Power and the Party Planner by Amanda E. Wade

Amanda WadeThis fall, I collaborated with the Greensboro Historical Museum to design an exhibit on First Lady Dolley Madison for their temporary exhibit space. Dolley Madison is more than a snack cake. I know that, but how do I convince visitors?

The primary issues I encountered along the way include the small size of the available space, which serves primarily as an emergency exit corridor, and the difficulty of devising a way for visitors to interact with very delicate dresses and letters without damaging the artifacts. Initially, I was overwhelmed by these challenges, but I looked to the artifacts and Dolley Madison for inspiration. This led to a wide array of possible interactive elements, including:

  • panels that flip to show the contrast between the public and private lives of Dolley Madison;
  • creating a tactile environment through the use of period (1800-1815) textiles;
  • touch-screen interactives that allow visitors to input their own information to create digital calling cards and watch video reenactments of historical events during Dolley Madison's term as First Lady.

I've been fortunate enough to have multiple meetings with the head of UNCG's Public History program, Benjamin Filene; staff members from the Greensboro Historical Museum; and interior design faculty and students to gather criticism from a variety of angles that address the following questions: Is the design successful? Does the exhibit provide an accurate enough overview of Dolley Madison's life? Is the information presented successfully and have I dealt with the artifacts in a sensitive and creative manner?

Midway through the design process I had completed at least 50-75 perspective drawings, details of interactive components, an outline of the story backed with facts the exhibit will communicate, several 3-D physical and computer-generated models, and multiple written pieces describing the exhibit. However, the design was far from completion! By the end of the semester the design was finalized to include a high level of detail, drawings and models to communicate the exhibit layout, and specifications of materials as well as a budget for implementing the planned project.

The beauty of working in the field of exhibit design is that it provides someone the opportunity to take any subject matter, whether it is kimono dresses, frogs, the history of surfing, or biographies of famous people, and bring them to life in whatever creative way most accurately represents the subject. I never thought I'd learn to care so much about a First Lady from the 1800's, but hopefully the next time museum visitors see a Dolley Madison ice cream machine or Zinger, they will have a new appreciation and understanding for the person behind the namesake.