Exhibition Design

Conversation between Curator Radhika Subramaniam and Exhibition Designer Manuel Miranda

Radhika:  You’ve been working with us at the SJDC for a long time as an exhibition designer, Manuel.  What was different about this exhibition?

Manuel:  Well, there were two things.  One was that the curatorial group was interdisciplinary—not all of you were from a design or fine arts background and therefore, the primary focus was not on visual manifestation.  And this is connected to the second thing, that this was a show with no real objects.  So the challenge was how to create a spatial experience when there were no artifacts.  Most of the evidence was in the form of archival papers in an 8.5” x 11” size.  It wasn’t an inherently visual story.

Radhika:  Yes, even though it was all about images!  How did this affect your exhibition design treatment?

Manuel:  I focused on the structure of the exhibition.  There were three events at three moments in time, each of which had an icon associated with it that served as a marker.  For Orozco, it was the curtain, for the My God! exhibition, it was the John Filo image of the young woman which was also used on the catalogue cover, and for Matsunaga, it was the X.  We also talked about how the exhibition had to be read at multiple levels—visual, archival, historical, narrative.  This was also an important part of the exhibition.

Radhika:  We wanted the exhibition to invite those who were drawn to the back and forth of the politics or to a moment in time but we also wanted to attract those who might just want a quick glimpse of the history and debates.  Did you look to any other exhibitions or ideas for inspiration?

Manuel:  There were no direct precedents.   I thought a lot about formal arrangements and architectural or organizational structures.  For instance, in the Seattle Public Library on the ground floor, the placement of the bookcases allows an organic flow and movement.  I had also been to a print exhibition at the Morgan Library a couple of months before and was thinking about the development of that display.  It was mainly along the outer perimeter of the room so that you ended where you started.  For this show, I knew we didn’t want that sort of movement, that we should have multiple flows and multiple entry points.  So the structures we created allowed people to move around them even though each contained a chronology within.

Radhika:  How did you approach the contemporary section?

Manuel: I saw the three historical sections as one set and the contemporary section as another set.  It had a separate feeling, with the large image collages near the window but it was still the same language of encasing for the display structures.

Radhika:  I wondered what you thought about the content of the show—the historical context—given how long you’ve been engaged with us.

Manuel:   Actually, I took my first design class at Parsons, a summer intensive in 2000, a little over a decade after the events recounted in “The Matsunaga Affair.” Also, I was an undergraduate during the heyday of campus identity politics in the early 1990s. From lived experience, I remember well the sentiment on college and university campuses at that time, and it was both interesting and a little disorienting to view that period through a historical lens.

In addition, I was aware of the progressive history of the New School but it seemed more contemporary, even commercial, now.  So it was fascinating to see how deeply shaped it has been by an intensely political history, what runs beneath the surface.  It’s very easy to forget the historical substance when you just look at the present.  In fact, one of the things I was pleased about with the exhibition design was that it had a contemporary look, which made the collection of historical materials cohesive.  The design identified the commonality of events and framed them in a contemporary visual way—through the colors and the graphics. 

Within this contemporary visual framework, the exhibition is told primarily through archival institutional and student-produced communications. Visitors to the exhibition could track the historical periods of each section through the technology of written and visual communication. Internal memos composed on typewriter and delivered by hand gave way to messages produced on word processors, transmitted by fax, and printed on dot-matrix printers. With the aid of accessible and cheap photocopiers, student groups during the time of The Matsunaga Affair were able to promote their sentiments and events with immediacy, something not available to students from the earlier periods discussed in the exhibition. Of course, now this kind of communication has been dematerialized by the Internet. Twenty-five years from now, how will an exhibition that examines similar themes, using the forms of communication happening now on digital platforms, be designed? Would it be spatialized in the same way?