A Periodic Broadside for Arts and Culture Workers
February 2006. Vol. 10, No. 1.
Center for Community Arts and Cultural Policy
Arts & Administration Program, University of Oregon                        ISSN 1541-938X

From Concept to Creation: A Museum Makeover with Big Ideas and a Small Donor Base

Patricia Krier and Thomas Connolly

Museum of Natural and Cultural History
Museum of Natural and Cultural History, University of Oregon
2005, Photograph by Jack Liu


In 1998 the University of Oregon Museum of Natural and Cultural History (MNCH) embarked on a makeover journey, the first phase of which would last almost eight years. The museum itself, built in 1987, was designed with features reminiscent of a traditional Pacific Northwest American Indian longhouse. The modest funds available at the time required the exhibit space to be equipped with recycled display furniture, the TV-like cases from the old museum that recalled a 1950s-era when Luther Cressman, Oregon's first archaeologist and first UO anthropology professor, was director. Although a north wing was later added when administrative space was needed, the public area was in desperate need of modernization. After living with it for over a decade, the staff felt that spatial needs should be reassessed. With minuscule funding and only one full-time exhibits coordinator, hands were tied. By 1998 the interior of the museum needed a major makeover!

Hired Expertise: Our first step was to select a facilitator to help us articulate goals and core values, to write up a preliminary interpretive plan, and to ultimately host user groups and stakeholders for their input. A previous director of the museum and exhibit consultant was the person we identified for this important role. We had worked with her over the years and knew she had both the content knowledge and the technical expertise to create a plan for MNCH.

Next, we hired a local architectural firm to develop a conceptual design plan for building changes, including expansion of the building to the south and west. The UO Facility Services, MNCH staff, and the architects created an exceptional design However after a small feasibility study we faced the reality that the building expansion plan was too grand for our budget and donor base. We then turned our focus to an exhibit space remodel within the existing walls.

Internal Expertise: Thus began the internal staff quest, led by our exhibits coordinator and the university Facilities Services architect, to reconfigure the internal space of the museum. Others began the fundraising process for the exhibit area, working from a vision plan developed by the director.

In order to optimize exhibit space within the existing structure, the museum store was moved to a more central location that traded under-used lobby space for a much-needed multipurpose education and conference room. Administrative workspaces were all relocated in the north wing. Graduate students drafted the designs, and the remodeling work was contracted to a local master craftsman.

Exhibits Makeover

By 2002, the museum was ready to tackle the actual exhibit space renovation, thematically and physically. The goals were:

  • to further the science-supported knowledge of Oregon's geologic, biotic, and cultural history.
  • to tell the best stories, from multiple viewpoints, in a way that was accessible to lay audiences.

Museum exhibit hall
Previous Exhibit Hall, 2002, Photograph by Robert Voelker-Morris

Exhibit dismantling Exhibit dismantling
Museum Interior Dismantling 2003, Photographs by Robert Voelker-Morris

New Exhibit New Exhibit
New Exhibit Hall, 2005, Photographs by Jack Liu

Timeline: For the first couple years the staff worked on their own time, fitting projects in as they could while completing their regular daily, weekly and monthly jobs. However, when the production of the exhibits area renovation began in earnest, they were on a very strict contract-dictated time schedule. It was at this time that the small museum core group was created, with one representative from each museum division (collections, research, public programs), an internal project coordinator (exhibits coordinator), and the executive director who was also a professional archaeologist. This group worked with the exhibit design firm but were the final decision makers when it came to primary sources for stories and writing the final text and label copy

University Expertise and Protection: A binding legal contract with an outside firm was developed by university lawyers and the UO Facilities Services architect, and confirmed by the State Department of Justice, in order to protect the museum during every phase of the project.

Changes: The initial design firm, who helped us to develop the conceptual plan for the new exhibit, was a small outfit with good ideas and a lot of energy, but as we moved into the project we learned how complex implementation (construction phase), could be. Ultimately, we felt more comfortable with a firm that had large-scale implementation experience. We chose a local firm; one we felt was more skilled in the kinds of production needed. As the production process became more than originally anticipated (including installation of a complex heating-ventilation-air conditioning system to insure a climate controlled environment for collections), we were very glad they were close by, both in terms of the need for ongoing consultation and savings in travel costs.

