Celebrating 100 Years Exhibition

100 Years Young

Pentagram’s exhibition for The New York Public Library celebrates a special birthday for the landmark building it calls home.

The New York Public Library may be better known for Patience and Fortitude, the regal marble lions guarding the entrance to its main branch at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street, than it is for the 60 million artifacts it holds.  

So when it came time to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the magnificent Beaux Arts Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, the library charged Pentagram with creating a centennial exhibition that would celebrate the “People’s Palace” and the treasures it contains. For then-President and CEO Paul LeClerc, who led efforts to digitize the library’s holdings, it was important the exhibition not only pay homage to the beautiful building and its past, but also honor how the library is leading toward the future.

“LeClerc saw the importance of libraries as significant public places, and he recognized that even though the library collections are now accessible online, people will never stop wanting to go there and experience the space and the materials directly,” says Pentagram Partner Michael Gericke, who headed the design team for the exhibition named Celebrating 100 Years.

More than books

The library’s collections extend far beyond just books (although it does include a 1455 Gutenberg Bible and every telephone book ever published in the U.S.) to artifacts including the final draft of George Washington’s farewell address, Frankenstein author Mary Shelley’s hair, Virginia Woolf’s walking stick, the first Xerox, and Beethoven’s handwritten score for the Archduke Trio.

Curator Thomas Mellins chose 250 of the library’s most thought-provoking artifacts and worked with the Pentagram team to organize them for the exhibit. To highlight the sheer diversity of the collections, the team organized the content into four categories: Observation, including artifacts that document the natural world; Contemplation, focusing on objects that represent the search for meaning through reflection or spirituality; Creativity, including items from the library’s vast art collection; and Society, documenting political and social history.

Within the library’s D. Samuel and Jeane H. Gottesman Exhibition Hall, the sections flow into each other, inviting visitors to discover and make their own connections among the objects while exploring the library’s soaring ceilings and majestic archways. Artifacts are often juxtaposed to highlight the range of the collections: a letter from Christopher Columbus with an image from the Apollo 12 mission, or a drawing of a Palladian villa with an image of a New York apartment building.

Bridging past and future

Balancing the focus on the library’s past and future was a key challenge, says Gericke. “Our job was to celebrate the objects and this amazing and iconic building, at the same time, find a more contemporary and very welcoming way to illustrate the online archive and the fact that the library is embracing the future.”

Gericke’s team struck the balance by engaging with the architecture and integrating digital elements. A 15- by 14-foot animated projection wall dramatically showcases 800 images from the library’s Digital Gallery. In the Wachenheim Gallery, exhibit content focuses on the library’s history, and a media wall comprised of tiled LCD displays showcases its collections alongside long glass display cases housing 100 books written or researched in the library. An iPad app allows visitors to learn about each of the books on display and browse the Digital Gallery.

Back in the main exhibition hall, the Pentagram team also chose to leverage four dramatic marble archways, illuminating them with lightboxes that accentuate the architecture, serve as category headers for the exhibition, and visually encourage visitors to explore the exhibition.

“We noticed that previous exhibitions in the space tended to overlook the architecture,” says Don Bilodeau, Pentagram Associate Partner. “We viewed the building itself as just as important an artifact as any object in the exhibit, and we knew it would be a huge missed opportunity to not use these beautiful portals as a functioning element.”

Because of the building’s landmark status, nothing was allowed to touch the walls or marble arches. So Pentagram designed upside-down-U-shaped lightboxes made of MDF with midnight blue acrylic faces, and recruited fabricator Spaeth Design (New York) for construction. “The tolerances were very tight and we wanted to avoid any seams, so that was challenging,” says David Spaeth, President. “But we were able to pull it off thanks to some very exacting drawings from Pentagram.” Text was cut out of vinyl applied to the acrylic, and letter-shaped LED lights were positioned about 6 inches behind the acrylic, creating a warm glow.

Many happy returns

Pentagram also created a bold graphic identity for the exhibition, forming the number “100” from objects in the collection. The identity is featured on banners on the library’s façade, on freestanding displays in the landmarked Astor Hall entryway, and on huge silkscreened banners covering portions of the corridor between the exhibition space and Wachenheim Gallery. These banners feature an analog graphic version of a digital “100,” formed by the spines of books.

For the 100-years-young library, the exhibition was an unqualified success: originally planned for nine months, it was extended to 14 and attracted more than 800,000 visitors, breaking the record for a temporary exhibition in New York.

--By Pat Matson Knapp, eg magazine No. 02, 2012

Jury comments

"How do you make a century-old, stuffy, symmetrical, old-world space young, fun, interesting, and beautiful? Give it to the team that made this amazing integration of old and new and watch as thousands stream through in awe." 


Client:  New York Public Library

Location:  New York

Budget:  $280,000 (fabrication)

Project Area:  7,000 sq. ft.

Open Date:  May 2011

Design:  Pentagram Design

Design Team:  Michael Gericke art director/ designer, Don Bilodeau, Jed Skillins, Matt McInerney designers, Gillian DeSousa project manager

Fabrication:  Spaeth Design primary fabricator, P.E. Black Studios silk screen graphics

Consultants:  Thomas Mellins curator

Photos:  Peter Mauss/Esto

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