-created, with personal observations and Wikipedia-like modifications. Now the audio programs function like blog entries on the Internet, entries which are oftentimes more enjoyable than the articles themselves.

We want to play. We want to touch things, turn them around, take them apart,see how they work. Play is an important learning tool for both children and adults, and museums should provide hands on labs for grown ups whenever possible. Perhaps this is a painting studio, where we can get a first-hand appreciation of art techniques like highlights and shadows, brush work, color mixing, and so on. It might be an adult-scale paleontology dig pit, with real equipment instead of sand pails and shovels. Perhaps this is a kinetic physics lab, where we can create our own kinetic sculptures, build DaVinci’s incredible machines, or play with light and sound. This isn’t just an assortment of science center, touch-the-button-interactives, but a working shop where we can deconstruct, analyze, and touch the rudimentary components of the exhibit.

This is a place where the current museum model would be exploded: where the back-of-house spaces, the archives, the workshops, the libraries, would all be available to the public for unlimited use, and would no longer be the exclusive domain of the museum staff. This is an institute where the guest is the creator, the researcher, and the arbiter of the museum’s ever-changing content.

MUSEUMS AS AN EVENT
Ultimately, we see a blending of all these programs and resources until the museum becomes the anchor and hub for a new entertainment, a multifaceted and wide-ranging event, designed and directed by the museum, that immerses guests completely within the exhibit experience. The subjects of these events could be a single artwork, artifact (a White Star Lines dinner plate, say), even a significant date, 1492, for example, or 1968. Imagine an art event, for example, which is anchored by a single work, but which allows you to explore your own path within multiple disciplines as defined by the work. The art work is the catalyst for a totally unique, self-directed experience through connected subjects.

Say the featured work is, for example, Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of Le Grand Jatte. Surrounding the main piece are supporting, cross-discipline experiences that are totally unique, yet connected to the original piece through which you can freely roam. The evening begins with dinner in the restaurant surrounded by Seurat’s other works while the artist himself (a performer, in this case) discusses their importance. Afterwards, you might step into Seurat’s studio if you wish, slip on a smock and get your hands dirty as you paint and begin to understand and appreciate “pointillism”.

In the studio, you can see how the artist worked in a world without Photoshop and art supply stores. You might explore the chemistry paint and the colors Seurat used, how his canvases were framed and stretched, even how he made his own brushes.
Another hall then immerses you in a living history of the era, in a pub, perhaps surrounded by (and interacting with) the people depicted on the canvas. By talking with them, you learn their hopes, dreams, and daily struggles, and see and explore the social influences under which the art was created. Through open discussion you can understand why was this piece created, what the artist was trying to say, what he was responding to culturally or politically. In yet another gallery, you could trace the evolution of the piece in previous and future works. How was the creation of this painting inevitable, and how has it transformed what came after? Who were the other great thinkers, creators, pioneers at the time of this piece’s creation? In any case, the subject of the exhibit, whatever it may be, becomes impeccably relevant and indelibly memorable for the visitor.

Ultimately, we see the museum as a versatile destination with multiple uses. A sort of contemporary salon: a place where people can dine, sip coffee, read, share ideas, research, create. With a lush coffee shop or café at its core (that is interwoven with, not isolated from the exhibits), this new museum would become a hang-out, a social and ideological gathering place, with a library, a theater, even a creative laboratory with accessible studios and workshops.
During our discussion, one of my colleagues blurted, “My God we’re inventing college!” Indeed, like a college campus, this museum provides a safe haven for open discussion, exploration, invention and research, but this place would be available to students of every age, not just college kids.

OUT OF THE BOX
As we continued to explore these “what ifs,” we almost simultaneously realized that we had yet to really smash the old museum model. We may have shaken up the contents of the box, but we hadn’t yet taken them out of it. All of these previous notions assume that the museum is a separate institution located off the beaten path in its own separate and self-contained building.
But why must the museum insist we go to it? Instead, what if the museum board thinks more like a retail developer: find a way to bring the museum to where the people already are?

There is no good reason for museums to assume the additional effort and expense to physically add restaurants, workshops, libraries and theaters to create a social hub, when these destinations already exist and are thriving. In the latter half of the 20th Century, Main Street gave way to the suburban shopping mall. Ironically, in the 21st century, the mall is ceding to the lifestyle center: destinations where shopping and entertainment (complete with green spaces, rides and multi-use concert venues) commingle to create a bustling place to see and be seen. These regional neighborhoods, with their residential condominiums and apartments hovering above retail stores, movies, restaurants, even bowling alleys, have become America’s new Main Streets.

