Inventing an Exhibition

At the Lemelson Center we often talk about how we need to “live our mission” and “be innovative” in our work. So not only do we study invention and innovation, but also we apply inventive and innovative approaches to our research and outreach activities. We aim to be creative, solve problems, take risks, practice flexibility, share ideas and communicate clearly, be interdisciplinary, and collaborate well, always striving to do things as a team in new and different ways. In the larger educational world these approaches are among the 21st Century Skills being promoted to help today’s youth become the inventors and innovators of tomorrow.

As the project director for the Center’s Places of Invention exhibition, I am struck by how much the exhibition development process uses those invention skills and mirrors the invention process generally. For the Center’s Spark!Lab we have distilled the invention process into a series of phrases, which are featured in our Inventors’ Notebook—Think It, Explore It, Sketch It, Create It, Try It, Tweak It, and Sell It. These also happen to be key steps along the path we are traveling to create the Places of Invention exhibition for 2015.

Developing museum exhibitions is a more time-consuming and complex process than most people would probably think, and the Places of Invention (POI) exhibition certainly has a longer history than most. The moment of conception, at least in terms of Lemelson Center scholarship, really began with our first symposium, “The Inventor and the Innovative Society,” back in 1995. As the Center grew and evolved, we continued to research inventors and innovators, study the invention process, and examine the relevance of place and culture, which led to the 2005 “Cultures of Innovation” conference at the National Museum of American History.

In 2007 the Center hosted the first Lemelson Institute at which “an interdisciplinary group of scholars and practitioners met at the Lemelson Archives on the shore of Lake Tahoe to examine the relationship between physical spaces and creativity. What is it about a particular place that excites a creative mind and makes it a ‘place of invention?’ How do creative people shape the spaces in which they work? What combinations of elements make one place a hotbed of innovation while a similar place may founder? These questions and many more were discussed at the first Lemelson Institute through case studies of creative people, new and existing spaces, and innovative regions.”[i] The resulting Institute report provoked us to decide that the topic could be further explored and creatively disseminated to a wider audience through a family-friendly exhibition in the Lemelson Hall of Invention at NMAH.

In 2009, the Lemelson Center’s POI team, with assistance from grant writer Carol Inman and museum evaluator Randi Korn, developed our initial exhibition concept into a National Science Foundation grant proposal, which was thankfully awarded in September 2010. This funding allowed us to move onward from “Think It” to “Explore It”—we could hire a museum evaluation firm and an exhibition design firm to help us develop our intellectual and historical content into an interactive and hopefully highly engaging physical exhibition. During summer and fall 2011 we worked with Randi Korn and Associates, Inc. to conduct front-end evaluation with museum visitors about the POI exhibition concept and initial content ideas.

Finding, reviewing, selecting, and contracting an exhibition design firm took place over about a six-month period. In March 2012 we officially hired Roto to help us with what the Smithsonian calls the “10% design phase” of an exhibition project. During this stage of the collaborative process, the Lemelson Center/NMAH team and the Roto team are working together closely to develop the exhibition content areas and interactive components, discuss possible objects, images, and tone and voice of the exhibition text, and create floor plan options. These current activities constitute the “Sketch It” and the beginning of the “Create It” steps of the invention path.

When the 10% design phase ends in September 2012, we will be ready and eager to move onward and upward through the “Create It,” “Try It,” and “Tweak It” steps during 2012–2014. We hope you will join us as we travel along this path. When the final product is ready to go on the market, as it were, we certainly hope it will attract and serve a diverse array of excited museum visitors when NMAH’s West Exhibition Wing reopens in 2015. Stay tuned to this blog for more reports on the exhibition invention process between now and then!

[i] Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation, Places of Invention: The First Lemelson Institute (August 16-18, 2007): p. 2.

