Sometimes when firms collaborate, exhibition design magic happens. Last year, Gallagher & Associates teamed up with Bluecadet to put a fresh spin on the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum exhibitions in Grand Rapids, Mich.
The triangular, 44,000-square-foot Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library and Museum was purpose-built in 1981 in Grand Rapids, Mich. The museum space occupies 18,000 square feet on the second floor, which is accessible by the grand staircase or elevator. The last time the main exhibits were redesigned was in 1997, thanks to expanded funding from the Gerald R. Ford Foundation.
The permanent collection of the museum contains approximately 20,000 artifacts from the lives and careers of President and Mrs. Ford, including campaign materials, gifts from heads of state, clothing, even Boy Scouts accoutrements. A piece of the Berlin Wall sits in the lobby, dedicated by Ford himself in 1991. Temporary exhibits have included artifacts and documents from the Presidential libraries system, the National Archives and the Smithsonian Institution, among others.
The Gerald R. Ford Foundation wanted to update the nearly 20-year-old exhibits, the story line of the museum, the retail space and the lobby and add a new wing for a student learning center. Many of the artifacts needed to be rotated; the casework and lighting were tired and the technology was dated. So they brought in the Gallagher & Associates design team, who had designed several Presidential Library/Museum combos, including the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum in Simi Valley, Calif., and the LBJ Presidential Library and Museum in Austin, Texas.
Presidential museums fall under the requirements of both their associated Foundations and the National Archives, which have strict guidelines for the preservation and handling of collections. The G&A team was to work within the guidelines in concert with Museum and Library staff, but was ultimately responsible for the strategic and tactical aspects of the experiential design. The first step for the G&A team was to conduct a design research and conceptual workshop to establish a strong concept and strategic master plan.
During the research phase, the biggest insight that surfaced was that the focus of the museum should be centered on President Ford’s character traits. “We worked with the client team to identify and organize the former president’s key character traits and then developed a chrono-thematic approach to the structure of the visitor experience in which these traits became the key content theme and thread,” remarked Patrick Gallagher, president of Gallagher & Associates, who oversaw the design work.
Another key takeaway from the workshop: the strictly linear visitor flow needed to change to something more user-friendly. A hub and spoke configuration was chosen. The layered combination of the gallery layout with thematic and chronological content organization is one that the Gallagher team believes in and plans to continue to develop because they have found that audiences increasingly want engaging, flexible, self-authored experiences.
To support that goal, G&A brought in a frequent collaborator, Philadelphia-based firm Bluecadet, to create interactive media to enhance the exhibition narrative and provide additional opportunities for visitors to actively explore the museum’s collection. The Bluecadet team worked closely with the Gallagher team from early on, presenting suggestions for interactive and narrative possibilities.
The building, designed by Marvin DeWinter Associates, has an unusual ceiling. The articulated roof truss system is a visually leaden, dominant feature of the building and created a number of limitations, from the implementation of the HVAC system to the ability to put up full-height demising walls. This very 1970s feature was the first and greatest challenge for the design team.
To prevent the ceiling from overwhelming the exhibits, the team implemented several clever solutions. Lighting was designed around the geometry of the roof trusses, affecting the position of exhibits and special attention was paid to the acoustic treatment of the theater and interactive experiences to create intimate “sound zones.”
The exhibition’s thematic focus on the 38th president’s character traits provides a personal way for visitors to connect with the content and the subject himself. The physical design and finishes of each exhibit gallery reflect the stages of President Ford’s life and reinforce the key content themes throughout. Gallagher describes the integration of the themes: “The focal group of character traits evolves as visitors move through the museum and find them woven into the label copy, interactive experiences, and layered into the surrounding graphic surfaces.”
The experience begins when visitors are initially drawn into the centrally-located orientation theater, which is surrounded by a high-level interactive timeline. From there, the visitors can pilot their own museum experience, following the chrono-thematic flow gallery by gallery, or seek out only the content that is most appealing to them personally.
The 20 new interactive experiences installed throughout the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum exhibits significantly contribute to the ability of museum-goers to personalize their visit. The Bluecadet team developed 16 unique interactives for the Museum, powered by eight custom applications, developing a simple and consistent interface to increase ease of use throughout. Visitors only have to learn the interaction pattern once to use all of the stations, unlike most exhibits with multiple interactives, which are all completely novel to use.
The interactives take a deep dive into stories and events that influenced the personal life and career of President Ford, from a user-controlled 3-D fly-through of the White House with details from the Ford Administration’s time there, to addressing international crises and even plating a State Dinner—a surprisingly difficult diplomatic task. Visitors can view archival testimony from the Warren Commission and campaign footage and explore historic bills passed during Ford’s presidency.
Bluecadet embedded a “talkback” feature in each of the programs, allowing museum-goers to give feedback via poll and express their opinions on the content, or how they would have responded to different scenarios. Goldblum explains the idea: “When people look back on any presidency, there’s a lot of what they call Monday morning quarterbacking—looking back and thinking they would have made decisions differently if it were their call in various scenarios.” The team queued up oppositional information in order to ask visitors to hypothetically place themselves into President Ford’s shoes. Then the app reveals the historical facts, so visitors can compare their reasoning to Ford’s. The feedback from users is then aggregated and presented to the next user.
This suite of interactives, including a touch table, required an enormous amount of content from the Museum be edited and added to the applications. The Bluecadet team, including their two full-time researchers, worked closely with the museum historians and the G&A team to structure the assets to enhance the narrative of the exhibition and seamlessly integrate with its graphic language. “The materials in the interactives tell a complex and nuanced story. Our hope is that today’s visitor appreciates different perspectives and considers how the political climate has changed from Ford’s time to today,” remarks Josh Goldblum, founder of Bluecadet.
The ultimate success of the project and return on investment for the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum is in the enhanced storytelling of the renewed exhibitions illuminating Ford’s personality traits and the inclusion of contemporary views of the lasting legacy of the Ford family. The experience is more open, honest and has transformed into a richer experience that encourages a personal connection to Ford’s leadership.
“The Museum is truly a gift to the community and the young people who come to learn about President Ford, his personal traits that defined his character, and the significance of the office of the President on culture and society,” remarks Greg Matty, Gallagher & Associates’ lead designer on the project.
This video from the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum shows an overview of the changes and exhibition highlights.
Project Name: Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library & Museum
Client: Gerald Ford Presidential Foundation
Location: Grand Rapids, Michigan
Open Date: June 6, 2016
Project Area: 18,000 sq. Ft.
Graphics Budget: $2,000,000 ($477,000 interactives)
Overall Budget: $5,000,000
Wayfinding Design: Gallagher & Associates
Exhibition Design: Gallagher & Associates
Interactive Experience Design: Gallagher & Associates, Blue Cadet
Placemaking and Identity Design: Gallagher & Associates
Architect: Fishbeck Thompson Carr & Huber
Landscape Architect: Viridis Design Group
Planning: Gallagher & Associates, Fishbeck Thompson Carr & Huber
Digital Integration: Bowen Techovation
Photos: Gallagher & Associates, Dan King