The never-before-seen archive of an American legend


I served as design director on this exhibition of over five hundred photos and items from John Wayne's archive.  The opportunity for the Duke's estate to partner with the Gaylord Opryland in Nashville happened rather quickly, and by the time I was brought on to the project I had only six weeks to design and one week to build, and install this 6000 square foot exhibit, which at completion included six rooms, ten interactive elements, fifty-three custom displays and display cases, twenty one audio visual elements, one hundred and nine pieces of signage, over five hundred item and image captions, and over two hundred photographs.

I designed every single element of the exhibit--drew every floorplan, designed every display case, laid out every wall, designed every piece of signage.  I also curated around forty percent of the items in the exhibit; supervised the entire build and install including builders, art handlers, AV techs, and sign installers; sourced all sound design and edited video; wrote the production schedule; designed custom security gates; and wrote the electric plan.
Coverage from Channel 5 in Nashville.
Besides the condensed timeline, the main challenge of this project was producing a museum-quality exhibition that could travel and be reassembled easily on a limited budget.  I did a ton of materials research and worked closely with fabricators and sourced directly from distributors to decrease costs.  I strategized inexpensive finishing details to give the exhibit a high-touch look--floating and hand-edging all the displays, custom paint, baseboarding all of the temporary walls. 

This was mostly a one-woman operation, but I certainly had help--I consulted with jewelers on display case lighting, a composer on creating ambient sound for each room, photographers on reproducing hundred year-old photos, and a clothing designer on dressing mannequins. 
This twenty-eight foot long display of costume and personal items was the most challenging element of the exhibit to design, build, and install.  Thanks to the wit and persistence of my team it came together beautifully and became the visual centerpiece of the whole exhibit.  The boxes were custom fabricated and mounts built on-the-fly onsite.
Because of time and budget constraints, custom mannequins were out of the question.  We customized standard retail mannequins to Wayne's big-and-tall frame by lopping off their feet and bulking them up with archival foam.  The platforms were also custom built.
The exhibit featured 1-3 interactive elements per room.  My favorite (and the overwhelming crowd pleaser) was "Write a letter to John Wayne", an interactive within an exhibit of fan mail.  Both children and adults could write letters to the Duke and tack them up on a designated wall, where they would remain on display for the run of the exhibit and eventually be added to the Wayne archive.  The letters were incredibly touching, and even next to a 10' x 10' crate overflowing with fan mail, they managed to become the greatest testament of how important the Duke and his legacy still are to so many people.
The fan mail room featured ambient typewriter sound and a real antique typewriter--the same model Wayne used to respond to letters--that guests could freely interact with.
My favorite curation moment was the inclusion of Wayne's personal rock collection, in the center case above.  It felt so intimate and it really drove home how throughly this exhibit showed who the Duke was beyond the screen.
Custom paint helped offset black and white photos, and created a visual flow between rooms.
I also developed a series of symbols to unite signage and indicate photo-ops, social media opportunities, and interactive elements.
The layout of the show had to be flexible.  The archive is stored across the country, and many of the items were not able to be photographed or dimensions properly documented, so displays sometimes had to be reconfigured on site.  When an archival error eliminated all items from this six foot display case, we quickly had to find a way to fill it.  I was able to poke through some of the 40+ mail bags of fan mail displayed outside the exhibit and pull some of the most charming envelopes, showing both the variety and abundance of letters the Duke received.
I also designed custom rigs, like this display of flags from Wayne's boat, and the accompanying podium below.
Senior Producer: Lindsey Van Nuil
Retail Design: Elizabeth Anderson
Display Case Fabrication: Paul Wilson / North American Display Cases
AV: Solid Gold Productions / Black Magic AV
Ambient Sounds mixed by Paul Kozel

MORE THANKS!: Daniel, + the DED team, Jeff, Kelly, and Max at Art Market, Jillian, Amy, Casey, and Candice from the JW estate, Rebecca at Signs First Nashville, Lisa Schmidt, the Gaylord Opryland, and the greatest honky tonk on earth, Music City Bar.

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