Exhibition Design and Build for the National Archives of the Marianist Province of the United States at St. Mary’s University

Exhibition view showing cases with historic objects and walls with a painting, text and framed photographs.
The exhibit: Faith, Education & Charity: Marianist Origins in San Antonio, 1852–1927. Photo by Elijah Barrett.

NAMPUS at St. Mary’s needed a facility to tell stories with their historic objects and photographs. We transformed an unused lobby into a flexible display space, complete with the inaugural exhibition. The result is one of the most beautiful and atmospheric spaces on campus.

Initiated September 2018, the project was organized into two phases. The first was through the Marianist Province of the United States, whose archive it is; they commissioned the exhibition furnishings (lighting, walls), which are to be permanent to the facility. The second was through the Public History Program of St. Mary’s University; they commissioned the design and installation of the inaugural exhibition. The opening reception was held in February 2020.

Research

Lobby space filled with crates, tables, open boxes and other junk
Before: On our first visit we encountered a space used for staging and storage.

We interviewed the NAMPUS / St Mary’s team, learning about their mission and the project’s audience. The Society of Mary is an international Roman Catholic religious congregation and the archive in San Antonio is the repository of their American records (they also have a substantial presence in Ohio and Hawai’i). In addition to being a resource used by historians, the archive receives visits from brothers and priests. Additionally, the University is home to a public history program, so the exhibit space would serve as a lab for students. The objective was to create a facility with flexible exhibition furnishings that could be used to tell many different stories over the coming years.

We took a field trip to the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin, an inspiring example of the form. The Ransom’s Chief Preparator helpfully demonstrated their system of movable partition walls and discussed their lighting and vitrines. Knowing a portion of our audience would be elderly, we studied the Smithsonian’s accessibility guidelines and a book on planning environments for people with dementia.

Lighting

Left: 3D rendering of lighting treatment. Right: Lighting installation in-progress.
We created 3D visualizations prior to installing the lighting solution.

Our first concern was to appropriately light the space. The existing floods provided a harsh, industrial light; staff mostly left them off. The sun cast uneven beams through the atrium windows as it arched across the afternoon sky.

We easily controlled the natural light by installing solar shades. But the atrium presented a challenge: Should we drop the ceiling? Hang traditional tracks with long conduits? Neither appealed. Instead, we selected the “Kable Lite” system from Tech Lighting, which proved to be the ideal solution. Not only was it easy to install, but it also resulted in a minimum of visual distraction. The 32 jewel-like fixtures can be placed anywhere along the nine columns of unobtrusive cables, providing flexibility for any exhibit arrangement.

Walls

Left: Walls in-progress at the workshop. Right: Painted walls at NAMPUS.
The partitions were built in the workshop, then finished on-site.

When it came to the walls, flexibility was of paramount importance. The brief called for a system that could easily adapt to a myriad of exhibition concepts. In response, we designed a box eight feet tall, seven feet wide and two feet deep, and built six of them. They are clad in birch, so nails can be driven anywhere, and they are on casters, so can be easily moved by one or two people. We realized before construction that the building did not have a service entrance and that the pieces would need to come in through the front door. For this reason, each box was delivered in two halves and finished in situ.

Additionally, we worked with the archive to identify key objects that were likely to remain on permanent display. For these pieces we purpose-built pedestals.

Layout

3D renderings illustrating the exhibit layout.
We communicated the design to stakeholders with the help of 3D renderings.

It was then that we began to consider the inaugural exhibition. The St. Mary’s team presented their concept that the exhibit would tell the story of the early years of Marianist schools in San Antonio, told through archival photographs and objects. It would be titled “Faith, Education & Charity: Marianist Origins in San Antonio, 1852–1927.”

Analyzing the material, we developed the exhibition design. We landed on a symmetrical layout that can be spatially understood at a glance. The partitions would be pressed up against the facility walls, in three pairs of two. Four cases, already owned by NAMPUS, would contain objects and be lined up in the center. Four key objects would be placed in the corners, with the fifth in the center. One aspect of the proposed story was not like the others; it was jettisoned.

The interpretive text would be attached to the walls with vinyl, and near the cases and pedestals via commercially available sign stands. A banner stand would be used to create a “title wall” near the entrance. We used 3D renderings to evaluate color choices and decided on a rich, “Catholic” red for the walls.

Installation

Two photographs showing the installation, containing: Cases and pedestals with historic objects, and walls with photos and text.
The finished exhibit. Photos by Elijah Barrett.

We coordinated the content with the St. Mary’s team. Text and photos were edited to fit space constraints, necessitating multiple rounds of revision. Fifty images were chosen for reproduction, in the end, most coming from nearly pristine large-format glass negatives. We scanned, retouched, printed and framed the work for display. Graphic panels were designed and fabricated; fixtures were acquired and assembled.

This process took place over several months, culminating in three days of on-site installation. The opening reception was held on February 10, 2020. The exhibit is open by appointment.

Left: Students examine historic map of San  Antonio. Right: Guests peer into display cases.
The opening was attended by students, faculty, administrators and members of the public.

Credits

For Spellerberg Associates:

Service bureaus and contractors:

Thank you to the entire NAMPUS / St. Mary’s team, especially:

  • Mary Kenney, NAMPUS Director and Archivist;
  • Gerald E. Poyo, O’Connor Chair for the History of Hispanic Texas and the Southwest;
  • Edgar Velázquez Reynald, Graduate Student, Public History Program.

And special thanks to Margaret Sternbergh, for her early advocacy of the project and interpretive planning.

Posted March 2020

© 2020 Spellerberg Associates LLC