Submarine Surfaces in Underground Exhibit Hall - Signage Tells the Tale
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Submarine Surfaces in Underground Exhibit Hall - Signage Tells the Tale

It was a sailor's nightmare during WW II. Leaning against the ship's rail, binoculars scanning the cold, Atlantic waters, a foaming white wake streaks through the waves and heads broadside for a direct strike against the Liberty ship.

By Louis M Brill

Torpedo! With alarm bells ringing, there wasn't much to be done except to brace for contact, and pray. Torpedoes mean submarines, and in WW II German submarines had a horrific effect against the American convoys and task forces shipping through the Atlantic and European waters.

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  • Capturing the U-505
    On May 15, 1944, the USS Guadalcanal Task Force Group 22.3 sailed from Norfolk, Virginia for an anti-submarine patrol near the Canary Islands. On June 4, 1944, a member of the task force, the USS Chatelain reported a sonar contact. Soon after, the task force swiftly attacked with explosives and depth charges which eventually forced the German U-boat, the U-505 to surface.

    The U-boat surrendered and while the USS Chatelain and the USS Jenks picked up survivors, the USS Pillsbury sent its whaleboat to the U-505, where its nine-man boarding party prepared to take possession of the submarine. The crew's mission: to board the U-boat, overpower any remaining German sailors and take control of the submarine. The U.S. Navy boarding party climbed down the hatch and then set about disconnecting scuttle charges, closing valves and bundling up charts, code books and papers as quickly as possible. Having secured such a prize, the capture of the U-505 became a classified secret during the remainder of the war.

    To produce this super-enlarged newspaper headline graphic assemblage, the museum had the actual newspaper headlines from that era photographed and then scanned into Photoshop to be cleaned up and enlarged. The output was then printed out as giant front page newspaper replicas which were then laminated and attached to Sintra and then mounted to plywood boards and displayed as a specific exhibit space.
    photo credit: Chicago Museum of Science & Industry

    Once declassified, in 1954, the U-505 was given to Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry, a museum that specializes in interactive and experience-based exhibitry. The museum accepted the U-505, and parked it outside its building where it sat for the next 50 years. Guests at the museum were able to visit the submarine and walk its interior length for a first hand look at how its crew lived and worked in the ocean's briny depths. The U-boat, from propeller to prow, was 250 feet long, weighed over 700 tons and was approximately three stories tall. In this first exhibit, the submarine basically spoke for itself as there was very little signage about it's history and capture.

    The U-505, which became a national historic landmark, proved to be one of the museum's most popular exhibits where on a good day at least 1,200 people would walk throughout the submarine's main passageway. Time however, took its toll on the submarine's hull. A typical German sub was built to last four years. Fifty years of turbulent summer and winter Chicago weather may have proven to be the U-505’s most brutal enemy. Indeed, left untreated and outdoors, it would have been unsafe for tours by 2004. And so, in 1997, the Museum launched the largest exhibit conservation project in its history ­ to preserve the U-505 and move it indoors to a climate-controlled environment. Ultimately, it took more than two years to ensure that the U-505 was structurally sound and to prepare it for its new exhibit hall.

    The museum decided to create an underground museum exhibit hall in front of its main building. A large trench was built that the submarine was transferred into as its new permanent home. Once the submarine was nested inside its new exhibit space, a roof was placed over it and it became a 35,000 square foot exhibit. The new space allowed fo an averge daily attendance of approximately 7,000 visitors which included both people circulating through the exhibit area and those on tour throught the U-boat's interior passage way.

    A mezzanine rail display overlooks the U-505. Each display holds a backlit Duratrans mounted on a stainless steel light box.
    photo credit: Chicago Museum of Science & Industry

    Ed McDonald, the museum's Director of Exhibit Projects who oversaw the entire transformation of the submarine exhibit to its modern underground installation noted that the U-505's original signage was at least 50 years old and looked it, despite one or two add-ons to bring the signage up-to-date. "The museum's new exhibit space allowed us to modernize the U-505 signage with new graphics, new pictures and new ways of telling the story about the submarine's capture and importance during the closing years of WW II.”

    In building this modern museum exhibit space, the difference between the old submarine space and the new one was, "that the original outdoor installation of the U-boat was a 'presentation of the boat.' In the submarine's new incarnation, the museum exhibit is now 'the story of the capture of the U-505.' " And much of that story is supported by how modern signage brought a segment of U.S. Naval WW II history to life as an immersive museum experience

    McDonald noted that the museum did a minimal amount of its own sign work production and just about everything was subcontracted out for both production and installation. "What the museum did do was to create the sign content, design each sign face (including selecting the format and size and look of the sign) and finally, created the production-ready files that were sent to the fabricators. They, in turn produced all the signage which was placed on-site by the installers."

    As the submarine exhibit signage was planned out, a variety of sign formats were used to support the exhibit narration including interactive signage, interpretive graphics labels, large scale graphic photo mural, custom dimensional letter forms (ranging from plastic to stainless steel), back-lit translucent signs, applied vinyl text, large format lenticulars, direct print-to-glass and large format digital murals.

    Close up detail of mezzanine rail signage of submarine structure.
    photo credit: Chicago Museum of Science & Industry

    Each signage unit was designed in accordance with which part of the story it was trying to tell. The emphasis on creating all the signage was to make it entertaining and as dramatic as possible. To drive the impact of some of the visual narration, the graphic images were produced in large format sizes to create a bigger-than-life presence of these historic WW II moments. The most impressive instance of these large format visuals were a series of four huge murals commisioned as historic moments of the German U-boat's pressence within WW II (see sidebar: Hunting The Hunters).

