An interview with Robert “Mac” West of Informal Learning Experiences Inc. (ILE)
For nearly 25 years, Informal Learning Experiences Inc. has helped audiences of all ages to be engaged with their learning environments. Founded by Robert “Mac” West, the company consults for numerous clients worldwide, and twice a year, hosts the Traveling Exhibitions Forum. In our latest interview feature, Mac tells TEN about ILE’s recent and upcoming projects, and the museum he created in his parents’ basement when only 11 years old.
TEN: How did you come to work for ILE?
Mac: I own the company and am the sole full-time employee. This has been my source of earned income since going independent in 1992.
TEN: What are your responsibilities for ILE?
Mac: I am the prime consultant and thus am responsible for all marketing, proposal writing in response to requests for proposals, conducting the research for clients, and producing the required reports and other outcomes. The latter functions frequently are shared with partner colleagues who subcontract to ILE or to whom ILE is a subcontractor. I am also the editor of the Informal Learning Review, write frequent articles for the publication and supervise the Traveling Exhibits Database and Forum.
TEN: What are the main challenges in your daily work?
Mac: The challenges are both delightful and perplexing. The delightful part is always being on a learning curve, depending on the needs and attributes of the clients. As a result, I have learned a great deal about our industry, its functions, its challenges and its (usually) positive results. The perplexing part is the unpredictability of consulting. The workload is variable, ranging from too much at any one time to too little at any one time. There always is the need to be looking for the next contract.
The challenges are both delightful and perplexing. The delightful part is always being on a learning curve, depending on the needs and attributes of the clients.
TEN: What was the last exhibition you visited?
Mac: I most recently visited “The Power of Poison” at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, “Race: Are We So Different?” at History Colorado, “Expedition Alaska: Dinosaurs” at the University of Alaska Museum of the North, “The Red Cloud Indian Art Show” at The Heritage Center at Red Cloud Indian School, “Coast to Cactus” at the San Diego Natural History Museum and an exhibit on aviation in Wichita at the Dwight D. Eisenhower National Airport, Wichita, KS.
TEN: What do you think makes the perfect travelling exhibition?
Mac: It is different for every museum, as no two venues are identical in either their needs or capabilities. Factors that are involved include the economics of the presentation, the relation to permanent exhibits and programmes, the ability of the staff to accommodate the responsibilities, the reviews both formal and informal (e.g., online), etc.
My recent projects have taken me across the US as well as internationally.
TEN: As a consultant working with many different organizations, can you tell our readers about some of your recent projects?
Mac: My recent projects have taken me across the US as well as internationally. I’m currently working on a feasibility study for a proposed River Center in Alpena, MI; the implementation of a strategic plan at The Heritage Center at the Red Cloud Indian School in Pine Ridge, SD (with Maureen Robinson); a feasibility study for the proposed Soo Locks Children’s Museum in Sault St. Marie, MI; and a feasibility study for the proposed Children’s Museum of Yuma County in Yuma, AZ (with Gyroscope). I recently worked on exhibit content development for the Shanghai Natural History Museum in China; performed an assessment of the Kalamazoo Valley Museum in Michigan; conducted a current situation analysis for the Neville Public Museum in Green Bay, WI; did a feasibility study for the Macomb Children’s Hands-On Museum in Macomb County, MI; led a session on travelling exhibitions in Ilulissat, Greenland; and was part of an international team that evaluated the National Science Museum of Thailand in Bangkok.
TEN: After TEF, what is the next big project on the horizon for ILE?
Mac: After ILE hosts the Traveling Exhibitions Forum at ASTC, we will be looking ahead to future conferences, especially the ICEE (ICOM International Committee on Exhibition Exchange) in Cape Town, South Africa in November. ILE will also be hosting the TEF at AAM in Washington DC in May 2016. Consulting wise, I don’t know what will come after these – I am always looking. We have several proposals pending and hope for the best.
After ILE hosts the Traveling Exhibitions Forum at ASTC, we will be looking ahead to future conferences, especially the ICEE (ICOM International Committee on Exhibition Exchange) in Cape Town, South Africa in November.
TEN: Finally, I am intrigued to learn more about the “museum” you created in your parents’ basement when you were 11 years old. Can you give us more information?
Mac: As a youngster in Appleton, Wisconsin, I was interested in various “stuff.” We lived two hours from Milwaukee, and the family frequently visited the Milwaukee Public Museum. Then a group, including my younger brother and several friends, decided to produce an exhibition in Appleton. We gathered an array of materials from parents, relatives, friends’ attics, basements, etc. “Appleton’s Newest Museum” operated in our basement recreation room for a weekend. The concession stand – popcorn sold in the laundry room – showed a profit of $9.50. “Appleton’s Newest Museum” has been succeeded by several good ones in Wisconsin, a city of 70,000 people. This essentially started my life as a museum professional, first as a researcher/curator, then as a director, and now as a broadly-based consultant.