Museums provide an exciting canvas for design-inclined historians. A lot of time and thought is put into providing a visually appealing, yet educational environment. For the Senator John Heinz History Center of Pittsburgh, PA, Michael A. Dubois, director of exhibitions and designer, relies on a strategic mix of artifacts and imagery to create a meaningful experience for museum goers.
The Heinz History Center is an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution and the largest history museum in PA. In addition to long-term exhibits, including the Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum, Heinz 57, Senator John Heinz: A Western Pennsylvania Legacy, and more, the museum also usually works in two large temporary exhibits per year.
Signage for standing and temporary exhibits is continuously updated and created. For jobs that don’t require intense installation, such as single piece boards, the museum utilizes its in-house 44-inch inkjet printer, a Canon U.S.A., Inc. imagePROGRAF iPF8300. For larger jobs, the museum works with Pittsburgh, PA-based Printscape.
“We do two large exhibits every year—large being anywhere from 7,000 to 10,000 square feet,” says Dubois. Depending on the exhibit, a variety of signage is produced, including covering a set of elevators that measure eight feet wide by nine feet tall. “The elevator graphics provide a nice use of what would otherwise be a large metal door. It’s at the end of a hallway that we call the Smithsonian Wing and it’s the main traveling exhibition space,” shares Dubois. He explains that the hallway itself is about 30 feet long and is usually adorned with vinyl graphics that are applied directly to the corridor’s wall.
Depicting an American Story
One of the museum’s current temporary exhibits, which debuted in Fall 2011 and remains until June 2012, highlights the story of the American Flag. Entitled, Stars & Stripes: An American Story, it details the stories of the people behind the more than 200 year history of the nation’s flag.
The Stars & Stripes exhibition spans 7,000 square feet and was developed from scratch by History Center staff in conjunction with noted national collector Dr. Peter Keim. A focal point of the exhibit is a rare fragment of the Star Spangled Banner, on loan from the Smithsonian. Additionally, the exhibit features rare fifth-edition sheet music of Francis Scott Key’s The Star Spangled Banner. To reinforce the emotional effect of the material to visitors, artifacts are surrounded with high-quality, high-impact graphics.
Planning for the Stars & Stripes exhibit began about two years ago. To pull together projects such as this, Dubois says the museum starts out with a story and then does concept work on how to tell it. “All of the elements come together to create the exhibit. Graphics are a big part of this. We try to use oversized graphics because at this point people can see many of these images online, so we try to give them a different experience then what they would get at home,” he notes.
The exhibit features more than a dozen large murals, which measure from eight to 36 feet wide and ten feet tall. “We’re an archive so we have an incredible image database,” shares Dubois. For displays, the museum scans images at high resolutions and manipulates them into files that can be made into oversized graphics. All file preparation work, including scanning, photo manipulation, and layout was handled by the museum and sent as a print-ready file to Printscape.
The exhibit is meant to tell the story of the nation’s flag and the way Americans gravitate towards it during key political events. “It’s a pretty emotional exhibit to a lot of people,” notes Dubois. “In order to put patrons in the setting, almost every gallery within the exhibit includes some type of large mural.”
He describes one focal, intimate gallery of the exhibit, which features the Star Spangled Banner fragment. “It’s a maybe an eight inch torn piece, but it’s in the middle of this 12-foot diameter room,” he explains. The walls of the gallery are covered on one side with a full wall mural of a painting depicting the bombardment of Fort McHenry. The opposing wall features another mural image of the Star Spangled Banner in Francis Scott Key’s hand. Dubois says that two interior wall murals—which scale about 30 feet on each side of the room—help make a visitor’s experience memorable. “You have the song, the original sheet music, a piece of the flag, and a huge mural surrounding you. The graphics help make the experience of seeing this piece of the flag memorable and allow visitors to understand the weight of that artifact,” he adds.
Dubois explains that the biggest difference between museum and commercial graphics is that materials, textures, and quality matter more. “It’s something that people are going to walk up right next to. The print quality and textures have to be there. That’s probably the biggest challenge,” he adds.
Museum graphics provide a unique application for digital print technologies. With improvements to scanning capabilities, print quality, and substrate compatibility, graphics are able to complement exhibit objects to the point where they become a large part of the experience. These technologies are now economically feasible so museums can benefit from the creative potential they provide.
The latest technology and creative thinking make it possible for museums, such as the Heinz History Center, to create high-impact exhibits that help to educate and elicit emotion. Graphics are a huge part of the ability to bring new life and meaning to historical images and objects preserved in museums around the world.
Click here to read part one of this exclusive online series, Making Your Way to Pompeii.