Some exhibitions require a very straightforward design, where the objects tell their own story. Then there are exhibitions where the objects, stories and design need to come together to tell a story greater than the sum of their parts. Beer Here: Brewing New York’s History is one such exhibition. With everything from farm equipment to poster advertisements needed to tell the story of beer’s rise, fall, and resurgence in New York. We spoke with Exhibition Designer Brianne Muscente about the challenges and surprises of designing the exhibition, plus her possible future designing bars!
This is a very unique exhibit, but generally how do you begin designing an exhibition space?
Generally when we start, there’s an overall idea the designers get in their heads about how it will look. Then we see how that shapes up once we start getting the content, and see where it connects.
So you don’t know all the objects that will be in the exhibition at the beginning of the process?
Sometimes the curator presents a checklist at the beginning and takes you through it, but with Beer Here the design process and the curatorial process happened at the same time, which made it a very interesting three months! We usually start with any general knowledge of the subject, whether it’s visuals or just storyboards. We start drawing inspiration from online research and books that connect to the exhibition. For this show, we had an idea that it would center around raw materials, in the sense that we were most interested in the ingredients and process of what it takes to make beer. So that’s been a driving force for us.
In the first section you have the ingredients, the tools, the old recipes. And you get that throughout with the patent models that go into some process of how beer gets made. This is about the materials. We did research about how bars looked: what do old taverns look like? what to modern taverns look like? what do porterhouses look like?
Was there a particular era you found yourself drawing from?
It was a complete mix, though there was one bar that stood out and sparked a lot of the design of raw wood. It was almost like a barn, it was just pine everywhere, nothing fancy, just bolts and wood. Time is also a big factor for us. Shows where we have a year for the design and development tend to be a little more environmental; the entire show gives off a specific look. But here on a short schedule, we think about what kind of material can go up quickly and deinstall quickly, but still look cohesive. We pulled the canvas in for the graphics and had the piping, because we wanted it to look like a place that makes beer, and a place where people have beer. With the bar, it was thinking about how to make it look like a place where people enjoy beer without making it look like a dive or a tavern. It’s all about subtle references that evoke the feel of a place where you would serve beer. That’s what I think the graffiti on the wall does–it feels like a bar, with graffiti on the bathroom stalls and carved into the table. It’s details like that we wanted to include. It’s bringing the old with the new. The seating was done more like a beer garden, because we wanted it to feel like a communal environment.
This exhibition features a lot of mixed media, and a lot of objects of completely different sizes. You have farm equipment and old coasters and a dress from the 1960s all in the same exhibition. How do you design a space around such different objects and make it look cohesive?
Mixed media shows like this are always an incredible challenge. There are so many things to consider, foremost of which how everything is going to look together. Everything has a different lighting or conservation requirement, some things need to be in controlled climates while others can be in the open, but you need to house everything. You have to think on your toes about what you can encapsulate everything in that will be consistent through seven galleries.
One of the fun things with many of these pieces is they’re generally household items or used in the field, and when you display them vertically or put them in a case, they become art. They’re no longer old stained coasters, they’re art pieces. It gives them a new life. It makes it look like a contemporary art exhibit rather than an exhibit of historical artifacts. And with the cans and bottles, you see the progression of it. You see how the design changed over the years.
One of my favorite items is the tool for forming the necks of bottles It’s great. To me, the “hands” that form the tops of the bottles look like werewolf claws. The way they’re displayed make them look so animalistic. Taking these things that had a very specific purpose, hanging them on the wall and almost making them a trophy, it gives them a different life. It changes the way people look at them.
Were there any materials here that you had never encountered, and had a hard time figuring out how to display?
The dress was a bit difficult. I’ve worked in fashion before, but it was all modern. That was a bit of a challenge, mainly to find a form and to figure out how it goes on. It was impossible! We were given a mannequin from FIT, with a waist of about 22 inches, and the dress was too small for that! And on top of that, we were putting it on wrong. The way the dress is made, it looks like what is the front should be the back, because there is a zipper up the front. It was handmade, and I think the idea is that if you’re a woman and dressing yourself, how are you going to get this on if the buttons and zippers are in the back? It’s a completely logical dress, and it took us forever to figure it out.
One of the big problems is that when you’re on a short timeline, you generally don’t get to become familiar with the objects. The curators do their best to describe the objects to us and get us as much information as possible, but sometimes it’s still a surprise when they come out of their packaging. One thing we had in mind when designing our casing was what kind of cases could fit the most things, of all different sizes, and still look coherent.
Do you have a favorite part of the exhibition?
I love the bar. If I ever own a bar, this is what I’d want it to feel like. I’ve even got my own iTunes playing, with stuff like the Arcade Fire and Mountain Goats. I also love the intro graphics that use the wood cutouts. And the tools. These big rusty sharp things, they just speak to me.