Margaret Bourke-White Museum Exhibition Process

Andrea Benatar
Oct 24, 2019 · 19 min read

Design prompt: Create a temporary (3–4 week) exhibition featuring an artist (or issue*) currently on exhibit. The client wants at least one piece of the artist’s work to be on display, but they also want to use digital technology to enhance the visitor’s experience in ways they are not currently doing. Consider how technology can augment content, increase learning and/or make the museum experience more interactive.

Step 1: Visiting the Miller Gallery and the Carnegie Museum of Art

Upon receiving our design prompt, we immediately headed over to the Miller Gallery to see the space, measure it, and take photos. Being in the physical space actually really helped me to envision what my exhibit would look and feel like. Though we could look at a floor plan or even have a mental model of how the space is laid out, I think it would’ve been very easy to get carried away with adding more and more “stuff” and disregard the amount of space we actually have to work in. Thus, I felt as if visiting the space helped me to ground my initial ideas right off the bat.

After getting a feel for the space in which our exhibit would reside, the next step was deciding what I would want to design the exhibit about.

Thus, I went to the Carnegie Museum of Art and did a thorough walk-through to see if any artists called my attention.

I found several compelling pieces, and I was initially very drawn to the work of documentary photographer, Charles “Teenie” Harris. I documented few other artists (see below) that I found interesting but as a photographer, I have always been most naturally drawn to photography.

However, after I left the museum and began researching Teenie Harris’s work, I found that while his images and subject matter alike were both very influential, they might not lend themselves to very much interaction or variety within an exhibit. His photographs are very much stand-alone images and the somewhat repetitive nature of them made it difficult for me to imagine an immersive experience I could create around them.

Upon looking back at my notes and images from the museum, I decided to revisit a different documentary photographer whose name I had written down- Margaret Bourke White. I did not document the images she had on display at CMOA and quite frankly, the two images that were there had not initially caught my attention very much. It wasn’t until I began researching her that I became very interested in her personal story as well as the story she told through images.

Unlike Teenie Harris who shot in Pittsburgh the majority of his life and focused on the portrayal of African Americans throughout all of his photography, Margaret Bourke White worked on documenting a wide variety of subjects in many different locations and across several monumental events in history. She was not only the first known female photojournalist, but she was also the first photographer ever allowed to document Soviet industry during the time of communism. White then proceeded to take photo document the Great Depression, World War II, India-Pakistan conflicts, and much more. This wide range of material to work with made it easier for me to envision a space and an experience surrounding her work.

Below I included some of White’s pieces that were most impactful for me upon first glance.

Reflection: Planning out the course schedule

Based on the course schedule, I mapped out my personal goals for this project as follows:

10/24- Choose artist, explore initial ideas in sketchbook

10/29- Develop floor plan, moodboard, and storyboard, and consider where the interactions are taking place in space.

10/31- Start applying ideas in sketches to the physical model and consider the movement through space. Before then, I would also like to fully flesh out my interactions so that I can maximize the time I have to prototype them.

11/05- Decide on a specific “flow” through the space and thoroughly develop visual language to use throughout the exhibit. Work through any issues that persist with interactions before beginning to prototype them.

11/07- Finalize wall content and finish prototyping the interactions (at least a draft); consider how to work through different problems that might come up with each interaction (multiple people doing them at once, people moving in the opposite direction, etc). Additionally, work on perfecting the craft of the physical model.

11/12- Have a semi- final draft of all materials (physical model, elevation views, sketch up, and prototyped interactions) so that final edits can be made before the presentation.

11/14- Final presentation!

Step 2: Initial Brainstorm, Floor Plan, and Storyboarding

As I delved deeper into Margaret Bourke- White’s work and began brainstorming how I might want to shape the visitor’s experience, I started to jot down what I felt was most formative in White’s photography and what I wanted the visitor to leave with. I narrowed it down to a few themes:

  1. Bourke-White’s wide range of impactful subject matter (having to do a lot with the places she travelled to and the monumental events occurring at the time). Along with this, I also wanted to emphasize the emotive power of her photographs.
  2. Her sense of fearlessness and risk-taking across all of her photography, highlighting what it meant for her to photograph in the social conditions of the time, as well as the physical risks she took to capture a lot of her photos (such as her aerial shots of New York City).
  3. Her masterful and unique (for the time) technical approaches to photography. More specifically, I was looking at her use of repetition, skewed angles, and cropping to create powerful images.

After narrowing down my focus slightly, I began sketching out some ideas for how to visually represent these themes in my exhibit, as well as determining how I might make the experience of the exhibit interactive without pulling the focus too far away from the photography.

