Expedition: Fashion from the Extreme

September 15, 2017 – January 6, 2018

Posts in the American Museum of Natural History category

Kim Ackert headshotKim Ackert, head of the design firm Ackert Architecture, is an internationally renowned architect and a respected professor of architecture, teaching at Harvard, Cornell, Yale, and, most recently, Parsons, The New School. She has designed some of The Museum at FIT’s most transformative exhibitions, including Elegance in an Age of Crisis: Fashions of the 1930s, Yves Saint Laurent + Halston: Fashioning the 70s, and Fairy Tale Fashion. Here, she sheds some light on what went into conceptualizing and realizing the dramatic design of Expedition: Fashion from the Extreme.

1. Describe your job as the exhibition designer. How is this similar to or different from other projects that you design as an architect? Who do you collaborate with during the exhibition design process (curators, lighting designers, exhibition managers, conversation team, etc.)?
The design process for an exhibition is very different from that of an architectural interior space. Building or interior design usually starts with the client’s functional wants and needs and is then translated into a “program,” but an exhibition designer starts with the preliminary list of objects developed by the curator, who in this instance was Deputy Director Patricia Mears and Assistant Curator Elizabeth Way. Although the list may change and evolve, it provides the fundamental concept for the design, which is further developed through a series of loose sketches and historical references for presentation to the entire production team. This team consists of the lighting designer Eric Steding, and the production team managed by Michael Gotia and coordinated by Ryan Wolfe, who advise and do a tremendous amount of research on the materials, construction details, and final touches.

Concept sketch for the Expedition design by Kim Ackert

Concept sketch for the Expedition design by Kim Ackert

2. Describe your design concept for Expedition and how you were inspired to create it.
The planning for Expedition started over a year ago with a visit to the American Museum of Natural History, where the entire team looked at dioramas as a concept for the intro gallery. This idea eventually evolved into the centrally located “safari” diorama of the Serengeti desert. We wanted the main gallery to provoke a sense of “danger” and a connection to the natural world. It was decided early on to create a large, almost overpowering central element that would contain the “outer space” collection. This element quickly became known as “space mountain,” and its tubular frames and translucent panels evoke a man-made and deconstructed world view. The perimeter platforms are designed to be topographical and support large foam blocks sculpted to suggest a variety of natural environments, ranging from deep below sea level to the thin air of the highest mountain peaks! Atalay Harrison, the project architect in our office had experience working with foam and was instrumental in creating the look and feel. He worked closely with Eric Steding’s group Shop to bring the final creation to life.

Atalay making a foam maquette

Atalay making a foam maquette

3. What reactions do you hope to get from the audience?
We hope to create a physical environment that is both a meaningful backdrop for the clothing and a dramatic prelude to the exhibition. As with all the exhibitions we’ve worked on at the museum, experiencing the collection should feel like a journey or an escape into another world.

4. What were the most challenging aspects of designing Expedition and what are you favorite parts of the design?
This was a challenging design because there were a number of different parts and pieces that required a close collaboration with the entire crew and production team. The scale of the space mountain presented some challenges early on, but came together quickly once the details for its construction were established.

Expedition: Fashion from the Extreme runs through January 6, 2018 at The Museum at FIT in NYC.

Michael Goitia bio imageMichael Goitia is The Museum at FIT’s senior exhibition manager. He is the person responsible for building the exhibition sets and bringing the exhibition designer’s vision to life. Expedition: Fashion From the Extreme features a particularly dramatic set, and Mike sat down with us to talk about building it and other exhibitions at the museum.

1. Tell us about your job–what is an exhibition manager?
In the most uncomplicated terms, an exhibition manager is similar to the project manager at a construction site. As exhibition manager, I am responsible for making sure the exhibitions at MFIT are done on time and do not go over budget. The exhibition department at FIT consists of two factions: campus projects and exhibition production.

Gabrielle Lauricella is the campus projects coordinator; she is responsible for the interaction between The Museum at FIT and the school’s Art & Design department and faculty. Ryan Wolfe is our exhibition production coordinator; he is involved with the History Gallery and our large exhibitions in the main gallery, where Expedition is on view.

I work with Ryan and Gabrielle to create production schedules for the exhibitions, and I confer with Fred Dennis, the museum’s senior curator of costume, to help plan the long-term exhibition calendar. I am responsible for the installer budget, finding vendors, sourcing materials, and general problem-solving. I hire the exhibition installers, who have a huge impact on how the department operates, even though they are part-time.

Some exhibition loans come with strict guidelines regarding handling and display; I work with the curatorial department to ensure that those guidelines are met. I also work very closely with the exhibition designer and curator. At the beginning of the production phase for each exhibition, we meet to discuss the subject of the show and then move on to the concept of what the show will look like. The designer will submit a plan, and then I figure out how the show will be built and I start to do research and design for elements in the show.