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MoMa Gives A Behind-The-Scenes Look At How It Designs Exhibits

MoMa hosted a group of Fast Company guests for a private, behind-the-scenes look at its expansive Louise Bourgeois exhibit.

MoMa Gives A Behind-The-Scenes Look At How It Designs Exhibits
Installation view of Louise Bourgeois: An Unfolding Portrait. The Museum of Modern Art, New York, September 24, 2017–January 28, 2018. [Photo: Martin Seck for the Museum of Modern Art/© 2017 The Easton Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, NY.]

Guests of Fast Company’s Innovation Festival were treated to a behind-the-scenes viewing of MoMa’s design process for the museum’s “Louise Bourgeois: An Unfolding Portrait” hosted by MoMa’s Lana Hum and Ingrid Chou. Hum is MoMa’s director, Exhibition Design and Production, and Chou is MoMa’s  associate creative director, Graphic Design and Advertising. Bourgeois, who died in 2010 after a long and prolific career, left behind many works, including numerous print pieces, which are featured in the exhibit. The print works reveal a side of Bourgeois that is not as well-known as her sculptures, even though they touch on many of her same themes, such as sexuality, the body, and the subconscious.

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[Photo: courtesy of the author]
The collection includes approximately 300 works of Bourgeois’s prints, books, and notes on her creative process. According to Lana Hum, the exhibit is part of the life’s work for Deborah Wye, the curator. As Hum says, the two “had a long-lasting relationship, with Wye following Bourgeois’s work throughout her life and coming to know it through a close, personal relationship.” As a result, she worked closely with the Easton Foundation (founded by Bourgeois); Jerry Gorovoy, Louise’s longtime assistant; Matthew Cox, the show’s designer; and Derek Flynn, Danielle Hall, and David Klein, the graphic designers.

A museum visitor, upon arriving on an exhibit floor, might not realize that upwards of 50 people may work on a given exhibit at a time, everyone from riggers, painters, carpenters, and designers, Hum and Chou explained to Fast Company’s guests. An exhibit can take a full year to produce, and has to take into consideration many factors. For instance, designing the Bourgeois exhibit wasn’t just about deciding where to hang art. It also entailed everything from creating a custom font inspired by her artwork to using low-contrast grays on the walls and in display cases to reflect her process.

Installation view of Louise Bourgeois: An Unfolding Portrait. The Museum of Modern Art, New York, September 24, 2017–January 28, 2018. [Photo: Martin Seck for the Museum of Modern Art/© 2017 The Easton Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, NY.]
For any MoMA exhibit, the curators have ideas, bring them to a committee, and once an exhibition is approved, decide how it fits in with other collections–are they showing too many of one type of work? Are they representing female artists? The discussion involves many people. Once the exhibition is on the calendar, they start to work on it very quickly–what the show will look like, feel like, and so on.

Then they select a space, and that also shapes what the show will ultimately look like, how many works will be featured, and how the works will be presented. From there, they start the process of what it looks like physically and begin to work with a physical model. Hum says there are other ways to work to render things–they do 3D models–but physical models help them think and visualize things like where you put security guards, whether there are enough sight lines, and more.

Installation view of Louise Bourgeois: An Unfolding Portrait. The Museum of Modern Art, New York, September 24, 2017–January 28, 2018. [Photo: Martin Seck for the Museum of Modern Art/© 2017 The Easton Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, NY.]

Related: Louise Bourgeois’s Charming Textile Art Evokes Vintage Graphics


Louise Bourgeois “was not someone who would just go out to work,” Chou says. “She was actually very confined, stayed with her work and she would not let go of any piece of fabric or any kind of printed pieces that she made; she would have them all in her basement, in her living space, her apartment, she was that kind of person who had this kind of obsession, and that is reflected in her work, obsession and repetition, she worked on the same theme over and over, but each time she would have a different expression and iteration.”

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So the curators incorporated that theme into the design of the exhibit itself. “That gave us the idea for different typefaces,” Chou says.  As a result, several typefaces were used for the exhibit, including a custom font they created for the title wall, which was based on Harbour. Harbour and Casion were used for the rest of the interpretive materials, such as the intro text, section text, and labels.

To arrive at the custom font they created, they tried an Adobe font, overlapping typefaces, and different typefaces that had sharper edges, inspired by her spiders. After this process, the team decided to hand-draw the title font. “You see the spiders, you have this round and then sharper edges. And also the type has a kind of feeling that someone is distressed,” Chou says. “She was really complex and she also suffered from a bit of mental depression, so it’s embedded in the typeface to give you just that little hint and set the stage to get you prepared for the environment that the curator and designer created.”

As Hum and Chou explained, the overall goal of the design was to subtly introduce the viewer to Louise Bourgeois’s print works without overwhelming the senses; to evoke the depth and intensity of the work and draw the viewer in.  “It’s really trying to evoke the intention of the artist,” Chou says. “If we can do that, then we’ve done a great job. We’re not supposed to be loud or draw too much attention [to the design]; we’re just supposed to prepare you.”

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About the author

David Penick is the senior copy editor for Fast Company's digital team. Penick formerly worked as the deputy copy chief at Entertainment Weekly and as the copy editor for Gawker Media's Gizmodo and Lifehacker sites

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