What is your favorite exhibit that you have worked on?
This question is more complicated to answer than it would seem, because every major exhibition that I’ve worked on has kept me awake at night from stress. But I’m conversing here with colleagues in the field, so it will come as no surprise that putting together an exhibition can be enormously challenging, especially if funding is tight, you don’t have enough help, and institutions won’t lend. Costume exhibitions are also inherently difficult to produce, but the creativity that is required to find solutions to mannequin challenges is, for me, fun and satisfying.
I have two favorite exhibition projects that have been particularly rewarding—despite causing sleepless nights. The first, Modesty Died When Clothes Were Born: Costume in the Life and Literature of Mark Twain, was mounted at the Mark Twain House & Museum in Hartford in 2004. It consisted of about forty mannequins, along with furniture, paintings, photographs, and illustrations from Twain’s books to show how Gilded Age costume design was intertwined with Victorian culture and the themes of Twain’s novels. I designed the exhibition myself, and one special satisfaction that I had was convincing the administration that it would be worth the cost of changing the gray wall color used for the previous exhibition to something more sympathetic to the costumes. The “antique ruby” color that I chose clearly concerned them, but once everything was installed and the lighting was in place, the consensus was that the exhibition looked like “a jewel box.” And I ended up winning the Costume Society of America’s Richard Martin Award for Excellence for that show!
My other favorite exhibition was mounted this year, at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art: Gothic to Goth: Romantic Era Fashion & Its Legacy. The idea for this exhibition had been simmering in my brain for almost fifteen years, and I am very grateful for the Wadsworth’s support to make it happen. Again, it consisted of about forty mannequins dressed in costumes from 1810 to 1860, and then from the 1980s to the present day, along with paintings, decorative arts, and literature. My goal was to explain how the various themes of Romanticism (historicism, imagination, religion, nature, and emotion) all affected costume design in the early nineteenth century, and how Romanticism continues to influence the fashion industry to this day. I have been extremely gratified by the response to the exhibition, which garnered strong visitation, and included reviews by the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, and Vogue, among others. The catalogue has already nearly sold out. I am amused to find myself now an authority on Goth fashion, with journalists from the Washington Post and other newspapers contacting me for comments!
We design and build a great variety of exhibits. Each of these comes with its own unique challenges and opportunities, which often blend technical, creative, financial and/or logistical aspects.
Almost every project has some gratifying takeaway, but occasionally a project has so many things going for it that it really stands out above the rest.
The Boston Public Library was referred to us when they were renovating the Johnson Building, and interested in adding 'some WOW factor' into their beautiful new Children's Library. An anonymous donor had come forward to support the creation of something truly special for the children of Boston, which offered financial flexibility that we don't often encounter in public projects. The BPS project team were an absolute pleasure to work with from day one. They articulated their objectives of maintaining the link to the iconic St. Gaudens lion sculptures, incorporating a playful love of reading, and wanting to respect the library atmosphere - not turning the library into a playground. We explored several different directions, and landed on interactive lion cub statues in several poses.
The cubs each appeal to a different type of young reader, mounted up off the floor on top of the library stacks. From this vantage point, they become visual icons and guardians of several sections of the library. Each cubs sits atop a platform or a tunnel assembled from elegant wooden over sized books. The cubs are hollow castings that normally appear as beautiful white carved stone, but as children navigate the tunnel arches, motion sensors cue internal lighting to make each line glow, change brightness or change colors.
Watching both new and returning visitors interact with the cubs in the library brings a wonderful sense of accomplishment on so many levels. Children are excited and inquisitive. It's a fun and engaging space. The connection with reading and learning is both subtle and powerful. The combination of wood and faux stone brings a refined, yet organic quality, and the interactivity is engaging without being artificial or synthetic. It feels like a win in every aspect.
From the collaborative approach with the client, to our own internal creative exploration and development, to production and installation, to the overwhelmingly positive public response, the BPL lion cubs were rewarding and enjoyable every step of the way.
I recently worked on a temporary exhibition experience for Oxfam America about the Syrian Refugee Crisis. The exhibition was entitled “Refugee Road” and it has been one of the most emotionally powerful experiences I that I have had the pleasure of working on. It also came with a number of challenges in that it had a very short timeline, it was destined for an extremely odd space, and the budget was very lean. For me, it was a passion project, and one I am very proud of being involved in.
My role in the development of the exhibition was as an experiential design consultant. I worked with the in-house team at Oxfam America (Marketing/PR, Events, Graphics) to develop the visitor flow, oversee the interpretive outline, identify artifacts/props, and manage the production of the complementary linear media piece. Since the budget for this event was limited, I spent a good deal of time identifying low- to no-cost-solutions to help us execute our design vision.
The exhibition itself was for one night, and was held at the Microsoft NERD Center in Cambridge. This is a rather unique two-story event space that overlooks the Charles River. It is not exactly designed for a walk-through exhibition, so a great deal of time during the design phase was spent with the client team in the space to identify the best visitor flow. We also needed to set up pinch points to control the flow of the crowd, as everyone entered the exhibition over the course of an hour.
A series of character profiles were developed by Oxfam, based on real stories of Syrian refugees. The night of the exhibition, when visitors arrived, they were given a character profile. This ultimately dictated where they sat during the live presentation. We developed four different areas keyed to the different character profiles: a refugee camp, borders that neighbor Syria, fleeing via the ocean, and then remaining in Syria. Each of these areas was then staged to evoke these different scenarios. For instance, the “Border” area had mock barbed wire, glowing red lights, cardboard signs, and dusty bags full of belongings.
Once visitors walked through the photo exhibition upstairs, they migrated downstairs to their designated area. Then, a dialogue of the various experiences Syrian refugees might face was facilitated by two speakers. A large screen with images keyed to the talking points played in the background. Finally, a panel of people closely affected by the crisis, including refugees themselves, answered questions from the audience.
The exhibition was a departure from our normal work in that it was so temporary—a one-night event. This brought new and exciting challenges. And a very aggressive timeline! But the topic was timely, and one that I feel very strongly about. (Projects you have an emotional connection to are always the best ones!) The event was a success, and we have been talking with Oxfam about repeating it at Microsoft Headquarters in Washington State in the spring.