The Return of Anticipation

Since the start of the pandemic in March of 2020, we all have gone through a lot. Whether it was missing a family reunion, an anniversary cruise, a vacation with best friends, or simply a special dinner out. What all these things have in common is the one thing we didn’t know we were going to miss: anticipation. 

From the American Psychological Association: Anticipation is a state of expectation or excitement about an upcoming event or situation. It is a state of suspense and expectancy. For example, when you know an old friend is going to drop by you probably are in a state of anticipation while waiting for them–you are excited, maybe a little nervous, and filled with expectations about their visit. 

Before the pandemic, our lives were full of anticipation. Upcoming movie releases, lunch with a colleague, a trip to the museum, a dinner with a loved one, a pending concert. These things all slowly (and quickly!) ended. Restaurants closed so reservations were canceled. Concerts that were months away became unceremonious credit card refunds. Family vacations turned into airline vouchers and cancellation emails from hotels and rental car companies. 

But we need anticipation. The very nature of that feeling is all about future reward, and right now, almost more than many other things, we deserve a reward. From lunch to travel, anticipation is the bringer of excitement, the harbinger of adventure, or simply the feeling that we are going to be doing something unmapped, uncharted, and different. Anticipation often includes daydreaming, research, and planning. 

The Doblin Group, an innovation consultancy based in Chicago, codified compelling experiences. Their research showed that one of the key attributes to any compelling experience is the first of three phases, attraction. “Attraction” referred to the build-up to the experience itself, notably research, planning, and daydreaming. In other words, anticipation. 

Kelsey Borresen, a Senior Reporter with Huffpost wrote a piece last year called, “The Psychological Benefits of Having Something to Look Forward To.” In it, she wrote

Research suggests that living in the present moment and practicing mindfulness can increase happiness.

“However, during particularly stressful moments in time, like our current pandemic, it can be more beneficial to have something to look forward to,” said Atlanta therapist LeNaya Smith Crawford.


Anticipation, in many ways, is hope for the future. That state of suspense and expectancy is now its own ecstasy, an ecstasy we are can control. “It is the implicit knowing that positive emotion will happen in the future,” says Guy Kuchnick, a New York psychologist and founder of Techhealthiest. According to research published in the journal Psychological Science, planning your itinerary, booking tickets, and anticipating a vacation can boost your mood long before you step on a plane. 

We’ve been stressed. We need anticipation. 

Theme parks are open or are opening up. Vaccines are moving through their phases and the CDC’s guidelines for gathering are loosening as a result. Local jurisdictions are allowing, in many cities, for restaurants to open indoor dining again.

All these things bring hope because they are the impetus of anticipation. 

Airlines and cruise lines have better, more flexible cancellation policies now than in the past. Maybe not tomorrow, but soon, we can journey again. Why not enter that “Attraction” phase of any compelling experience and start researching your next vacation, plan that cruise, start organizing the next family reunion, or simply consider where the first place will be when you go out to dinner again?

Let’s bring back anticipation.


The Museum Exhibit Design: Education Should Be Fun

Have you ever thought about a trip to a museum as the equivalent of eating your leisure-time vegetables? It’s good for you, but it’s not always the most palatable option on your plate. It’s vital that museums offer something more than just education.  That they offer fun and excitement and inspiration and connection in order to avoid being relegated to brussels sprouts status. So when we start thinking about museum exhibit design and how to tell a story that appeals as it educates, it can be as simple as beginning where you would with any story: the who, the what, and the where.

NatureQuest Starfish

Let’s start with the last of those: the where. Creating a sense of place isn’t just for theme parks, and museum exhibits don’t have to be displayed within formless or nonspecific gallery spaces. Giving guests a sense of location, an environment to explore, can transform their serving of educational goodness into a journey of discovery, even an adventure. Take, for example, our approach at NatureQuest, the children’s exhibit at Fernbank Museum of Natural History in Atlanta, Georgia. This indoor-for-outdoor space recreates the different environmental zones of Georgia, populated with species-accurate depictions of plants, animals, even the correct sounds of bird calls and other wildlife for that region. In this space, rather than being told about the estuary or swamp or mountain caves, kids and their parents get to become the discoverers, the scientists spotting species in their natural habitats and learning about them from their environments.

