I’m really excited about this blog installment.  This one is going to be a bit of a full circle moment beginning with the chronological beginning of my exhibit design career and wrapping up with the last project I worked on in my first Exhibit Designer position.  Picking up from the chronology of the previous post, it’s early February 1999, and after my last day as a Product Designer I walked to the nearest car dealership and dumped all $650 I had to my name into a used car to get me to the new job I’d accepted.

February 8th, 1999, I was late to my first day of work at my new job…  My new-to-me car had a flat tire.  Some might see this as an omen, but 16 years and some months later as I was leaving for the final interview for my next position I pulled my actually new car out of a parking space and got side-swiped - seems that’s just my luck… Back to 1999, after a rocky start I was finally doing what I felt like I really wanted to do professionally.  Without much experience developing environments I was given some smaller assignments while I was learning new CAD and rendering software.  


The Experience Music Project (EMP) in Seattle, WA was just about wrapping up production around this time and the firm I was working for was designing the inaugural exhibits.  While some parts were in production other parts were still being designed - something I’d come to find out isn’t uncommon in exhibit design but a stark contrast to the project that will conclude this post.  Inside EMP there was a small lounge space that was intended to be space for visitors to decompress and enjoy a wide variety of music.  I love music, brainstorming ideas for the treatment of the space was fun and gave me a chance to try out the new rendering software I was learning and much needed model-making practice...

 Early space studies and environmental graphic treatment studies for a lounge space within the Experience Music Project in Seattle, WA.

Early space studies and environmental graphic treatment studies for a lounge space within the Experience Music Project in Seattle, WA.

 Study models for interior and exterior spaces.

Study models for interior and exterior spaces.

Ultimately the interior and exterior treatment parameters were limited due to budget and other factors; however, one element that needed to be developed were graphics for the two 16-feet wide windows into the room.  At this point in my career Photoshop and Illustrator were pretty new to me and I was excited about using them, in my spare time I generated a lot of digital illustrations - mostly abstract artwork.  I used some of the techniques I’d been playing around with to generate these abstract music inspired window graphics:

 One of 2 illustrations developed for window graphics for EMP.

One of 2 illustrations developed for window graphics for EMP.

 Rendering with illustration in place.

Rendering with illustration in place.

My background in illustration and art actually played a pretty big part in my role in many of my early exhibit assignments; however, over the following 16 years I got to work on many, many different kinds of exhibit projects.  I really enjoy working on natural history exhibits, one of my earliest museum memories is seeing the whale overhead in the American Museum of Natural History in New York City on a class field trip.  Growing up in New Jersey class field trips to big cities were a once a year kind of thing but there were numerous trips to local nature centers, or environmental centers.  These are the smaller facilities, usually anchoring some kind of preserved land, with an odd little collection of artifacts and seemingly homemade exhibits…  This next project was one of those types of places.

 Exploring the Great Swamp exhibit introduction.

Exploring the Great Swamp exhibit introduction.

I came onto this project in the design development phase.  The content had been decided on by the client and outside interpretive consultants and the overall layout of the space had been decided on,  but everything needed to be fully designed and detailed for fabrication.  Visitors enter the facility on the ground floor and immediately to their left is a staircase to the lower level.  Part of the new design was this treatment on above the stairs to let visitors know there are exhibits to explore downstairs:

 View from center entrance to stairs down to exhibit space.  The blue line represents the Passaic River that runs through the Great Swamp Refuge.

View from center entrance to stairs down to exhibit space.  The blue line represents the Passaic River that runs through the Great Swamp Refuge.

The previous exhibit space had been a forced-flow “maze” like layout.  It was dark carpet on the floors and walls with low ceilings.  The exhibit space flooded during hurricane Sandy and needed to be gutted for renovation.  The client wanted an open free-flowing space with exhibit “islands” scattered around for visitors to explore at their own pace.  The space was laid out with the least dense islands closer to the front and the visually heavier exhibits towards the back to draw visitors in.   The room floor finishes and wall paint colors were also designed to become darker towards the back of the exhibit to add depth to the space.

