Designing Exhibits: Behind the scenes of the Burns Bestiary

To mark the launch of our newest online exhibit, the Burns Bestiary, I’m taking you behind the scenes for a look at what it takes to create the graphic design for this –and all our other exhibits– both online and in-person.

When designing new exhibits for Burns Library, I begin at a predictable place: the curator(s). I meet with curators throughout the exhibit planning process, learning more about the themes they identify and the collection items they select. Our most recent exhibit, Burns Bestiary, began about eight months before the exhibit itself was scheduled as a simple idea to present animal images found in our collections. This allowed me to be involved throughout the process, and to bug the curators with thoughts and ideas as they worked on their themes and item selections.

Beige background with the words Burns Bestiary in gold with red outlines. Four colored circles of red, blue, gold and brown underneath the words
An early design concept for the Burns Bestiary exhibit, inspired by medieval bestiaries and historical sources for animal images

As the curators refine their ideas, finalize material selection, and begin to write the exhibit text, I present a moodboard of colors, fonts, and textures to help us work out the two main aspects of the exhibit: the promotional identity (meant to draw in visitors), and what the finished exhibit will look like in the cases. Together, the curators and I work to refine a visual identity reflective of their thoughtful curatorial work and based on my recommendations. Sometimes this is a straightforward process, with our early discussions ending in an approved first draft of the moodboard. Other times, we go in several directions and experiment with colors, fonts, and textures before deciding what the final exhibit will look like. In this instance, we played with several very different concepts before settling on one based on the exhibit’s organizational structure and highlighting the role of the landscapes and exploration in our Bestiary.

Light blue background with Burns Bestiary in black, curly type. Squares with other shades of dark to lighter blue to light green are above the image
A completely different, modern design for the light content planned for summer

The next step in the process of exhibit design is very different, and perhaps less exciting, than collaborating and creating with curators. Once curators choose items, Public Services staff begin scanning the relevant sections or pages at a high resolution. In Burns Bestiary, as in most of our exhibits, some of the scans will be turned into vector images as repeating stylistic elements, while others will be retouched and resized for either large-scale reproductions in the physical exhibit or small, web-ready files for the online version. This is where a robust workflow becomes key, as I often have 100 or more images to process. Processing them correctly ensures that each item ends up in the right place, looking great either in the case, on the poster, or on the web.

Close-up an old image of a sea monster in the ocean
Originally a small detail on a map in Munster’s Cosmographey (G113 .M86 1564 OVERSIZE), this sea monster was one of over a hundred images that had to be scanned at high resolution and edited to be ready for the exhibit.

Once the files are organized and curators have supplied me with text, I create at-scale pdf files for all of the print materials. Public Services staff and the curators carefully review them, and after a few changes and corrections, they approve the designs and layouts. For a typical exhibit, the approved files are sent to the graphics department of Boston College’s Media Technology Services, where Chris Soldt and his student workers print and mount the final panels on foamcore. For the final installation, the curators spend several days hanging panels and arranging objects., When it’s all ready, Public Services staff use the promotional images and branding I created for emails, posters, and website updates to spread the word of the new exhibit.

Compass rose with Burns Bestiary written on it dividing four sections - one of light blue sky with clouds, one of grass, one of water droplets, and one of purple mist
The final promotional design for the exhibit, inspired by the structure of the exhibit itself (exploring the animals of air, land, water, and myth)

In this case, COVID-19 prevented us from installing the physical exhibit, so it was particularly important that our files stayed organized and properly formatted in order to upload the content as an online exhibit. We’ve launched the Burns Bestiary online for visitors to explore at a safe social distance, and plan to have a physical installation as well whenever it is safe for our building to be at full capacity again.

–Kate Edrington, Administrative Assistant, Burns Library

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