“A Show Without Objects”

Exhibition designer Manuel Miranda, principal of Manuel Miranda Practice (MMP) in conversation with Radhika Subramaniam, co-curator of the exhibition and Director/Chief Curator of the Sheila C. Johnson Design Center (SJDC), where the exhibition was presented.

RS: You’ve been working with us at the SJDC for a long time as an exhibition designer, Manuel. What was different about this exhibition?

MM: Well, there were two things. One was that the curatorial group was interdisciplinary—not all of you were from a design or fine arts background and therefore, the primary focus was not on visually manifesting the concept. And this is connected to the second aspect, that this was a show with no real objects. So the challenge was how to create a spatial experience when there were no artifacts. Most of the evidence was in the form of archival papers in an 8.5” x 11” size. It wasn’t an inherently visual story.

RS: Yes, even though it was all about images! How did this affect your exhibition design treatment?

MM: I focused on the structure of the exhibition. There were three events at three moments in time, each of which had an icon associated with it, which served as a marker. For Orozco, it was the curtain, for the My God! exhibition, it was the John Filo image of the young woman which was also used on the catalogue cover, and for Matsunaga, it was the X.
We also talked about how the exhibition had to be read at multiple levels—visual, archival, historical, narrative. This was also an important part of the exhibition.

RS: We wanted the exhibition to draw people who were already interested in the subject to the back and forth of the politics or to a moment in time but we also wanted to attract those who might just want a quick glimpse of the university’s history and these debates. Did you look to any other exhibitions or ideas for inspiration?

MM: There were no direct precedents. I thought a lot about formal arrangements and architectural or organizational structures. For instance, in the Seattle Public Library on the ground floor, the placement of the bookcases allows for an organic flow and movement. I had also been to a print exhibition at the Morgan Library a couple of months before and was thinking about the way that display had been developed. It was mainly along the outer perimeter of the room so that you ended where you started. For this show, I knew we didn’t want that sort of movement, that we should have multiple flows and multiple entry points. So the structures we created allowed people to move around them even though each one contained a chronology within it.

RS: How did you approach the contemporary section?

MM: I saw the three historical sections as one set and the contemporary section as another set. It had a separate feeling, especially with the large image collages near the window, but it retained the same language of encasing for the display structures.

RS: I wondered what you thought about the content of the show—the historical context—given how long you’ve been engaged with us.

MM: Actually, I took my first design class at Parsons, a summer intensive in 2000. I was aware of the progressive history of The New School but I experienced it as more contemporary, even commercial, now. So it was fascinating to see how deeply shaped it has been by an intensely political history, to see what runs beneath the surface. It’s very easy to forget this historical substance when you just look at the present.
In fact, one of the things I was pleased about with the exhibition design was that it had a contemporary look, which made the collection of historical materials cohesive. The design identified the commonality of historical events and reflected them in a contemporary visual way—through the colors and the graphics.