As seen through these initial sketches and notes, I was exploring how I might break up, or categorize, the content and the photographs in a meaningful and sensical way, as well as determining how the physical space might aid this flow of content. Thus, I began adding a few walls and creating a more set direction for the visitor to travel in, in order to create more of a narrative as you walk through the exhibit.
Here, I began putting all of these scattered ideas together, considering the order of the content and the placement within specific walls. I also pinpointed three interactions that I might want to have, mixing more digital and analog approaches to keep the viewer engaged.

In considering the main themes I wanted to highlight in Bourke-White’s work, the three interactions I was thinking about at this stage were as follows:

  1. Some sort of interactive digital timeline, in which the visitor could explore White’s work in a more chronological order while creating more of an element of discovery along the way.
  2. A small accordion fold brochure that visitors would get at the start of the exhibit (each one with a different Bourke White image at the back) that they would then hang up on a wall towards the end of the exhibit (a “wall of fame”) to emphasize the immense collection of images Bourke-White took throughout her career.
  3. An immersive experience that could simulate the risks that White took in many of her photographs. For example, the visitor could walk into a small room simulating White standing at the top of the Chrysler building through both motion, images, and sounds.

I also wanted to try prototyping what the accordion brochure might look like so I made a few quick mock-up to show the scale and format.

Having sketched some of these ideas out, I was able to create the storyboard and moodboard much more seamlessly than if I had just jumped straight into this stage.

Below is the moodboard I created based upon some of the visual language I had been playing around with in my sketches, as well as a cohesive color scheme and design that I felt would fit well with Bourke-White’s style and would display her work in a very clear and clean way.

Utilizing the moodboard and my initial sketches, I made this rough storyboard (see below) to synthesize all of the ideas that were pretty scattered in my notes.

Simultaneously, we also began developing more technical floor plans and elevation views using Illustrator CAD tools that could serve as the starting point for creating our final 3D model and digital renderings.

Step 3: Determining Flow

Upon getting feedback on my moodboard and initial plan for the flow and interactive elements of the exhibit, Daphne brought up a good point on the last interaction I was planning. Initially I wanted to have the visitor go through an immersive experience at the end of the exhibit that would mimic the experience of taking Bourke-White’s aerial shots of NYC. However, what Daphne mentioned that I hadn’t really considered at this point was that this experience might be more valuable for the visitor at an earlier point, so that they can be thinking about her risk-taking as they move through the exhibit rather than at the very end.

Thus, I edited my floor plan to take into account this spatial shift.

After having done so, I created an initial Parti Diagram that would broadly categorize the sections of the exhibit and indicate the ideal way of moving through it.

Step 4: Practicing Prototyping with Little Bits

At the same time, in studio we played around with Little Bits to see how we might eventually use them to prototype our digital interactions.

(see the full Little Bits experimentation here: https://medium.com/@abenatar/hybrid-environments-little-bits-prototyping-3cd5c25499fb?source=friends_link&sk=2b27726a5ac650880dc9f71e3e607ed9)

Reflection: Hybrid Spaces

Thinking about how digital and physical interactions can come together to create an experience within a space is very interesting to me. As we saw in the Local Projects Ted Talk, we can see these hybrid spaces coming into play in several highly technological museum exhibits, store pop-ups, and so on. However, I have also noticed the use of hybrid environments for very practical and much less glamorous purposes. For example, airports have been becoming increasingly more hybrid and more interactive in order to maximize efficiency and traffic flow for passengers and employees. Specifically within airport security, digital interaction in services such as Global Entry has begun to eliminate the need for long lines and person-to-person interaction when passing through security checkpoints.

I would say that in spaces that require such a specific and efficient flow, the incorporation of technology has definitely helped to make traveling more seamless, and it could still be taken much further to continue improving a naturally stressful environment like an airport.

Step 4: Producing Content and Revised Storyboarding

In starting to build the physical model, the first step involved utilizing the floor plan dimensions and applying them to the scale we were working in. After making the base model and adding the walls I had in my floor plan, I noticed a lot of issues with the measurements and a lot of inconsistencies in spacing (especially with the added walls) that I felt were going to be important to revisit closer to the final model.

However, for the time being, my main priority was actually physicalizing some of the ideas I had for the space in order to get a better idea for what it would actually feel like to walk through the exhibit.

