Celebrating 10 Years Of Naturequest: A Retrospective Look Back With the Fernbank Team

In 2007, the Fernbank Museum of Natural History’s visionary CEO Susan Neugent and her team engaged Thinkwell to reimagine their much-loved (but well-worn) third-floor children’s exhibits. At the time, Thinkwell was still new to the museum world, and Susan’s leap of faith initiated a rich and rewarding collaborative partnership that would lead to Naturequest, a groundbreaking children’s exhibit that celebrates its tenth anniversary this week.  

NatureQuest Starfish

“From the moment we kicked off the design process in 2007,” notes Fernbank’s current CEO Jennifer Grant Warner, “we intentionally set out to create something fresh that had not been seen before at museums for young kids. Our team at Fernbank, alongside our colleagues from Thinkwell, were committed to developing this uniquely immersive space that was rooted in science and education curriculum from top to bottom, providing inclusive opportunities for all  learners to explore the natural world…in a safe, indoor environment.”

Naturequest was intended to shatter the conventions of typical children’s exhibits by creating a playful, highly explorable landscape that piques each visitor’s innate sense of curiosity without relying on didactic text or explanations. Anchored by a multilevel treehouse and a meandering virtual interactive river that winds from the mountains to the coastal reef, Naturequest provides a comprehensive, accurate, region-specific overview of Georgia’s complex biosystems. Since it’s opening, the exhibit has provided ten years of adventure to its guests, but getting to opening day was an adventure all its own.

To start with, the logistics of creating a bespoke, aspirational, indoor forest on the third floor of the building were daunting. Fernbank’s main loading dock was located four floors below, on the opposite side of the building, impractically far away from the space. Thinkwell proposed a radical solution, punching a new hole in the building three stories above an adjacent service area, and the Fernbank team unflinchingly approved the plan. It proved to be an invaluable decision, minimizing the impact of construction on the rest of the museum.

Another key objective was to include a floor-to-ceiling view to the natural forest just outside, which required the demolition and relocation of the office of the Museum’s CFO, Catherine Nowell. With typical Fernbank spirit, she unhesitatingly agreed to the plan. 

Due to the “haute couture” nature of the exhibit, every element had to be custom designed, tested and installed onsite. Once construction was underway, the Thinkwell team, led by Project Manager Courtney Kleinman, was embedded with Fernbank’s staff in Atlanta to oversee the placement of everything from the largest tree to the tiniest fossil in the rockwork strata. 

As scenic elements arrived, they became furniture for the project team; the treehouse an ad hoc conference room, fallen logs became workbenches, the under-construction ladies room served as the flooring vendor’s field office, and a faux dugout canoe was a welcoming spot for a quick power nap. The team spent all of their waking hours together. “For a while I thought I was married to (Technical Director) Gene Rogers. We drove together, worked together, ate every meal together,” Art Director Gwen Ballantyne said. 

Gwen sculpted and baked animal figures and rockwork samples in her apartment for Nassal’s scenic team, who used the models as guides for the full-sized rocks, caves, and strata they sculpted in place. They meticulously added fossils, geodes and other inclusions selected by Fernbank’s geologists to the appropriate layer of strata. They molded tree bark samples from the trees just outside to create accurate copies inside. “I was so impressed with the rockwork team from Nassal,” says Ballantyne, “They were brilliant and so patient with us and everything we were asking them to do, which was crazy hard. Everything they did was stellar.”

Elsewhere, Gwen worked with the flooring vendor Rubbertek to custom mix their primary colors to create the perfect color gradients for the riverbed, beach, and reef, an effort that they had never accomplished previously. While art directing a tree stump, Ballantyne became so captivated by the history conveyed in tree rings, that she joined the Tree Ring Society.

Meanwhile, Kate McConnell, who had already learned the Latin names for hundreds of indiginous species of plants and animals in concept development, installed animal paw prints throughout the space, each set representing a different creature and telling a unique story. Kids can follow those prints and see where the creature emerges from the grass, pauses for a drink, and finally darts away again. Kate got so caught up in the effort that Thinkwell CEO Joe Zenas unofficially dubbed her V.P. of Animal Tracks.

