Making a Case (or Three) for Creating the United States

From the outset of planning for Creating the United States, the Museum team and our design partner, Fred Fisher and Partners, hoped to take a non-traditional approach to designing an exhibition of documents and objects usually displayed in small cases high off the ground. Due to the fragile nature of most of these items, we knew that light levels would have to be kept low. This low light combined with the need to lay the rare documents and objects back at an angle (positioning them upright would damage them) could potentially make it difficult for viewers to read or even see them clearly.

Our approach was to get the viewer as close as possible to the objects as we could and to create a color palette that would allow the eye to take in as much available light as possible by making the background “disappear.”

Initial concept design drawings by “FFP,” Fred Fisher and Partners. The cases are shallow so that visitors can get as close as possible to them without having to bend over a case.

Initial concept design drawings by “FFP,” Fred Fisher and Partners. The cases are shallow so that visitors can get as close as possible to them without having to bend over a case.

Once the case structure was decided upon, the (somewhat daunting) task of laying out the locations of each object began. Each object was color coded by lender, type (original, copy, or facsimile); light level required; and hierarchy.

Layout schematic.

Layout schematic.

Schematics are printed and placed into position in the casework.

Schematics are printed and placed into position in the casework.

 

Adjustments are made for a wide variety of reasons: curatorial narrative changes; matting and framing decisions; lighting requirements; and more.

Adjustments are made for a wide variety of reasons: curatorial narrative changes; matting and framing decisions; lighting requirements; and more.

Casework plans are drawn up… and sent to be fabricated.

Casework plans are drawn up… and sent to be fabricated.

Steel case armatures are delivered.

Steel case armatures are delivered.

As always, we start with an empty space. Remember that this is the same gallery where we installed Houdini: Art and Magic, Women Hold Up Half the Sky, and many other exhibitions.

As always, we start with an empty space. Remember that this is the same gallery where we installed Houdini: Art and Magic, Women Hold Up Half the Sky, and many other exhibitions.

Wooden cleats are installed to hold the steel armatures.

Wooden cleats are installed to hold the steel armatures.

While the cases are being constructed, our team builds the various pedestals and mounts for books and three-dimensional objects.

While the cases are being constructed, our team builds the various pedestals and mounts for books and three-dimensional objects.

The mounts are placed in the case.

More diagrams.

Placeholder objects help keep it organized.

The floors of each case are fabric-wrapped to allow air movement through each section.

The floors of each case are fabric-wrapped to allow air movement through each section.

Johnny Hirsch adds silica gel to the floor cavities.

In order to further protect the documents on view, the bottoms of the cases are built to contain silica gel. This gel absorbs moisture and helps our engineering department maintain the correct humidity and temperature levels inside the casework. Pictured above: Johnny Hirsch adds silica gel to the floor cavities.

The fabric-clad floors are then put into place.

The fabric-clad floors are then put into place.

We then place paper and cardboard mock-ups to be sure our spacing of the documents and objects is correct. It also helps us spot any potential problem areas in the transition from computer space to real space.

We then place paper and cardboard mock-ups to be sure our spacing of the documents and objects is correct. It also helps us spot any potential problem areas in the transition from computer space to real space.

Once everything looks right, the real things come in. Pictured above: Carlos Paz oversees the handling of the art objects.

Once everything looks right, the real things come in. Pictured above: Carlos Paz oversees the handling of the art objects.

Installation view of the Section 1 case: Creating the Declaration of Independence.

Installation view of the Section 1 gallery case titled: Creating the Declaration of Independence.

Come visit the gallery and stand face to face to treasured documents and artifacts. More about installing Creating the United States in future blog posts!

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Posted in Behind the Scenes, Democracy Matters, Design, Exhibitions, Museum.

About Tom Schirtz

Tom Schirtz is Head of Exhibition Design and Production at the Skirball. He’s also an artist, graphic designer, photographer, writer, Air Force Veteran, and onetime short order cook. As a printmaker and curator, he has worked with the likes of Richard Serra, Robert Rauschenberg, Roy Lichtenstein, and Ellsworth Kelly. His favorite memory of that period of his life is sharing zucchini with Alan Ginsberg (long story). Tom is smitten with the Southern California desert and considers a particular (secret) peak in Joshua Tree National Park his favorite place in the known universe.

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