Skip to content

Space for Life part 2: Insectarium

15 Mar 2017

(Also check out Space for Life part 1: Biodôme.)

The Insectarium was our second stop in Montréal’s natural museum complex [called Espace Pour La Vie (“Space for Life”)]. It’s a fascinating, excellently-designed museum. (And doesn’t its exterior look vaguely like a home for insects, almost like a bee hive?)


The permanent exhibition is called We Are the Insects and it is predominately…green. Graphics are a mix of strikingly clean layouts and comic book-inspired illustrations.


The view down to the bulk of the exhibition:


Each of the glowing cubes you see is a display case. Specimens are pinned to a rear-lit graphic, around text and images arranged in a clean, grid-driven design. Each layout looked nicer than the last, so I’m going to share photos of many.


Some layouts revealed a sense of humor, like this one with its ants on march.


Accent color and a stylized illustration indicated the habitat of the grouping of insect specimens on display.



Throughout the exhibition there were terrariums, and beneath some display cubes there were dioramas (faux terrariums, if you will).



There were also wall displays, and plenty of interesting charts and diagrams, done as both straight-graphics and as a mix of graphics and specimens, like the family tree below.


There were sections about insect lifestyles, diets, reproduction, and what people can do to protect endangered insects. The sheer number of these displays could have made for a repetitive slog , but it did not feel that way at all—specimens were fascinating, text was succinct, and the layouts were visually varied while staying true to the design system.




Outside were additional exhibitions and a temporary interactive art installation, and then it was off to explore the Botanical Garden.


Space for Life part 1: Biodôme

14 Mar 2017

Back in September 2015, I spent a handful of days in Montréal. I visited a few museums, but at the time, only one temporary exhibition at the Biodôme received brief mention on this blog. This happens all the time—I take photos everywhere I go, and then I just sit on them…

So let’s dust off those photos (or pretend it’s September 2015), and visit the Biodôme.


The Biodôme is part of a museum complex called Espace Pour La Vie (“Space for Life”) that also includes the Insectarium, Jardin botanique (botanical gardens), and Planétarium. You can buy combination admission tickets and pick which you would like to visit, but don’t miss the Insectarium.

The largest exhibition, and primary draw, within the Biodôme is Ecosystems of the Americas. The exhibition is broken into four ecosystems conveyed by immersive landscaping, climate, and live vegetation and wildlife. The air inside the Tropical Rainforest ecosystem is warm and muggy, while inside the Sub-Antarctic Islands ecosystem, for example, it is decidedly chilly.


Inside the Tropical Rainforest you walk through mature and secondary forests, and pass a waterfall, lake, river, cliffs, and caves. Graphics throughout are minimal, restricted to brief labels and occasional monitors. Like most places in Montréal, text is in French, with English translations.


Charming illustrations and species’ statuses are available in the free Identification Guide, but this too is light on information beyond identification. Not that I mind—museums can be exhausting!


Inside the cave you’ll find terrarium-dwellers and nocturnal-types; these graphics were all rear-illuminated, and included a bit more information.


Moving along, you reach the Laurentian Maple Forest. At the entrance to each ecosystem you are greeted by a large wall mural: a collage of color-saturated photos, clean-lined vector illustrations, and a where-in-the-world diagram.



Maintaining the minimal aesthetic throughout, there are still elements of whimsy, such as photos of playful otters applied to the glass wall of their enclosure. Wayfinding elements also show up on the floor, and on support columns.


Downstairs, there are a couple of small exhibitions: the Naturalia Room, which is directed toward children, and a temporary exhibition, which at the time was The Fossil Affair.


Overall, the Biodôme was a fun museum to visit, and the immersive ecosystems were well-done.

(Also check out Space for Life part 2: Insectarium.)

AIGA DC Design Week, at the National Building Museum

31 Oct 2016


DC Design Week events have wrapped. This was a good Design Week—there were many more events than in years past, with a range of design focuses (and I was able to make it to a number of them).

