Why museum exhibition design can be more than a white box

Why designing theater sets has shown me museum exhibition design can (and should) be so much more than a white box

By HannaH Crowell

Four years ago, I took my career off the stage and into the gallery. After working as a freelance theatre designer for many years, I joined The Mint Museum staff as the exhibition designer in 2016.

Inspired by art since childhood, theatre revealed itself as a form of creative expression that combined my love for art and storytelling. The daughter of an amazing storyteller, I knew from an early age that I wanted to be a storyteller, too. But I wanted to create spaces where these stories came to life.

Those early formative years have led to a career focused on crafting the immersive art experience, emphasizing audience engagement and finding new ways to tell stories. And while I now work full-time in the museum world, I’ve kept my foot in the arena of theatre design, often designing for Children’s Theatre of Charlotte.

The transition from theatre to museum work has redefined how I use design to interpret space and engage an audience in a story. But, there are three lessons theatre has taught me that I bring to each new project.

Curtain up! The big reveal sets the scene

When the lights go down in the theatre, just before the curtain rises, my heart skips and I tear up. It’s been this way since I was a kid, and when I started working in theatre I didn’t become numb to it—I learned to design for it. The big reveal is not just part of the magic, it’s the first impression you give your audience of the world you’ve created for the story.

Of course, we can’t raise a curtain for every visitor to a museum gallery, but I work to design each Mint exhibition entry in a way that still gives the visitor that big reveal. For most exhibitions, the entry begins with a title wall that provides a brief introduction to the exhibition concept. I want ours to go one step farther: to set the rhythm and atmosphere for the visitor’s experience.

For Under Construction: Collage from The Mint Museum, an exhibition exploring the dynamic medium of collage that opened December 2018 at Mint Museum Uptown, I wanted to give the visitor a tactile experience upon entering. So we created a wall, where visitors could tear off each letter of the exhibition name. By tearing away a layer of the title wall, the visitor would participate in an ever-evolving collage and better understand how a collage is made through the layering, tearing, and subtracting of materials.

The exhibition “Under Construction” included an interactive element that allowed visitors to help create an ever-evolving collage. Photos by Brandon Scott

Sometimes, though, the big reveal of an exhibition entry needs to transport the visitor into an entirely new world. For the Mint Museum’s exhibition Michael Sherrill Retrospective—on view from October 2018 through April 2019 at Mint Museum Uptown—it was important that upon entry, the visitor develop a strong connection to the artist Michael Sherrill, known for his groundbreaking work with clay, glass and metal.

For Michael Sherrill Retrospective, I took a far more atmospheric approach, designing an environmental treatment that immersed the visitor in the lush green forest of western North Carolina, set against the cobalt blue stained wood planking matched to Michael’s Studio. The entry transitions the visitor seamlessly between interior and exterior spaces inspired by Michael’s studio space and surrounding property.

Left to right: A visit to Michael Sherrill’s property. Photos by HannaH Crowell. The exhibition entrance to “Michael Sherrill Retrospective” at Mint Museum Uptown. Photo by Brandon Scott

Listen to what the characters have to say

The first step in any theatre design process is reading the script. Each character is an essential part of the story, and the playwright has given important information that defines the world of the play—and the design—in the character’s dialogue. The first step in an exhibition design process is reviewing a document similar to a script, known as a checklist. More like a character breakdown, the checklist gives specific information about each work of art that will be in the exhibition. Unlike a script, the characters in the checklist don’t have speaking lines. And yet, they still speak if you know how to listen.

While it took an adjustment at first when transitioning from theatre to museum design, I learned to rely on the curator, the artist, lots of research and my own intuition to help interpret what the objects have to say and how this informs the world of the exhibition.

For the Mint’s most recent exhibition Classic Black: The Basalt Sculpture of Wedgwood and His Contemporaries at Mint Museum Randolph, I worked with curator Brian Gallagher and did months of research to help interpret what the more than 100 objects—ranging from small portrait medallions to large busts and vases—all of the objects had their own story, so finding a way to weave those stories together to create a seamless narrative was one of the biggest design challenges I’d faced. The other distinctive aspect of these “characters” was that they were all “costumed in black”—or rather, they are all made of a black basalt ceramic material. So one of the first design decisions influenced by our cast of characters was to set them in a world of color. But how to shape the gallery into a stage that each of these characters could come to life?

