Timeline Design

Marking Time

More than just a line on a wall, effective timelines pull visitors into the story and keep them there.

“…Time, time, time, is on my side. Yes it is.”

 --Mick Jagger

The most compelling timeline Matt Kirchman has ever experienced is divided into seconds, not decades. Fiona Pook’s favorite timeline covers eons. Kirchman’s pick uses a dense collection of media, artifacts, and text to draw the viewer into a single dramatic event. Pook’s employs broad graphic strokes, using only iconic photographs and dates to chronicle the passage of time.

Static or interactive, content rich or minimal, effective timelines use graphic hooks to draw visitors into their stories and, at best, are the appetizer for the exhibit to come.

The trick, says Jonathan Alger, is to resist the expected “line on the wall.”

“Our goal is to thwart as many expectations as we can,” says the partner in C&G Partners (New York). “You can’t just slap up a horizontal line and add pictures. That’s pretty tedious for people who actually have a choice about whether to look at it or not.”

No “books on the wall”

Museum and exhibition visitors aren’t interested in reading “a book on a wall,” Alger adds. For timeline designers, that means providing an instant visual reassurance that the investment they make in the timeline will be worth it. And it means using three-dimensionality to enliven the content.

“Timelines can potentially be deadly,” he explains. “You want to engage people, not remind them of lesson learning.” But C&G broke its own rule when it literally used “books on the wall” to create a unique timeline at New York University’s Jeffrey S. Gould Welcome Center. There, the university wanted a timeline to mark the official gateway for all visitors, guests, and alumni.

On a budget of only $20,000, C&G worked with NYU to identify content, then faced the challenge of what to do with more than 200 entries to be incorporated on a 34-ft.-long by 8-ft.-wide wall. The final design uses the metaphor of an exploding book flying down a hallway, interpreting NYU’s 175-year history, its liberal approach to study, and its explosive growth from three students to an annual enrollment of 50,000.

The timeline’s “page flow” is organized into a coded system aligned to the content. Folded newspaper-like pages signify national or international events, while book spreads contain NYU-related facts and smaller, color-coded pages are NYU “fun facts.” NYU presidents are included in framed oval portraits. The result is a sculpture that invites visitors to understand why NYU is rated as America’s favorite university.

The project was so successful that NYU commissioned C&G to turn the book-themed exhibit into an actual book. C&G repurposed the exhibit’s graphic files into book form and, at just $3 a copy, produced and printed a 312-page book that has become not only a cherished keepsake for alumni, but a valuable fundraising tool for the university.

Short and sweep

Matt Kirchman, an exhibition planner for objectIDEA (Salem, Mass.) remembers “The Crisis Hours” timeline exhibit at the Sixth Floor Museum in Dallas, covering the dramatic moments surrounding the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

“I recall its compelling content, the diversity of presentation (photos, objects, texts, and an A/V program), and, above all: BREVITY,” says Kirchman. “As a visitor, I could see the length of the timeline in one view and be comforted that my investment in the exhibition was only a few minutes and didn’t hinge solely on my reading.”

A huge-scale photographic timeline at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco (also see “Green Cabinet of Curiosities, page 46) takes a minimalist approach to the evolution of life on earth. In the Academy’s main exhibit hall, supersized inkjet prints of photographs by renowned photographer Franz Lanting are stretched over plywood and mounted with simple datelines along a 60-ft.-long wall. While visiting recently, Fiona Pook, an exhibit designer with AldrichPears Associates (Vancouver) was drawn to the sensuous photographs and the timeline’s simplicity. “I’m not someone who reads a lot of text so I felt the images were immediately effective.”

Adam Brodsley, whose firm Volume Inc. (San Francisco) designed the timeline, says it was meant to work on two different levels. “From far away, it provides a dramatic visual sweep and a ‘big-picture’ perspective. Up closer, if you’re so inclined, you can study the elements to get more detailed information.”

Living in space

The best timelines often don’t look like timelines, but manage to inhabit space in unique ways. At Nemours Mansion & Gardens in Wilmington, Delaware, C&G wove the story of the du Pont family into parallel events in world history, using walls, windows, and floors as surfaces for text and graphics.

At the National Museum of the Marine Corps in Quantico, Va., a monumental timeline serves not only as the three-dimensional CliffsNotes for a massive amount of historical content, but also cuts a physical pathway through the exhibits it supports.

Christopher Chadbourne & Associates (Boston) designed more than 100,000 sq. ft. of exhibits, including layers of interactives, oral histories, artifacts, immersive A/V environments, and documentary video. The timeline—which runs in a 4-ft. band for 220 feet along the entire right side of the museum’s fast track—is the visual “glue” that connects the interpretive areas and serves as a contextual touchstone for visitors as they navigate through a potentially intimidating amount of information.

“Surprisingly, it has turned out to be one of the most popular elements of the museum,” says Christopher Chadbourne. “Visitors cluster along it, hold conversations with each other, and return to it frequently during their visit.”

Media and the museum “food court”

Incorporating media—and interactivity—into time-based exhibits not only satisfies the appetites of media-hungry museum visitors, it can also solve the space problem inherent in timeline exhibits.

Kirchman says museums are like “food courts” where visitors want to continually browse for the next offering and select what they’ll ingest next.

“It’s akin to serial clicking on the Internet,” Kirchman adds. But timelines often require their users to stop and pause too long. “Exhibit audiences demand interactivity and choice.”

The Winston Churchill Lifeline at London’s Cabinet War Rooms was designed to appeal to those browsing instincts. It contains more than 6,000 letters, documents, and photos that visitors can access using a touchstrip spanning the length of a 15-meter interactive table. When a user touches a date, the entire surface of the table is inhabited by a simple animation of the event. Up to 26 people can use the table at one time. 

For the New Jersey Historical Society’s exhibition “What’s Going On? Newark and the Legacy of the Sixties,” KPC Design (Boston) was challenged to seamlessly integrate multimedia with the static aspects of the exhibition.

A static timeline on the backdrop wall is paired with a video triptych displaying moving texts, archival footage, and still images, combined with audio and music from the period. “Dynamic media can be ideal for giving visitors an introductory context for the exhibit as a whole,” says Michael Roper, KPC creative director and principal. “Media is also better at appealing to visitors’ emotions, so that they actually care about what they’re going to see.”

For a new generation of museumgoers—and exhibit designers—there’s no distinction between graphics and dynamic media. “We’re used to integrating video and media with architecture and interiors,” says Jessica Marks Rubenstein, a senior 3D designer with KPC and its media arm, EXP Media Group. “We think of it more as an immersive environment, but not in a cheesy, scenic way. The goal is to create spaces that engage visitors in ways that are surprising and elegant, but not hokey.”

--By Pat Matson Knapp, segdDESIGN No. 24, 2009



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