Paving Memory Lane: Elon University’s 125th Anniversary Exhibit

In 2013-14, Elon University in North Carolina marks its quasquicentennial anniversary (that’s 125 years if your Latin is a little rusty). Keren Rivas, Elon’s assistant director of university communications for alumni, and Christopher Eyl, associate director of design, faced a tough task: How do you put all of your institution’s people, traditions, challenges and triumphs on display in an engaging, digestible way for alumni and the campus community to enjoy?

Within a short time frame and with a limited budget, Rivas and Eyl spearheaded the assembly of a museum-like collection on campus, enabling people to take a walk through Elon’s history. The exhibit made its debut for the university’s homecoming Nov. 8-10. The duo recently shared insights about the project and its production.

How did you come up with the idea for the exhibit?

KR: The idea for a display came early in the planning process for the 125th celebration. We wanted to give people a tangible way to experience our history.

CE: The vision that immediately popped into my head had the photos standing off the wall as if they were floating—backlit, with text applied directly to the wall surface to give it depth and texture. Of course, we had a budget to contend with and had to make some concessions.

Where did you look to for design inspiration?

CE: We had been incorporating picture grids into our work for some time. Picture grids are everywhere—they’re easy to create on the web, it’s a big trend right now. Look at Flickr or Instagram or any other site that displays photos. The idea to break up the display by themes rather than follow a strict timeline was Keren’s.

Elon University History Exhibit

The Community wall, part of Elon’s 125th Anniversary history exhibit.

KR: We came up with three themes we thought people would identify with when thinking about Elon: resilience, innovation and community. We placed a number of milestones under each category. Finally, we decided to include a then-and-now map based on research Professor Emeritus George Troxler had conducted for an upcoming book about Elon’s history. We put together a list of old buildings we thought alumni would be interested in and went from there.

Elon University exhibit message board

At the end of the Community wall, visitors can leave their own message highlighting their favorite aspect of Elon.

How did you know where all the old buildings were located?

CE: George studied dozens of maps, aerial photos, tapped his own extensive memory of campus and consulted with others who know Elon well. I studied the maps and photos he brought and together we placed the buildings as accurately as we could. The full map was just too detailed for the museum-like display, so we simplified it—and showed the core campus and highlighted buildings that people would find visually interesting.

Elon University exhibit map

The locations of demolished buildings from Elon’s past, pictured on the left, are numbered to correspond with the red watermarks in the current campus map at right.

How long did the exhibit take to put together? How did campus partners play a role?

CE: A group of us met in August, but some planning started before then. The first round of copy was circulated in late August, and in early September I put together my first mockup of a wall. There was a lot of back and forth about how all of the pieces should look and what materials we should use and afford. We wrapped up design in mid-October, then it was just wait and see how everything looked when the printer delivered the pieces a few weeks before homecoming.

KR: We partnered with staff in the university’s archives and special collections department and we relied on the art & art history department to help us with the physical installation of the display. The people in Elon’s cultural programs office helped ensure the exhibit space was reserved and available during the hours we wanted it open. Holley Berry, administrative assistant for university communications, handled the logistics. Dan Anderson, vice president for university communications, and I worked on the copy. Christopher and Tim Paulson, former web/print designer for university communications, did the design.

CE: I think we’re looking at three months or so from start to finish, if you consider the time we spent batting ideas around in our heads before laying anything out or writing a word.

As the exhibit’s designer, what’s your favorite part of the collection?

CE: I’m not sure if I have a favorite part. I like the cloth banners a lot—they give the display texture. Tim and I developed the 125th Anniversary visuals together, and the colors he used for printed pieces and the social media presence inspired me to go big with color for the exhibit. I wanted it to be vibrant and inviting. In the end, I honestly have to say that the people who helped pull it all together, they’re my favorite part of the collection.

What did you hear from alumni and the on-campus community about the exhibit?

KR: We’ve received an extremely positive response. We plan to have the display up for a longer period in the spring, March 7-April 8, 2014, as we celebrate Founders Day, and we hope to open it up for members of the larger Elon community, too.

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