Inside the galleries at “Classic Black: The Basalt Sculpture of Wedgwood and His Contemporaries” at Mint Museum Randolph. Photo by Brandon Scott

Originally produced in the 18th century, these objects were thriving in the height of neoclassical design. My research lead me through the designs of Robert Adam, whose aesthetic focused on the movement of the eye from floor to ceiling, creating architectural features that would frame these objects within the elegant rooms. For our exhibition, each of the three gallery rooms was inspired by the grand designs of the neoclassical style. The Sculpture Hall for the character that told the story of the classics, The Library for the characters that were the thinkers and the politicians, and finally, for the beautiful characters fit for the finest entertaining, The Drawing Room.

The audience is your most important collaborator

Theatre is a collaborative art. Actors, the director, designers, and stage technicians—they all bring their expertise and talents to the process, but it isn’t until that first performance with an audience that the team is complete. While working as a theatre designer, I was so intrigued by the prospect of designing for an environment where the audience is no longer confined to a theatre seat and can navigate their way through a multidimensional creative moment.

This led me away from the “black box” of the theatre and into the “white box” of the museum gallery. With each new exhibition design project, I learn and apply new ways of creating immersive and engaging spaces for the visitor to create their own stories.

The most theatrical design I’ve yet to do in the museum, the exhibition Never Abandon Imagination: The Fantastical Art of Tony DiTerlizzi needed a design that invited the characters in DiTerlizzi’s illustrations to break out of the white box and come play in the gallery. Designed into the immersive exhibition there where drawing activities, larger than life character cutouts, and books to read and look at so that visitors to the exhibition could interact with the characters the book they live in, creating their own stories.

Inside the gallery at the “Never Abandon Imagination: The Fantastical Art of Tony DeTerlizzi.”

I still return to the theatre to remind myself of these lessons and learn new ones that might help make me a stronger designer—for the stage or the gallery. Last fall I worked with Children’s Theatre of Charlotte on their world premiere production of The Invisible Boy. Part rock concert and part picture book, the scenic design brought the beloved children’s story by Trudy Ludwig to life, pulling inspirations directly from the pages of this thoughtful book about a boy, Brian, whose vivid imagination becomes a canvas for his creativity.

On set at Children’s Theatre of Charlotte’s “The Invisible Boy” performance. Photos by John Merrick

The Mint Museum celebrates the life of Dr. Francis Robicsek, a pioneering heart surgeon, art collector and Renaissance man

The Mint Museum celebrates the life of Dr. Francis Robicsek, a pioneering heart surgeon, art collector and Renaissance man

It is with heavy—yet grateful—hearts that The Mint Museum recognizes and celebrates the life and legacy of Dr. Francis Robicsek, who passed away peacefully at his Charlotte home on April 3, at the age of 94.

Robicsek was best known for being a world-renowned heart surgeon who performed some of Charlotte’s first open-heart operations. Over his 64-year career, he performed the city’s first heart transplant, founded the Sanger Clinic (now Atrium Health Sanger Heart & Vascular Institute), and was known for his steady hand — and improvisation — in some extraordinary situations. (Consider this: On New Year’s Eve in 1964, when a fellow doctor’s heart stopped on a hospital elevator, Robicsek proceeded to cut the man’s chest open with suture scissors, massage the heart, and then shock it back into rhythm with the cord from a table lamp.)

But the doctor who fled Soviet control in his native country of Hungary in 1956 with his six-months-pregnant wife, Lilly, was also a student of the world. Robicsek saw beauty in the old and was an avid art collector who generously helped establish, grow and develop the Mint’s pre-Columbian, Spanish Colonial, and European painting collections. Many of the works of art are on display in Mint Museum Randolph’s Lilly and Francis Robicsek Galleries.

“I only had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Robicsek once, but he was a figure who had an aura of well-deserved respect, almost reverence,” says Mint President and CEO Todd. A Herman, PhD. “And if you paid attention, he had a sense of humor that those willing to see past the aura would appreciate—with a twinkle in his eye and a slight rise to the edges of his mouth.”

