Designing Museum Exhibits – A Conversation with Exhibit Designer Sylvie Laborde

HMSC Connects! Episode 17


Jennifer Berglund, Sylvie Laborde

Jennifer Berglund  00:04

Welcome to HMSC Connects!, where we go behind the scenes of four Harvard museums to explore the connections between us, our big, beautiful world, and even what lies beyond. My name is Jennifer Berglund, part of the exhibits team here at the Harvard Museums of Science and Culture, and I'll be your host. Today, I'm speaking with my close colleague and one of my very favorite people. Sylvie Laborde is HMSC's Senior Designer in our Exhibits Department, so I get to work with her closely to create HMSC's fabulous exhibits. I wanted to take you behind the scenes of the creation of an exhibit, and Sylvie is the perfect person to give you a little peek into our process. I also wanted to get a better understanding of how her spectacularly visual imagination works to design our spaces for optimal learning and fun. Here she is! Sylvie Laborde, welcome to the show!


Sylvie Laborde  01:18

Thank you for having me. Looking forward to it.


Jennifer Berglund  01:26

How did you get started designing exhibits?


Sylvie Laborde  01:30

My background is actually product design and packaging design, and initially this was mostly for cosmetics in Paris. When I came to Boston, I started to look for jobs, anything that involved the word 'designer', and I ended up finding this ad from a company that had a project for Gillette, so I assume it was a cosmetic product.


Jennifer Berglund  01:54

Gillette as in, like, the shaver company?


Sylvie Laborde  01:56

Well, that's what I believed it was.  But as I went for the interview, it happened to be that it was Gillette Castle State Park in Connecticut, and they needed a designer to redo all the interpretation on the museum. And once I was there, I really needed a job. So I was like, "oh, sure, I can do that." That was the first exhibit that I ever did. And then I kind of got hooked. Gillette Castle was the actor from Sherlock Holmes made this crazy castle, kind of base on a Sherlock Holmes novel. And they had all those gimmecks, and all those trick mirrors, and all those kind of funky things, and so we did that.


Jennifer Berglund  02:40

So cool.


Sylvie Laborde  02:41

Yeah, it's if you ever get a chance, you should see it. It's amazing. But it's like that very kind of like Scottish castle in Connecticut. I really loved that I got to learn about this amazing person that built this castle, and I found it very interesting. It really opened something for me.  I realized that cosmetics were kind of a little boring in comparison to what I could learn doing exhibitions. So this started like a nine year journey with MDA where I got to work on many different kinds of exhibition from Dinosaur State Park in Connecticut, to the Museum of Making Music in California, to the Maritime Museum in Philadelphia. I just really loved that, regardless of the museum or the exhibit that we were working on, I always learned something different. So I was totally hooked. And, obviously, I still am.


Jennifer Berglund  03:44

In the very beginning of the process, do you have key questions that start painting that mental picture for you?


Sylvie Laborde  03:51

Not really, because I feel I don't know enough about every subject to really have like a key question. It's just more listening. And then by listening, I'm like, okay, so I see what is important for this project, or, oh, wow, that's cool. We can definitely use that, like in microbes for example.  The kitchen becomes the centerpiece, and I was like, "this is perfect because I can really create a visual that can also carry some information."


Jennifer Berglund  04:23

You're kind of amazing at thinking about that because, you know, coming from just a development, research and information perspective, giving you just this load of information at the beginning of an exhibit, and being like, "Sylvie," you know, "turn this into something beautiful." I'm always kind of mystified and amazed by how you're able to do that.


Sylvie Laborde  04:44

To be honest, I always start like I feel I'm like in a fog, and everything is very foggy, and I have no idea where I'm going, and it's like, the beginning of a project is very strange that way.  And then, as I'm getting information from you, from collections or from whoever, curators, the fog starts dissipating, and I'm starting to have a little bit of a vision of how things can come together. That's the fun part for me.  It's just like, "Oh, yeah, now I can see what we can do. I can see what can be the focus point. I can see what can be the highlight of the exhibit and how we can organize everything around that." So, it's kind of interesting. It's just like, at first I'm very blank, and then suddenly, I have these little pop up windows that come in my brain, and then slowly everything gets connected.


