Published: October 24, 2023
Shelby Sickler is an architect, interior designer, furniture designer and exhibit designer. These skills come together as she collaborates with the curatorial team on the design of the upcoming special exhibit, “Acoustic America: Iconic Guitars, Mandolins, and Banjos,” opening at the Musical Instrument Museum (MIM) on November 10. The new exhibition strings together instruments, artists and stories from folk, blues, bluegrass and more acoustic music traditions of the United States. The aim is to immerse visitors in a rich living history that spans generations of iconic musicians and influential makers, one that continues to thrive today. We checked in with Shelby for a designer’s-eye preview of what’s in store.
Please tell us a little about yourself and your background.
I wanted to be a designer by the time I was 9 years old, thanks to my parents. In the ‘80s and ‘90s, my parents owned Actors Lab Arizona, where my mother was the director and my father was the set designer. My journey as a designer began in our garage, doubling as my father’s woodshop, where I acted as his assistant. He was also an exhibit designer for the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art, so I suppose this was my destiny. A visit to Carlo Scarpa’s Brion Tomb in Italy while working on my BS in interior design at Arizona State University opened my eyes to the profound impact of form, space, light, texture and landscape on my creative spirit. Following my master of architecture 3+ program at the University of Texas at Austin, I enjoyed a fulfilling six-year tenure at Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects + Partners in New York City. There I worked on significant projects, including the Obama Presidential Center and Library, along with many other museum and university buildings. In December 2021, I returned to Phoenix, Ariz., to be closer to family and fulfill my desire to design on a more intimate scale, leading me to exhibit design.
How did you achieve visual cohesion in the exhibit with more than 90 historic instruments, conveying interconnected American music traditions, and what was the design timeline?
Design begins with a strong concept and research. Senior curator Rich Walter, associate exhibit designer Lila Dougherty and I reviewed each instrument in detail. Our vision for “Acoustic America” is a celebration of these iconic instruments and the remarkable human beings who played or created them. We visualized this vision by creating a “deck of cards,” each featuring an “Acoustic America” instrument. These cards were shuffled on a gallery floor plan, accompanied by discussions on their history, origin, aesthetics, genre and associations. We settled on an initial layout of three gallery sections that have progressed since early May, with ongoing refinements leading up to the November 10 opening.
Will any instruments in the exhibition share stories and how did their shared history impact the exhibition’s design?
The objects and their stories are intrinsically connected. Associate exhibit designer Lila Dougherty created two graphic mind maps for artists and makers, aiding in the organization of three sections. Section 1 introduces guests to origins, histories and iconic instruments. Some represent manufacturers or novel inventions, while others represent stories of great artists, like Mississippi John Hurt’s 1964 Guild F-30 guitar, now owned and played by pop artist John Oates. Section 2 connects origins, genres, artists, places and makers through sub-exhibits. Section 3 celebrates David Grisman, his private instrument collection, and the artists he has collaborated or crossed paths with. Though segmented, the three sections are interconnected, inviting guests to explore these links.
How does this exhibition advance MIM’s commitment to collecting, preserving and making accessible musical instruments from every country in the world?
MIM houses more than 7,500 instruments from more than 200 countries and territories. Each gallery exhibit is shaped by an expert curator aiming to capture the culture’s diversity and history. The MIM’s special exhibitions allow curators to delve deeply into specific stories, like “Acoustic America,” curated by curator for USA/Canada, Rich Walter. Beautifully stated by MIM’s deputy director and chief curator, “‘Acoustic America’ reflects MIM’s commitment to representing musical traditions through engaging displays and exhibitions that highlight the inherent beauty, craftsmanship and functionality of musical instruments and narratives that reflect the creativity, vision, innovation and legacy of instrument makers and musicians. In ‘Acoustic America,’ the sounds — and, ultimately, music — that these makers and musicians create coalesce into some of America’s most cherished genres.”
What drives your interest in museum design and culture, especially exhibit design?
Scale, storytelling and connection to the community. My experience with architecture on a large scale left me detached from the design’s physical creation and end-users. Exhibit design enables intimate collaboration with curators to realize their vision. Our ever-changing exhibits demand weekly installations, allowing me to continually refine designs for instrument representation. I also have the luxury of being “onsite” every day. I can walk through galleries for inspiration, observe guests engaging with exhibits or quickly grab dimensions. Watching guests interact with the exhibits gratifies me and offers valuable insight through observation.
No doubt that some of the blue-chip musician’s instruments you mentioned that are on loan have hefty values. How does the museum ensure security for them?
The museum’s security, including strategically placed surveillance and alarms, is top-notch. Our dedicated volunteers also oversee the intimate special exhibit gallery. Many of the objects are provided by generous lenders, therefore we take the safety of each object very seriously. Every member of the exhibit and curatorial team is properly trained to handle the instruments. Our talented conservator, Rodrigo Correa-Salas, inspects each instrument, produces reports and performs necessary repairs.
How did your partnership with David Grisman and Acoustic Disc originate, and were there special design choices to honor his contributions to acoustic music?
David Grisman, a celebrated performer and collector, has previously graced the MIM Music Theater and loaned MIM an instrument for an exhibition. “Acoustic America” presents the ideal platform to feature his exceptional collection, celebrating an artist devoted to a lifetime of music. Guests will see dozens of instruments from Grisman’s collection, including rare instruments never previously publicly displayed. The final chapter of the exhibit offers an intimate experience centered on David Grisman and Acoustic Disc’s contributions.
Is there anything about the display or sound qualities of acoustic instruments — I’m thinking humidity and the way unamplified sound travels — that affects the way this exhibition is designed in comparison to a show about electric instruments?
MIM carefully monitors temperature and humidity in galleries with sensors. Our staff check and record these measurements daily. This standard will be applied to “Acoustic America.” Proper lighting is essential to protect objects and we will adjust the lighting positions and levels to maintain the requirements for each object after installation.
What are some of the live performances and demonstrations that are being planned for the opening weekend festivities on November 10-12?
For opening weekend, there are several activities planned, including performances by International Blues Challenge winner Eric Ramsey and bluegrass group Badly Bent. Rich Walter, who curated the exhibition, will also be leading tours inside the gallery.
November 28, 2023
November 28, 2023
November 21, 2023
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