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Designing a Museum Exhibit

By on Dec 15, 2007 in Blog, Consulting | 1 comment

One of the more interesting projects in a long while has come along – our team is developing an exhibit for a museum in Los Angeles. It’s an ambitious project, including a complete rework of an old office into a focused exhibit that must convey the look and feel of a traditional museum.

James Kwok works on design elements for the fire museum exhibit

James Kwok works on design elements for the fire museum exhibit

There were many roadblocks along the way, beginning with some of the board members. The museum is an old Fire Station, and as such, it is not designed for exhibits per se. Some of the Directors have long felt that the “look” of the museum should not be compromised – and that the “fire station” motif was more original. The unfortunate truth is that for much of the building, the result is the appearance of an old fire station, or worse, of a warehouse. And, to create an even more complex situation, the Directors instructed us to “keep the room unchanged,” meaning we could not eliminate any structure components, such as windows or doors.

There were other issues as well, including no power in the room, old windows that allows wind, dust, and dirt into the room, and a small space to boot. The overall dimensions of the room are not unlike a second or guest bedroom. Hardly the place for an exhibit…

Our team began by spending several days taking measurements and creating pencil drawings of the various options for the room. We spent time in other museums (which we do regardless), evaluating materials, fixtures, security, and other matters. Next, Tyler Siegel created a model of the room, complete with standing panels and other elements so we could evaluate what the finished product would look like.

The next step was to have the room repaired relative to leaks, gaps, and power. Our painter found mildew and rot and we ended up replacing plaster, fittings, and other bits to bring the room up to a basic level of acceptability.

Cameron Barrett then designed a museum-style drape, running from floor to ceiling, to eliminate the windows from the room. This was a terrific solution to the “keep the room unchanged” charter from the Directors. Once installed, the room would no longer looked like an office. Should things change in the future, it would be a matter of minutes to revert things to the way they were.

While we went about painting the room and preparing it for our exhibit materials, Tyler Siegel and James Kwok went about creating the story elements. The objective for the room was to present a story of heroic bravery, while also explaining the roles that different firefighting techinques employ. We created a land, sea and air story, in addition to developing displays that listed every firefighter awarded citations or medals for bravery.

The room was painted a deep red, with cream highlights. One of the Directors nearly threw himself off the roof of the building, such was his concern at the non-firestation colors applied to the walls of the 75+ year old building. I gladly spent considerable time with him, and other Directors, calming them and showing them how easy it would be to revert the work in the future, if they so decided.

Tyler Siegel reviews sign elements for the fire museum exhibit

Tyler Siegel reviews sign elements for the fire museum exhibit

Meanwhile, James and Tyler were creating large, oversize panels that told the stories. I wrote the editorial content, and worked with the Los Angeles Fire Department to check the accuracy of the awards lists. Historic photos were scanned, cleaned up, and imported into the exhibit panel elements. We had each element reviewed multiple times, for accuracy, grammar, and design errors. We created sample output and tested various mounting and placement options.

One of the challenges for the room related to the existence of several metal panel doors on one wall. One contained an electrical panel, and the other a light panel. To ensure compliance with fire regulations, we created a swinging door design that would support one of our art panels and could swing open, revealing the metal panel. We created small signs that signaled the use and access of the items hidden behind our magic doors. A fire inspector reviewed the changes and approved them.

As the finishing touches were coming together, we also edited a version of one of our safety/education DVD products for use in the room. We installed a swinging arm on one wall and mounted a VIZIO HD television to the arm. A DVD player was installed in a former locker and cables run through the wall.

The story elements were printed, mounted on black, museum-quality gatorboard, and covered with a varnish. We then took all of the materials to the museum and after hours, during the course of several evenings, we built frames and mounting brackets and attched the materials to the walls. The full size drape created by Cameron was stretched into position and new lights installed on the ceiling to highlight each story element.

Shortly after my initial tour of the room with the Directors, the same fellow who was at one time ready to toss himself from the room to the plaza below came up to me and said, “I must admit, the room looks really terrific. The color makes the images leap off the walls.” It was a gratifying moment. All in all, this is the ideal type of project for us: obstacles to overcome, creativity to develop, and the opportunity to make a difference. It will be interesting to see how visitors react to the room over time.