Jennifer Berglund  05:42

You mentioned an exhibit that we have at the Museum of Natural History, the Microbial Life exhibit.  And the centerpiece of the whole exhibit is this mock-up of a kitchen. And the point of the kitchen is really microbes are all around us. All these items in the kitchen have their own microbes. So, you have a sponge that has its own microbes, you have things that have fallen on the floor.  The point being that microbes are everywhere. They're ubiquitous in our environment. I happen to know that that kitchen idea as being sort of the organizing principle, was the thing that set off the design process. When you had that idea in your mind, where did you go from there? How did you figure out how to think about the rest of the space?


Sylvie Laborde  06:30

Well, what I like about the kitchen area is that every visitor could relate to it. And that's why it was a great starting point. But I think what was important is to talk with you and Jan as Content Developers and Writers, and see how that could be interpreted.  Working with a Content Developer, in that case, you mostly, and Jan, what was interesting is that how can we highlight things in the kitchen in order to carry the content that we were trying to carry, and finding the stories that would touch our visitors, and that they could relate to.  The kitchen is perfect for that because everybody has a sponge, everybody has a sink. And you can tell so much of the story with those simple elements. But I'm only the designer. So for me, it's like, how do I carry the stories that you guys want to say, and make it real in the space, and it's only basically giving you support to tell the story. So a lot of the job come to you.


Jennifer Berglund  07:41

It's an exchange, you know, that's kind of the cool part about it. 


Sylvie Laborde  07:44

It's definitely a teamwork, taking all the different elements. And actually, we have your lovely keyboard in a space that illustrates


Jennifer Berglund  07:54

The famous disgusting keyboard.


Sylvie Laborde  07:56

I have to say it's probably one of the worst I've seen


Jennifer Berglund  08:01

To all the listeners out there who haven't seen the exhibit, once we reopen, and you can actually see it, take a look at the keyboard, recognize how disgusting it is, and forget that it was mine, please.


Sylvie Laborde  08:13

But it was definitely a very important artifact to this exhibit. So it really carried a lot of the message, so I think that was good.


Jennifer Berglund  08:22

The point was that whether you know it or not, even if you keep a clean keyboard, your keyboard contains microbes from you, and lots of microbes from you. And in fact, we had a photographer and a microbiologist named Scott Chimeleski who took these amazing photographs of microbes in various forms, and he had a bunch of people put their fingerprints on a petri dish, and then he grew the microbes from their fingerprints. The microbes that grew were these really beautiful forms all in the shape of a fingerprint, and he took a picture, and so we have a picture of what he grew right next to my disgusting keyboard. So, it's that extra layer of loveliness that Sylvie put together.


Sylvie Laborde  09:08

And I have to say, during COVID-19 time, it's really, really interesting to see how much microbes we carry. This is definitely an exhibit that, when we reopen, people will be interested to see since it's definitely raising people's awareness on some things that we kind of take for granted. We always think about the kitchen sink, but we don't always think of the keyboard, and it's probably worse.


Jennifer Berglund  09:38

So back to the design process. Once we had that kitchen idea, I know Jan and I came at you with a bunch of things that we wanted to talk about.  We feed this information to Sylvie, and then Sylvie has to make sense of it all and make it beautiful in the space. So once we have sort of the central concept of the kitchen, how do you start brainstorming.


Sylvie Laborde  10:00

In that particular gallery one of the major problem is that there is a column dead center. So it creates a little bit of a tricky situation in the actual space. So generally, circulation has to be around something. So in that particular project it was fairly easy because basically, we say, "hey, let's put the kitchen in the center," and then radiate around it, all the different topics, so you can bounce back and forth with the kitchen. On this one, we also found this artist that does these beautiful glass sculptures.  They were kind of a great way to make focus point to all the different areas we were trying to illustrate. They are very visual, and they are very beautiful and they became all our main intro areas to see exhibit.


