A romantic view of museums’ enduring ability to impact an audience has driven Brett Rodgers and his team to do some incredibly big things.

Museum Revolution met Rodgers at the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) national conference in Washington, D.C., in May. Impressed by their summer endeavor in 2015 and plans for 2016, we reached out to learn more about the past, “The Beach” and what’s next at the National Building Museum.

“I started visiting the National Building Museum when I was a student at the University of Maryland,” recalled Rodgers, who today serves as the institution’s vice president for marketing and communications. “I had never heard of it before, and actually came with a class. I was blown away by the building, and was then blown away by the mission and the exhibitions and programs.”

Rodgers fell in love with his future employer during those class trips as an undergrad.

“What I love about the National Building Museum is it makes you see the entire world differently,” he explained. “It’s precisely because of things like these mundane materials exhibitions.”

Since joining the staff at the museum, Rodgers said there were dreams across the senior leadership team to do something big with their incredible space. Inside the museum is their Great Hall, a massive 316×116 ft. space that soars to 159 feet (approximately 15 stories) at its highest point.

The museum’s mission is almost as broad as the Great Hall, however. Devoted to exploring the built environment and encouraging individuals to engage with architecture, engineering and design, the museum has a lot of material to work with (pun intended).

A few years ago, the museum faced an all-too-familiar issue for cultural institutions all over the country.

“So many institutions — and we’re definitely one of them — are the local ‘hidden gem,’ and in Washington it’s not hard to be that if you aren’t on the Mall,” he said. “[Senior leadership] said, ‘Let’s do something that’s big but really shows what building and construction and design can do that’s magical and transforms the space and makes you think about it differently.’”

They started with a miniature golf course that engaged design principles. Visitors played through a series of unique landscapes, and Rodgers said it was a great success.

It worked well enough that senior leadership at the museum decided to take it up a level. But there was some risk when considering the use of the Great Hall for an exhibition.

“Over the years we have more and more come to rely on the very important revenue generated by renting the space,” he said. “That caused us to not be able to do big stuff in the exhibition hall.”

During the summer of 2014, the BIG Maze was installed. In partnership with the Bjarke Ingels Group (thus the BIG in the title), this modern interpretation of a maze was the centerpiece of the annual Summer Block Party.

“[The BIG Maze] was a conscious effort to move back to using the Great Hall,” Rodgers said. “That’s the most amazing asset of our building. Why aren’t we using it to do big showpieces that can demonstrate what architecture and design can do?”

The BIG Maze ran from the Fourth of July to the first of September that summer and exceeded expectations.

“The hope is that our summer program … has the ability to reach further out and bring more people in,” Rodgers explained, “and give more people that experience of being wowed and transformed by what they encounter here, and see the world differently afterward.

“With the maze, we took a giant baby step,” he added “But we only used one-third of our great hall.”

What could they do with the entire space?

In 2015, they decided to find out. Partnering with Snarkitecture, the museum hosted The BEACH. The visually compelling exhibit covered 10,000 square feet and included an “ocean” of nearly 1 million blue plastic balls. The hardest part, according to Rodgers, was writing the names of individual donors on hundreds of thousands of recyclable, translucent balls.

The BEACH at the National Building Museum
Taking in the “waters” at The BEACH. Via the National Building Museum Flickr page

In their second year of doing something enormous, the criteria for success were easier to define on some levels, but also elevated the internal conversation of what was possible in the space.

“[Our definition of success] was a combination of factors, both qualitative and quantitative,” Rodgers said. “We’re not really hung up on numbers here … that does play a part in our thinking, but we didn’t go into [the Maze] saying, ‘We have to hit a certain percentage.’

“We have an idea of what we had done in the past — traffic and revenue — with mini-golf, but what we were looking for in ‘success’ was to build on that and exceed what we did with people and revenue. But more importantly, we wanted to put architecture and design forward and show that’s who we are in a broader sense.”

The BEACH did precisely that. Rodgers said attendance was up, media exposure for the museum skyrocketed, and the buzz from both new and returning visitors was overwhelmingly positive. The biggest challenges of the two endeavors — especially The BEACH — were scaling up at a speed they weren’t used to, and distracting or taking people away from other projects.

Still, the internal buy-in for these projects was all-encompassing, Rodgers said. According to him, there were three simple factors that lead to their success:

  1. Alignment: Obviously, all museum staff from top to bottom need to be on board. For these initiatives, they were all on the same page.
  2. Adaptability: An enormous amount of planning and forethought went into these projects, but making adjustments before and after their launch was critical.
  3. Partnerships: With both the BIG Maze and The BEACH, the museum worked with tremendous partners.

Rodgers stressed that working with both the Bjarke Ingels Group and Snarkitecture gave them confidence to pursue other opportunities and partners.

“Partnerships were key to everything,” he said. “This elevated us to a higher plane where people were noticing us from around the world who had never heard that we existed before. These events have opened doors for further growing partnerships and people we can work with. It wasn’t another pass-the-baton moment. We wanted to go in a slightly different direction this year. [We brought] it back to a top-flight architecture firm … we actually went with a landscape architect.”

For this year’s exhibit, ICEBERGS, the museum is working with James Corner Field Operations. You can learn more about the installation here.

Through all of the hard work and planning, Rodgers still comes back to the way he felt when he visited as a student years ago.

“The only reason I work in museums is because … I feel that someone can walk in and walk out and literally see the city around them differently than they had before and understand their role in it,” he said. “That’s key to our mission, too. It isn’t just about seeing it differently, but understanding that you have a role in the environment. It shapes people, and you have to participate in that process.”

By Tab Bamford