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Several staff members unpacking display cases in the exhibit hall the day they arrived.
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Behind the Scenes of Exhibit Hall Revitalization

When you visit the Aldo Leopold Foundation to hike our trails or visit the Shack, the main building you’ll see is the Aldo Leopold Legacy Center. It was built in 2007. Its largest room, the Exhibit Hall, had not changed much since then—until last summer when the tides of change began to stir with the arrival of the 2019-2020 cohort of fellows in the Future Leaders Program. In the Future Leaders Program, each fellow has a fellowship project. This helps to ensure that we each have a deliverable at the end of our fellowship—a project we were tasked with spearheading. My fellowship project was Exhibit Hall Revitalization.

As project manager of Exhibit Hall Revitalization, I was in both familiar territory and uncharted waters. I had managed projects before as a leader of student organizations at my university, but this was different. This time, I had a much larger scope in terms of time, space, and budget. What could I do with 1,100ft2 in 10 months? Everyone, myself included, wanted to know. A year later, I have the answer. If you’re curious as well, I invite you to stay tuned as I pull back the curtain on how this ambitious project was taken from inception to reality!

Suzanne’s project planning documents: layout sketches, work breakdown diagrams, Gantt charts, vendor estimates, and product samples.

Where to begin? I started by letting my imagination run wild. Tempered with a bit of background research and feasibility assessments, I then sketched layouts, acquired cost estimates, and drafted timelines. With these in hand, I shared my ideas with the Program Director and saw his eyes light up in excitement. He believed in my vision and provided the resources needed to bring it to life.

With scope in hand, I got straight to work defining project goals and thinking about how those goals could be achieved. While there are tales to tell about discovering a 172-year-old bur oak tree cookie and researching archival-grade display cases, I will focus here on the quest to adorn the walls. The abundant vertical real estate in the exhibit hall presented an unrivaled opportunity for new content, but the big question was, what should that content be? How should we tell the story of our protagonist, Aldo Leopold?

Armed with a few preliminary insights from institutional research, I gathered my stakeholders for a kickoff meeting. We explored what people liked and didn’t like about the current state of the exhibit hall, what they imagined success looking like, what concerns they had, and what they were most excited about. After some collective alignment, I proceeded to conduct individual interviews. These yielded more specific and unfiltered insights about what each stakeholder thought was most important to be represented on the wall panels.

Blue tape was used to outline where the wall panels would be installed.

After each interview, I spent hours amalgamating and analyzing my notes in an effort to pull out the strongest themes. Then the core of the project team met over the course of several weeks to wrap our heads around the complexity of the task and attempted to wrangle together a comprehensive telling. It was an exhausting and iterative process with intense discussion, frequent impasses, and critical realizations. Eventually, we collaboratively constructed themes, subthemes, and story components into clear outlines to guide the writing process. As writing evolved, revisions abounded and editors were abundant. I was often in a role of distilling days of conversation and large amounts of information into actionable items for authors. I did my best to be an effective prism.

With the copywriting underway, chiefly by Steve Swensen and Stan Temple, we were fortunate to bring on a new team member with extensive experience in graphic design: Andy Radtke. Andy and I discussed how we might work best together as the project shifted phases from written storytelling to visual storytelling—complementary and overlapping but inherently distinctive efforts. From mock-ups and stakeholder feedback to brainstorming sessions and image sourcing, it was an expressive dance. Fraught with changing tempos and new step combinations, Andy and I applied our combined powers to design co-creation.

Arik Duhr (Site Manager) installing the first wall panel!

With his knack for making something out of nothing and my investigative determination, he set to work in the software programs and I went treasure hunting in the digital archives. It was like running in an infinity sign: come together to collaborate, swing apart to gather resources, come together to troubleshoot, swing apart to do some deep thinking. We developed an effective synergy, which will be evident to anyone who walks in the revitalized exhibit hall, now adorned with spectacular wall panels.

While wall panels take the cake as most time-consuming from idea inception to installation, they were not the only project components at play. Artifact curation and construction of interactive components were also great feats that are best experienced in-person. As you walk the space, you’ll see my touch in curated artifacts and you’ll see the craftsmanship of Arik Duhr from a saddle stand made from Leopold Pine to window drawers in Leopold Desk Company desks to the impressive welding and woodwork of the acrylic flipbooks. We hope you’ll visit us as soon as we are open to the public again to marvel for yourself.

Suzanne with the Systems Thinking module and center display cases.

Our goals for Exhibit Hall Revitalization remained steadfast from start to finish, although the means to achieving them did of course evolve. We are now proud to share Leopold’s story in a way that invites visitors to personally connect with different aspects of his life and work. Also, we want to thank Kohler Trust for Preservation and Leopold Foundation board member Dr. Susan Flader for providing the investments and vision necessary to make this possible!

When we reopen, we invite you to a space with a logical flow and cohesive design where Leopold artifacts and interactive elements heighten your visitor experience and create a feeling of closeness to this legendary conservationist.


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