Next, let’s think about the who. While the where can immerse guests in a time or location, ultimately people connect with people. It’s the personal stories that provide unique moments of identification and communication between guests and the educational content. In museum exhibit design, this can mean creating opportunities to get inside someone else’s head, building empathy and understanding. At the Richard Nixon Presidential Library, we wanted to give guests a chance to see and hear how Nixon thought — in his own words — while balancing it with outside perspectives and responses. We recreated the Lincoln Sitting Room, Nixon’s favorite room in the White House, and placed a statue of the president at work in his chair, scribbling away on a notepad. Projected words animate onto the wall (real quotes from his own handwritten notes) as guests hear Nixon’s voice, from later interviews, narrating what he thought about a particular issue. The windows of the room were filled with media of news reports, commentary, even protests, giving a glimpse of how the outside world responded to Nixon’s actions. 

Last of all, the what. In the context of museum exhibit design, the “what” that we’re specifically interested in are the artifacts — the real, authentic pieces of history (or geology or whatever field our museum is focused on) that tell a story with their physical presence. First, it’s important that you are choosing an artifact that has significance and a story to tell — you’re not just displaying it for the sake of having something in a case. At the CIA Museum1 for example, the letter written to his son by a young American officer at the close of WWII might move guests in its own right, aided by the writer’s later role as Director of Central Intelligence. But the fact that the letter is written on a captured piece of Adolph Hitler’s personal stationery makes it unforgettable. Just as vital as what it is, though, is how the artifact is displayed: are you giving it the kind of context that makes it come to life? Can we see, through its environment or displays, how it was used or where it came from? Can guests touch or interact with it? It’s one thing to be able to see a rock that was brought back from the lunar surface, but to be able to touch one — as you can at Space Center Houston, among other locations — gives you a chance to physically connect with history, or even the universe. 

Who, what, and where. When you take it back to the basics of storytelling, it becomes clear that museum exhibit design can be both delicious and nutritious — the best of both worlds.2


Physically Distanced Museums

What is the museum of the future? How will museums operate – physically, intellectually, financially – long after COVID19? There’s big transformation on the horizon for cultural institutions, but there’s also the immediacy of ‘how can we reopen? When can we reopen?’ Museums need to connect with their communities quickly and deeply, to garner the kind of support (visitorship, donors, and community members who will advocate for the institution) they will need to survive and pivot from this time. With nineteen years designing experiences for museums, zoos, aquariums, theme parks, and more, Thinkwell has amassed deep knowledge of best practices, crisis management and transformation, and operations across industries. While Thinkwell is helping our museum clients meaningfully wrestle with the big questions of long-range transformation, we’re also helping them think through the ‘day after tomorrow’ – what will it look like as stay-at-home orders ease, but before a viable vaccine is widely available.

physically distancing in a museum

So what does ‘physical distancing’ look like in an institution that probably has some brain-bending, physical-distancing-rules violating combination of:

  • Multiple constricted entries and exits (into and out of the building, exhibit halls, retail, restaurants, and bathrooms)
  • Hands-on interactives and touch-screens for ticketing, payment, or exhibit content
  • Delightful historic structures that can’t be modified
  • Maybe even a children’s area featuring a ball pit, dress-up activities, and a climbing structure

There are no easy answers. There’s no magic bullet. But there are tools and a deliberative process that can help guide decision-making.

Museums now find themselves in a world that other location-based experiences have been doing for years. Theme parks calculate guest density and flow, and adjust designs accordingly, with a rigor that even Scrooge himself would be awed by. They deal with queue lines, spacing, and hiding the true length of a queue or making it more entertaining. Theme parks and zoos have made materials and cleaning protocols choices based on durability, operational, and health concerns to an extent indoor museum experiences largely haven’t needed to. Mission-driven spaces like museums, zoos, aquariums, and other cultural attractions can benefit from the years of real-world experience other venue types have already amassed. In fact, they must capitalize on this information – there’s no time to waste.

Thinkwell has developed a Playbook for cultural attractions to utilize as they plan not only for the first few weeks of reopening, but also the months until the COVID threat is mitigated globally and the new reality beyond. In the first few weeks of operations, yes, tape on the floor can help with physical distancing. But it’s not an elegant or guest-friendly solution, nor is it a look or emotional message institutions want to sport for the next year. Ours is a methodical yet nimble approach, considering every element of operation while simultaneously centering the experience of the institution. Solutions that diminish the soul of an institution and hobble it from fulfilling its mission are not good ones. As part of our Playbook, we define five main areas to consider as institutions plan for reopening and new operations. By focusing on these key elements, it frames internal review and helps focus the questions.

