Creating Museums: An Interview

Abbie Chessler and J.P. Singh

Editor’s Note: The following is an interview between Editor J.P. Singh and architect Abbie Chessler,conducted on 5 September 2016. This transcription is an abridged version; it has been edited for length and clarity. Managing Editor transcribed and edited the interview.  

DOI: 10.18278/aia.2.1.8

J.P. Singh: How did you get into that line of work?

Abbie Chessler: I was an art school graduate and had to figure out how to pay the rent. I got into the museum field very serendipitously, very accidentally, which is how people in my generation in the museum world got into it.

JP: What was the serendipity?

AC: I worked a number of jobs after getting my fine arts degree. I was back home in Baltimore when the National Aquarium opened. They had more visitors than anybody imagined in their wildest dreams. The Aquarium folks came into the photo lab where I was working as an assistant, needing help with ideas to accommodate the crowds. They had ideas about what needed to be done but didn’t know how to get there. A light bulb went off in my head: I know how to do all of these things. They hired me as a contractor to do a project and it was successful. As I began to pursue work as a freelancer people would ask what have you done and say Oh, you must be good. We’ll hire you. It was the gumption to put it together and just start working.  In 1989 we formed Quatrefoil Associates.

By focusing on museums, I really came to understand the critical role museums have for us culturally and educationally. Museums provide an important narrative for the human existence. Right now this point of time, pre-presidential election in the United States of America in 2016, I feel the work I do is so important because it helps people learn from history. How do you not repeat the mistakes of the past?

For example, the museum that we just opened up in Los Angeles in May, the Go For Broke Education Center, is the legacy project for an organization founded by Japanese-Americans World War II veterans. They and their families were forcibly interned in “relocation” camps. Their families were stripped of their constitutional rights and the young men were asked to fight in the war. Their slogan was “Go For Broke.” We’re going to prove that we’re true American citizens. We’re going to fight for all the rights that our families have been denied. When you unpack all of the issues that we call national insecurity, it mirrors what’s going on today exactly. If I have a chance in the work Quatrefoil designs for museums to impact even a handful of people I consider that worthwhile.


National Museum of American Jewish Military History


JP: This idea of memory and heritage is very different from the patrimonial ideal that glorifies the culture. As the designer, how did you prepare yourself for that role?

AC: When I listen I try to listen for the emotion and the undertone in the answer too. In working with client organizations, they see that I’m a white American woman. If I go into a group of Japanese Americans to talk about their family’s experience in the camps, I have to be very honest. I have to speak from my heart to communicate with people, and reach out to establish trust and friendship so we can really talk about the deep issues.

In the Spring of 2016 we completed a project in Albuquerque, New Mexico: The Indian Pueblo Cultural Center. It’s a cultural museum that represents all 19 of New Mexico’s Pueblos. Here I am again a white American woman from the east coast coming into Pueblo culture. I said to the folks straight up in our first meeting I just want you to know that if we make a misstep, if we don’t understand something, if we say something that’s not correct, if we say or do something that’s offensive please, please tell us immediately so that we learn and we understand. The curator and I built a really lovely relationship and she said ask me anything. I learned so much about spiritual traditions, values, families – things that aren’t shared with outsiders. Most of what we talked about isn’t in the final exhibition but it helped us to develop a level of trust.


Watch video on the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center



JP: Is openness and listening enough to build trust? How do you balance what you’re hearing to what may be a comfortable design for them?

AC: I have a really talented staff. We do all these things as a team. We do workshops with the clients and ask a lot of questions. Then we start to put ideas on paper because we work in the design realm and a lot of it is visual. We start to feed back the ideas for the visitor experience so a client has something to check to see if we are understanding their messages. For me, the greatest reward is when a project opens and the people whose story we’re telling say they’re happy and they feel their story is being told. Then I feel it’s a success.

There’s no design ego. Nothing should ever look like a Quatrefoil design project because the design should reflect that cultural organization, that community. It’s their story. It’s not about us; it’s about them.


“Defining Courage” at the Go For Broke National Education Center


JP: But I imagine it does look like a Quatrefoil design. That’s why people come to you.

AC: They come to us for our process. We work with in-house curatorial teams, historians, community experts and technical advisors.

JP: What kind of research do you have to do? How do you organize the history you need to know before you walk in?

AC: We have a kick-off workshop with the client organization to bring consensus around a vision for the project and a mission. We talk a lot about what our goals are for the people who will visit. What do we want them to say when they walk out? What do we want them to learn and feel from being here? That gives us a framework. Once we have the framework, we can identify the stories that support these outcomes.


Delta Cultural Center


JP: The design is all-inclusive of the design curation. That is already a very different way of thinking about the museum.

AC: It’s not the grandma’s attic of stuff anymore. That’s not what people want to see and generally not what organizations want to put out there. Visitors to museums come with a varied set of expectations.

We are only tangentially involved with the new Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture; that’s going to be a very different museum. We’re doing some media pieces and online stuff for them. It’s all about stories and not just the past. They’re bringing things right up to the Black Lives Matter movement in the exhibits.

We did something very similar in the Go For Broke exhibition where newsfeed is incorporated. One of the local ABC network affiliates is partnering with the Center to provide news updates. Coming up with approaches to keep content relevant and current in museums is a big part of the work we do.


Video on Go For Broke National Education Center


JP: Is there a tipping-point where you’ve had conversations with the community and you feel comfortable? When do you say now I have some sense and I’m going to move forward?

AC: It’s more of a process. There’s so much minutiae that goes into designing a museum experience. We have regular meetings and conversations. The design team is pushing everybody along. We’re pushing the rock up the hill together and having the difficult conversations. You see this finished thing that looks beautiful and effortless but it’s like anything you see, dance or gymnastics, that looks effortless. There was a tremendous amount of effort that went into it that you don’t see. If we do our job well the result is a powerful, memorable experience.



All images are courtesy of Quatrefoil Associates