AAM Rundown 3: A Conversation with Kevin Sayama

Kevin Sayama from C&G Partners

Kevin Sayama, senior design consultant at C&G Partners

A number of lovely, generous people in my life donated money to help get me to AAM this year. I promised that I would report back about the sessions I attended, as well as interview fellow attendees, as a way of showing just what they helped pay for. It also allows for some vicarious AAM membership perks. Initially, my plan was to interview one person for every $100 of my $900 goal, but a few friends/family members said they wanted me to focus on the conference rather than stressing about finding interviewees. They were very wise, and I’m doubly grateful for the generosity and the advice. On that note, here’s the first in my series of attendee interviews: a conversation with Kevin Sayama, exhibit designer extraordinaire.

Kevin Sayama is a senior consultant at the exhibit design firm C&G Partners LLP. He also happens to be a Cal alumnus with two degrees in architecture (go bears!), a professional perpetual student in a wide variety of fields, and an all-around groovy dude. Here’s what he had to say about his museum experiences, and his impressions of AAM 2012.

Juliana: Ok Kevin, give us a quick description of your background.

Kevin: I guess I’d call myself a senior designer at C&G Partners, and I’ve been there for about… oh, 12 years! And before that, I was at Ralph Applebaum & Associates, which is another exhibit design firm. I pretty much started there to work on the Griffith Observatory; the project got me to L.A. every three weeks, which meant I could visit my mom even though I was based in New York. It was a lot of flying. You and I were talking about how my architecture education carried over into exhibit design… At [UC] Berkeley, the way they taught us to design was to think of the scenarios of who would be in the space. The design came from the inside out. In some ways it was formalist in that the space was shaped around people, but it was really about the stories of these people, and how your space kind of supported that. And so, in some odd way, coming to museum exhibit design was what I always thought architecture would be, and I recognized it right away. Exhibit design is really about the stories, and shaping the stories to make the experience, whatever that experience is. We get control over the entire surface that you see, and the sounds and in some places smell and taste. We’re using the senses to say “you’re here in this place and we’re going to tell you a story”. And that’s what’s so great about exhibit design.

Juliana: How do you account for the various visitor identities (ex: the “browser” and the “recharger”) when designing an exhibition?

Kevin: Well I’m a streaker. I’m the person who runs through exhibits. So I think it’s a least common denominator thing, because if I’m the one I’m trying to snag, I know what will snag me. If you like reading 10,000 word panels, you could do that. That’s easy. But the idea is to make it accessible to someone like me as well as to the scholar, and on that level I understand the need to get to the point. There is an exhibit that I designed for the Corning Museum of Glass where as you go through you can see ahead — it’s like “Oh no, I don’t want to see Mesopotamian glass, I want to see Venetian glass”, and so you can make a beeline to that and it opens up into the next gallery. And so visitors can spend all the time that they really wanted to spend on what they really wanted to see. You do expose them to different things, but ultimately people have to decide how they want to experience it. It has to be multi-valent, people have got to be able to plug into it in so many different ways, and you have to be able to provide that.

Juliana: Changing tacks a bit, what brings you to AAM 2012, and what are you hoping to see or do?

Kevin: Well I have to market. I don’t have a booth, I just wander around and meet people, and if they’re interested, I give them information. Hopefully I’m charming enough to keep that up! The interesting thing is that there’s so many ways into these different institutions that really, we’re just making contacts, and that’s why my boss pays me to come here.

Juliana: Do you find yourself coming away from this [the networking and the sessions] with ideas? Do you go back to work and say to your boss or team “oh hey, this other company was talking about doing this, or that museum just did such and such exhibit, we should totally incorporate that!”?

Kevin: No, it usually doesn’t work like that, simply because I can take charge of my own projects so I can just put it in myself. So this guy who had the actors come in and do tableaus of the paintings, because the subject was something like “French painting in the 19th century as related to theater”. The topic a little dry, but they wanted people to engage with this so they hired actors and had them act out in costume the scene from the painting. It made people look, and I think that was the key. The paintings are powerful if you give them a chance. I’ll take some of those ideas back and see if the clients will go for it. You know, ideas that are about focusing on things that you would normally not think are interesting, because curators always think it’s interesting. What you have to get people to do is agree with them, and to see through the eyes of a curator, see the beauty or the power or the magic of a moment that you’re going to have to capture in some way. So my job is to enhance the environment in that way.

Juliana: What is it that excites you the most about your job, that you look forward to every day?

Kevin: I hate doing jobs where people don’t care. Believe me, there are places where it’s not about the subject, it’s about politics. I’ve done corporate exhibits and that is hard to do because a lot of times they don’t really care. So, it’s feeding off of the passion. It’s getting a sense of that passion, and getting excited about it too.

Juliana: What’s the hardest thing about your job, the thing that drives you nuts?

Kevin: What drives me nuts, but it’s understandable, is that almost every single time the client institution has no idea what they have to do on their side. I was listening to these interpretive planners and I was thinking “yes, you’re the kind of person I need on that end.” A lot of times museums don’t have that person. Maybe you [Juliana] could even think about interpretive planning, because they get certified and it’s about the story, if that’s what you’re into. And I was thinking “maybe I should get certified too”, because I could learn a lot.

Juliana: Like the National Association for Interpreters?