Museums exhibits would fit in this place as naturally as Starbucks. These smaller, satellite locations could either stand alone or work in support of a museum’s flagship institution. The museum would provide the brand for a franchise, not of stores, but of exhibit galleries through which the museum’s artifacts and programs would rotate. By inserting itself in a residential address that also happens to be a thriving commercial hub, the museum becomes an integral part of the neighborhood, where a visit to the gallery is as daily a routine as a grande latte.
In this location, guests are not captives in the museum. With their membership or paid admission, they can enter and exit as often as they like during the day. They can browse the galleries at their leisure, in digestible chunks, and then take a break and discuss the content over a meal at an adjacent restaurant, bistro, or coffee house, where still other exhibits are on display.

The museum also has the opportunity to extend beyond the gallery walls and provide a thematic overlay to the lifestyle center. Exhibits could become interwoven into the landscape and signage of the entire plaza, providing content while drawing guests to the facility at the same time. Museums used to be the exclusive domain of the IMAX theater, but not any more. More and more studios are releasing large format versions of their films (now in digital 3D!) and the IMAX experience is quickly becoming de gigeuer at the local multiplex. Rather than compete with the studios, the IMAX could become a shared resource, showing the museum’s short subjects during the day and early evening before transitioning to the feature films later on.

What museum staffs cannot forget, whether they like it or not, is that museum admissions are, in the eyes of the guest, entertainment dollars. The money they pull from their pocket to pay the entry fee comes out of an ever-dwindling discretionary budget, and though that entertainment dollar is limited, entertainment options are anything but. Never mind the lofty mission goals and educational standards; today’s museum is competing directly with movies, theme parks, corporate brand experiences (i.e. The World of Coke, M&M’s World, etc), nightclubs, and restaurants for a tiny share of that precious entertainment dollar. Rather than compete against these other offerings, we see museums collaborating with, intermingling among, and even perhaps, branding them.

In these challenging economic times, when endowments are dwindling and promised contributions shrink or disappear entirely, the museum must begin to focus on the sure revenue stream: admissions. True, most museums generate less than 25% of their revenue from ticket sales, and the average visitor spends less than $1.00 on retail and food and beverages, but these are past statistics, not rules. Why not open a restaurant within the museum walls? Why not build a gallery smack in the middle of a retail hub? Why not aggressively pursue the visitor’s entertainment dollar? This doesn’t mean turning away from the institutions goals, but it does require creativity to find a way to achieve the mission within a new business plan, one that focuses on the desires and interests of the guest, and that means understanding, responding to, and delivering on their expectations.

Museums & the Digital Revolution: Consumer Trends in Mobile and Interactive Technology Integration in Museums

