Designing history: design intention and inspiration

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

In the past the first ladies gowns have been displayed in period rooms and parlor-type settings.I did not want to cast aside completely this traditional approach to costume display; in fact there is something wonderfully nostalgic about that form, but I did intend to modernize and simplify the construct of a period room. I chose three shades of grey: nearly white, medium, and a dark charcoal grey for the paint colors of the gallery. The carpet is nearly black, with a pattern that is a modern interpretation of an Asian floral carpet. I played with light and dark, using paint colors, silhouettes, and gallery lighting to strategically call attention to the objects and not to the gallery itself. Simplified architectural and decorative elements such as archways, oval mirrors, and silhouettes of furniture create a sense of interior space, without directly referencing a particular time period or style.

The exhibition opens with a colorful array of gowns chosen to represent the various fashions of the first ladies. For these gowns I designed a room-sized display case with a sweeping curve-shaped front to give the arrangement a sense of motion and to allow visitors to move in a non-linear path as they view the gowns. The case is painted nearly white with white-on-white wallpaper paneling along the back wall of the case. The lightness of the paint and the subtle reflectivity of the wallpaper serve to highlight the colors, shapes, and textures of the gowns.

The second section of the exhibition is a long display of White House china place settings. For the china case I chose a dark charcoal-grey paint color to offset the brilliant white and gold details of the china patterns. By placing the china in a consolidated and linear arrangement, the visitor can see the progression of china patterns through time.

Throughout the exhibition I have used an oval “cameo” or “vignette” shape for the section text panels. This shape reminded me of a looking-glass, a metaphor for young women reflecting on their own lives and goals in relation to those of the first ladies. The oval is repeated as framing for three video monitors, two mirrors, and four portrait frames within the exhibition.

In keeping with the concept of silhouettes and non-traditional exhibition display techniques, I made some design choices in the Inaugural section that create a continuity in the overall design of the exhibit. The display of accessories such as handbags, shoes, and jewelry to go with the inaugural gowns could have been presented in a standard way—on rectangular pedestals. But after I drew a layout that way, it was clear to me that we needed to make the display more personal and more special. I found a manufacturer for small “occasional” tables, the kind on which one might place keys, wallet, or cell phone, and it occurred to me that they would be natural as a display method for the inaugural accessories. The tables were painted to match the color of the cases, thereby effectively turning them into silhouettes, and they were placed with the gowns. The effect is that each first lady appears to be leaving for, or returning from, an evening of inaugural balls.

The final section of the exhibition is devoted to an in-depth historical look at four first ladies: Dolley Madison, Mary Lincoln, Edith Roosevelt, and Lady Bird Johnson. Objects in these four cases were chosen by the curator to represent personal moments from each of their lives. When the curator explained her intention to me, it became clear that standard exhibition display cases would actually minimize the importance of these smaller objects rather than give them the weight that they deserve. I chose the design of the “highboy” as a display technique that would give visitors the experience of peeking into the personal keepsake collection of these first ladies. I realized that many of today’s visitors might keep personally important objects arranged carefully in their homes and that this familiar technique would work in the exhibition as a way of making sense of, and giving importance to, the assorted smaller objects associated with these four women.

In addition to the “highboys,” each of the four chosen first ladies is represented by a gown case which includes a mural-sized backdrop showing an image of the White House contemporary to the years they held the position. These gown cases are non-standard in their shape and design. Rather than creating basic rectangular shapes, I designed trapezoidal cases that get wider at the back. Why? First of all, I was aware that the curator hoped to display the objects and gowns in a way that would provide a more intimate personal understanding of these first ladies. In considering this intention, I was inspired by my many visits to historic house museums and old period rooms at museums like the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and even the early installations of the first ladies collections at the Smithsonian. I kept coming back to the experience of standing in the doorway of a period room where there is a rope across the doorway preventing visitors from entering. I recall the feeling of wanting to know what might extend beyond that rope, inside the room, to the left and right. I remember craning my body around the door frame to see what I was missing, keeping my feet outside the door, of course, but trying with all my might to see parts hiding inside. I wanted in some small way to recreate a bit of that feeling.

Secondly, I wanted the exhibit to have surprises. In the earlier sections of the exhibition I carefully planned that each subsequent part of the exhibition would reveal itself to the visitor as she or he moved through the space. I wanted to accomplish that same effect in this last section of the exhibit. By building trapezoidal cases where the back is wider than the front, the case reveals itself to the visitor as the visitor approaches it. It becomes dynamic, and my hope was that it would engender a pleasantly surprised feeling in the visitor.


Clare Brown is an Exhibition Designer for the National Museum of American History.

Posted at 11:21 am EST in First Ladies