The tech team hung and focused lights and mapped projections in the now open, naturally lit space. They also installed computers and software, rigged interactive elements, and mixed twenty-six separate audio zones together to create a seamless, accurately immersive soundscape in the compact space. Even the soundscape is Georgia-specific, with bird and insect noises selected specifically for their accuracy to each zone of the exhibit.

“There is no more destructive force in nature than a four-year-old-child” said Rogers, and all of the Naturequest team aggressively field-tested every touchpoint to make sure they could withstand the onslaught of the destructive forces to come.  they jumped, smashed, pulled, and pushed every new set piece and element trying to break it. “Is this good to go?” asked Chris Hawkes before grabbing a balance beam log with two hands and tearing it out of the floor. “Apparently not.” Thinkwellian Cynthia Sharpe would frequently pressure-test play elements, once putting her foot through a crab pot, then testing prototype acorns, seashells, and game pieces by smashing them to the floor or against a wall. When a transfer basket for a seed dispersal activity proved too fragile, Cynthia hand-knitted a pouch instead, a solution that remains to this day.

All of the tireless work and attention to detail was put to the test on opening day. The team held their breath as the first wave of kids entered the space. As expected, they jumped, smashed, pulled, and pushed every element. Grown ups explored as well, some laying across the virtual river, climbing up the central tree, or hanging out inside the narrow burrow. Kids beckoned to parents and caregivers to share discoveries and even sought out other kids to help with cooperative games. They had turned over stones, climbed trees, explored caves, and hopped across the river. Naturequest was now theirs.

As the activity wound down towards the end of the day, Gwen Ballantyne noticed an elderly docent gazing in wistfully through the circular windows at the entrance, “The children love it,” he whispered, “Looking at this, I just want to be a boy again.”  

“Naturequest was a game changer for Fernbank,” asserted Dr. Bobbi Hohmann, Fernbank’s VP of Programming and Collections, “Our younger visitors don’t realize that they are learning as they play and, of course, our adult visitors have just as much fun in the space!”

NatureQuest Floor InteractiveBrandi Berry, VP of Marketing agreed “I knew we had created something very special and innovative when Emory University included Naturequest in their field research of early childhood education. Ten years later, I still want to climb up the inside of the tree every time I visit the exhibit.”

“Naturequest has been pivotal for Fernbank in many ways,”  Jennifer Grant Warner adds, “ the exhibition has helped Fernbank grow as an organization, expanding our reach and being recognized for our commitment to science education. Best of all, to this day, we see kids light up when they enter Naturequest and realize this space is just for them – they speed through to get their bearings and then dive into their favorite area to explore, which is exactly as we had hoped.” 

Naturequest was the product of an unprecedented partnership and collaboration between Thinkwell and the Fernbank Museum that continues to this day. Since opening in 2011, the multiple award-winning Naturequest has exponentially increased memberships, opened the door for new exhibits like WildWoods and Nature Stories, and has made Fernbank one of the most treasured spots in Atlanta. Happy anniversary Naturequest, and congratulations to our dear friends at Fernbank. It is a privilege playing with you.

Museum & Cultural Institution Transformation, Part 2

Over the past several months, we’ve shared our thoughts, observations, prognostications, and best practices on reopening in the wake of COVID. Now that many cultural attractions have been open for limited operations for a few weeks, we’re digging into how it’s going. Who’s surviving?  Is anyone thriving? What does re-opening tell us about the cultural attractions landscape long-term?

I spoke with Ray Giang, Vice President, Planning & Advisory Services of MR-ProFun to see if our observations – experiential and operational vs financial and operational – align. The situation is dire for museums: a June 2020 survey of 750 museum directors conducted by the American Alliance of Museums indicated that one-third of these institutions may close permanently as a result of COVID-related economic hardship. Ultimately, while Ray and I each view museums through different lenses, we’re both encouraging our museum clients to look at this in terms of long-term transformation – even as we’re both aware this will be a long, hard road back for those museums who do survive. 

Philbrook Museum

Given the overall economic situation in the US, trends in grants and philanthropy, and lessons gleaned from prior economic downturns, we see that surviving and ultimately thriving isn’t a matter of tiny cuts or wholesale departmental eliminations: it’s a matter of really taking a step back and reassessing everything down to the studs.