As museums and the visitors they attract are evolving, is this a space looking for increased digital and mobile interactivity?
Last year, Thinkwell released the company’s first Guest Experience Trend Report revealing the growing trends among Theme Park guests and their use of technology when they visit Theme Parks. Surprisingly, the results revealed that younger guests were much less concerned with mobile integration and that families and older guests primarily have an appetite for consumer-oriented mobile integration in theme parks.
This report inevitably led Thinkwell to think about this topic in relation to the company’s other specialized fields. We asked ourselves if we thought these results would carry across the various market segments in which we practice. With such high focus on technology and mobility in our lives today, are guests looking to integrate technology into their visitor experiences? Museums and the visitors they attract are evolving, so Thinkwell asked, is this a space looking for increased digital and mobile interactivity? The 2014 Trend Report honed in specifically on the current museum guest experience and visitors’ expectations and desires for such digital and mobile integration.
Thinkwell began a nationwide survey analyzing behavioral patterns in relation to guest experiences in museums. The survey reached over 1,400 museumgoers and found that 69 percent of the respondents bring mobile devices (tablets and/or smartphones) with them while visiting a museum. Of that 69 percent, a total of 73 percent used their device during their visit, most notably to take photos. Similar results were found in last year’s report on theme park mobile integration.
Though museums are using indoor GPS systems in conjunction with apps to push location-appropriate content to visitors, tailored to the exhibit they are in, Thinkwell is only seeing about 32 percent interest in such a feature. This result explains why over half of museum app users have uninstalled or not installed an app due to concerns about personal information, and 19 percent turn off the location tracking feature on their cell phones. Results show that this consumer market is not extremely eager for location-aware app advancements to enhance their in-museum experiences.
WHAT MUSEUM GUESTS LIKE
When asked to rank what they find to be the most beneficial features of museums, respondents chose as their top three: educational for me and/or my family, the ability to see real art and artifacts, and the content of the exhibits. Guests are visiting a variety of museums, from art to history to zoos and aquariums to get the personal satisfaction of bettering themselves and their families through education and learning.
The desire to see real art and artifacts contradicts a report from last year that suggested guests would be satisfied with highly accurate reproductions, as younger generations gravitate towards content and experiences, rather than originals. Our findings show that across all age demographics, guests highly value access to the authentic artifacts and art pieces available at museums, citing it as the second most important aspect of museums.
In regard to features that could improve a visitor’s experience, 42 percent would like to see more interactivity incorporated, and 40 percent of respondents feel that the use of audio related to a topic or object would be beneficial. Interestingly, a small minority of respondents would like to see an increase of adult-only extended hours and events. The interactivity guests seek is not limited to those found in digital devices. Visitors are interested in social and personal interactions that break beyond the four walls of the museums, with activities such as: after-hours events, classes and presentations from artists and subject-matter experts for children and adults, and kids crafts. They are more interested in increased human interactivity than in digital integration such as mobile apps or 3D printed, touchable objects.
On average, visitors spend a total of three hours at museums per visit. Not only do respondents ages 18-44 spend more time per visit than those ages 45 and up, they are also more likely to visit museums more often. Forty-four percent of respondents ages 18-44 visited museums 5 times or more during the past two years, while only 32 percent of those ages 45 and up did so.
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WHAT MUSEUM GUESTS DO NOT LIKE
While Thinkwell had many findings in the annual Guest Experience Trend Report pointing to the positive qualities of museums, we also found that over 57 percent of visitors are highly concerned with cost of entry for museums today.
Other negative factors affecting museum visits included overcrowding and outdated content. Respondents felt strongly about having newer exhibits and special events as encouraging factors of repeat visits. Overwhelmingly however, 88 percent of respondents ranked their last museum visit as quite enjoyable or better.
Some believe that digital integration in the museum space is necessary to expand the experience both virtually and in terms of new types of physical space to engage those accustomed to interacting with a screen. However, Thinkwell’s findings reveal that the museum space is one used to escape screens and the digital world. Guests are focusing more and more on the authenticity of the art and artifacts.
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MOVING FORWARD
In an increasingly interconnected and digital world that gives easy access to infinite amounts of data and information, the value and role of museums has come into question. While it’s clear that museums need to adapt to shifts in technology, guests still look to them for authority and authenticity. Digital technologies can be helpful to museums in order to supplement their content, but visitors still crave social interactions, personal enrichment and access to original, authentic objects. Custom experiences can be tailored to the individual, but guests still want those experiences to take place in a physical space with real live experts there to teach them and answer questions.
“We believe the best way to engage visitors in an experience is to have them participate in stories they can relate to and that are authentic and compelling,” said Craig Hanna, Chief Creative Officer of Thinkwell Group. “Museums are competing not only for time but also attention. Consumers can get content from their mobile devices. Museums need to do what they do best—present authentic content in a meaningful way that connects with their core constituencies—while also incorporating digital technologies to keep those experiences fresh and up to date with consumer expectations.”
“The results of the survey are fascinating and, for museums, heartening. Real stuff, real stories, real human experiences: it’s what museums do best, and it’s what visitors crave,” said Cynthia Sharpe, Senior Director of Cultural Attractions and Research for Thinkwell Group. “In conjunction with the fantastic research done by Jay Greene’s group at the University of Arkansas at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art regarding the value of field trips and the importance of facilitation, it bolsters the approach of using personal digital technology as a tool in the storytelling and educational arsenal. The educational and emotional impact of seeing real artifacts and experiencing great interpretation is paramount.”
Survey Respondent Demographics
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Qualifying participants were United States residents over the age of 18 who had visited a museum/exhibit in the past 24 months. Of the 1,407 respondents, 42 percent were male and 58 percent were female. Nineteen percent were between the ages of 18-29; 26 percent between the ages of 30-44; 28 percent between the ages of 45-60; and 27 percent are 60 and above. Household incomes ranged between $25,000 and over $150,000. Less than 1 percent held less that a high school degree, 6 percent held only a high school degree, 29 percent had some college or an Associate degree, 40 percent had a Bachelor’s degree, and 27 percent had a Graduate degree. The survey found very little correlation, if any, between gender or location and current mobile behavior or interest in increased mobile integration for museums experiences.
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Infographic | Museums & the Digital Revolution: Consumer Trends in Mobile and Interactive Technology Integration in Museums

Thinkwell’s findings of their nationwide survey analyzing behavioral patterns as they relate to existing and potential mobile integration into the museums and exhibit experience is illustrated in the infographic below. This survey marks the second release of Thinkwell’s Guest Experience Trend Report, which provides market research insights to the themed entertainment industry. The annual report measures and distills consumer interests in varying topics related to guest experiences.
Thinkwell's 2014 Guest Experience Trend Report - Infographic
Read the White Paper accompanying this infographic here.