Columbus College of Art and Design
My name is Ray Morrow; I design and build exhibits for science centers and museums across the US and around the world. I have my own company, called zibitz, inc. Most of my exhibit-building knowledge has come from a lifetime of experience. I have always been a “maker,” even as a child. For most of my adult life I have made my income from art and craft; making stained glass windows and lampshades, custom furniture, metal and stone and wood sculpture. After high-school, I spent some time in music school; and, more recently I have completed design and sculpture coursework at The Columbus College of Art and Design. When I’m not designing and building exhibits I have a great time racing my Porsche in competitions called Solo II and on twisty road race tracks like Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course in central Ohio. I also enjoy creating sculpture; both large-scale using stone and metal and small scale in the form of jewelry.
In my opinion, there is nothing more fun than taking an idea for an exhibit from the concept stage through the prototyping (testing) stage and into the final design. I start by brainstorming ideas with exhibit producers or the people that will buy the exhibit. We talk through what the exhibit is supposed to teach and what it is supposed to do. I also find out what the needs and limitations are for the new exhibit. In other words, can the exhibit use electricity? Will it be in a dark area or a brightly lit area? Does it need to be a particular color or size? Can one person use it at a time, or two, or five? I have to find out the answers to all those questions, and more, before I can begin designing and inventing. It’s important to me to have fun and enjoy what I do, but the final exhibit has to work for the people that are buying it, otherwise they won’t come back to buy more exhibits.
After I’ve brainstormed ideas, I get busy building a prototype exhibit. A prototype is an example of the exhibit that is made of cheap materials and is not really designed to last very long. It just allows me to test my ideas for the exhibit without spending a lot of money. The prototype exhibit will tell me if my ideas are going to work or if I need to rethink anything. The prototype will also tell me if the exhibit will be safe to use and if the final exhibit will fit all those needs and limitations I found out about in the brainstorming session. Sometimes, if it is a particularly hard exhibit, I might have to prototype more than once.
After I finish testing with the prototype exhibit, I begin building the real exhibit that will end up in a museum or science center. In some cases I can take pieces and parts from the prototype exhibit, but in most cases I have to build all new stuff. A lot of the time, I even have to invent my own pieces and parts, because the stuff that you can buy at the hardware store doesn’t really work for what I have in mind. The final exhibit will need to fit the ‘look’ of the bigger exhibition area. So the exhibit I design may fit in with others and be all the same color or made from the same materials as other exhibits. The final exhibit also has to be ‘bullet proof,’ a term I use to refer to exhibits that can stand up to a lot of hard use. Visitors to museums can sometimes be rough with exhibits, so I have to design and produce exhibits that can stand up to that. If they break down all the time, people won’t have fun, and the museum producers won’t come back to buy more of my work. One of the exciting things about my job is getting to see museum visitors use my exhibit and listening to what they say about it. It’s also a very important part of the design/build process to be able to watch how visitors interact with my exhibits. I always gain insight into how effective and durable my designs are on a museum floor. Sometimes the visitors find weak spots in the design that all the prototyping and planning in the workshop completely missed. Then, it’s back to the shop for re-evaluation, repair, or re-design. In a way, the visitors are always a part of the process in producing a safe, effective, durable, and fun exhibit.
I recently was asked to create a water-powered fish sculpture for the Philadelphia Zoo. The challenge was to create a spinning nozzle to get water from a pump to the spinning arms that hold the fish. The first order of business was to try to figure out if there is something like this available to buy…as usual, no luck. The next thing to do was to find something similar…well, lawn sprinklers use something like this, so it was off to the hardware store to buy some lawn sprinklers to figure out how they work. After tearing them all apart, I found some similarities in design that allowed me to go ahead with my design - taking what I learned from the sprinkler parts and creating a nozzle that was much larger and stronger and that filled the requirements of the sculpture.
I’ve installed exhibits in lots of different places, from Tampa, FL, to Fargo, ND, and from Boston, MA to one of my favorite cities in the world, Vancouver, B.C. in Canada. Over all, I’ve really enjoyed this job through the years. I’ve learned a tremendous amount, met a lot of remarkable people, and had the opportunity to work on some very cool projects. I’m looking forward to the next 10 years to see what else is going to come up!