Both of us see the key as getting back to the mission, and deep digging into what those statements mean in the current climate. Many museums have ‘community’ in their mission – what does a given community need right now? Is it a means to address food insecurity, which the Philbrook Museum of Art in Tulsa and Old Salem Museums & Gardens in Massachusetts took on? Is it hosting education pods for children schooling at home, like the Kentucky Science Center in Louisville and Glazer Children’s Museum in Tampa are doing?  And it’s also about more than COVID-related disruption: the Philbrook, for instance, has publicly committed to a multi-point plan of action. Their efforts include a Diversity & Inclusion audit of its board and senior staff and, unlike many museums cutting upcoming exhibits, continuing to plan for From the Limitations of Now, a show featuring black artists reflecting on the Tulsa race massacre and systemic racism. 

Choices like these are rooted in an honest assessment of what community, a word so often bandied about, truly means – it has to go beyond the people who have previously felt comfortable, welcome, and represented in museums, and it must include the people inside the museum structure  – their staff and volunteers. Right now communities are in crisis, and those museums that really engage in this sometimes humbling work stand to build stronger relationships, affinity, meaning, and ability to fulfill their mission.

Looking at the situation from a more economic perspective, this is also an opportunity to truly assess those legacy projects. No matter how beloved a program is, if the grant funding ran out years ago, it’s time to evaluate where the biggest bang for the buck truly is. Many museums deploy the same events or programming year over year, with few changes – this, too, is a moment in which to really evaluate those programs for efficacy, impact, and experience. On a grander scale, we’re seeing a larger industry conversation take place, questioning the traditional funding models for museums that leave them operating on a razor’s edge, dependent on a dated model of philanthropy, and vulnerable to shifting political winds affecting local, state, and federal budgets.

Museums have to get through this moment – but they have to get through it with their soul and bank accounts intact. Overwhelming though the process of visioning may be for institutions right now, Ray and I both see tremendous opportunity to re-invent museums into places and spaces which are fundamentally in service to their communities, places of transformation, equitable in their work and their experiences, and financially sound for the future.

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


Museum & Cultural Institution Transformation, Part 1

At the same time we’re helping partners and clients think through the issues and details of how to open and operate in a pre-vaccine world, Thinkwell is also considering what this means for the museum field at large. Unlike the financial crisis of 2008, this is both a hit to the finances and the experience of museums; it’s undermined our audience’s comfort levels and trust in being in public and participatory. It’s clear that even once there’s a widely-adopted, strong vaccine, the field cannot simply go back to ‘business-as-usual’. This time and crisis is both a challenge and an opportunity, and it represents a chance to boldly re-envision what it means to be a museum, what manifesting your mission really looks like in a society transformed by COVID19, and how we collectively get there.


In the upcoming weeks and months, we’re going to explore three big areas of change we see for museums and cultural institutions, in what we hope will be a robust dialog with you and some of our colleagues and collaborators:

musuem and cultural institution finance graphic

Funding and operating models: As institutions face major budget shortfalls, financial models and museum governance represent areas of potential transformation. How can museums change board development and function, funding strategies, and income generation in order to be more crisis-proof? Which institutions managed to avoid major staff cuts and what set them up for this success? How will operations evolve in the wake of COVID19?

musuem and cultural institution community graphicCommunity: It’s clear from the research that museums’ role and value in their communities must become stronger, in order to survive and thrive even when the next crisis comes. How can museums ‘do right’ by their own internal communities – their staff – in times of crisis and uncertainty? Who have our institutions failed to invite in, serve, and meaningfully co-create with? How can museums use this time to examine shortcomings in equity and inclusion in their towns, cities, and regions and address those? And how do museums establish themselves as a ‘must-have’ for strong communities, not a ‘nice-to-have’, generating strong financial and governmental support?

musuem and cultural institution touch screen graphicInteractivity: The current crisis presents a ‘worst-case scenario’ for museums that have embraced interactivity and participatory experiences. This situation won’t last forever, but it will force a long, hard look at not just the technologies and interfaces of interactivity, but how interactivity is used and incorporated. Just because touchable surfaces and close quarters aren’t safe for now, doesn’t mean audiences are willing to go back whole cloth to the old days of passively receiving information. What does the future of interactivity look like? What technologies and techniques can address not only the immediate need to reduce the potential for contact transmission of disease, but also free interactives from inherently exclusive modes that not all guests can use? How can this push us towards true universal design? Can we create museums and cultural institutions that are seamlessly, holistically immersive, and responsive to individual visitors?


