The Gallery Design
A Collaboration in Merging Aesthetics and Education
In a uniquely productive collaboration, Berkeley-based firm Gordon Chun Design and Huntington designer Karina White developed the design for “Beautiful Science: Ideas That Changed the World” in the Dibner Hall of the History of Science. Organized into four themed galleries—astronomy, natural history, medicine, and light—and a reading room, all of the galleries are richly atmospheric, using vibrant wall colors, dynamic graphics, and book displays intermingled with interactive components.
Gordon Chun Design and White have worked closely to reimagine the possibilities of library exhibitions at The Huntington. In an attempt to move beyond the traditional format of library displays, the team has approached the content and themes of the exhibition looking for opportunities to bring the books and manuscripts to life. Combining some of the best aspects of interactive experiences drawn from history and science exhibits with the aesthetics of art exhibits, “Beautiful Science” attempts to celebrate beautiful ideas in a space that inspires. The written and printed materials are the core of the exhibition, but the nature of presenting rare materials on exhibition is not without its challenges. Books—meant to be read, held, and shared, are instead encased in glass, and the nature of protecting them distances them from the visitors. So, in response, the exhibition team has integrated a number of interactive experiences designed to give visitors a glimpse into the wonder of discovery exemplified by the books. For example, a 17th-century microscope replica will sit alongside Robert Hooke’s Micrographia (1665), one of the first published works featuring drawings made using a microscope. Visitors can imagine one of the earliest views through a microscope while viewing Hooke’s extraordinarily detailed drawings. Other interactives are based even more closely on books featured in the exhibition. An extraordinary copy of anatomist Andreas Vesalius’ Epitome (1543) features a series of paper overlays of the human body. Students of the 16th century were meant to cut them out and superimpose the layers of the circulatory system, muscles, and inner organs on a drawing of the human skeleton. In “Beautiful Science,” visitors will be able to see the original while lifting through the layers of a facsimile copy alongside it.
At the core of the design effort is an interest in celebrating the extraordinary works from the Huntington’s history of science collections while giving a context for understanding those works. The wall graphics are carefully considered and designed to reinforce beautiful ideas from the history of science. A section on evolution features more than 250 copies of Darwin’s Origin of Species, emphasizing the importance and spread of Darwin’s groundbreaking theory across the globe. Above these copies is a richly illustrated wall graphic charting some of the major ideas related to inheritance and evolution, from Aristotle to Lamarck to Darwin. Likewise, in the astronomy gallery, a series of historic illustrations reinforces shifts from an Earth-centered world view as described in Ptolemy’s Almagest to a universe inhabited by multiple galaxies as imagined by Thomas Wright and confirmed by Edwin Hubble. By artfully representing the shifts in scientific thought, the exhibition design serves both aesthetic and educational roles.
“Beautiful Science” is the second major Huntington exhibition produced by the team of Gordon Chun Design and Huntington staff. The first was “Plants Are Up to Something,” an exhibition anchoring the educational program of The Rose Hills Foundation Conservatory for Botanical Science, which opened to visitors in October 2005. The exhibition won the grand prize in the annual Excellence in Exhibition Competition sponsored by the American Association of Museums in 2006.
Gordon Chun Design
“We believe that exhibits should teach and entertain,” says Chun. “Our challenge as designers is to achieve the proper balance of these two concepts.”
Chun got his start in the 1970s designing exhibitions at Oakland’s Museum of California. Recent science-oriented projects include exhibition spaces for the Bay Area Discovery Museum in Sausalito and the Exploratorium in San Francisco. Chun also has designed spaces and supplementary materials devoted to history, such as those at San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum, the Chinese Historical Society of America, and the Museum of the African Diaspora.
Taken as a whole, Chun’s work crosses the disciplines of art, history, and science. His history exhibits use lessons learned from designing interactive components for science installations. Likewise, science displays lacking strong visual components are infused with the aesthetic of an art gallery. “Beautiful Science” in Dibner Hall, where one manuscript dates as far back as 1279, adheres to similar innovative principles.