I'm A Museum Person

I’m A Museum Person: Paul Orselli

Lively Conversation by Ginesta via Flickr.

My name is Paul Orselli, and I’m a Museum Person.

Tell us a little about yourself.

For nearly 30 years, I’ve worked to create inventive science museums and playful children’s museums around North America, mostly in Exhibits departments. Now I’m the President and Chief Instigator at POW! (Paul Orselli Workshop, Inc.) an exhibit design and development corporation that I founded.

I’ve also been the editor and originator of the three best-selling Exhibits Cheapbooks, published by ASTC, and been happy to serve on the board of NAME (National Association for Museum Exhibition).  I live on Long Island with my wonderful wife and “in-house exhibit testing crew” of four children.

For more about my museum POV, check out my blog about exhibits and other museum-related stuff at: http://blog.orselli.net/.

Why do museums matter to you?

Aside from the fact that I’ve always made my living from museum work, museums continue to fascinate and enthrall me with the classic combination of real “stories and stuff.” You can see the Rosetta Stone or a Lunar Lander on the Web or TV, but it’s just not the same as being in the presence of authentic objects. (At least for me!)  Especially if the “real stuff” is placed within a carefully crafted environment supported by the stories and authentic voices surrounding them.  I love exhibitions with a “Big Idea” and a compelling narrative thread.

What is your favorite museum memory?

That’s easy.  It would have to be when I was a little kid growing up in Detroit during the 1960s.  Even though I’m the oldest of three siblings, for some reason I remember my father taking only me to visit the museums in Detroit’s Cultural Center.  (Note to smarta$$es reading this — yes, Detroit did, and still does have a Cultural Center!)

Anyway, we spent an amazing day looking at mummies and suits of armor and the Diego Rivera frescoes in the Detroit Institute of Arts, then walking through the “Streets of Old Detroit” exhibition in the basement of the Detroit Historical Museum and finally playing with the exhibits at the old Detroit Children’s Museum.  (In those pre-PETA days, the Children’s Museum had a pet squirrel(!) running through the building  in a sort of DIY tubing system made of hardware cloth that snaked through the building near the top of each room’s walls.)

It was definitely memories of that day, and many other family trips to museums that helped me choose the museum field as a career right out of college.

Diego Rivera Mural at Detroit Institute of Arts. Photo by ashleystreet via Flickr.

What museum would you love to visit?

Ah, so many museums, so little time!  I think I’ll give you two answers:

1) The Ghibli in Japan: The official museum that features the work of Studio Ghibli and the director Hayao Miyazaki, probably best known for animated features like “Totoro” and “Spirited Away”.

2) The Te Papa Museum in New Zealand: I’d like to go to those places because they seem like cool museums, but also because I’ve not yet been to that part of the world.

What is your dream museum job?

Whichever job is my current job! Honestly, while I might grumble now and again about a client or project or museum, I really do need to get sincerely excited and find the way(s) to “fall in love” with each particular project to do my best exhibit design and development. You could call me a “serial monogamist” as far as my work goes.

When you think of the perfect exhibit, what is in it?

As I mentioned above, great stuff and great stories wrapped in a compelling environment.  Also, I love to be surprised or challenged in any exhibition, so if you can make me look or think about “familiar” things in unfamiliar ways, you’ve hooked me.

I recently saw the “Infinite Variety” show put on by the American Folk Art Museum inside the cavernous Park Avenue Armory space, and it blew me away.   On the surface, I thought, “650 red and white quilts — who cares?”  But it was an amazing use of colors and form and space.  Even with minimal interpretation (as far as labels and text go) it was fantastic!  Tip of the hat to Thinc Design in NYC.

Rouge et Blanc by H.L.I.T via Flickr.

Who is the funnier museum twitterer…@SUEtheTrex or @NatHistoryWhale?

Recently I’ve been more of a @BronxZoosCobra man myself, but if forced to choose @NatHistoryWhale all the way!  (Hey whale! Show me the love and follow back: @museum_exhibits).

What is the most random item you have bought in a museum gift shop?

A “Mr. T in Your Pocket” talking key chain gadget (with six authentic Mr. T sayings!)  from the American Visionary Art Museum.  I recommend bringing this product to boring planning meetings.

To test your museum knowledge, what cities are the following museums in: the High Museum of Art, the Experience Music Project, Musee de la Civilisation, the Courtauld Gallery, and the Kuntskammer?

I’ve been to the first four in person, so: Atlanta, Seattle, Hull (on the border between Ontario and Quebec) and London. Rather than cheat via Google on the Kuntskammer, I’ll just guess: somewhere in Germany — Berlin? Munich?

You may have heard of the Month at the Museum contest recently held at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. What museum would you move into for a month if you could?

Honestly the idea sort of creeps me out.  But, if forced to choose, I’d go with the Exploratorium.  I’m sure I could earn my “room and board” by playing and prototyping with the Exhibits folks there.

Out of all the museums you have visited so far, which one is your favorite?

I keep coming back to my visits to the City Museum in St. Louis.   It’s just filled with wacky, unexpected, and sometimes a little scary things.  I remember nearly getting stuck in one of their underground tunnels, but it was still big fun!  Where else can you see giant aquariums covered with amazing mosaic tile work next to an exhibit on historic toasters or doorknobs?  Eclectic and kaleidoscopic in a good way, and worth a special trip to St. Louis!

City Museum in St. Louis. Photo by Mike Miley via Flickr.

What is the most bizarre museum you have visited?

In a positive way, The City Museum. (See above.) In a negative way, The Creation Museum in Kentucky.

There seem to be a million books and movies set in museums. Do you have a favorite?

Well I’m not sure what it says about me, but I’m a sucker for museum heist movies like “The Thomas Crown Affair” or “Nine Queens” or “Hudson Hawk” or more recently “The Maiden Heist.”


Thanks to Paul for sharing his experiences. If you’re interested in participating in the “I’m A Museum Person” series, send us an email at editor@museumist.com, and we’ll get your story up on the site.

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