In accepting the role of designer for a new installation of The First Ladies exhibition, I became part of a legacy that dates back to 1914, when the gowns were first displayed in the Arts & Industries building. Some of today’s visitors may remember subsequent installations of the First Ladies collection in 1955, 1964, 1992, and 2008 (with an additional gallery of “Modern Gowns” added in 2009). It is not uncommon for older generations of visitors to bring their children and grandchildren to see the First Ladies exhibition with the hope of sharing the experience they cherished so much when they were younger. These visitors also bring to the exhibition a set of expectations about the number of dresses that will be on view, the style of display, and the level of grandeur that should surround this famous collection.
High expectations, limited space, huge numbers of visitors, and light-sensitive objects are just a few of the challenges I was faced with when assigned to design the newest version of the First Ladies exhibition at the National Museum of American History. With these challenges, however, came some wonderful opportunities including encouragement to use new technologies in lighting and the freedom to try an entirely new design concept for the display of the collection.
One of my goals for the design of the new installation was to try to create an experience that lives up to visitors’ expectations. I wanted to design a space that would be elegant and richly textured without overpowering the delicate details and colors of the gowns. I intended to design an exhibition that would capture the visitors’ attention in an immersive way. I hoped to create a space that would feel important, where visitors would be transported to someplace “special,” maybe even a bit magical.
As many exhibition designers would agree, one of the fun parts of our job is creative problem solving within constraints. The specific constraints I was given included a fixed number of objects to be displayed, a fixed (and somewhat small) size of the gallery, and a large estimated number of visitors to plan for. Acknowledging the fact that the First Ladies exhibition is one of the most popular destinations at the museum (I have been told that on our busiest day we might get upwards of 20,000 visitors), one of my biggest challenges was to create a space layout that would reduce congestion of visitor traffic, while preserving a compelling exhibition design.
It might have been easy to simply line the perimeter of the gallery with flat cases and create a “line-up” of gowns. This would have opened up the entire center of the gallery for traffic flow and allowed for the maximum number of dresses to be displayed. But exhibition design is so much more than just maximizing the number of objects displayed and number of visitors a space can accommodate. Exhibition design is, at its core, about visitor experience. Previous installations of the gowns were criticized because of the “conga line” effect whereby visitors found themselves shuffling along behind one another to view the gowns in a particular order. My goal was to disperse the crowd of visitors at the entrance of the gallery by placing a video presentation to the right, a beautiful (and large) case of gowns at center, and a view to Michelle Obama’s gown and the White House china to the left. I also opened up the first half of the gallery to allow visitors to become acclimated to the space, assess their options, and begin viewing the exhibit in their own desired sequence. Although it is inevitable that on the most crowded days there will be lines to see parts of the exhibit, I hope that lines will be minimized by my decisions in the space layout.
Given the relatively small area of the gallery, it was important to maximize and utilize every inch of the available space. I pulled a few design tricks out of my sleeve to create the illusion of a larger space. By building cases into the corners of the galleries, creating angular sight-lines, and by strategic placement of various shades of paint colors I was able to create a greater depth-of-field which makes the gallery seem larger than it is.
Clare Brown is an Exhibition Designer for the National Museum of American History.