Much More than a Garage, a Place of Invention

19th Ave NE Garage today

Early in May, as spring rain deluged the car, I quickly lowered the window to snap one photo of a modest garage on 19th Avenue Northeast in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Surely observers would have wondered what was notable about this particular garage. Well, nothing actually, but formerly it was the site of the Hermundslie family’s garage where Medtronic, now a leading multinational medical technology company, was born. Like more famous garages in Silicon Valley that begat Apple and Hewlett Packard, the former 800-square-foot garage (made out of two railway boxcars!) served as a convenient, no-rent location for brothers-in-law Palmer Hermundslie and Earl Bakken to found their company in 1949. Their primary business was servicing electrical medical equipment, earning manager Palmer and technician Earl a whopping $8 in revenue during their company’s first year.

Medtronic Garage in 1930

Inside the humble garage in 1957, Earl drew schematics on envelopes and grocery bags during an unbelievably short four-week development process of the first wearable, external, battery-powered transistorized pacemaker at the behest of Dr. C. Walton Lillehei, “the father of open-heart surgery” at the University of Minnesota’s Variety Heart Hospital. “[The] prototype, housed in aluminum and containing only two transistors, had been intended for tests with dogs but was used on human patients within days of its invention. Soon afterward, Bakken and his employees introduced a more refined version of the transistor pacemaker in a black plastic shell; about ten of these went into clinical use at the University. Later in 1958, Medtronic began manufacturing a commercial version in white plastic—the ‘5800’. All three versions were essentially identical in circuitry and other interior features”. [1]  This was just the beginning, as Medtronic really boomed after purchasing rights in 1960 to produce and market the implantable pacemaker developed by and named for inventor Wilson Greatbatch and surgeon Dr. William Chardack.

Earl Bakken working inside Medtronic garage, c 1955

Our garage drive-by was the first stop during a tour of Earl Bakken and Medtronic history-related sites courtesy of my expert guide, Dr. David Rhees, Executive Director of The Bakken Museum. David is a long-time advisor to the Museum’s Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation where I work, and he was thrilled that we plan to feature Minneapolis/St. Paul, a.k.a. “Medical Alley,” in our Places of Invention exhibition. Since this case study highlights the invention of the wearable pacemaker by Earl Bakken, I was interested in learning more about key sites in Earl’s life and work as part of my research about Medical Alley.

The Heights Theatre today

One of my favorite stories is about how young Earl (born in 1924) was inspired to become an electrical engineer after seeing Boris Karloff’s 1931 “Frankenstein” at the Heights Theatre on Central Avenue near his childhood home in Minneapolis.  So in the pouring rain David drove me by Earl’s house and then on to the now-renovated theatre to take photos. He told me about how fun it was to help Earl celebrate his 85th birthday with a special screening of the 1931 movie there.  Our next stop was at Medtronic’s world headquarters where Earl still maintains an office even though he is nominally retired and lives in Hawaii. I got a kick out of seeing two Frankenstein figures on his desk.

Dr. Lillehei in surgery with Dr. Varco, 1954

Although my Places of Invention exhibition research has been focusing on the 1950s and 1960s and particularly this pacemaker invention story, I enjoy learning more about how Medical Alley, Minnesota has continued to grow and change as a hot spot for medical technology through today. Again, David proved to be an excellent guide, arranging a meeting with Dale Wahlstrom, President and CEO of LifeScience Alley (formerly Medical Alley, which merged with Minnesota’s Biotechnology Industry Organization in 2005), and his colleagues Liz Rammer and Ryan Baird, who shared information and insights into the “ecosystem” in Minnesota that continues to support and encourage invention and innovation. David also introduced me to Minnetronix staff, including President and CEO Rich Nazarian and Vice President for Corporate Affairs Jonathan Pierce, who were visiting The Bakken Museum that day, giving me the opportunity to ask them directly about what it is like living and working today in Medical Alley.