Robicsek became interested in archaeology in the 1960s. “I have never enjoyed a vacation where you just go and sit around, and I have never enjoyed walking around a golf course,” Robicsek wrote in the 2008 book Pioneers of Cardiac Surgery, by Dr. William S. Stoney. “I have always needed an excuse or a reason for going from A to B.”

So it was auspicious when Robicsek saw an ad in the Annals of Thoracic Surgery for a hospital in Honduras that needed a surgeon with experience in tuberculosis surgery. Robicsek began spending summer vacations there. And when the hospital could only handle one thoracotomy per day, he spent his downtime “prowling around the ruins.”

For decades, Robicsek worked to expand healthcare facilities and operations in Central American countries, including Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Belize and El Salvador. He helped build pediatric and neonatal intensive care units, and he raised money to take pieces of equipment deemed obsolete by U.S. standards and have them refurbished and shipped to Central America, where he’d also train staff how to use them. Then, whenever possible, Robicsek would change out of his scrubs, pull out his camera, and go exploring.

Of course, he couldn’t have done it without Lilly. A medical doctor herself—she did two residencies in pathology and pediatrics—Lilly retired from medicine to help raise the four children and afford her husband the opportunity to work, study and travel around the world, often with Lilly by his side.

Dorie Reents-Budet, PhD—a former visiting curator for native art of the Americas at the Mint—spent years working with Robicsek and exploring his vast collection. But they first met in 1982 when Robicsek attended the Maya Hieroglyphic Workshop at the University of Texas at Austin. Reents-Budet was a graduate student at the time and was helping put on the workshop

The crowd was an insular group of art history and anthropology scholars from the U.S. and Canada. Reents-Budet, eager to make sure all attendees felt welcome, offered to drive Robicsek to all of the after-hours workshop cocktail parties, to introduce him to her professors. “It was memorable getting him to fold up those long legs so he could fit in my 1967 Nova,” she says.

Robicsek authored five books on Mayan culture and art, and just as he was a pioneer in the medical field, he was also an early adopter in the field of art history. He was publishing books on pre-Columbian art long before the National Gallery of Art even recognized it as art and not just a facet of anthropology, says Reents-Budet.

To Robicsek, she adds, these works were equally as poignant as any Grecian ceramic, Egyptian artifact, or Renaissance painting.

Michael Tarwater, formerly the president and CEO of Carolinas Healthcare System, first met Robicsek in June 1981. Tarwater was a vice president at the time and part of his purview included overseeing the hospital’s cath lab, where doctors studied the heart. He and Robicsek became fast friends, and for a period of about 15 years, Tarwater and his wife, Ann, would travel the world with Robicsek and Lilly—from Romania, where the ancient monasteries are painted with exquisite Biblical scenes, to Antigua, Guatemala, home of the world’s largest Easter celebration.

“To the very end, he had this beautiful youthful curiosity about life that you just wanted to tap into,” says Ann Tarwater, one of the Mint’s Board of Trustees. “He wanted to show you the world.”

That sense of curiosity didn’t wane after Robicsek retired in 1998. If anything, it picked up. “He was an inventor, an innovator, a scientist, a scholar, a humanitarian,” says Michael Tarwater. “And,” he added, “a prankster.”

In the mid-1980s, Carolinas Medical Center experienced a few power failures, which always caused a scramble, Tarwater said. A few days after one, the hospital administration announced to staff that they’d found the problem and resolved it. Afterward, Robicsek stopped by Tarwater’s office for a quick chat.

Minutes after Robicsek left, Tarwater saw the power go out yet again. “The first thing you think about are all the people in the operating room, all the things we rely on, all the people on ventilators,” he said.

Frantic, Tarwater raced out of his office. That’s when he realized that the power outage was isolated. The mischievous Robicsek had found the circuit breaker for just the administrative offices and flipped the switch.

Francis and Lilly Robicsek took every opportunity to travel with their children—Steven, Susanne, John and Frances—and later with their five grandchildren. They instilled a love of art, music and culture in all of them.

Robicsek’s daughter Frances Furr, the youngest of the four children, studied art history in college and went on to be an art teacher, a member of the Delhom Service League, and a docent at the Mint.

Furr recalls the time when, as a lover of North Carolina ceramics, she took her father to Seagrove to view the pottery. “In that thick Hungarian accent, he said, ‘There aren’t any cracks in it. I don’t like it,’” Furr recalls, laughing.