In order to create content to scale and be able to see the walls side by side, I used Photoshop art-boards labeled accordingly to the floor plan. While I was creating the content for the walls, the main things I was thinking of were how to communicate the most relevant themes in Margaret Bourke White’s work without taking away from the photographs themselves but still involving the visitor along the way. While I wanted to keep the typographic design elements relatively simple so that her photographs could speak for themselves (often an almost mural-like form), I was also attempting to develop a consistent visual language for the exhibit that would help lead the viewer through the different themes I was highlighting. I also tried to be very purposeful with the images I was choosing to display, having a sort of contrast between her very impactful documentary photography in the first half of the exhibit and then moving into some of the risks she took in making the photographs in the latter half.

After putting up my content on my (very rough) first draft, I was able to get a better feel for the walls in relationship to the viewer as well as in relationship to other walls.

In addition, I also went a little deeper on my storyboards for two of the interactions I was still fleshing out.

The first interaction (top row) was the interactive map, in which the visitor can trace White’s footsteps across the world (literally) and using sensor technology, see the relevant images to the country on which they’re standing. With this interaction, some of the issues I was trying to work through were how the viewer might see a slideshow of images (whether that be on a timer, or requiring physical touch or motion), as well as what happens when multiple people stand on the map at once. The solution I came up with for the time being was that the projection could show up to four images at once and maybe even create a hierarchy to showcase which locations were most significant in her career. However, I felt as if this would still need more workshopping to account for possible human error.

The second interaction (bottom row) was that of the immersive room in which the viewer could feel the sensation of standing above NYC (as Bourke-White did to achieve many of her aerial shots). While discussing this idea with Peter, he brought up an interesting point which was that of having a “space” or time in between the reality of the exhibit and the “ledge” in order to give the visitor time to transition and really be immersed in this alternate reality. Something he brought up as a reference point was a room at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History that mimicked an elevator moving through the layers of the Earth. Thus, I adapted a similar idea for this interaction, in which the viewer first has to enter through an elevator that would take them up to the ledge and the video would simulate physically walking onto the ledge so that there is a period of time for the visitor to adapt and immerse themselves in this room.

Step 5: Storyboarding with VR and Initial Modeling

The next step in developing the interactions for my exhibit was attempting to storyboard them within the actual space. For this, we used the Gravity Sketch app in the Oculus Quest and did a quick sketch of how the interactions might look and feel to scale.

Unfortunately, due to a lack of familiarity with the tools in Gravity Sketch, the storyboard ended up pretty simple, but it was still useful for me to imagine how these interactions might look while walking around them.

We also began modeling our physical space using SketchUp (see below).

While doing so, I noticed a couple of slight issues with the flow of the exhibit that I went back to fix in the floor plan and physical model. The main issue I had to tackle was the placement of the attendant (and their chair/desk). With the initial wall I had closing off one end of the exhibit, the space became really crammed around the elevator, likely causing more collisions and traffic. Thus, I took out the wall and added a desk and chair for the assistant in the leftmost corner so that they would be able to see the entrance but also provide any additional information on the “real” exhibit (CMOA) as people are exiting.

At the same time, I was also in the process of developing the interactive aspect of the visitor obtaining additional information. Working off of the initial idea I had with the accordion fold brochures pinned up to create a “wall of fame”, I wanted to reverse it so that the visitor would instead see an entire wall full of thumbnails of White’s images and upon tapping their favorite, a postcard of the image would drop down (almost like a vending machine) with additional information on the back. This way, the wall itself would emphasize the mass and variety of White’s photography, while giving the visitor a small piece of the exhibit to take with them.

Apart from giving the desk attendant a bit more room to breathe (right), I also explored the possibility of adding one of White’s more abstract aerial views to the vestibule to create an interesting pattern upon entrance.

Another concern of mine was how I would actually prototype some of these complicated interactions to properly communicate the experience. Thus, I began experimenting with a quick stop motion to show the “elevator” interaction.

Reflection: Designer’s Role

When working on a project that is so dependent on a physical space, it is really interesting to consider what part of the spatial design is up to the designer versus the architect. In simplest terms, I would say that the role of the designer is to develop the experience of the person walking through the space as holistically as possible, whereas the architect’s role is to design the platform for this experience to occur. The architect has to be much more concerned with the practical implications of the space, including the support of the building, the dimensions of the walls and so on. On the other hand, the designer is more concerned with the way that artifacts and visuals can be incorporated into the space to create a specific experience. In terms of the interior aesthetics, I would say the division between designers and architects becomes a bit more blurry. In most cases, aesthetic decisions regarding the interior of the space are probably a result of communication between designers and architects, once again with the architect considering the feasibility of the feature.