An event of particular interest to exhibition designers was held on Wednesday, at the National Building MuseumDesign Matters with Debbie Millman featuring Abbott Miller: Design for the Built Environment. The conversation touched on exhibition design, architectural graphics, and performance design. And as a bonus, prior to the event start, the museum’s newest temporary exhibition, Timber City, was open to us designers.


Timber City opened in September and is on view at NBM through May 2017. The two huge title signs in the museum atrium draw your eye up and point to the bay where the exhibition is located. Also impressive in its scale is the scaffolding holding up the signage.


The exhibition is not restricted to the interior gallery space. Lining the hall outside the gallery are large plinths, of staggered heights, that feature stories about buildings’ timber technology. Within the window bays are views into the exhibition, and architectural models in cases. The text on the painted green walls appears to be cut vinyl.



Inside the gallery space, the exhibition is made up of large-scale, extra-thick, freestanding wood walls. (You can see the support structures below.) Graphics appear to be a mix of direct-print and cut vinyl. The large murals at either end of the gallery space are applied wallpapers.




Of note: Laminated Strand Lumber does not take cut vinyl letters well (above).


In the center of the gallery space are a trio of cheeky display case plinths, made of stacked wood circles. The wood walls are peppered with infographics, stylized illustrations, and green circles highlighting quick facts about timber.




Timber City was curated and designed by the Boston-based ikd. And thanks to AIGA DC for putting on a great week of design events!

San Francisco: California Academy of Sciences, part 2 (color and quakes)

03 Oct 2016

If forced to choose, my favorite part of the California Academy of Sciences would be the Rainforest Dome—check out Part 1 of my visit—but there were many other fascinating exhibitions to enjoy, including Color of Life: Discover Nature’s Secret Language, designed by the museum’s Exhibits Studio and opened last year.



The exhibition uses bright, bold colors, beautiful photographs, and accessible writing to “reveal the significant roles color plays across a spectrum of species.”




Within the 8,000 square foot exhibition are immersive interactive experiences, including a musical color visualizer, designed by Tellart. Video screens respond to strings, plucked by visitors, with a show of images and videos related to that string’s color.


Another interactive experience, popular with kids, is the “Courtship Dance Stage.”


Throughout the exhibition are dioramas and many small interactives that allow you, for example, to see organisms under different types of lighting, or through the eyes of other animals.






Also 8,000 square feet in size, the older (circa-2012) exhibition, Earthquake: Life of a Dynamic Planet, explores the seismic science of Earth’s geologic transformations through installations such as the 25-foot-wide, walk-through model of Earth, and the immersive “Shake House.” Other areas focus on the diverse life forms that evolved and spread as Pangaea split up, and earthquake preparedness.





There are mini-exhibits throughout the museum, including a show of Andy Warhol’s Endangered Species series of silkscreen prints from 1983. In 2007 the bald eagle was removed from the endangered species list; the other featured animals remain.


Other mini-exhibits focused on variation, in ladybugs and in humans.



Rounding out my visit, I strolled through the Human Odyssey exhibition, an exploration of the origins of humankind, and the African Hall, home to classic stuffed-animal dioramas (and, to be fair, live penguins).


I highly recommend this museum—beautifully designed, fascinating, and educational. I also recommend you consider picking up a City Pass if you plan to visit more than one museum. They are expensive in SF—said from DC, where the museums are mostly free.

San Francisco: California Academy of Sciences, part 1 (rainforests and reefs)

23 Aug 2016


I wrapped up June—oh, wow it’s August!—with a trip to Yosemite (happy birthday, National Park Service) and San Francisco, where I spent a day parade-watching and a couple days museum-going.


One museum that filled nearly an entire day was the California Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park. Above is a photo of the museum’s exterior and its brilliant Living Roof, seen from the de Young Museum.

There are so many exhibitions within “the Academy” (and so many photos to show) that I’ve broken this post into two parts. Part 1 here covers the Rainforest exhibition on Level 1 and the Aquarium exhibitions on the lower level, most designed by Thinc Design.