He later recanted, she says, but his premise remained: There was beauty and value in old things. Whether traveling the world with family and friends or simply browsing a flea market or art gallery with his children, Robicsek espoused the power of learning about the past, of finding beauty in artifacts.

Two weeks before her wedding day, 27 years ago, Robicsek took Furr to the jungles of Mexico, where he was on a mission to photograph Mayan ruins. There were no hot showers, they slept in hammocks, and she remembers looking out the back of a truck and realizing they weren’t on a road. But then they arrived at the most amazing old mounds in the middle of nowhere.

“I love how he taught me to see life through the lens of culture and art,” says Furr. “And that I’m very grateful for.”

We at the Mint are also grateful to Robicsek and his family for sharing the life and legacy of the remarkable doctor, buried in his scrubs, who saved lives and championed art in equal measure.


Todd A. Herman, PhD
President & CEO

Remembering Dr. David C. Driskell, a pioneering artist and scholar


The Mint remembers Dr. David C. Driskell, a pioneering artist and scholar

We are losing many great minds and kind hearts in these spring months and while we may not be able to recognize all, we will try to celebrate the lives of artists, collectors and patrons who have had direct impact on the museum and our community. One such man of national and international acclaim is artist and scholar Dr. David C. Driskell, who passed away of coronavirus on April 1, 2020 in Washington D.C. at the age of 88. His touring exhibition Narratives of African American Art and Identity was on view at The Mint Museum in 2002.

Driskell was born on June 7, 1931 in Eatonton, Ga. His paternal Gullah lineage was from the Georgia Sea Islands. His family moved to Hollis in the Appalachian Mountains of western North Carolina when he was a child. His parents were both  “makers”—his father, a blacksmith and Baptist preacher; his mother, a basket weaver and quilter. Educated in a small segregated school house, his teachers recognized his intellect and passion for art and encouraged him to attend college.  He tells the story, with great humor, of traveling to Washington, D.C.,  enthusiastically arriving at Howard University totally unaware of admission procedures, determined to “attend” college.  He sat in on classes until someone helped him officially enroll. His passion, his determination to learn, create, and teach never faulted.

Like his parents, Dr. Driskell also remained a maker. A figurative painter, his work had the loose brushwork and bold colors of the abstract expressionist painters who dominated the galleries in his youth. He became nationally recognized and lauded as early as 1956 with his modern day Pietà, Behold Thy Son, a memorial for the brutally murdered Emmett Till. The painting now hangs near Dr. Driskell’s Washington D.C. home, at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Covid-19 virus abruptly ended his life; however, his legacy—his indelible contribution to the canon of American art history—will live on through his art and through his many publications, scholarly dissertations, lectures, and the generations of art historians that he spawned.

Driskell modeled himself after his mentor, Dr. James A. Porter, who established the art department at Howard University and pioneered the field of African American Art History. As heir to Porter’s groundbreaking work in the field, Driskell pursued his study, achieving his Bachelor of Arts from Howard University in 1955 and an MFA from Catholic University in 1962. He also studied at Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Maine in 1953 and Art History at The Hague, Netherlands in 1964.

Driskell remained an important teacher as well as scholar. He taught at Talladega College in Alabama, Howard University, Fiske University in Tennessee, Bowdoin College in Maine, the University of Michigan, Queens College, and Obafemi Awolowo University in Ile-Ife, Nigeria, before joining the faculty of the Department of Art at the University of Maryland, College Park in 1977. He remained affiliated with the school through his retirement in 1998. In 2001, the school established the David C. Driskell Center for the Study of Visual Arts and Culture of African Americans and the African Diaspora. The school reflects its namesake: Terry Gips, Director of The Art Gallery University of Maryland, states, “Driskell evidences his commitment to enhancing the study of art by emphasizing the multicultural contributions made by Native Americans, Black, Asian and European artists.”

Rubie Britt-Height, Director of Community Relations at The Mint Museum, first met Driskell while on staff at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. “Dr. Driskell was often involved with us—sharing, advising, and supporting,” says Britt-Height. “He would lend commentary on a work or an exhibition, and we’d inquisitively seek his wisdom. And of course, he had great ties to Loïs Mailou Jones, his Howard University art instructor.”