 Isometric view of exhibit concept, final design rendering, and photos of installed exhibit.

Isometric view of exhibit concept, final design rendering, and photos of installed exhibit.

The long wall farthest from the entrance to the space is dedicated to a series of vignettes of habitats within the Great Swamp Environmental Refuge and the layout is arranged from right to left in order of ecological succession from river to forest.

 Design development elevation and photos of installed habitat wall exhibit.  Exhibit begins with a crawl through beaver lodge and concludes with an interactive tree.  The photos don't show that this area features a natural soundtrack playing over directional speakers.  Additionally, acoustic absorption materials were detailed into exhibit and graphic features to keep sounds in this area from bleeding into other exhibits.  Unlike many museums the collection of taxidermy specimens are almost entirely out in the open placed just beyond visitors reach but close enough to get a really good look.

Design development elevation and photos of installed habitat wall exhibit.  Exhibit begins with a crawl through beaver lodge and concludes with an interactive tree.  The photos don't show that this area features a natural soundtrack playing over directional speakers.  Additionally, acoustic absorption materials were detailed into exhibit and graphic features to keep sounds in this area from bleeding into other exhibits.  Unlike many museums the collection of taxidermy specimens are almost entirely out in the open placed just beyond visitors reach but close enough to get a really good look.

 Interactive tree / rotten log end of succession exhibit.

Interactive tree / rotten log end of succession exhibit.

 Meadow section of habitat / succession exhibit and some interactives.

Meadow section of habitat / succession exhibit and some interactives.

 Forest section of habitat / succession exhibit and some interactives.

Forest section of habitat / succession exhibit and some interactives.

Throughout the space exhibit islands with interactive elements interpret several areas of scientific study in relation to the Great Swamp Environmental Refuge.  Individual islands were dedicated to Biology, Hydrology, Geology, and Archaeology.  

 Biology exhibit island.

Biology exhibit island.

 Interactives on biology exhibit island.

Interactives on biology exhibit island.

This exhibit featured a lot of content is a small footprint.  Digital interactives were used judiciously and mechanical interactives where they made the most sense.  Detailing the furniture required a lot of thought.  First, everything had to be suspended off the floor in case of future floods and all power / signal had to come from the ceiling.  The museum had an eclectic collection of objects that they wanted to display so exhibits were arranged with front and back displays that were carefully detailed to allow for discovery drawers on each side to optimize space.

 Geology and Hydrology exhibit islands.

Geology and Hydrology exhibit islands.

 Overview details for all exhibit island showing location of discovery drawers front and back.

Overview details for all exhibit island showing location of discovery drawers front and back.

Around the perimeter of the space wall mounted exhibits were dedicated to informing visitors about the trails of the refuge and the topics like sustainability.  Additionally a toddler space was developed in a small corner of the space.

 Toddler area elevations and photos.  The cattail and grasses divider walls for this area were designed to be appropriate height to give toddlers an immersive experience inside the space but still allow parents to have line of sight while touring surrounding exhibits.

Toddler area elevations and photos.  The cattail and grasses divider walls for this area were designed to be appropriate height to give toddlers an immersive experience inside the space but still allow parents to have line of sight while touring surrounding exhibits.

I worked on this project for many months developing a fabrication package complete with final graphics, fabrication specifications, and construction drawings to be bid as part of the architectural retrofitting of the space.  I moved onto another position before this project went into construction.  Construction was completed very recently, a little under 2 years after the design was finalized, and it looks very much like the final design.  I was very happy to see this come to completion, it’s a great feeling when a project you worked on opens.  I got to tour it as a visitor and saw a family really enjoying everything the space has to offer.


Another great thing about this project is that it’s local!  Throughout my career people have asked “what have you worked on around here” and the answer is very little.  To that point the next 3 projects I’m going to highlight in upcoming blog posts are all in Atlanta, GA.  So unless something else I worked on opens between now and then I’ll be back in two weeks with one of those projects.

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