For example, one of the five areas is “The Big Draw”, which naturally guides the iterative planning process. What are the key experiences to have open as part of your Big Draw for guests? Where are their risk points? Interactives – and how to handle them – is another of the five key areas for consideration. Most museums will lack the time, money, and staff resources to convert every interactive immediately. But in many exhibits, interactives are a key part of the experience. Which interactives are foundational to have working? Our Montreal team is already developing elegant, seamless solutions to transition touch-screen interactives into gesture, voice-controlled, or personal digital device-mirrored experiences, and our teams are also re-envisioning what the new interactivity entails.

Museums need to open. Period. Their communities want and need them, as shown in the recent research work spearheaded by the American Alliance of Museums, and museums need ticket revenue in order to survive. Museums are a critical economic engine, too, and their successful reopening will pay off in a variety of ways. By being thoughtful, yet swift, in planning for “the Day After Tomorrow”, museums can invest their time and limited resources to best effect, helping their communities heal and turn towards the future.

Thinkwell talks with U.S. Marshals Museum

With plans to begin site and facility construction work in spring 2018 after a $17 million cost savings was realized from plan augmentations and new ground samples, the museum’s board of directors is being exposed to next level of museum building — artists. The 2016 estimate of site and facility work was $33.5 million. It is now $16.5 million, thanks to resigns and no expected need to dig out 16 feet of “unsuitable soil.”

The entire budget for the 50,000-square-foot museum’s construction and interior is $58.6 million. Completion is expected in September 2019.
Thinkwell: The Experience Co., a Los Angeles-based design house with offices in Bejing and Abu Dhabi, made a presentation [in June] to the U.S. Marshals Museum Board of Directors that prompted a motion to approve the board’s executive committee ability to negotiate a deal.

“In the last year, we’ve talked about ‘experience,’ about how we don’t really need to use the word ‘exhibits,’ because ‘exhibits’ makes you think of things under glass without storytelling,” U.S. Marshals Museum President and CEO Patrick Weeks told the board. “We get to do this once, and we need to do it right.”

Thinkwell Senior Art Director Chuck Roberts and Cynthia Sharpe, Thinkwell’s principal of Cultural Attractions and Research, have worked with Weeks on other projects in his “sordid past,” he joked. Roberts was the head designer on the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, and Sharpe is “one of the smartest people I know in the museum business when it comes to content and what’s good and what really isn’t,” Weeks said.

“I’ve known Thinkwell for a long time. I’ve never worked for them, and I’ve never actually hired Thinkwell for my projects, but they got the right people right now, and the right experience right now,” Weeks told the board.

Thinkwell has designed “innovative and dynamic experiences” for museums, theme parks and studios that include the Smithsonian Institution, National Geographic, Disney, LEGO, Harry Potter, Saturday Night Live, House of Blues, Sea World, Sesame Street, Nickelodeon, Super Bowl XXXVIII, and a host of other brands.
After giving the board an overview of their company history (founded in 2001), projects and philosophy, Sharpe and Roberts answered questions from board members that included one from Judge Jim Spears on how the designers envisioned the museum’s entrance.

“Those really story-rich, pivot moments in the history of the marshals that are the sort of ‘grab somebody by the front of the shirt’ moments,” Sharpe said. “As opposed to leading with something that is simply presentation of facts. … Once you get them in, and get them hooked, you can work in more of the historical fact and figure content.
Sharpe also said she wants to figure out the “key story leads” and have one right up front, and then deepen the story. She advised a “mix of artifact and immersion.”
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Rediscovering Nixon: The New Nixon Presidential Library and Museum

The Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum reopened in October 2016, featuring a renovated 17,000-sq.-ft. museum and stand-alone theater that brings President Nixon’s life, career, achievements, and controversies to life in an interactive and comprehensive exhibition.
Thinkwell designed and produced the new museum exhibition and theater, working with partners Cortina Productions, Studio EIS, Kubik Maltbie and others on the creation of the immersive environments, educational interactives, and compelling media.  At the time the project was initiated, most of the exhibits and artifacts had not changed since the museum first opened, and the renovations invite guests to take a new look at Richard Nixon and the entirety of his political career.
Take a look behind the scenes with Thinkwell into the making of the New Nixon Library.