Driskell advised esteemed collections, and in 1996, he assisted President Bill Clinton and First Lady Hillary Clinton in their selection of the first work of art by an African-American for the White House permanent collection with the acquisition of Henry Ossawa Tanner’s Sand Dunes at Sunset, Atlantic City.

Driskell directly touched our Charlotte community when his chose to honor his North Carolina roots by ending his national touring exhibition, Narratives of African American Art and Identity at The Mint Museum in 2002. The museum exhibition, along with a solo exhibition of his paintings at Noel Gallery, was facilitated by former Mint Museum trustee B.E. Noel. “The best way we can honor Dr. Driskell is to enfold the work of African-American art into every aspect of the canon and celebrate our common humanity through art,” says Noel.

Todd Herman, the Board of Directors and our Mint staff extend our appreciation to Dr. Driskell and sincere condolences to the Driskell family.

This piece was written by B.E. Noel, a former trustee of The Mint Museum who knew Dr. David Driskell through her role as a gallerist, collector, and scholar.

Spring cleaning during shelter-in-place? Here are tips for preserving all your favorite things, from photos to clothes to important documents

Spring cleaning during shelter-in-place? Here are tips for preserving all your favorite things, from photos to clothes to important documents

Spring cleaning is taking on a whole new meaning while we’re all cooped up and social distancing inside. Whether you’re cleaning out your closets or that pesky home office, here are some tips from the Mint’s Library & Archives team on how to preserve the stuff you actually want to keep.

1. Always opt for cardboard storage bins

Contrary to what you see on the stocked shelves at the Container Store, cardboard boxes are usually better than plastic bins for storage. Why? Plastic bins can breed mold since they can seal in moisture. (Pro tip: You know those little packets in new shoe boxes? Those absorb moisture. Hang on them to use to throw in plastic storage bins. Just make sure to keep them away from pets and kids!)

2. With cherished papers, skip the paper clips, staples

From kids artwork on the fridge to awards and certificates, it can be hard to know how to best store our cherished paper possessions. For starters, paper is best kept flat. You’ll want to make sure you papers are unfolded and laid flat for storage. If possible, storing in acid-free file folders will help with preservation (these can be easily ordered online if you don’t have any on hand). You’ll also want to remove any paper clips or staples, as these can rust and ruin your papers. Finally, if your item is too large for a folder, rolling it up will always be better than folding.

3. Embrace acid-free paper with photo albums and scrapbooks

Photo albums and scrapbooks are another tricky item to know how to preserve. The first question here: Is everything glued down? If so, just leave it. The photos can be damaged by trying to remove them. You can add sheets of acid free paper between the pages to help prevent acid from the album pages to migrate and deteriorate your mementos. To save a few bucks, check your printer paper if you have any because it might just be acid free. Put the album in a box for extra protection.

4. Here’s how long you should keep tax and loan docs

Most of us have—but don’t want to admit to—a stack of miscellaneous papers in our homes that seem important and probably shouldn’t be thrown away. But knowing when to actually throw away that tax return or bank statement from three years ago can feel really overwhelming. As a rule of thumb, you should plan to keep tax returns for seven years, loan documents until the loan is paid off, and any one-time documents like social security cards and birth certificates forever, according to Consumer Reports.

5. With clothes and fabric, pack flat and wrap strategically

Well, Joan Crawford was right. No wire hangers! Wood, plastic, or padded hangers are a much better choice to preserve your garments. When saving older garments, they should be packed flat and wrapped in acid-free tissue. Quilts and other fabrics should be handled gently and with care, stored in a cool, dry location, and avoid any cleaning or washing if the fabrics are antiques or may have monetary or sentimental value. Read this article from the National Archives for more quilt and fabric preservation tips.

6. Embrace vampire tendencies

Whether you are storing paper, photos, or clothing, keep them out of the sun and away from heat sources to prevent fading and damage. In addition to light sources, keep your valuables away from sources of moisture or water to avoid mold. Keep away from pipes as well, as they can burst and water damage your items. Garages and basements are not the best places for storage; try keeping cherished items stored inside the house where there is more temperature control instead.

We on the Library & Archives team at the Mint know a thing or two about preservation, but this is just a primer. There are loads of online resources for every type of item you can think of. One of our favorite trusted sources is the North Carolina Preservation Consortium; the Mint is a member!