institution: Minneapolis Institute of Art
category: Exhibition Media or Experience
As part of a multi-gallery effort to reinvigorate several of the museum’s period rooms, we were asked to re-imagine this small, barren, under-visited historic parlor for today’s visitors, placing the past in dialogue with the present, while simultaneously broadening the conversation to include other histories—of marginalized people, of the senses, and even of time itself. Providence Parlor before:
The Providence Parlor once occupied prime real estate on a wharf in 1700s Providence, Rhode Island. Its owners operated a prosperous business that imported and exported goods by sea. Their store, The Sign of the Golden Eagle, offered a resplendent selection of imported fabrics, spices, housewares, and rum. Their market was the world, and the world, their market, made possible by trade winds, war profiteering, and the labor of enslaved people.
To immerse visitors in this story, our strategic concept was to restore the parlor, along with its wharfside setting, back to life through a naturalistic soundscape, multi-sensory discovery cabinet of mercantile curios, and digital projections of animated shadow puppets that enliven the windows, and populate the room, with historically appropriate characters.
To create an immersive experience, we designed and employed a combination of high- and low-tech tools that engage the senses of sight, sound, touch, and smell.
SIGHT: Window Animations
The animations in the windows combined handcraft and digital technology. A storyboard of vignettes—using specific characters and scenery—put the Providence Parlor in a context that playfully re-imagines its time and place.
To animate the room’s four long windows, Kris engineered a custom collection of paper shadow puppets to portray street- and wharflife scenes from 1760s Providence.
Diane and Kris manipulated the puppets flush against a handbuilt vertical stage. Once videotaped, the footage was edited together using Adobe Premiere.
A vignette effect was added in post-production, which solved the problem of not being able to fill the entire vertical window opening. We also added a “camera shake” and visual noise (Adobe Premiere and After Effects) to give the footage a vintage look/feel.
Four large LCD monitors mounted behind the historic windows project the looped scenes. Two windows represent well-mannered life in the village, while the other two windows portray the grittier side of the wharf, complete with sailors, prostitutes, and enslaved dockworkers. A composite video of all four windows:
A custom soundscape evokes the wharf’s acoustic atmosphere (seagulls squawking, drunken sailors singing, wooden ships creaking, waves lapping, etc.).
SMELL & TOUCH
To entice visitors’ participation and pique their curiosity, the room features a custom-designed and -built Discovery Cabinet containing an integrated smell station (cloves, ginger, black pepper, nutmeg, etc.) and textile-touch station.
Its drawers contain period-appropriate objects that illustrate the story of the triangle trade (rum, indigo, tobacco, dried salt cod, olive oil, etc.). Each object appeared on an original advertisement of mercantile curios published by the parlor’s owners.
Abstract seagull shapes on the ceiling emphasize the original wharf-side setting of the Providence Parlor. Didactics with images (maps, photographs, historic documents) root the room in original scholarship and tell the story of the triangle trade of goods in exchange for enslaved people.
Minneapolis Institute of Art, Project Principals: Alex Bortolot, Content Strategist and Manager, Living Rooms Initiative; Diane Richard, Audience Engagement Strategist/Writer and co-lead, Providence Parlor Project; Kris Thayer, Audience Engagement Strategist/Designer and co-lead, Providence Parlor Project; Douglas Hegley, Chief Digital Officer, Executive Sponsor, Providence Parlor Project