Museums and other cultural institutions need to get through the next few months. Survival is the name of the game. But survival doesn’t have to come at the expense of visioning and growth – the two can coexist. We look forward to plumbing these ideas and opportunities with you, as we all work towards a future that looks a little different than what we might have dreamed up last year.

How Will Technologies Shape Our Interactions and Spaces in the Post-Confinement Era?

In a post-confinement world, human beings will seek the exact opposite of what will be prescribed to them: in the face of social distancing, we will want to get closer to each other again; at the prohibition of touch, we will want to smell and taste the things we had enjoyed; faced with rules and regulations about where we go and how we move through spaces, we will seek fluidity and freedom. We are, by our very nature, social creatures

Over the past 20 years, Thinkwell Studio Montréal has evolved the nature of its interactive projects based on the concept of ambient intelligence. The idea is very simple: the interface is not a screen, the interface is the world we live in. 

Take, for example, our Renaissance Hotel Experience in New York where the body of each guest becomes the communication device between the hotel and its district. Through a partnership with Time Out Magazine, a digital concierge interacts with each visitor to offer them culinary or cultural activities depending on the weather, their desires, and the amount of time they want to spend walking. Using a 3D camera detection system, we were able to detect multi-user signals (body posture and movement, group behavior, eye tracking, and emotion recognition) and transform the experience of the lobby. Let’s imagine that this experience could be adapted for hospital or university spaces. On a university campus, for instance, a digital concierge would become a mobile engagement platform where every student becomes the heart of her or his own journey; a generative digital assistant in real-time that adapts the student successfully navigate not only the demands of their classes and deadlines but also the social, cultural, and sporting life of the community.   

The Illumination of the Jacques Cartier Bridge in Montreal to mark the city’s 375th anniversary was our next step in developing technology and data collection to communicate the emotions and detect the pulse of a city. How can the data of an environment generate an experience without the audience needing to do or touch anything when it’s the audience itself that is at the heart of the show? When the bridge comes to life, what you actually see is the city pulsating in real-time. Thinkwell’s contribution to this celebration has been to use data collection and AI to capture and aggregate all of the relevant data generated by the city’s citizens – traffic conditions, weather, the mood on social media, bike-sharing activity, etc. With physical sensors (radars, weather stations, counting people, etc.) any type of API integration and normalization algorithms, we have the ability to use almost any type of data to modify and influence an experience. This digital platform we have developed for this bridge could be suitablefor the transport or theme park industries, for example. All the data generated by people and systems during a single day in a theme park tells a story: the atmosphere and energy of the crowd, the impact of the weather on people’s experience, the reactions to this or that character in our journey, which guests go where and how they linger (or don’t), what and where they eat and buy, how their pace changes during the day, and more How can this data improve the operationalization and the emotions experienced? 

Finally, I would like to share with you a project that is currently in production, and that perfectly illustrates a solution that could be adopted into museums, theme parks, and any other location-based experiences that will be managing crowds for the months and years to come. It’s a collaboration with Parks Canada where visitors will be able to relive the experience of working in Canada’s first steel company which has been closed for 150 years. This application is an interactive, multi-sensory alcove where each visitor becomes one of the workers through the various stages of iron production. The guests are experiencing a “day in the life” of these steelworkers so that they have a “hands-on” impression of the working conditions of the time. This direct experience allows learning through empathy and leads the way for an impactful emotional souvenir. This innovation makes it possible to select and view high-resolution augmented reality content simply by detecting guest gestures. With no devices such as goggles, headsets, telephones, or tablets, our interactive alcove promotes a collective experience. It is the AI we have developed that generates all the content of the experience from the gestures of each visitor. This innovation can be adapted for any museum, healthcare, or airport experience. 

Crowd flow management, body language detection, eye tracking, emotional feedback, voice recognition, telepresence, data interpretation, accessibility; for us, interactive technologies are a tool to empower each user to become the storyteller.

As the frontiers between the digital and the physical worlds are melting, we see every guest experience as becoming the actual canvas. We believe the future of spaces is personalized, participative, and generative. Each member of the audience is at the heart of everything we do; physical spaces take the shape of their visitors.

