Exhibits like Bodies at the South Street Seaport and the Darwin Exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History may be capable of producing both wonder and horror, but not all visitors may realize the history of the discipline behind them. What is Exhibition Design illuminates the thread of history spanning from the cabinets of curiosities popular in the Renaissance, through church reliquaries, worlds fairs, and department stores. The journey brings the reader all the way to our present-day knockdown displays and provides a tour of the process behind their creation along with striking images of the results.
In subsequent sections, the problems and procedures inherent in creating our far more complicated modern displays are addressed. While the bulk of the task is explained verbally, it is supported with a few sketches and "process" materials. As seems typical of glossies, however, What is Exhibition Design includes fewer of these images than the design community might wish. The desire to have a perfect finished product tempts every designer to relentlessly hack away at errors and witness marks until a product is perfect and unfathomable. Whether book editors share this same compulsion or whether designers are simply too insecure to release process drawings seems destined to remain a mystery.
The final section of portfolios, however, does stand as a fine showcase of those beautiful results. Fine work is archived in a collection of vivid photos with accompanying text: Pentagram's plane-scale x-ray (complete with workers and pilots) from the United hangar at Logan Airport is a marvel. On a much smaller scale, Ralph Applebaum Associates' work on the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum evokes the clutter and density of a Renaissance cabinet in it's hallway of photographs, which viscerally reminds the viewer of the unfathomable nature of that tragedy. Finally, and perhaps of the most importantly to aspiring exhibition designers, the multilayered work of firms like atelierbrückner show just how big the environments in modern trade shows can be. While trade shows remain the hidden workhorse of exhibition design and are destined for only a few weeks of life, museums last far longer and are still standing for us to experience directly. Since the environment can always express so much more than a picture, I regret that I've only been to a smattering of the places described within. Fortunately, pictures of the rest are enough to make any reader want to take a road trip.