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March 28, 2018

Designing for Flexibility

The Textile Museum’s all-purpose Learning Center

Museums increasingly cite flexibility as a key requirement for their exhibition spaces. They define flexibility in a variety of ways including more adaptive interior space, updateable content, and more durable, interactive and multipurpose exhibits. Quatrefoil’s recent work for the Textile Museum in Washington, D.C. offers a great example of how to create a space that is interactive, showcases the collection, and maximizes flexibility.

The Textile Museum’s new Learning Center project had three key requirements:

  • The exhibit must be able to function as both a classroom and a gallery space, sometimes as a self-guided experience, sometimes with a facilitated docent.
  • As the museum’s core learning experience, the space should pay homage to the museum’s other exhibitions.
  • The textile and fiber displays must be easy to access, modify and maintain.

Accounting for these unique dynamics required much collaboration and iterative reviews but allowed us to design a permanent yet adaptable exhibit that is customized to the Learning Center’s unique needs.

Classroom vs. Gallery

Before the Learning Center was created, the room was used for classroom programs. The 800 square foot space accommodated 20-30 students with tables and chairs, storage cabinets with countertop and sink, and two large closets for additional supplies.

Classroom space before installation

Quatrefoil designed the exhibits to work within this framework, and placed them along the perimeter walls to maintain an open space in the center for classroom tables. A weaving activity was built with castors so it could be easily moved for either scenario.

A major challenge was blocking the bank of cabinets and sink at one end of the room for the default gallery scenario. We utilized a sliding partition to hide the cabinets and added graphic panels for interpretation.

Lighting of the space was designed in a dual mode: a bright fluorescent lit space for classroom activities and more dramatic track lighting for the exhibit gallery.

Re-envisioned Textile Learning Center as exhibit gallery

Content Flexibility

The Learning Center, titled Textiles 101, features the basic elements of textiles – fiber, color and structure – as a foundation for interpreting the collections. To connect changing exhibits and programming to the museum’s growing collections, it was essential that Quatrefoil’s design accommodate frequent substitution of examples for references.

To showcase as many textile patterns as possible, we printed 10 different patterns onto thin magnetic panels. We placed the panels onto a magnetized plastic laminate surface of the sliding partition panels, allowing for five patterns to be featured at once. These graphic prints show the patterns in a large scale in order to highlight the intricate details. Several of the examples are replicated prints of textiles from the Textile Museum’s study collection which are available for viewing and touching.

Magnetized graphic panels can be swapped out on this sliding partition wall.

Other examples of the gallery’s content flexibility include:

  • a resource area, which houses the touchable textiles in file drawers and shelves for a changing display of textile tools;
  • a large pin-up board where textiles are displayed and related activity sheets are available in adjacent acrylic holders;
  • a wall-mounted digital monitor displaying videos of featured textile artists and their work;
  • a ring of content cards relating to each of the three basic exhibit components that can be removed by docents and used at the gallery’s central activity table or in other museum locations; and
  • dyed fabric wedges that can be easily removed as a future phase for soliciting artists to add embroidery or stitching with another level of interpretation.

Maintenance

The exhibits were designed for ease of access, durability and conservation considerations. Several displays had to be periodically frozen, a conservation method for eliminating insects. Given the high tactile interactive nature of the displays, some samples will need to be replaced in the future to accommodate wear and tear. To accommodate these challenges, we mounted artist textiles as banners that could be easily removed for periodic freezing and stapled dyed textile fabrics to the backs of wedge-shaped panels. Each fabric color was then mounted to a separate wedge, easily removed for freezing or replacing.

Fiber containers and fabric swatches were designed to encourage tactile interaction and for easy replacement or updating.

In addition, we tested fiber containers for optimum access for visitor’s touch and operable doors and bumper stops to minimize sound of acrylic hitting acrylic; designed a system of suspended yarn balls for easy ball removal (while maintaining fixed hangers for easy re-installation); and attached fabric swatches to reader rails via a stainless steel rail system, keeping them securely in place for visitors to touch, yet easily removed by the staff for replacement.

Process

Quatrefoil and the Textile Museum’s project team understood the critical need for a flexible space. The solutions were not obvious at the outset and the process involved many iterative reviews and conversations with and feedback from the museum’s education department, docents and textile artists. Through a collaborative process, we learned how to highlight the most engaging elements of the medium in an adaptive and flexible manner.  With our client’s intimate knowledge of textiles and our perspective as exhibit designers, we were able to design and create a space to meet the unique requirements of their museum and bring the Learning Center to life.

“Textiles 101” opened in January 2018 on the George Washington University campus.

March 28, 2018

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