American Writers Museum: Dark Testament

Chicago Scenic’s latest work for the American Writers Museum (AWM) is “Dark Testament: A Century of Black Writers on Justice”, which runs through September 2023.

Dark Testament, the museum’s most ambitious temporary exhibit (so far), features a timeline, interactives, and artwork in three gallery spaces. The exhibit explores racial injustice in America through the work of Black American writers from the end of the Civil War through the Civil Rights Movement. Dark Testament also features a gallery of original art commissioned specifically for the exhibit.

A bit of background: Chicago Scenic first collaborated with AWM in 2017—along with Boston’s Amaze Design—on a design-build project that launched the museum in 2017. From the very beginning, AWM administrators were committed to offering fresh content each year via a temporary exhibit space—and Chicago Scenic has been their partner in making that happen. Here’s a look at their latest collaboration:

The Meijer Gallery

The Dark Testament exhibits occupy three different areas, beginning with the Meijer Gallery exhibit near the Museum’s main entrance. Chicago Scenic created the timeline and introduction to key authors that runs along one side of the gallery.

Vertical columns separate distinct eras and provide a brief description of key events that place Black literature in context within each era. Just beyond each column are wall-mounted exhibits that highlight three authors from that time; books written by each author are displayed on a small wooden shelf, inviting guests to browse. Underneath the books are “flip” panels that can be lifted to reveal more detailed information about the author. The material is intentionally organized in layers like an outline, according to Chicago Scenic’s senior project manager Jim Mallerdino, so that guests can consume just the top layer of information, or dig deeper to satisfy their curiosity.

The other side of the gallery features 13 original artworks created by four contemporary artists. Chicago Scenic built the backwall and rail from which the art hangs, then installed each piece according to the graphic layout the design team provided. The bright colors energize the environment.

The Writers Gallery

Frequent visitors to AWM may recognize the Writers Room as a space that previously housed the “Tools of the Trade” (see blog post Chicago Scenic built the modular maple bookcases found in this exhibit; they are similar to previous ones used in other exhibits and have become the standard for this and future exhibits.

“When we first began working with the museum staff and the Amaze design team, we talked a lot about phasing in new components,” Mallerdino added. “That was important so we could meet existing budget parameters, but we also knew that by using consistent design and materials, we could add complementary components over the years without significantly affecting the annual budget. That’s been just one of the benefits of working together for the past five years.”

While the cases are used as open bookcases, according to Mallerdino, they include a slot at the front where glass panels can be inserted, transforming the bookcases into secure artifact cases. At the back of these bookcases, color panels are inserted that complement the exhibit’s bright colors; the color of those panels can be easily changed or removed altogether to reveal the neutral maple back wall, adding to the design’s adaptability.

Visitors to the gallery will also find new video content displayed on four screens. Video content was provided by Trivium, an audio-visual partner we have worked with from AWM’s early days. The video appears as one image across all four screens and then dissolves into four separates images; its content shows how the words of Black writers bridge generations and connect past writers to current writers – many of whom are grappling with the same issues prevalent 150 years ago. Chicago Scenic’s team reinstalled the screens, speakers, and an acoustic tile baffle.

The Writers Room

This is the smallest space and exhibit in Dark Testament; it occupies the area that usually houses visiting author lectures. This exhibit is installed in the southwest corner of the room and features large graphic reproductions of Black newspaper coverage of significant historical events. We created the hanging graphic panels—and the steel and wood structure from which they hang. The graphic rails in front of the vertical panels contain more detailed information on the key historical events displayed above them.

Chicago Scenic’s Ben Morin worked as the project lead. Amaze Design created the exhibit design; Trivium and graphics partner Color Image were key partners.

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