After entering the museum I was swept along with the crowds heading to the 4-story, 90-foot-diameter Rainforest Dome. Inside, the rainforest visit begins on a Bornean forest floor, winds upward through a Madagascan mid-story and a Costa Rican canopy, then ends on the lower level in an Amazonian flooded forest.


As a designer, I liked the dome’s juxtaposition of glass and steel and abstracted jungle motifs against living flora and fauna, and the changing vistas as I moved further up the dome. As a nature enthusiast, I enjoyed its subject matter; as a weary museum visitor, I appreciated its delivery: not too much, not too little; brief, interesting, and useful.




The bright, straightforward graphics make use of vivid photographs, and the occasional illustration of an animal signals your arrival in a new area of the jungle. Bamboo- or vine-like vertical posts give a stylized-naturalistic element to exhibit tanks. The light touch with exhibit elements gives the rainforest dome a feeling of exploration and discovery (just ignore the school groups).

At the top of the dome, look out over the three stories you’ve just visited, and down, through a 100,000 gallon tank, to the flooded forest floor. Take an elevator down, then enter the tunnel you were just looking through from afar. Everyone says “oooh.”



The aquarium level felt jam-packed and massive; it’s where I spent most of my time during a 3 hour + visit. There were many exhibitions to see: Amazon Flooded Forest, Water Planet, California Coast, Coral Reefs of the World, Twilight Zone, and more.

Down here, animal identification is found on digital touchscreens. They were intuitive and fun to use, and had just the right amount of information: an animal’s common name, its scientific name, diet, and a one-sentence fact about it.


Below are some photos of the Water Planet exhibition, which groups underwater animals by adaptations. Projected blue and green lighting casts an underwater glow on the sculptural wave walls (similar material here). In the center of the room are curvilinear tanks. [Side note: I was reminded of the Van Cleef & Arpels traveling exhibition, circa 2012. It must be the bubbles.]





The highlight of the Coral Reefs of the World exhibition is the 25-foot deep Philippine Coral Reef tank (above). The exhibit graphics in this area are large image-based wallpapers.



The exhibition Twilight Zone: Deep Reefs Revealed had just opened on June 10. Relatively compact, it was memorable for its tanks filled with the most incredible jellies and vivid deep sea fishes.


Also check out Part 2 of my visit to the California Academy of Sciences.

A long weekend in NYC: Visits to the Cooper Hewitt, the Jewish Museum, and more

13 Jun 2016

I went to New York City a couple weekends ago—you know, to get away from the country.

My time was packed with museum visits, including my first to the Tenement Museum, at 97 Orchard Street in Manhattan’s Lower East Side; I took their Shop Life tour. The museum’s sixty- and ninety-minute-long tours are docent-led through restored tenement apartments. Most tours focuses on one apartment, one period in time, and one actual family; the Shop Life tour is slightly different in that it highlights multiple families, across time periods, who lived and worked in the basement-level shops. I would highly recommend the museum for an engrossing, educational experience. (Summertime hint: the Shop Life tour is the only one air-conditioned!)


From top left, clock-wise: volunteers pull weeds on the High Line; the entrance to the “Shop Life” tour at the Tenement Museum (no photos allowed inside!); Fly By Night at the Brooklyn Navy Yard; Goshka Macuga at the New Museum.

I also stopped by the New Museum, since I was in the neighborhood for the Tenement Museum, and truth be told, I was mostly perplexed (I’m not that hip, apparently). I paid another visit to the High Line, which has expanded and—as far as plantings are concerned—matured since I was last there. And I saw a performance of Duke Riley’s Fly By Night, in which, “at dusk, a massive flock of pigeons … elegantly twirl, swoop, and glide above the East River.” The pigeons wear LED anklets and respond to whistles and waving flags, flying overhead as commanded. The performance pays homage to the mostly forgotten culture of pigeon keeping and—with just another week to go—is being held at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, once home to the country’s largest naval fleet of pigeon carriers. I loved it.

