I learned from an early age that wisdom sits in places, particularly those places where the stories and people have imbued it with presence and meaning. Savannah, Georgia is special in this way. Layered with history, it is spectacularly beautiful and enchanting. Adding creativity to an already inspired place, the presence of the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) has, since its founding created an energetic pulse here, adding tremendous vibrancy and creative promise. This town is also the birthplace of Juliette Gordon Low, the founder of the Girl Scouts, whose mission is one of the most powerful that I have ever worked with — to build girls of courage, confidence and character who make the world a better place.
When the Girl Scouts, USA Chief Cultural Resources Executive Cindi Malinick asked me to work with her and the staff of the Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace in Savannah, GA., I jumped at the chance. This work centered on the opportunity to pivot the site toward a culture that centers the transformational rather than the transactional, all with the objective of harnessing the power of place and story and aligning the site to create more meaningful, fully sensory and relevant experiences. Since that first meeting, when I asked staff to ‘dream with their eyes wide open,’ the work has inspired many new openings, breathing fresh air into the site and moving toward a place that reflects the art of possibility.
While many openings have come from this work, one particular project is worth mentioning. After a day of immersive conversation about core stories and about leveraging the power of art to create transformative synergy, we asked the staff to identify a room and to reimagine it.
From that exercise, four ideas emerged and when Cindi and I thought about how to create a pilot to a wholly new animated site, we decided to take the results from this reimagining and develop it into an actual installation. Girls Writing the World: A Library Reimagined is what emerged and was imagined and installed in February and March and opened in April.
As background, the room was once presented as a contrived period room of the Victorian Period, interpreted using static objects and holding “…a collection of books typical of an educated southern gentleman.”
An exhibit usually take a tremendous amount of time, including research, design and installation. Because our goal was to pilot the project to the GSUSA Board, which was scheduled to meet in April, this meant that we would have to work diligently.
In little less than six weeks, we emptied the shelves of these elegant bookcases and created a framework inspired by muses, goddesses and heroines, focused on the themes of Memory, Knowledge, Imagination, Poetry and Wisdom and from that began a campaign to establish a usable library collection that elevates and inspires girls of all ages by illuminating the written and spoken word contributions made by women across time and cultures. Difficult to imagine, I believe that the library was perhaps the first of its kind in the history of the world.
While core, the library collection was complemented and features several artistic elements, which beyond the sense of sight, ensure that as many of the other senses (sound, touch, smell, taste, and the sixth sense of sentiment-feeling) are equally as engaged in the overall experience. What was once an uninviting and shabby club fender, wrapping around the fireplace covered in worn leather was reupholstered. The fabric itself now contains the words “story,” “letter” and “book” in five languages (English, Spanish, Hebrew, Arabic and Chinese). On the introductory text wall, hangs a comic book digitized and printed into an oversized comic book, the original of which was produced by the Girl Scouts in 1954. Other key features include the following:
A Book Sculpture: Crafted from books that once sat untouched upon the shelves of the library itself, now are symbolically turned around and suspended on the wall as context for the title graphic, thus providing a dramatic effect. Woven into the fabric of this sculpture, like an ancient feather woven into a Navajo blanket, sits a New Mexico Cochiti Pueblo Storyteller, a clay figurine depicting a grandmother, surrounded by children, singing the world into being.
A PoeTree: Highlighted in the southeast corner of the room, is a carefully stenciled tree. It is inspired by an artistic rendering of a dream tree in the SCAD Visitor Center and features a silhouette of a girl sitting on a tree reading, which itself was inspired by a 1930s series of Girl Scouts art work. Hanging from the ceiling are five manzanita branches, creating a three dimensional effect and as a nod toward Savannah, the “moss” that hangs from these branches is laser cut paper and features the word “poetry” in five different languages (Dutch, Spanish, English, Albanian, and Polish). Also hanging from the tree are lines of poetry written by women across the ages.
Girl Scout Bookcase: While the main bookcases contain the renewed collection, another set of bookcases on the west wall of the room acknowledge Juliette Gordon Low’s interest in the literary, including her journal and paper dolls made by her, featuring the characters from Louisa May Alcott’s 1875 novel, Eight Cousins. The contents within these cases also reflect the profound importance of the written and spoken word within the organization over time, including the journal by Edith Johnston, the GS first Executive Secretary and badges associated with reading, writing and communication.
Interactive Table: We found a windowpane in an antique shop that did not want to be a simple window, but instead an interactive table. The overall objective was to provide more space for programming, reflection and interaction. Although the table features a magnetic board, chalk boards and scrabble to encourage touch, there are also six iPads that have been fully curated with the voices and sign language of speeches, songs, poetry and storytelling by girls and women across cultures. As the table sits centered at the entrance of the room, it also features an artistic installation of open books, upon which is painted a rendering from a 1950s photograph of three girl scouts surrounding a world globe.
A Decked Out Desk: On and around a desk that may have once been used by Juliette Gordon Low provides a platform to feature the art of communication. A ream of letters written between Juliette Gordon Low and the editor of the American Girl Magazine artistically flow from a 1950s typewriter upward onto the wall, like a puff of smoke.
The opportunity to illuminate the long arc of the female literary tradition has been a tremendous honor. Our hope is that all girls will begin to see themselves reflected in this space and to find their voice. We also hope that the installation will nourish individual’s senses and inspire visitors to remember, know, imagine and grow wise by “writing the world and making it a better place.”
To see a time lapse video of the project emerging search “Girls Writing the World” on YouTube.