We were hired by Mystic Seaport Museum to design and manage a production team to produce a new 5,000 sq. ft. exhibit called “Sea Change.” The Museum had selected (10) of their more significant artifacts for this premiere exhibit that opened in December 2016 in their new Thompson building. The contemporary design of the building is a radical departure from their traditional 1800 village environment. The exhibit was to reflect notable sea-born transformations not only related to each artifact, but also to reflect a re-invention of Mystic Seaport Museum’s legacy and the experience for visitors. Using the chosen artifacts, the information about them blends history, art and science. They wanted to be more relevant to the audience, bringing the sea change forward in time and show its significant today. The content needed to meet the range of ages and interests of the audiences. The objective of the exhibit was to honor the dramatic interior, to be minimal in presentation and to make the featured objects heroes. There was a requirement to show only minimal representation of secondary support objects.
The main challenge was that the 10 objectives chosen did not tie to each other which made a unifying story difficult. They ranged in time periods from 1740 to 1918 and identified with places all over the globe. There was also a great variety of sea related transformations ranging from handmade objects, objects that embodied stories of great emotion, or represented turbulent times of trade and war, or launched great technological changes. We embraced the variety of changes and allowed each to tell their own story relative to the sea. To tie all objects to the sea via use of form, the design solution included the creation of a variety of abstract sail shapes towering up from 12’ to 20’. These minimal but bold curved forms served to define the space, create pristine backdrops to frame each hero object and complimented the dramatic height of the gallery. To maintain an austere approach while providing relativity, we created choice and variety for the guests. We created a layered experience to address different levels of interest with a variety of delivery methods both digital and tactile depending on the object. Each sail form provided a canvas to project visual stories. On each “sail” there is an animated, vignetted video attract loop and an engaging question about the object on display, prompting guests to learn more. The guests can then choose to see a 30 second animated video that brings the meaning of the objects to life with info on time, place and historic or scientific significance. Also at each object station the guests can choose topics that an “expert,” who serves as a storyteller on the object, will speak about briefly on an audio phone with video support. To add to the sensory approach, at many of the artifact areas, there were also tactile interactions each designed to provide the best way to understand the meaning of each artifact.
The sea change theme presented content challenges. There were many choices of stories to tell about each object which all represented valid transformations. But in the end, for each story, we chose one sea change for focus with the objective of expressing the variety of changes represented in the exhibit. We used the sea change theme to tie the variety of objects together with a grand video effect at the entrance. On a 20’ high curved sail form, guests could choose between 4 different states of the sea with video playback of: calm, blustery, raging or frozen - sea effects flowing onto the floor as part of the breaking wave effect. This simple but dramatic interaction embraced the entirety of the exhibit in theme, including the vast range of objects, and captured the dramatic differences in the sea itself.
This exhibit was successful in achieving the requested objectives to honor the space with forms that complement the contemporary style and the height of the new building, to showcase (10) hero objects with a new way of seeing these artifacts, and, through layering, with variety and interactive choice, met the goal of being relevant and addressing the range of age and interest of the audience.
In summary, the choices were meant to provide relativity for the guest by telling rich stories of emotion, technology and survival through visual storytelling and meaningful interactives. The theme of Sea Change necessitated stories that would bring the significant of the object forward, explaining relevance to today’s audience.
The exhibits at Mystic Seaport Museum are continually measured and evaluated by their Exhibit Dept. and Training Staff. One member of the Mystic Seaport Museum’s Exhibits Dept wrote: “I have spent the past few days observing visitors as they navigate throughout and the key decisions are working as planned. In addition to the delivery of a beautiful exhibit you have demonstrated how various design and business tools are used to make decisions on time and in budget.”
This review is from Mystic Seaport Museum’s former Director of Visitor Services and now VP of Operations at a Science Center in New England wrote: “It was probably some of the best story telling we've ever experienced. The short "videos" or media productions were right on target in terms of tone, length - perfect. I love that they didn't need audio (but it’s there if you want it). Plus, the quiet led to a much more contemplative experience. The shapes of the projection walls were awesome. We truly enjoyed our experience there.”
Mystic Seaport Museum had planned to only keep this exhibit open for 3 days a week during the winter months but have, within weeks of opening, extended hours to include 7 days a week, indicating a successful change in attendance and interest.