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Quatrefoil in Laurel celebrates 30 years of making museum exhibits come to life

From left, Roula Tsapalas, Bernhard Mueller, Michael Burns, Ernie Falcone, and Abbie Chessler, president of Quatrefoil. Quatrefoil celebrated its 30th anniversary in October. They make displays and interactive exhibits for museums across the country.
From left, Roula Tsapalas, Bernhard Mueller, Michael Burns, Ernie Falcone, and Abbie Chessler, president of Quatrefoil. Quatrefoil celebrated its 30th anniversary in October. They make displays and interactive exhibits for museums across the country. (Nate Pesce/Baltimore Sun Media Group)

From its office on C Street, the staff of Quatrefoil Associates in Laurel brings history to life, learns about art, explores the deep seas and creates hands-on activities for all ages to enjoy.

For 30 years, the company has worked with museums, historic sites, zoos and aquariums to help share their knowledge with the public by creating original exhibits. Quatrefoil’s finished projects can be found across the country in the Museum of Boulder, in Colorado, the Experience Music Project in Seattle and, closer to home, at the National Lacrosse Hall of Fame and Museum in Baltimore and the United States Mint in Philadelphia.

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“How does that happen?” said Michael Burns, design director for Quatrefoil Associates. “People don’t even think how the experience gets here.”

It is a process that Quatrefoil makes look effortless for its clients.

“We are hired by organizations that want us to tell their stories,” said Abbie Chessler, president and founding partner of Quatrefoil. “It takes a whole lot of work to do it.”

In their research to create exhibits, the staff at Quatrefoil has held the Bible Abraham Lincoln was sworn in on as president, experienced the life of a cowboy and seen U.S. coins being made.

“We work with the original source,” Chessler said “The important thing is to translate those first-person experiences to every person who comes in.”

Just before the holiday season, Chessler and three principals — Burns, Bernhard Mueller and Roula Tsapalas — shared their insights into how they create exhibits for often complicated and deep subject matter that are eye-catching, informative, fun and appeal to all ages.

“We’re not experts on the subject matter,” Burns said. “We meet these folks and learn all about this one topic and are given direct access. We take it all back and share.”

It took almost four years of intensive development to create one of the company’s first big projects, the Experience Music Project’s Sound Lab. The interactive exhibit, which opened in 2000, gives participants a chance to learn how to play drums, guitar or keyboard.

“Within five minutes, you can be playing ‘Louie Louie’ with the Kingsmen,” Chessler said.

Twenty years later, the sound lab is still very popular.

“It is largely unchanged and hugely popular,” Chessler said. “It has withstood the test of time.”

A lot has changed over the past 30 years, however, in how museums, parks, historic sites and other venues share information.

“Museums have changed over time from a passive experience to an interactive one,” Burns said. “We have to figure out how to get the required information into what people like to do and are engaged.”

Quatrefoil was responsible for creating the exhibits for the National Lacrosse Hall of Fame and Museum at both its original location in Baltimore on the campus of Johns Hopkins University and its present location in Sparks.

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“We had the artifacts and got together the things we thought were pertinent,” said Joe Finn, the archivist for the hall of fame. “We provided the things, but it still involved a lot of work on their part to make it good and informative and catch people’s eyes when they walk in.”

When the museum moved to Sparks in 2016, Quatrefoil created new exhibits and updated others.

“They’ve kept up with more current ideas in terms of exhibits,” Finn said. “We have a lot of different exhibits.”

Part of Finn’s duties at the museum is to lead tours. Many people enjoy the various kiosks of interactive displays. Youth, especially, enjoy an exhibit that allows them to put their photo on the cover a lacrosse magazine. Another records youths sharing their lacrosse stories.

Quatrefoil also keeps regular tabs on the museum, tweaking things and repairing others when needed.

“We have a hall of fame and induct people every year,” Finn said. “We add plaques to the exhibit, and they’ve been pretty good about that.”

Quatrefoil staff rely on various skills and backgrounds; there are architects, former educators, programmers and graphic designers in the mix. The company also uses freelancers.

“We know the people to hire,” Burns said.

For some exhibits, a test group is needed. Quatrefoil will invite small local groups to its office to try out exhibits. While the exhibits may be a little rough around the edges, they can be used, with the staff watching, to gauge reactions.

“We step back to observe what is easy, what is fun,” Tsapalas said. “We learn an awful lot.”

The job, the principals agree, is never boring.

“I’ve learned I know very little,” Mueller said.

“A lot of our work is educational,” Burns said. “We keep learning.”

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