Faculty in Focus: Clare Brown

February 1, 2013

Associate Chair of Exhibition Design

After years of designing exhibitions for the National Museum of American History, the Newseum, and other institutions in New York and Washington DC, Clare Brown was an obvious choice to lead the Exhibition Design graduate program at the Corcoran. It wasn’t hard to convince her to come teach, either. “I supervised a group of interns at the American History museum who were all studying at the Corcoran,” she recalls, “and I was very impressed at the caliber of work they were producing. I knew that I wanted to be involved in what the Corcoran was doing to push and evolve the field of exhibition design.”

Clare BrownCurrently in its fourth year, the Exhibition Design program emphasizes interpretive design skills. Students have landed internships and jobs at private design firms, various Smithsonian institutions, the Getty, and Whitney, and the National Zoo. Explains Brown, “The professionalization of this field is still very new. We’ve asked ourselves, ‘What’s the most important thing to teach our students in order for them to be designers of the future?” She calls it storytelling—the ability to cull information from a curator’s vision and the artists’ work, and combine these into a three-dimensional visual narrative viewers can explore. “We are not only training students to be exhibition designers, but to be design thinkers.”

Brown recently designed The First Ladies and FOOD: Transforming the American Table 1950–2000 at the American History Museum. For the First Ladies exhibition, Brown worked with gowns and other objects that had been displayed many times, some of them since the 1930s. They had been displayed in reproduction rooms meant to reflect the time periods they were worn in. Brown decided to modernize the exhibit by making the dresses the main visual component of the display. “I try to create a design that best reinforces the curatorial message,” says Brown, “Looking at these dresses and the associated personal artifacts, you really get sense of the person who wore them.”  For the FOOD exhibition Brown worked with a  large team of curators to create a space that is inviting, familiar, intimate, and conversational. “Interpretive exhibitions like FOOD are great examples of how design can convey and reinforce meaning. I wanted to create a space where a visitor feels at home, just like anyone’s kitchen, where conversation flows and information is exchanged. Exhibitions are unique in that they convey meaning and information in both formal and informal ways. Exhibition design brings together so many of my interests, and I think it can appeal to a wide range of students and applicants.”

Photo: Denny Henry