Kevin: Yeah, because there are probably a lot of things that I don’t understand that I should understand about interpretation, because that’s what I’m doing, I’m designing interpretation. I’m still learning.

Juliana: What’s your favorite thing that you’ve designed?

Kevin: It’s funny because it’s almost like giving birth, like “which kid do you like more?” Because they really are kind of like that, they’r each special in their own way. Griffith was a lot of fun to do because it was a big sprawling project… about $12 million in exhibits… but it was also, I grew up in L.A., and it was nice to give back to such an institution. This is a place that is so well loved that whatever I did had to be good. This is part of my childhood, this is part of the identity of Los Angeles, it’s one of the few icons of L.A. that people really see and know… so that one has had a special place. Also because I worked on it for 6 or 7 years. This is the thing, it’s like an elephant, the gestation period is so long. Corning Museum of Glass was 3 years. These things are not short endeavors. Short projects are fine too, but there’s something about developing a relationship with the curators and with the subject matter and the objects over that time where you really internalize all that stuff. And you think “that is going to look great like this with that”… There’s one stair in Griffith Observatory where we put a model of the moon at the top, and everything is black, and so when you first start at the bottom of the stairs you can’t see it, so you actually get a moonrise as you go up the stairs. And I was thinking no one’s going to notice that, but it’s there and it’s something I love and I put in there. And those little things, somebody might notice and that’s why I dig architecture: certain things you just know that most people aren’t going to notice it, but it’s there for people who might recognize the beauty of that moment.

[ At this point the conversation turned to the Natural History Museum of Utah, the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyoming, and Kevin’s latest project for the Briscoe Western Art Museum in San Antonio right now (which has no artwork as of yet so it has to be designed around ideas). This conversation led to one of the best lines of the interview…]

Kevin: … as I said, I’m a paid dilettante, so I get to learn about stuff and get paid for it! Though I guess “dilettante” has some negative implications, so I guess it’s more like “professional amateur” or “dabbler”, since exhibit designers have to dive as quickly as possible and immerse ourselves in the content, and kind of become true-believers, but then we move on to the next topic and get immersed in that. We’re amateurs compared to curators, but we have to gain expertise quickly to tell the story.

Juliana: What do you see for the future of technology, like touch screens and augmented reality, in your field of exhibit design?

Kevin: As I was telling Jennifer Seppi at the Natural History Museum of Utah, who works with little kids, how do we use all this technology? Do we acknowledge that that’s the lingua franca of their [the kids’] world? It’s tough to know, but I think what you ultimately have to do is look at your museum. Like, the NHMU is a museum with real things in a real place, which is why their museum looks out on the mountains. The whole museum is designed to remind people that they’re in a place, so any technology they use has to emphasize the landscape. I’m working on a museum right now for the Department of State about diplomacy, so you can imagine: no artifacts, and we can’t use Wikileaks, so it’s like “what is there?”. First, it’s got to at least be a beautiful space. We use the metaphor of documents and paper with 20 ft tall fiberglass scrolls floating through this skylit space, but you know ultimately it comes down to story. The diplomacy museum is also about a place in the State Department — this is where Hillary Rodham Clinton’s office is, this is where things happen — and so we’re going to use Augmented Reality to present objects that can’t be presented in this kind of skylit space for conservation purposes. So we’re going to have the basic story as the physical thing and remind people they’re in the space, but we’re going to augment it with technology.

You have to remember that the museum presents a place, and that place is specific, and you should always take that power and push it, because that’s something you can’t get on the web. That’s why places like C&G Partners, RAA, and now a few others have looked at architects first because they look at exhibits first as a spatial experience, and use that to help tell the story. It seems exhibit design programs are now also using the whole space so the new crop of exhibit design folks are coming with that perspective built-in. The whole game has changed, I think for the better. Think about the Holocaust Memorial Museum’s rail car, and how it enables you in your own head to understand the story. And that’s our job, to get that to stick. To answer the question, the technology is there to support that feeling, the feeling of getting it, that “aha” moment. They need to feel moved somehow. The passion has to come through, from the curator through the exhibit to the visitor.

One Thought on “AAM Rundown 3: A Conversation with Kevin Sayama

  1. Hi Juliana,

    It’s funny: I do have to laugh at myself and what I said (I love the “extraordinaire!”), but you pretty much got it right! And thanks for getting the part of the passion we feel for the field, and I do sense that’s what brings you to all this and I’m so glad you find it engrossing too.

    A few things: the link for the United States Diplomacy center is best at this link, even though technically yours is correct, this one supersedes the one you found: http://diplomacy.state.gov/ Also, it’s interesting because at the USHMM (Holocaust Museum) this link takes you directly to that train: http://www.ushmm.org/museum/exhibit/exhibit/

    And finally: yes, I did say that I was a “paid dilettante,” though I thought I said before that that it was a friend who called us that (he was the janitor at RAA). I still like that term, even if it might sound slightly pejorative: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dilettante To take the idea of an amateur and make people professional amateurs… that really does sort of describe us. We have to dive as quickly as possible and immerse ourselves in the content, and kind of become true-believers!

    Thanks again for the great conversation, and it is why we come to these things: we love what we do and want to share it not only with visitors to our museums and exhibits, but with each other for sustenance.


    p.s.- I need to update my bio & pic on the C&G Partners website… June will be 18 years of exhibit design!!!

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