Designing history: the day of an exhibition design intern

Editor’s note: This blog is the first in a series of posts about designing the new exhibition The First Ladies, which opened on November 19, 2011.

What does the day of a design intern at the National Museum of American History look like? It starts off with a lot of coffee. Then we spend the day designing exhibitions!

Jimin Lee, Office of Exhibition Services intern
Jimin Lee, Office of Exhibition Services intern

In all seriousness, interning at the museum under the exhibition designers Clare Brown and Nigel Briggs has been an amazingly fun and rewarding experience. For the past year, I have been working with Clare on projects such as The First Ladies, a new gallery that will include Julia Child’s Kitchen, and a few other temporary exhibitions held in the Albert H. Small Documents Gallery.

Life as an intern at the exhibition design department involves a lot of drawing, detailing, and designing. For The First Ladies, I joined the team while the exhibition was in its early stage of completion. In order to take an exhibition from a script, drafts and sketches to a show ready for production, we regularly met with a team which included a curator, project manager, exhibition designer, productions lead, collections manager, and conservator. I learned to take direction from the team and the designer in particular and to problem-solve the new exhibition layout through sketching, measuring, and drawing the layout of objects in cases through programs such as Vectorworks and Adobe Illustrator.

One of the most rewarding lessons from this internship thus far has been learning the exhibition design process. The entire team must work together, communicate and exchange ideas of content and design, and ultimately collaborate until the very last step of the project.

While figuring out the layout of the history cases in The First Ladies, we needed to create a mock-up layout of objects and labels. Following the Americans with Disabilities Act guidelines of height and legibility became just as important as choosing the objects that create the story in each case. We found unused cabinets in storage and placed real objects and mock-up placeholders to test the layout of each case. In the exhibition design department, our job is to make sure that artifacts, labels, and images all work together to present to the visitor the story the museum wants to tell.

In this instance, the history cases created an intimate experience for each visitor, encouraging visitors to look closer into the cases to look at and read each artifact and label. Lighting played a big role in creating the right atmosphere and improving legibility for these cases as well as for the rest of the exhibition.

reusing old storage cabinets to mock-up new exhibit cases
reusing old storage cabinets to mock-up new exhibit cases

The initial mock-up of the history cases took place in a rather humble unused old storage cabinet. Still, everything was carefully measured and documented, as the measurements and photographs from this mock-up session became the source for other computer aided drawings and illustrations.

illustration of the Dolley Madison cabinet
illustration of the Dolley Madison cabinet

Once the case mock-up was complete and the team decided on the position of all the objects and labels, I took the measurements and photographs and drew illustrations. These illustrations are scaled to size and eventually became the team’s visual reference for the placement of objects and labels during the installation of the exhibition.

Dolley Madison cabinet as installed in the gallery
Dolley Madison cabinet as installed in the gallery

There are numerous other processes, steps, conversations, and challenges that become part of the exhibit design process. This is just a small hint of what we do at the exhibition design department!

Jimin Lee is an intern with the Museum’s Office of Exhibition Services, and a Masters in Exhibition Design candidate at the Corcoran College of Art + Design

Posted at 12:57 pm EST in First Ladies,Intern Perspectives