    One example of this "in-your-face" signage was the World At War exhibit, which was a collage of super-enlarged newspaper headlines calling out the horrors of the Axis advance on Europe. "To dramatize the impact of WW II prior to the United States entry," McDonald stated, "we gathered a series of newspaper headlines from around the world from 1939, 1940 and 1941, leading up to the final headline, ‘PEARL HARBOR BOMBED’."

    "To produce this graphic signage assemblage, we had the actual newspaper headlines from that era photographed and then scanned into Photoshop to be cleaned up and enlarged. The output was then printed out as giant front page newspaper replicas which were then laminated and attached to Sintra and then mounted to plywood boards and displayed as a specific exhibit space.

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    Printing on glass
    In printing some of the display signage, glass became the preferred medium as noted by McDonald because of its transparency and the thematic blending of the glass panels into its exhibit area. This was further enhanced because the glass was also easy to light up which gave it a more dramatic look as a display. Both the U-505 Donator Cotributor acknowledgement displays and the Memorial Monument acknowledging all the Navy crews involved in the hunting and capturing of the U-505 were presented as text and graphics directly printed onto large glass panels.

    The "sawtooth wall" is divided into a series of alcoves that breaks up the signage and presents them to look like book chapters.
    photo credit: Chicago Museum of Science & Industry

    All the glass printing was produced by Skyline Design (Chicago, IL ), a custom fabrication house that specializes in etching, carving, paining and printing on architectural glass for commercial applications. The printing as described by sales manager for the company's art services branch David Wildfield was, "one of the first times Skyline Designs had done direct printing onto glass."

    The green colored glass used for each tribute display was one half inch, tempered, 'float glass' which was directly printed on by an inkjet, flat bed printer. The glass panels which totaled about 25 sheets, averaged in size from 42 inches wide by 70 inches tall. Each sheet was uniquely shaped with straight edges on the top and left and right sides of each panel. The glass panel bottoms were all pattern cut and polished by hand into curved wave-like shapes to complement the exihibt's oceanic theme. In initiating the glass printing process, one of the big challenges was to maintain a high resolution output capable of handling the lower case text and the fine line detail of some of the graphic images that are part of the signage.

    The Chicago museum's U-505 presentation gives its visitors, young and old, a chance to reconnect with WW II and to see first hand how the threat of the German submarine was challenged and confined by Allied Naval power.
    photo credit: Chicago Museum of Science & Industry

    "To illumanate the glass panels and make the text more easily visible," Wildfield said, "we engineered the museum's concern by taking a commercial grade white Spandex and mounting it behind the glass as a light diffusing sail. Placed behind the sails were a series flurescent-based light trees which lit up the sails casting a white, even glow against the black text to present easily readable signs."

    Sawtooth signage
    In another exhibit, Plan of Action, which was one of the mural walls, its exhibit designers had developed an interesting way to compress a large volume of historical information into a series of digestible displays. The mural exhibit was a very long wall composed of a series of individual signs each with a significant amount of signage about the Merchant Marine ships and the U-boats that confronted them. To make the viewing of this exhibit wall more palatable, the wall was broken into a series of alcoves or divided wall segments where each segment had its own individual display sign. This design approach allowed a large volume of information to be contained as a single presentation, but yet divided up into smaller data chunks and more easily absorbed by the viewers as they studied the exhibit.

    As explained by McDonald, the irregular wall areas were designed to break up the audience flow of just walking along the wall trapped within the tedious exercise of following one sign after the other. By breaking up the wall, the alcoves (sawtooth effect) separate the signs and the presentation becomes more like chapters in a book. This gives viewers both an ease of reading the different wall segment displays and pacing themselves in a more controlled fashion as they pass from alcove to alcove.

    Interestingly enough, for all the different kinds of signage that was created through the U-505 exhibit hall, there is no interpretive signage inside the U-505 at all, other then whatever native German signs were originally placed on board. The reason for this, stated McDonald, "was that the museum had a continuing tour through the submarine's main passage way and if we had interpretive signs throughout the boat, people would slow down to read them, which we didn't want."

    To illuminate the glass panels and make the text more easily visible, the museum used a commercial grade white Spandex and mounting it behind the glass as a light diffusing sail. Placed behind the sails were a series florescent-based light trees which lit up the sails casting a white, even glow against the black text to present easily readable signs.
    photo credit: Chicago Museum of Science & Industry

    An alternative sign solution to illuminate visitors about the interior workings of the submarine was that the exhibit hall had an exterior mezzanine that ran parallel along the length of the vessel. At various points on the overlook, "we had interpretive sign displays that explained in a behind-the-scene look some of the architectural and technical features of what the section of the submarine in front of you was about. To do this, each sign case was a forward tilted stainless steel light box with a back-lit duratrans mounted within each sign cabinet."

    With its new underground exhibit hall, the Chicago museum's U-505 presentation gives its visitors, young and old, a chance to reconnect with WW II and to see first hand how the threat of the German submarine was challenged and confined by Allied Naval power. The museum's exhibit signage has become the perfect tour guide in educating its visitors about the history of that part of WW II.

    Louis M. Brill is a journalist and consultant for high-tech entertainment and media communications. He can be reached at (415) 664-0694 or louisbrill@sbcglobal.net

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