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Cultural Institutions: The power of bringing people back together

2021 Design Year in Review | Museums & Zoos

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Try as you might, it’s impossible to reflect on 2021 without talking about the Covid-19 pandemic and its effects on every aspect of our world. Through the lens of museums and nonprofits, this has been quite an up-and-down journey with many unexpected twists and turns. Museums, science centers, zoos, libraries, and other previously unshakable nonprofit cultural institutions were among the hardest organizations hit during 2020 and 2021.

Depending heavily on in-person visitor traffic and the regular generosity of donors whose pockets were suddenly turned inside out, these key drivers became unprecedentedly fragile overnight. Looking back to January, the nonprofit world peeked around the corner of the new year, wondering uneasily about the future, ringing in 2021 with an uncertain whisper. But after an almost miraculous mid-year jump-start, it’s going out with a definitive and heartening roar.

Here at DI, we are immensely gratified to be ending this tumultuous year by witnessing an amazing resurgence of our beloved cultural institutions, as well as the emergence of many new ones. It is truly a testament to their importance to us and the stalwart commitment and loyalty they inspire in the communities that support them.

Hansen Museum

Dane G. Hansen Museum

This is not the first existential storm that the museum and nonprofit world, a longstanding institution with deep roots, has weathered and will surely not be the last. Just a decade ago, the buzz in the museum world centered around the very real concern that museums and cultural institutions were becoming obsolete in this new digital and social media era. However, over the next ten years, it became increasingly apparent that the very thing that seemed to threaten their existence instead strengthened it. Museums and similar community spaces are now more sought out than ever, as people of all ages and persuasions seek opportunities for digital detox and refuge in the real. 

Founded on truth and beauty, museums and interpretive spaces are some of our few enduring societal mainstays, our collective bastions of solidity and solidarity when all else is in upheaval. Think about how many wars and epochs the Louvre has endured since its opening in 1793, and it only grows stronger and more respected with each passing year.

The war on information continues to rage across digital and other mediums. But, because of the grace and steadiness of their very existence and non-business model, museums, zoos, and libraries have slowly but steadily climbed to the top the list of information sources that people trust— recently surpassing religious institutions, government, and newspapers.

Truth exists, only falsehood has to

be invented."

Georges Braque, 20th-Century Painter

Perhaps most importantly, our treasured cultural institutions are unique places where people come together to share new experiences and open up to new worlds. By supporting communities and being supported in return, they make up the very heartbeat of our societies, creating safe and inspiring spaces for people to gather, connect, learn, and experience wonder, awe, and joy. In 2020 and early 2021, we were abruptly shown what the world is like when those things are stripped away; what was once just a part of the background of everyday life was brought swiftly into sharp relief. As with many things, we now have a newfound and much deeper appreciation for what we previously took for granted.

What would we do without the zoo? While some believe that zoos should not exist and animals should be left in the wild, it is essential to understand that today’s zoos are first and foremost about species conservation, with public interpretation and display a secondary but important concern. Without them, many animals would be further endangered or even extinct. In addition, with nearly half of the world’s population residing in cities disconnected from nature, zoos educate the general public about animals, their behavior, habitat, and population changes as well as instill the crucial importance of their conservation to our world.

This spring, DI was proud to unveil our new state-of-the-art exhibit at the new Amphibian and Reptile Center (ARC) at Zoo Knoxville. The Zoo wanted to create a truly interactive and highly immersive visitor environment for the ARC to entice visitors to engage with the furtive creatures that are usually misunderstood and often avoided. Focused on families with school-age children, the ARC features an all-custom digital interactive exhibit that brings out the personality, fun, and mystery of the animals, while educating on their function in, and importance to, our world in ways that are otherwise impossible without the help of technology.

The pursuit of truth and beauty is a sphere of activity in which

we are permitted to remain children all our lives."

Albert Einstein, Theoretical Physicist

On the other end of the spectrum, we also completed a multi-story history exhibit at the University of Nebraska Medical Center’s long-established Leon S. McGoogan Health Sciences Library, home to an impressive collection of medical books, archival documents, research materials, and medical artifacts, including a rare book collection that dates back to the 14th and 15th centuries. Located in the new Wigton Heritage Center, the archival casework exhibits commemorate the rich, deep history of the school, showcasing their stories and impressive collections for students and staff, as well as prospective students, families, donors, and visiting dignitaries. One favorite stop is a dental office diorama from the 1870s, featuring tools and furnishings that help one truly appreciate the progress made in medical science over the past century and a half (such as a foot-operated drill).

As we close out the year, we are proud and honored to commemorate the completion of several remarkable new cultural venues that have opened to their respective communities to great acclaim. We look forward to an even better 2022.

Carole Hollman

Carole Hollman linkedin

Practice Director - Culture

Carole’s passion for storytelling and her love of the non-profit, educational world make her a natural and compassionate leader in the cultural field.

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