Implementation of the design concept by the new firm required that we repeat some of the conceptual design steps we had already been through. This was an unavoidable necessity (and expense), but it was imperative for the museum's core group and our new partners to share a common vision.

It was a long way from exhibit concept to implementation, and dealing with details (story lines, label copy, and artifact selection, as well as design, hardware, and materials choices) was by far the most time-intensive part of the process. The core group met on a weekly basis, over a period of twelve months typically for four or more hours at a time. This was the most challenging part of the process, due to the fact that the core group members all had full-time management duties outside of this responsibility.

During this process, one member of the museum core group functioned as the primary contact between the museum and the exhibit design firm. This eliminated the transmission of mixed messages in either direction that might result in misunderstandings of needs, instructions, or priorities.


In the end, we were very satisfied with both the result and the experience we had with the design/construction phase exhibit firm. Of course, there were things we got right, and things we got wrong:

Things we got wrong:

  • During the conceptual design phase, we made an attempt to recycle materials from a museum that had created dioramas of the kind we wanted to replicate. Since this organization had recently closed and was selling them off, we anticipated a significant cost savings. As it turned out only a small portion of the materials were used, but the cost of recovery, transport, storage, cleaning, and reconditioning (in excess of $50,000, the total exhibition budget being one million) outweighed the positives of this well-intentioned misstep. In the end most of the recovered materials could not be used.
  • Changing design firms was ultimately the right decision, but it was also costly.

Things we got right:

  • Our core group included one person representing each of several critical departments/interests (collections, research, exhibits, public programs). Although conventional wisdom suggests that the diverse interests of this group could be a recipe for conflict, it proved to be the opposite. Among us we had over 100 years of museum experience and were all accustomed to management-level decision-making. This made the process more efficient, as decisions could be made without having to seek outside expertise or approval. The core group not only brought a lot of expertise to the table, but an appreciation for the art of profitable collaboration and judicious compromise.
  • Although it proved to be a considerable time burden for the members, the small size of the core group of five senior staff was an advantage. It gave us a focused point of reference for critical questions such as handling of artifacts, public policy, and research. Although different focus groups, tribal representatives, and content experts reviewed design drafts and label copy, the committee made all final decisions on copy and content. We discovered that input from different groups was essential, but could also be contradictory. Having a small group hearing all input insured that valuable input wouldn't be lost, or that contradiction wouldn't be missed.
  • Although a small core of senior staff worked well for us in making final decisions, in the end it was a larger group effort including the design firm, all museum internal staff (paid and volunteer), tribal representatives and the many community people that participated. The varied expertise was critical. The key is to find an optimum size that works; enough people to adequately share the burden, but no more than is absolutely essential.

The exhibit opened to great fanfare in February 2005, and our generous donors have paid off the entire project! Now, we're onto the next change, as museums must always be evolving in order to remain cutting-edge educational institutions. UO MNCH has recently received 2.5 million dollars from the Federal Highway Transportation Committee, thanks to Oregon Representative Peter DeFazio, which will be the base for a new, much-needed, curation storage and research facility.

It hardly leaves us with the time, in the midst of all this activity, to be working on the next ten-year vision/strategic plan. But we are. A well-laid plan, with built-in flexibility, is the very foundation of an institution.

Patricia Krier is Director of Public Programs for the University of Oregon Museum of Natural & Cultural History. She has Master's degrees in Italian and French language and literature (1972) and U. S. History (1984) from the UO. She has been with the museum since 1978, and at her current position since 2000.

Thomas Connolly is Director of Research for the University of Oregon Museum of Natural & Cultural History/State Museum of Anthropology, a position held since 1986 when he completed his Ph.D. in anthropology at the UO. Tom's research focuses on the archaeology of the Pacific Northwest.

Patty and Tom have been married for 24 years (they met as graduate students at the museum), and have an 18 year old daughter, Bridey Jean.

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©2006 University of Oregon Center for Community Arts and Cultural Policy unless otherwise noted; all other publication rights revert to the author(s), illustrator(s), or artist(s) thereof.

Editors: Julie and Robert Voelker-Morris                                        Advisor: Dr. Douglas Blandy. 

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