On Monday, June 5, James Madison’s Montpelier in Virginia opens “The Mere Distinction of Colour,” a major exhibition on the history and impact of slavery in the United States. It examines slavery both from the perspective of James Madison and his peers as well as from the 300 men, women, and children enslaved by the Madisons at Montpelier. It’s a complex and difficult story, but Montpelier has been researching and interpreting this topic for nearly 20 years. Thanks to a generous $10 million gift from David Rubenstein (co-founder and co-CEO of The Carlyle Group), that effort will be move to a higher level in this path-breaking exhibition. During the past two years, the museum staff worked closely with Proun Design, Northern Light Productions, and Mystic Scenic Studios to design, fabricate, and install the exhibition.
As an advisor and consultant to Montpelier for nearly fifteen years, I’ve watched its interpretation evolve. This exhibition is a major step forward for them and for Continue reading →
In April, I had a chance to visit the newly opened National Blues Museum in St. Louis, Missouri while I was in town to lead a workshop with Ken Turino of Historic New England. As the “only museum dedicated exclusively to preserving and honoring the national and international story of the Blues and its impact on American culture in the United States,” its mission is “to be the premier entertainment and educational resource focusing on the Blues as the foundation of American music.” Those are pretty bold claims and we’ll have to give them some time to see if they can achieve them. In the meantime, I wanted to share my initial reactions to the primary permanent exhibit designed by Gallagher & Associates of Silver Spring, Maryland (near my hometown!), who also designed exhibits for Mount Vernon, Gettysburg Visitor Center, and Jamestown Settlement Museum.
Housed in a former historic department store near the city’s downtown convention center, the bold use of panels filled with text, images, video, textures, and colors as well as a strong horizontal lines that pull you through each space, make it a compelling and attractive design. Indeed, it’s so effective that it didn’t strike me until about halfway through that the exhibit feels two-dimensional and there are hardly Continue reading →
This 1:22 video promotes an exhibition of self-portraits (“autoportraits”) at the Museum of Fine Arts in Lyon, France without any words. Showing a series of portraits that transition through the eyes, it also maintains engagement with subtle and dramatic visual effects. It might be an approach for giving historic images or objects a stronger visual presence in orientation films.
This month marks the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which ensured equal access to persons with limited mobility, limited vision, limited hearing, and other disabilities. Shortly after this law was enacted in 1990, museums and historic sites were scrambling to figure out the consequences, especially the cost of installing ramps or hiring sign-language interpreters.
Much of it also revolved thinking bigger and realizing that improving access for the disabled would improve the experience for everyone. For example, lever handles replaced doorknobs, which makes it easier to open a door when you’re carrying a package; enlarging type and increasing contrast on exhibit labels makes them easier to read (which I really appreciated as I grew older); and integrating ramps and removing thresholds is nice for visitors in wheelchairs and for staff who are always hauling tables and chairs for events. For several years, professional associations hosted sessions and printed books to explain ADA to help museums figure out how to respond in an effective and thoughtful manner.
Little discussed, however, is that the US Department of Justice (DOJ) also investigated several museums and historic sites for Continue reading →
Every historic site (well, perhaps 98% of them) have windows but they are rarely used in the interpretation. Here are several ways to use windows to set the stage, enhance the experience, or provoke thinking.
1. Windows can set the stage for interpretation
Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park in Dayton, Ohio.
The easiest way is to use windows is as an introduction to the site by using a bold image or intriguing message that prepares the visitor for what’s inside. Perforated vinyl is ideal for this situation because it can display graphics while allowing light to flow inside and permitting views outside. At the Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park, perforated vinyl signs on the two-story windows of the visitor center feature enormous Continue reading →
In this 3:35 video, The Verge interviews Aaron Cope, the head of engineering, about the new high tech exhibits at the Cooper Hewitt Museum, which is in the former home of Andrew Carnegie and part of the Smithsonian Institution. The Cooper Hewitt closed for the last three years for an extensive renovation to imagine a museum that was part of the Internet and served as a bridge to their huge 130-million-object collection.
At a recent board meeting of the Montpelier Foundation, the organization that manages James Madison’s Montpelier, I discovered they had developed a nice device to keep table tents neat. I often create table tents or nameplates on my computer, folding a letter-sized sheet in half. Despite using cover stock to give them some heft, they still manage to sag and wilt, not only making them hard to read but creating a sad-looking appearance for a meeting.
Montpelier tapered a small block of wood to fit within the table tent, attaching a short brass screw at the back. Using a small “super-strong” magnet, the table tent sticks to the screw on the block. Everything looks sharp for the meeting and the blocks can be easily reused (and they never break, even if you drop them). Another great idea from the carpenters at Montpelier.
In the 2:34 video, Tianwei Studio documents “The Warehouse,” a three-channel video installation installed in an old warehouse in downtown Lubbock, Texas. It’s part of “The Memory Series is a series of site-specific video installations exams personal and collective experiences of memory. Through the over used public imagery, brings historic awareness and collective memory to the obsolete industrial architectural space, where memory is not based on an illusion of static and eternal time, but derives from the awareness of temporal change.” It’s much more aesthetic than interpretive, but you might find some new ideas for interpretive methods (such as filling an entire doorway with a projected image) for your historic site.
I have to admit that I’m the strange visitor at historic sites. I not only take photos of the architecture and landscape, but reception desks, walkway paving, light fixtures, wheelchair ramps, and signs. These are the things that make a visitor experience good, bad, or ugly, but they’re often overlooked and it’s hard to find good examples.
Gamble House Tour Menu Sign
Here’s one from the Gamble House in Pasadena, California. It’s a sandwich board placed on the driveway leading from the sidewalk to the garage, which now serves as the bookstore and admission desk. The sign isn’t big, but the bright color and location makes it easy to spot from the sidewalk. Visitors can comfortably learn about the options and then go inside the bookstore to buy their tickets. Notice it’s called a “tour menu,” using familiar terms so that visitors quickly grasp the purpose of the sign. The sign is placed outside in shady spot in front of the bookstore (those are the doors behind the sign). The store is small and often busy so encouraging people to make their selection outside is much more comfortable, especially because these types of decisions are typically Continue reading →
During a recent visit to Pittsburgh, I visited the Cathedral of Learning at the University of Pittsburgh. At 535 feet, it’s the tallest university building in the nation and dominates the skyline east of downtown. Despite its name, it’s more skyscraper than cathedral. It’s also an historical and architectural landmark, built between 1926 and 1937 as an Art Deco “cake” with Gothic Revival “frosting.” For those of us working at historic house museums, what’s most interesting are the Nationality Rooms, a series of 29 classrooms on the first and third floors designed and furnished to represent different nations and ethnicities.