Girlhood (It’s Complicated)

Read Time: 4 minutes

In celebration of Women’s History Month, SEGD sat down with Tracy Revis, Elizabeth Eubank and Jeff Howard of Howard + Revis Design to talk about Girlhood (It’s Complicated), the Smithsonian’s recently opened exhibition at the National Museum of American History.

Sugar and spice and everything nice? I don’t think so. Girls are made of strong stuff!

That’s the assertion of Girlhood (It’s Complicated), the new exhibition at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, DC.

The idea of “girlhood” and what girls and young women can achieve has slowly evolved in the United States. The Smithsonian’s exhibition provides historic context to modern-day achievements—such as Amanda Gorman‘s naming as National Youth Poet Laureate or Naomi Wadler’s speech at the March for Our Lives Rally —and explores the contributions of girls and young women to American society in the past, a subject which has often been overlooked.

SEGD member firm Howard + Revis Design (H+R) collaborated with Smithsonian curators to create Girlhood which will travel to other venues, post-COVID.

“The curators were very strong in bringing out the voices of young women,” says Tracy Revis, H+R’s Principal and Senior Designer. “The intention of the show is to bring out the spirit of young women who have either been overlooked or  ‘talked at.’”

The curators organized Girlhood into five sections—news and politics, education, work, wellness, and fashion—each presenting a unique historical view of the impact of American girls and young women within these areas. A sixth section looks at figures who were “just girls” when they contributed to American culture in major ways, including Hellen Keller and Dominique Dawes.

H+R’s overarching design concept was inspired by the curator’s focus on ‘zines, homemade magazines typically created with clipped content and then photocopied in small batches.

“The idea is that each section of the exhibit is like the section of a  girls’ magazine,” explains Revis. “So, each area is defined by a pad of color that goes onto the wall; conceptually, that wall is the page, and all the artifacts and all the exhibit components are a magazine layout organized on the page.”

To add life to the assemblage and bind all these “pages” into a cohesive whole, H+R commissioned Brooklyn artist Krystal Quiles to illustrate the subject matter of each gallery. H+R then fused her art of young women with other exhibit graphics to become signature murals within the different sections.

“I think it’s safe to say that Girlhood was one of the best collaborative experiences at the firm in terms of everybody having a real impact on what finally came into being,” says Jeff Howard, H+R’s Principal and Senior Designer. “I would applaud Krystal Quiles, who did the custom illustrations. For a young artist, she delivered a remarkable package; she really knocked it out of the park.”

“Quiles’ work has come to define the show and helped to inform the typographic treatments that Nina Reck, our Creative Director did,” says Elizabeth Eubank, H+R’s Director of Exhibit Development. “Krystal really shaped the face—young girls’ faces—of the entire exhibit.”

“And I’d like to credit Nina and her graphic design prowess and what she called a ‘sassy palette,’” adds Howard. “The colors are really lively, and Krystal picked up on those color schemes quite well. It’s quite a vibrant show for NMAH.”

And perhaps, a more edgy show for NMAH, too. Throughout the exhibition, the curators (many of whom were once girls) added speech bubbles and thought bubbles with their own very personal connections to the content.

“This idea of more casual-speak is very much a part of the zine aesthetic,” says Revis.

Another challenge that informed the design of Girlhood was the Smithsonian’s requirement that the exhibition be designed for travel. This is unusual for the Smithsonian, since most of its temporary or special exhibitions are designed for their own specific venues, but not for travel.

“This is the first time the Smithsonian has ever done an exhibit like this, designing the gallery show with an eye toward the traveling version,” says Eubank. “We needed to look ahead to travel considerations while also making a polished exhibit that feels permanent. Because this one was built from the start knowing it would go on the road, that sort of attention to modularity was a guiding design principle from the start.”

But sending Girlhood out on the road won’t happen for perhaps three more years. It will first take pride of place inside the National Museum of American History, where it opened just this past October—an opening that was delayed because of COVID.

“(Girlhood) was supposed to open in late summer 2020, and then COVID  hit, and the (Smithsonian) museums closed, so it was an odd kind of situation,” says Revis. “But the museum did a really, really spirited opening event. It was a virtual event (produced by SEGD 2021 XLAB Speaker Svetlana Legetic), and it included lots of young female artists, musicians and performers. It was really a celebration of young female-hood.”

So, here’s to a bright future where young girls are empowered to shine!