At the Met Breuer, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s new home for modern and contemporary exhibitions (in the Whitney’s former building), I saw the exhibition Unfinished. There was nothing ground breaking in the actual exhibition design, but the premise was compelling and a lot of the artwork was fantastic. Sometimes it’s about visiting a museum just to see the fantastic; it can’t and shouldn’t always be whiz-bang exhibit marvels and touch screens.


While at the Met Breuer, I also took in the Nasreen Mohamedi retrospective. (Just closed, on June 5.) After the jam-packed Unfinished, the meditative exhibition was a welcome respite.


But hands down, my two favorite exhibitions during this visit were at the Jewish Museum and the Cooper Hewitt.


At the Jewish Museum, I fell in love with Roberto Burle Marx. Burle Marx was a Brazilian artist who drew upon diverse cultural influences to reinvent the landscape architecture discipline. He incorporated abstracted, irregular forms, native plants (he was a passionate environmental advocate), and Brazilian modernism into his landscape designs. His work is incredible; visit this exhibition!


The exhibition design was spot-on, evoking the geometries and curves of Burle Marx’s landscapes while not distracting from the art on display. An interlocked massing of display cases in the center of the room dominated the exhibition space; an 87-foot-long tapestry (below, left), designed by Burle Marx for the Santo André Civic Center in 1969, provided a stunning focal point. His hand-drawn and painted landscape plans are wonderful to behold; some examples from the exhibition are shown below.



A few blocks north, Beauty, the Cooper Hewitt Design Triennial was bustling. The wide-ranging contemporary design exhibition is a must-see for designers and artists.



The exhibition design was minimal, just the simplest of reader rails and small text panels. The museum encourages use of its “pens,” which allow you to interact with the digitized collection on touchscreen tables and to save objects from the exhibitions to be accessed later. A nice benefit of accessing your visit online is that for each object, museum curators have selected related objects for further exploration. For example, the online entry for “Atmospheric Reentry,” designed by Maiko Takeda (above, left), led me to this hat from Cameroon and this “hairy” garden pavilion.


Below is one of my favorite entries from the Beauty Triennial, “Architecture is Everywhere,” designed by Sou Fujimoto Architects. From the project description: “the project discovers architectural possibility in found objects and everyday materials. Simple artifacts such as a lottery ticket, an ashtray, or a ring of binder clips become intriguing structures when placed on pedestals with tiny human figures.” It was delightful.


SEGD tour of the National Museum of Health and Medicine

16 Mar 2016


On Sunday I attended a tour of the [very cool] National Museum of Health and Medicine, now located in Silver Spring, Maryland. NMNH is a Department of Defense museum first established in 1862 as the Army Medical Museum, “a center for the collection of specimens for research in military medicine and surgery.” And do they have specimens…

The tour was organized by the Washington, DC chapter of SEGD—formerly the Society for Environmental Graphic Design, now the Society for Experiential Graphic Design—and led by members of the museum’s staff and the design team from Gallagher & Associates.


It was a crowd in attendance so we were split into two groups. My group was led by graphic designer Liza Rao, who was responsible for the museum’s fantastic colors and typography, and Andrea Schierkolk, NMHM’s public programs manager. It was a treat to hear reflections from both sides; what they love and what they love less; things that work great and things that didn’t turn out as expected. It was also a treat to see some of my former workmates!



The museum is divided into three major exhibits: the purple “Collection That Teaches,” the turquoise “Anatomy and Pathology,” and the brick “Advances in Military Medicine.” Crisp white casework and glass shelves give the exhibit a “lab-like” look that I enjoyed, and its bold shots of color look great against the mostly tan, cream, and yellow objects on display; yes, most of those objects are corporeal remains. (This museum is not for the sensitive of stomach.)



While the exhibits were designed precisely for the objects on display, they are still changeable—graphics can be slid in and out as objects are rotated or stories are changed.


Thank you to our new DC SEGD chairs, Liza and Chris, for the great program—keep them coming, please!