NatureQuest at Fernbank Celebrates Nine Years of Exploration

The Fernbank Museum in Atlanta, Georgia, has long been a favorite of our cultural attraction projects that we’ve completed. This year, NatureQuest at Fernbank is celebrating nine years since opening and inspiring kids, families, and caregivers in the greater Atlanta area to learn more about the diversity of nature that surrounds them. Within an 8,000 square foot exhibit space, NatureQuest seeks to engage all senses to immerse every guest with interactive, local environments and activities.  The scenery, lighting, and interactive elements are designed to be mindful and inclusive while creating a sense of wonder and discovery, and many of the exhibits can be easily rotated with additional content to keep the exhibit current and fresh.

NatureQuest Starfish

When creating NatureQuest, our design intent was to not make the environment a static, observational area. Children are naturally inclined to be scientists – their innate curiosity and drive to ask questions, try something, and see what happens is really the scientific method in practice. They learn by doing and getting involved with their surroundings. So what better way to ‘get on their level’, than by designing environments that encourage them to explore? For instance, the underwater area of NatureQuest allows kids and parents to pick up a starfish and match it to its home on a pier column, or they can crawl through a burrow in another nearby exhibit.  Throughout the space, we intentionally created environments that are meant to be explored, touched, and interacted with in a variety of ways, in the hope that both children and adults will learn more about the habitats right there in Georgia. 

NatureQuest Nightvision Interactive

NatureQuest isn’t just tactile — it’s tech-driven, too. The design seamlessly integrates entertainment technology into a highly educational and interactive environment with more than 50 interactive elements.  An example of this is the augmented reality binoculars placed near the cabin exhibit. Guests can peer through the lenses, and wherever they’re aiming the point of view, a pop-up video appears within the viewscreen to provide insightful information about what they’re looking at. The scientific content is artfully embedded into various aspects of the exhibit such that the interactions with elements are very intuitive and interesting for audiences.  Another example is the fish in the ‘digital’ river are regionally accurate and dart away or swim up for a look as the children ‘wade’ through. NatureQuest rewards exploration. There are no right and wrong answers, just new discoveries to be made and questions to be asked. Every child, regardless of age, foreknowledge, or ability, can succeed in this richly engaging, supportive experience. 

We’re quite proud of the work done at NatureQuest to bring this award-winning project to life. It has become a great addition to the Fernbank Museum, and the exhibit continues to serve the purpose of educating young children and their families of the areas surrounding Atlanta by engaging them with nature itself.

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.

White Paper | Intellectual Properties and the Branded Experience

Thinkwell’s 2015 Guest Experience Trend Report Focuses on Consumer Trends in Location-Based Entertainment Infused with Intellectual Properties

The recent surge in popularity of intellectual properties (IP) appearing in everything from theme parks and attractions to merchandise and museums had us at Thinkwell wondering whether this phenomenon will be an enduring profit generator for IP owners and the operators of entertainment and education venues. Does the presence of an IP lend credibility, trustworthiness, and value to a venue and would consumers be willing to visit this venue more often? Especially as more location-based entertainment (LBE) venues start to incorporate IPs, would visitors spend more money and time on their experiences and should IP owners start to license their properties more heavily to explore that possibility?

The 2015 Thinkwell Guest Experience Trend Report was created to answer questions like those. For the past two years, Thinkwell has published Guest Experience Trend Reports that investigated the behavior of guests as they explored theme parks and museums and how technology could be utilized to enhance or improve their visits. For the 2015 Guest Experience Trend Report, Thinkwell examined not only the behavior of guests as they navigated experiences, but also the reasoning behind deciding to go and make purchases at LBE venues.
Thinkwell had a nationwide survey conducted that polled over 1,000 adults with children to analyze their spending choices at family-friendly LBEs, specifically family entertainment centers, children’s museums, aquariums & zoos, and restaurants. The goal of the survey was to determine whether families would be inclined to visit one of those venues more often and spend more money on purchases if they were completely infused with a specific IP from a major motion picture, television show, video game, or book.

