American Enterprise – designing an exhibition at the National Museum of American History that will last two decades

American Enterprise at the National Museum of American History (Smithsonian Institution) in Washington DC is a dynamic exhibition that features objects, graphics and interactive experiences to examine how the US moved from a small dependent nation to one of the world’s most vibrant and trend-setting economies

For an exhibition such as American Enterprise, which opened a year ago and is intended to last and remain fresh for 20 years information and objects were critical components of the exhibition design strategy. Along with changes in information-delivery technology and coupled with in excess of four million visitors to the museum each year, thoroughness of design, robustness of execution, and above all maintainability were essential.

The major objective was to mount an exhibition on business history at the museum, something that had not been done before at the museum and had seldom been attempted elsewhere. The big message of the exhibition is that American business practices had commonality over time and is in a state of constant change. “The means used to illustrate this focused on personalising a national story,” said Stevan Fisher, a Senior Designer, at National Museum of American History.”

Four economic eras were selected: Merchant, Manufacturing, Consumer & Global—spanning colonial to modern times, each dealing with four main issues: Innovation, Competition, Opportunity and the Common Good. These were flanked, intellectually and physically, with a timeline of business advertising and a timeline of business innovators. “Effort was put in to providing enough physical and intellectual interaction to engage with the ideas and objects on display, and the designers successfully met those goals, as shown by the popularity of the exhibition and our audience’s engagement with it,” says Fisher.

Another key factor was budgeting, which Fisher says goes far beyond the initial installation. “Good and thoughtful design, planned maintenance and support (for both hardware and objects), affiliated public programmes, social media and web presence, as well as upgrades and updates come into play with long-term exhibitions, and all need dedicated funding and/or ongoing fund raising. Proper budgets reflect these realities,” he says.

During the design process Fisher says the museum does both formal and informal review and testing of the messages, general ideas, and even specific interactive treatments with the general audience on the museum floor. These tests are facilitated with museum staff from the education and public programmes, technical support staff, volunteers, curators, and contractors. “Also, our editor works with the curators and outside reviewers to make sure that the proper language is used to meet the target audience (American Enterprise was written to the 10th-grade level), and sample text and labels are prepared to test legibility and accessibility,” says Fisher. “Technological and production developments over the last decade have lead to systems for content delivery that both augment and expand on traditional methods of getting ideas across to our visitors.”

Some of the advances in museum design Fisher mentions that were employed in American Enterprise were; the use of LED lamps and fixtures, which improve the life-cycle and infrastructure costs; advances in fiber-optics and development of low-voltage LED panels for labels, which have improved the museum’s ability to effectively and safely display even very sensitive objects; large-format digital graphics that have expanded the palette available for incorporating images; multi-panel and interactive video delivery; the use of low-reflectance glass, which has allowed a more intimate interaction with the objects, and creating spaces that break up flat surfaces and using integrated object bracketing as well as compact soundscapes to broaden the sensory experience.

Behind the design of the exhibition was Haley Sharpe Design (hsd) with an original brief to design a major new gallery exploring the history of business via innovation and enterprise in modern America. This 8,000 sq ft gallery focuses on business and innovation from the mid-1700s to the present. It traces the country’s development from a small, dependent agricultural nation to one of the world’s most vibrant economies and contains more than 600 artefacts, an advertising wall and capsule biographies of inventors, innovators and entrepreneurs.

“An important aspect of the brief was to develop multimedia and theatrical presentations of the content narratives and collections to engage a younger ‘teenage’ audience,” says hsd Director and lead designer on the project Jan Faulkner. “We also supported the museum with the production of visuals for fundraising and architectural liaison for the renovation of all the transitional and circulation spaces within that wing of the museum.”

On a practical level, says Faulkner, the collections were drawn from an array of material types and therefore had very varied display criteria. Many of these were light sensitive, which demanded careful consideration and specification of display case solutions, to manage environmental and security controls whilst maximising the visual and narrative impact for visitors. “So, our creative approach involved bringing the varied and eclectic collections alive through a mixed palate of media, and connecting them to a modern audience through engaging storytelling techniques in a cohesive and intuitive way that provided clear messages within an immersive and engaging environment,” says Faulkner.

To do this hsd collaborated with the curators to develop a narrative thread that weaves, through the collections to illustrate insightful and engaging themes within each of the gallery zones where they had to creatively display the more than 600 historic artefacts. “Given the volume of content material, we structured the communication hierarchy approach as simply as possible; separating each story without fracturing the overarching thematic structure of Opportunity, Innovation, Competition and Common Good.”

When it comes to exhibition design in the US more emphasis has been put on accessible, or universal design, for longer says Faulkner. Whereas in the UK there is a greater emphasis on integrating activity planning (programming) with exhibition design. “Overall the core tasks and outcomes are broadly similar,” he says. “Museum design is both an art and a science, and requires a whole array of factors to be systematically considered. Our main consideration is always creating the most appropriate and impactful experience for visitors through the creative display of collections. But other considerations include integration with architectural spaces, robustness and durability of media, social and learning outcomes, sustainable display infrastructure, and value for money.” Good exhibition design, says Faulkner, clearly communicates a subject or idea to audiences. Today he says audiences expect a seamless integration of digital media across all platforms – so projects succeed when this is achieved and also stand the test of time.