It’s no easy task to shrink a bison.

But that was the challenge when Flint Hills Design and Kauffman Museum, both in North Newton, agreed to work with Mid-America Arts Alliance of Kansas City, Mo.

Could they take a permanent museum exhibition, reduce it by about 75 percent and send it on the road?

They could and did.


It’s no easy task to shrink a bison.
But that was the challenge when Flint Hills Design and Kauffman Museum, both in North Newton, agreed to work with Mid-America Arts Alliance of Kansas City, Mo.
Could they take a permanent museum exhibition, reduce it by about 75 percent and send it on the road?
They could and did.
“The Bison: American Icon” opened April 6 at Fort Caspar Museum in Casper, Wyo., as part of a five-year, nationwide touring program called “NEH on the Road,” a special initiative of the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Like the permanent exhibit at the Charles M. Russell Museum in Great Falls, Mont., the much smaller traveling exhibition also tells the story about humans’ interaction with the Plains animal and how it became a symbol of Native American culture, the American West and national identity.
“The goal for the traveling exhibits, like ‘The Bison,’ is to take the best of the museum world and NEH scholarship to people all around the country,” said Gaeddert, owner of Flint Hills Design and co-exhibit designer for “The Bison” traveling exhibit. “Blockbuster permanent exhibits reach only local visitors. Our job is to take these larger, permanent exhibits and shrink them down into a format that can reach a nationwide audience.”
Staff at Mid-America Arts Alliance oversaw all aspects of the NEH on the Road project.
The Flint Hills Design team, including Gaeddert, Abe Regier and Joel Krehbiel, collaborated with Kauffman Museum staff Chuck Regier and Rachel Pannabecker on exhibit design and fabrication.
Exhibits, like this traveling one, are complicated design and fabrication projects.
“The goal is to tell a story in three dimensions, using lightweight, easy-to-ship components flexible enough to be arranged coherently in a wide variety of exhibit spaces,” said Gaeddert, who founded Flint Hills Design in 2008. “These exhibits are much more complicated than our two-dimensional design work, Web work or even multi-faceted marketing strategies.”
The biggest challenge of shrinking the bison involved designing the shipping crates, which turn into exhibit displays.
Chuck Regier, curator of exhibits at Kauffman Museum, led the physical design process.
Working with Abe Regier and Mark Schmidt Andres of Osage Woodworks in Newton, the team designed and built a new modular exhibit system around which the entire exhibit revolves.
“Each NEH on the Road exhibit has to be able to pack up and ship across the United States on a common freight carrier and then set up easily. Chuck Regier did an excellent job of inventing a new system that met all the needs of this unique task,” Gaeddert said.
Because small museums don’t have room to store shipping crates while the exhibit is on display, designing a system that can function for both shipping and exhibition purposes allows various venues the opportunity to host the exhibit.
“While our goal was to reduce the original exhibit, simply shrinking things down can end up missing key parts of the story,” said Chuck Regier, who worked on many stages of the project.
For example, the team suggested and received approval to implement a three-dimensional infographic that communicated the decline of bison numbers during a period of time.
Even though displaying a population drop of 30 million to 300 wasn’t in the original project, “we felt it was essential to tell this part of the story and to do so in a dynamic, visual presentation,” Regier said.
Besides wanting to be thorough in story content, the team considered every design detail.
“The system Chuck created uses only one kind of fastener for the entire exhibit,” Gaeddert said. “Although it takes a lot of time to refine the system to this level of detail, it will save hundreds of hours of headache for institutions setting up this exhibit.”
With the project going to 25 locations during the next five years, many people will benefit from this extra care in design.
During nine months, the 6,000-square-foot original exhibit shrunk into a flexible 1,500- to 2,000-square-foot format ready to tour.
“Creating an exhibit that looks good when installed but is capable of being shipped common carrier is a difficult task. Add to that the need to not store crates and keep things lightweight and easy to set up, and you’ve got quite a challenging problem,” Gaeddert said. “But I think we’ve done a good job of addressing those concerns.”
Artifacts like Native America moccasins, bronze sculptures, beaded artwork and a painted bison hide, on loan from the C.M. Russell Museum, were added to the exhibit in Kansas City.
The artifacts are shown in display cases or on custom-designed mounts.
While the large diorama of bison and hunter from the original exhibit will not travel from museum to museum, “The Bison” maintains the emotion and quality of the permanent exhibition.
“It’s been exciting seeing a project like this develop from conception through exhibition,” Gaeddert said. “We’re grateful to the NEH and the Mid-America Arts Alliance for inviting us to be a part of this process.”
Like Lee and Grant, the first NEH on the Road exhibit the team produced last year with Mid-America, the quality of the Bison exhibit is appealing to medium-sized museums, not just small ones.
Leslie Przybylek, NEH on the Road project director for Mid-America Arts Alliance, credits that to much more than just the team’s excellent craftsmanship.
“They are inventive in how they work through solutions. That’s a real hallmark and distinguishes them from others,” Przybylek said. “They care on a much more personal level about the product.”
Recently, the team started its third NEH on the Road exhibit project with Mid-America, titled “Our Lives, Our Stories: America’s Greatest Generation.”
“It’s an excellent installation from the Minnesota History Center that we’re shaking down to 2,000 square feet,” Gaeddert said.
“We’re excited about this and future exhibits,” he said, “and the best part is, when we explain what we do, it gets the same reaction every time — ‘What? I had no idea this kind of exciting work is taking place in North Newton, Kansas!’”