The results, while not entirely surprising, confirmed that families are indeed willing to spend more on an experience at an LBE if it featured a specific intellectual property. What was surprising however was that the results showed respondents would be less willing to spend an increased amount of money or time at an IP-specific educational experience versus an IP-specific entertainment experience.
Most respondents still preferred authentic and traditional experiences at children’s museums and didn’t necessarily feel that adding an IP would increase the value of the educational experience. Even at zoos and aquariums, which toe the line between education and entertainment, a smaller percentage of respondents stated they would pay more for things like annual memberships, merchandise, and souvenirs at an IP-specific location. But when going out for fun at family entertainment centers however, a much larger segment of respondents stated that they would be willing to spend more money and time on an IP-specific experience.

Entertainment Versus Educational Experiences
An astonishing 76% of the survey respondents stated that they would enjoy the experience at a family entertainment center more if it were infused with a recognizable IP from a motion picture, television show, video game, cartoon, or book. More than 62% of respondents also said they would be willing to spend more money on food, souvenirs, and merchandise if they included characters or imagery from a favorite IP. Not only did respondents claim that they would be willing to spend more money at a family entertainment center if it was IP-specific, 72% also stated they would visit more often than if it was a generic LBE venue.

Though an impressive 61% of respondents also stated they would visit a children’s museum more often if there were exhibits based around a child’s favorite IP, only half of respondents stated they would be willing to pay more for an annual membership, merchandise, or souvenirs despite having IP-specific elements at the museum. In a more traditional educational institution, respondents did not feel that having IP-specific exhibits added any value or incentive to visit the venue more often, nor were they inclined to spend more money on purchases there.

Even at a zoo or aquarium, which blends education and entertainment, only little more than half of respondents stated they would want to visit more often if there were IP-specific exhibits. Because respondents claimed that the primary reason they visit a zoo or aquarium is to spend time together as a family and not to see new or existing exhibits, having IP-specific overlays would not be a compelling enough reason for visitors to visit more often or purchase more merchandise or souvenirs.

While the previous three LBEs might be reserved for special occasions or weekend activities, 76% of respondents stated that eating out at a restaurant is a normal weekly activity. If an IP-themed restaurant was an option in addition to casual chain restaurants, fast food restaurants, and neighborhood restaurants, a majority of respondents stated that it would be a logical choice for their families when eating out. Particularly since a kid-friendly atmosphere was the most important factor for families in choosing a restaurant, having an IP-specific environment would please kids and parents alike, with Disney™, Star Wars™, and Harry Potter™ being popular IPs for influencing families on their themed restaurant choices.

The Why and Why Not
The study conclusively revealed that respondents would indeed be willing to visit an IP-specific LBE venue more often and spend more money on these experiences. But what were the motivating factors for these preferences? Based on 1,032 open-ended answers, the respondents who were more likely to prefer an IP-specific LBE stated that the experiences would be “more fun,” “make the kids happy,” and “make the experience more special.” These respondents felt that seeing recognizable or familiar characters and elements would be a treat for the kids and would be far more entertaining that visiting a generic LBE.
For the respondents that did not feel more inclined to visit an IP-specific LBE, cost was the biggest deciding factor against choosing these experiences over generic ones. These respondents did not feel that an IP-infused experience added any value for the implied increased cost, nor did they feel that the quality of the environment, food, merchandise, or souvenirs would be any better at an IP-specific LBE. Other consistent responses were that an IP would make the experience “too commercial,” “trendy,” and “distracting” so that families wouldn’t be able to fully enjoy their time at an IP-specific LBE.

The Value of Intellectual Properties
After examining the survey responses, the 2015 Thinkwell Guest Experience Trend Report concludes that IP owners can absolutely benefit from licensing and infusing their IPs into family entertainment centers, children’s museums, zoos & aquariums, and restaurants. Respondents were generally positive about wanting to experience IP-specific LBEs and were willing to pay more money and spend more time at these venues. So to answer our initial question about whether extending an IP could be an enduring profit generator, the study confirms that there is a demand for it and IP owners should invest in meeting that demand.
“Thinkwell has believed in the power of an intellectual property in attracting and retaining guests since the very beginning of the company,” said Craig Hanna, Thinkwell’s Chief Creative Officer. “This study highlights that the value of blockbuster brands and IP is only getting stronger, even in an increasingly crowded market, and that the public’s thirst for IP hasn’t been quenched yet.

Museum of the Future

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.