Bakken pacemaker courtesy of the Bakken Museum

A key message that came through loud and clear during my tour with David and talks with others is that the medical industry in the Twin Cities was and is a “tight-knit community” that combines the “delivery and technology sides” [2] of medical innovation. While I continue to study its history, I look forward to keeping an eye on the future of Medical Alley, Minnesota and seeing what amazing new technologies may emerge from this fascinating place of invention.


[1] Rhees, David, and Kirk Jeffrey. “Earl Bakken´s Little White Box: The Complex Meanings of the First Transistorized Pacing and Pacemaker.” In Exposing Electronics, edited by Bernard Finn. London: Harwood, 2000, p. 1.

[2] Quotes from Dale Wahlstrom, LifeScience Alley, and Rich Nazarian, Minnetronix, respectively (talks with Monica on 5/3/12)

My Trip Behind the Scenes of the NMAH’s Hip-Hop Collection

It’s always exciting going into the vaults of a museum’s collection. Ok, so actually they’re rarely “vaults,” but it’s still exciting to open collection cabinets and discover what objects may lie inside. On this particular occasion, National Museum of American History curator Eric Jentsch was showing me items in the Museum’s hip-hop collection. Although for several months I’ve been reading about hip-hop culture and technology, and looking at images related to it, this was my first opportunity to handle the objects themselves.

Afrika Bamabatta coat, front view, NMAH photo.

Eric opened up a cabinet and before me was an outfit worn by hip-hop advocate and community leader Afrika Bambaataa. Bambaataa was a pioneering hip-hop DJ known for playing obscure records, but his key contribution to the early hip-hop movement was bringing peace to a drug and gang riddled Bronx. He was a founding member of a gang in the Bronx River Projects but had a transformative experience when he visited Africa. He returned with a desire to provide his community with peaceful alternatives to gangs.  Bambaattaa turned his turf-building skills into peacemaking skills and used them while performing grassroots promotion for hip-hop parties. In the 1970s he formed first the Bronx River Organization and then the Universal Zulu Nation, an awareness group of reformed gang members who organized hip-hop parties for youth to provide peaceful and fun havens away from violence.

Afrika Bambaataa coat, back view, NMAH photo.

Despite having read all of this about Bambaataa I lacked a sense of what he was like in person. But by holding one of his jackets, I could better comprehend him. From the jacket’s size I got a better idea of how big he was. From seeing the outfit’s colors and examining the quality of its workmanship I got an idea of his taste. Taking it all in together I could picture him filling out the jacket and was better able to get a sense of what it would have been like to be in his presence.

Mixer donated by Grandmaster Flash, NMAH photo.

My visit to the collections also gave me information about the technological advances of hip-hop music. I have virtually no experience with sound mixing, so attempting to comprehend the evolution of mixing equipment from a record player to a mixing board has been a bit mind boggling. For example, DJ Grandmaster Flash invented a mixer from spare parts. According to him, “today you can buy turntables, needles and mixers that are equipped to do whatever. But at that particular time, I had to build it. I had to take microphone mixers and turn them into turntable mixers. I was taking speakers out of abandoned cars and using people’s thrown-away stereos.”

Once hip-hop became popular, the music industry took notice of the technologies artists invented to produce hip-hop’s sound. The Rane Corporation worked with Grandmaster Flash to develop a mixer that in Flash’s opinion, corrected the various problems he encountered as a DJ. The Rane mixer in the NMAH’s collection was donated by Flash. I was surprised by its appearance. Having read about the heavy use hip-hop equipment got, and how even after mixers no longer functioned they were re-purposed, this Rane mixer was in nearly mint condition. I expected something with heavy wear and tear and mis-matched parts. I was also surprised by its complexity. I didn’t think it would look so much like the mixers currently in use. Seeing this mixer designed (and donated) by Flash really impressed upon me how rapidly mixing technology improved.

I think that sometimes people undervalue doing research in museum collections, but it’s something that I have found useful in my research. At the very least, it’s exciting to handle objects used by the people you’ve been researching. I look forward to delving deeper into the Museum’s hip-hop collection as research for Places of Invention continues.