Jennifer Berglund  10:56

And these are these crystal etchings, like laser etchings, and thy're three dimensional.  We have a virus, we have a tardigrade,


Sylvie Laborde  11:02

We have a colony as well. The colony is probably my favorite.  Those were to create a visual interest, and to also highlight the different kind of area and topics that we're going to talk about on the the exhibit. The only problem with that space is that we always have two entry points.  Two entry points create a way to circulate in the space that is not linear, so we always have to make sure that it doesn't matter how you come at it, the interpretation makes sense. The graphics have to have a look and the style and the story makes sense by itself, but also the story makes sense as part of a bigger story. And I think that's always a challenge, regardless what gallery we work with. What is very different from a book design is that a book design, you know for sure people are going to page by page.  In an exhibit, your chances that, you know, you had your kids running opposite way, and you are chasing them, and then you're like, "oh, this is kind of cool. I want to read that." So everything has to be a standalone, and part of one storyline. And I guess that's your challenge.


Jennifer Berglund  12:21

I think there's a science to this, though, where, you know, unfortunately, as much as I care about the written word and text on a wall, I have to also recognize that people have short attention spans, and I have these little bits of text, and chances are, they're probably not going to read that. But what really draws people to the different parts of the exhibits, to the individual stories that I want to tell, are the visuals. Because exhibits are sensory, they're tactile, they're visual. And when you think about how you process your senses, really you react most quickly to what you see. So if you see something beautiful, you see something in a color, or an interesting font, or you see an image that's placed in a particular way, and you're drawn there first. That's what hooks the audience before you even hook them to the story. What you do is so critical to making an exhibit successful.


Sylvie Laborde  13:21

Yeah, I definitely think that to create visuals that are attractive, that seems very superficial, but actually, it's what makes it interesting for people.  Also, making it easy to read. So again, that's a back and forth between the Content Developer/Writer and me, it's like, you know what, if we had a subhead here to break the text a little bit, it will be so much better because now you don't have 200 words to read at once. And if you want to skip to the next paragraph, people know what it is about. It's always kind of, again, a teamwork between the Graphic Designer and the Content Developer to make sure that it doesn't come at the visitor overwhelmingly by, like, having a big huge amount of text on the wall. As we know, people do not read every single line of an exhibit. But even if they get a couple of their questions answered, that's enough to feel like we have been successful with an exhibit, because at the end, my role as a designer is not to make something pretty.  It's just to make some things that visitor can go through and learn something, and make it accessible for them to learn. How everything holds together at the end of an exhibit is what makes it a successful exhibit.


Jennifer Berglund  14:47

You saying that, it strikes me that design is a means of communication. It's kind of a language, and to make it that way, you have to think about it holistically. One of the things that I always struggle with is I want to throw just every cool thing I find in a case, and tell a story about it  You have to push back a little bit and tell me that I can't include as many of the objects because if you overwhelm a case, if you have too many things in it, people aren't going to pay attention to the cool story. So you have to choose just a few things that really stand out that people will notice individually, and then you have to think about putting the objects on top of and in front of a color that's not going to detract from the object itself. And the same with fonts and graphics, as you were saying. So in that way, it's kind of a language, right?


Sylvie Laborde  15:36

It is kind of a language, but you are not trying to make a design statement. It's never really about the design. I mean, for me, it's telling the story that is important, and trying to be coherent.  That's the most important part. So that's why I'm saying my job as a designer is a little bit design, and a lot of organization, and a lot of, kind of, keeping things together so they are visually interesting and understandable to the public. So by example, you were just saying, sometimes you have many, many, many different objects that are all super cool. And of course, we have limitation on how many we can display. And sometimes we don't pick the most pretty one or the most striking one, we pick the one that has the most interesting story to illustrate what the exhibit is about. So sometimes the object is like, "oh, what is that little rock? It's not so most pretty one.  Why? What is cool about that rock?"  But sometimes, that's what creates the interest too. It's like, "Oh, that's look ordinary, but actually it is not," and that's the part that is interesting.


Jennifer Berglund  16:54

I want to switch gears a little bit.


Sylvie Laborde  16:56



Jennifer Berglund  16:57

And take a little bit of a time machine. back to your childhood growing up in France. How do you think your experiences in your childhood influenced your career as a designer?


