Charles Dickens: The Key to Character

Merit Award

To celebrate the 200th anniversary of Charles Dickens's birth, The New York Public Library wanted to present an informative, entertaining exhibition for all ages. Curator William Moeck culled documents and artifacts from the library's extensive collections.

The client requested a total transformation of the Wachenheim Gallery space, a tiny, 530- square-foot gallery ornately decorated in the Beaux Arts style. The client wanted to include interactive elements that would be both educational and engaging for younger visitors. With these guiding parameters, as well as the curator's central focus on Dickens’ myriad of wonderful characters and how they have been depicted in art, song, theater, and film, designers Ann Sappenfield and Roger Westerman Design LLC chose a “cabinet of curiosities” theme as a unifying motif. This approach addressed the need to conceal the gallery's ornate architecture as well as the challenge of presenting a wide variety and large quantity of material, especially for such a small room.

Cabinets of curiosities are meant to be rooms chock full of thought-provoking objects, the affinities between them discoverable through hidden keys or clues. The designers included objects in the cabinet that would visually illustrate the themes of Dickens's work and life. These objects, ranging from a small stuffed alligator to a Victorian mantel clock set at 8:40, each relate to a specific Dickens character (in this case David Copperfield and Miss Havisham). Cards designed for viewers to take home elaborated on the connections between curious objects and curious characters. The designers together planned every nook and cranny to accommodate the books and artifacts selected by the curator, and with the addition of these additional props, created a real wunderkammer, complete with a crackling fireplace and a working zoetrope.

Jury Comments: 

“The success of this exhibition lies in the resolution of the space, where a seamless integration of graphic messages supports and doesn't overwhelm the objects. The premise of a wunderkammer cleverly allows for many objects in a small exhibition space and feels appropriate for the content. There's a nice balance of interactives and surprise moments for all ages.”

“It is especially rewarding for the visitor to be convincingly transported through both the ambience of the wunderkammer installation and the consistency of the exhibition’s design language reflecting the setting. The use of a zoetrope, small inset vitrines, collectible cards, period graphic ornament, and silent film enhance the appreciation of Dickens and his time through a contextual learning experience.”

“The genteel feeling of this exhibit expertly captures the mood of an historical period without being overly sentimental. The contrast of the backdrop, black casework, and subtle lighting focuses the visitor’s attention on the delicate objects on display.”

Design Firm: 

Ann Sappenfield and Roger Westerman Design LLC

Client: 

The New York Public Library

Location City: 

New York, New York

Project Area: 

530 sq. ft

Open Date: 

September 2012

Photo Credits: 

Ann Sappenfield and Roger Westerman

Design Team: 

Ann Sappenfield (exhibition and graphic design), Roger Westerman (exhibition and physical design)

Consultants: 

Wm. Moeck (curator), Tim Cramer, CramerSound (AV design and integration)

Fabricators: 

New Project LLC (primary fabrication), Plug Digital (environmental graphics), Color X (environmental graphics), Visual Print Solutions, Inc. (brochures and cards), Heartland Scenic Studio (zoetrope fabrication)

Relevant Links: 

Upcoming SEGD Events

2017 Xlab Conference