Step 6: Refining

After getting some pretty in depth feedback from both Peter and Daphne, I was able to revisit my interactions with a bit more clarity. More specifically, Peter helped me to flesh out the second interaction in my exhibit in which the viewer can experience taking one of Bourke-White’s aerial shots. While I had been kind of stumped trying to figure out all of the layers of a complex interaction in which a single room would simulate an elevator approaching the ledge of a building, I began to realize that I had been overthinking it. While discussing this with Peter, I was able to take a few steps backwards and really reconsider: what did I want this interaction to create for the visitors? And the answer was actually very simple. I wanted the viewers to experience what Bourke- White might’ve felt while taking photographs in these exhilarating but also scary situations. Thus, I realized that the entire elevator interaction was taking away from the photographic aspect of it and that the interaction as a whole could really be simplified down to the visitor actually looking through a camera viewfinder to explore scenes that she might’ve seen.

After making this adjustment to the second interaction, I went back to drawing a quick storyboard to fully envision what it would look like.

With the new revision, the interaction would pretty much be as follows: In having two rooms (as opposed to one), the visitor would be able to see through the viewfinder of an old camera on a tripod- similar to what Bourke- White would’ve used in the early twentieth century- and look into the next room, which would have a 360 degree projection of an aerial view. In turn, the curtains the visitor initially goes through would have a sensor that triggers a different image to appear whenever they are opened or closed. This way, each individual that goes through this room would see a different projected image, thus creating a more personalized and unique experience.

Having figured out some of the specifics, I also created a physical prototype of this to incorporate into my model.

In order to mimic what the viewer might see while looking through the viewfinder, I created two very simple mock-ups (see below).

In terms of the first interaction (interactive map), I also began prototyping using little bits to show how a sensor would trigger a projected image while standing at different points on the map. My initial prototype utilized a light sensor (which I would cover with my finger) connected to an LED box that would light up the image to symbolize the image appearing on the wall.

However, after discussing this with Daphne, she mentioned that the prototype could be a bit clearer in terms of representing the image appearing on the wall rather than merely being lit up. Thus, in my second iteration I flipped the image so that it would only appear when the LED light was on. Additionally, I changed the sensor to be a pressure sensor so that the figure could actually step on it to trigger the light rather than me doing so manually.

The last interaction I had to finish workshopping was the end of the exhibit. As visitors leave the exhibit, I wanted to give them the chance to take a little bit of the exhibit home with them as well as hopefully direct them to see more of Bourke-White’s work at the Carnegie Museum of Art. The visitor would see a wall of thumbnails of her images on their way out and upon tapping on their favorite, a postcard would be released into a small box (kind of like a vending machine) with the image they picked along with additional information on the back (see below).

Step 7: Putting it All Together

After really considering all of the separate component and details of my exhibit and the interactions within it, I was able to finalize the physical model, the SketchUp model, and create higher fidelity visualizations and storyboards to explain anything that might be a bit unclear.

Below are the final visualizations I chose to include in my presentation (in order of how you would encounter them in the exhibit).

I then utilized these visualizations to create more in depth storyboards on the two main interactions for further explanation.

Finally, I worked on putting all of the elements together in a cohesive physical model that could provide a more tangible representation of the exhibit.

Self- Reflection:

While it sounds like a very simplistic answer, I would say that ultimately working towards creating something I am proud of is one of the main factors that keeps me motivated. As someone who does not accept defeat very easily (for better and for worse), I cannot stop working towards an idea until I can see what I had been envisioning before my eyes. In a project as large scale as this one, this took on a less literal meaning. While I would obviously not get to see the full “product” in front of me, I was able to see a collection of artifacts (tangible and digital) that could come together to form more or less what I had imagined, which was truly very rewarding for me at the end.

More importantly, though, I tend to be motivated by finding the part of the work that inspires me as well as the part that challenges me (they tend to be the same thing). In this project, the artist I chose was already very inspiring to me as an amateur photographer, so the challenge was creating an experience to highlight her significance and share her work with a wider audience, but it was also was continuously motivated me to see how far I could push my ideas.

I did notice in this project that I get easily distracted when trying to do too many things at once. Often in trying to balance different elements, I would find myself wasting time on insignificant details pertaining to one component while neglecting others. For example, I saw this occurring a lot while developing the content for the walls of the exhibit, where I would get distracted by small details and lose sight of the broader, spatial context that the visuals would exist in. That being said, I was able to catch myself doing this and create a more seamless workflow approaching the end of the project.

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