Sylvie Laborde  17:10

I think, very early on, I knew I liked design in general. I can remember two times where it became very obvious to me. My mom, when she was younger, she was a window display designer, so she made windows for companies look very pretty and seasonal. And I remember one particular project, she worked for this companies. It was a clothes company in Paris, and they were known for having very nice, colorful sweaters. And I remember one of her ideas.  She worked with this metal sculptor, and she asked him to make these giant metal pie dishes, and I thought, obviously it was very cool. I could sit on them. They were four feet wide. They were humungous.  Just that was really interesting, and seeing the artist working was really interesting. But what she did with it is something that always stay with me is she used them in a store, and kind of displayed them like what you would see in a bakery, and she lay the sweater inside the pie dish, almost like colorful candies, and then she stacked a different pie dish in a way that made it so beautiful and colorful, and so visually interesting. That never left me.  That always stayed with me, like, how you could have sweater on a shelf, or you could display it that way with all the different colors, and they looked absolutely beautiful. So, I realized very early on that color was important to me, but also like the organization of color was important to me. Another experience was with my dad who imported and exported mostly flower bulbs from Holland, and I remember one trip with him when I was probably about 10, and we went to Keukenhof in Holland to look at the tulip fields, and I was absolutely amazed by all those different colors of flowers, and the beautiful designs that they created, which could have been just lines and rows of color, but they were grown in patterns, and it was just like absolutely amazing and vibrant colors. I think those are probably some of my influence that I got from my family, and also the realization that it was important to me.


Jennifer Berglund  19:41

And as you've told me before, design is so everpresent in your daily life that


Sylvie Laborde  19:46

It's kind of a disease.  And now, I cannot go to a restaurant without starting to redesign the place and say, "why is there a wall there? That doesn't make sense." It drives my husband crazy, but you know, he cannot got the bug too because he started to do it too. And so has my daughter, and we're all like, "yeah, that color already doesn't work.  it kills the space." So it became kind of a family project to redesign restaurants where we go.


Jennifer Berglund  20:16

What do you love most about designing exhibits for Harvard.


Sylvie Laborde  20:20

It's interesting because when I started designing museum exhibit, I worked for a company that was a design company, so I designed for many different types of museums. And when I first started at Harvard, I mostly did the natural history side of HMSC. And the only major difference was the access to amazing collections, and to never-ending knowledge. I think that's what makes working at Harvard very different from working for a design firm. I don't know of any place where you can work and you can say, "oh, I need the lemur to illustrate the topic we are talking about." And you can literally walk to collections and say, "oh, what kind of lemurs do you have?" Or, you know, I need a colorful beetle. What do you have?" Like you're shopping.  You know, I mean, it's unbelievable.  And obviously all the knowledge that goes with that is what makes Harvard totally a different place, for me anyway, a different place to work, and I'm sure for you too, since you are like on the content of that.  And working with really amazing people, which you know a lot about, and that's what makes it really, really rich. And I have to say, now that I'm the senior designer for HMSC, to have this opening to other subjects, more cultural subjects, with the Peabody, with HMANE, and Scientific Instruments for me is absolutely interesting just because of the collection of objects that they have is totally amazing. So every museum has collections and knowledge that make it really unique, and over the years, it's been great to actually transitionin from just natural history to more cultural projects because I actually came from that originally. Working with a design firm, we didn't limit ourselves to natural history. It could be music, it could be cultural, it could be historical. And then, now, I'm kind of back where I started with that, but with so much richness because now we have access to all the faculty knowledge, and to also an extraordinary collection of objects.  That definitely makes it more unique for me.


Jennifer Berglund  22:48

Sylvie Laborde, thank you so much for being here. This has been super fun.


Sylvie Laborde  22:53

And thank you for having me. This was definitely a fun podcast, and I hope everybody enjoys it.


Jennifer Berglund  23:04

Today's HMSC Connects! Podcast was produced by me, Jennifer Berglund, and the Harvard Museums of Science and Culture. Special thanks to Sylvie Laborde and HMSC for their wisdom and expertise. And thank you so much for listening! By the way, things are getting busy in the exhibits department, so we started releasing podcasts every other week, so stay tuned for our next episode in a couple of weeks. If you like today's podcast, please subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Podbean, or wherever you get your podcasts. See you week after next!

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