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Pros speak on slave museum page 4
African-American museum professionals weigh in on ingredients for a good start-up


Date published: 8/30/2004

By PAMELA GOULD

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Freelon said some museum developers skip his pre-design step, but he's found that problems arise if the community isn't behind the project.

"Quite often, if you skip it, you've got stakeholder issues," he told conference participants.

In defining stakeholders, Freelon includes the museum's potential audience, the local arts and cultural community, church groups, local schools, local government officials, interested community groups, peer institutions, sponsors and contributors.

He does a mass mailing, inviting them all to hear an overview of the project, explaining what will happen and why, and then asks for their input.

Freelon, who heads a 58-member firm, follows up by providing participants with a summary of the session, creating a "feedback loop" that helps build consensus.

He said all of that occurs within the first month of pre-design.

The architectural design and exhibit design are the next step. They should be parallel projects that generally span one to two years, Freelon said.

Fleming, who is helping develop the Tredegar National Civil War Center in Richmond, agrees with Freelon that understanding a museum's vision and mission is critical before beginning to design a structure.

In two recent projects, he asked architects not even to begin thinking about the structure until they met with his experts for two to three months.

Then he asks them to first design the interior. He said exterior designs can be beautiful, but the foremost concern should be what's inside.

"To me, in a history museum, the most important thing is the content and that it works with the story you want to tell," Fleming said.

He said such things as the flow from room to room and even the placement of restrooms can be significant to the success of a museum.

To make sure the design will fit the story being told, Fleming likes to assemble a big team from the start. He pulls together scholars in the subject matter, curators, educators, visitor-service representatives and an audience researcher.

Most are consultants, but at least one curator and one educator should be on staff, he said.

"If you do this right, your concept is being tested as it's going through development," Fleming said.

Avoiding problems

Fleming is familiar with cases in which museums ran into problems. One example was an Alabama museum where visitors wound up distracted when sound from one area bled into another.


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