March 14th, 2017
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that an exhibit exploring the life and work of one of America’s foremost novelists would contain a lot of books. That was the case with American Bittersweet: The Life & Writing of Willa Cather. Cather published twelve novels over the course of her lifetime, as well as collections of short stories, essays, and poems. Our challenge was to give these first editions of Cather’s work a place of primary importance in the exhibit, all while connecting the novels to Cather’s story.
We knew visitors would want to get close to the books, to see these unique artifacts up close. We also knew the books were inextricably linked to Cather’s life and experience, and would be surrounded by significant amounts of additional interpretation.
The problem was that the solutions we found in other exhibits didn’t have the combination of accessibility, interpretive space, and robust build required for this job. So we came up with our own solution. That’s how the pedestal rail was born.
Why, we asked, did so many interpretive solutions divorce artifacts from their supporting interpretation? Why couldn’t a label rail and pedestal live side by side? Or better yet, why couldn’t they just be the same thing?
So we started sketching. We knew from the outset that simply bolting a label rail onto a pedestal wasn’t going to cut it. We needed a more elegant solution. So we drew up concepts where a label embraced the pedestal, putting interpretation and artifacts in direct conversation with one another.
The idea quickly moved from sketch to prototype. Our fabricators took the initial idea and made it museum-worthy. We asked: Would our design stand up to years of hard use? Would it take the touch of thousands of hands? Would it keep the artifact safe? Could it tell the stories it needed to tell?
With a prototype in place and client sign-off secured, we set about refining the idea. What was once a box with a top-down view became a five-sided, slanted vitrine. Visitors would be able to see the backs of the rails as well as the front, so all aspects of the design had to be beautiful as well as durable. The end result is a simple, beautiful interpretive system that marries interpretation and artifact. First editions of My Ántonia and Death Comes for the Archbishop are now in direct conversation with the aspects of Cather’s life and experience that contributed to their creation.
The idea was so successful that we’re now using pedestal rails in other exhibits. We’ve also made pedestal rails available to everyone via Upland Exhibit Systems, our brand of readymade museum components and solutions. Be sure to check them out; maybe pedestal rails are the right fit for your next exhibit!
Thanks for reading. If you’re curious to learn more about our exhibit design process, want to start a conversation about the interpretive challenges you’re facing at your organization, or just want to chat, don’t hesitate to contact us.