A Case Study Turned Love Letter: Wall Murals & Graphic Panels at the Ava Gardner Museum

[Author’s Note: When I first began this case study for Magic Murals’ museum services, it was going to be all about how the Ava Gardner Museum uses wall murals, wall graphics, panels and other printed materials in their displays and exhibits to highlight their collections, memorabilia and artifacts.

As I began looking at the decades plus of photographic evidence from the museum, in the Magic Murals archives and in photos across the web, I began to realize how those signs and graphics not only liven up a museum with new exhibits and how they educate and entertain, but how they also aid in the continuity of the museum’s history and ongoing relationship with its patrons. And finally, as I got further and further invested with this article, I began to fall in love with this gem of a museum, regional in status but global in appeal, dedicated to a single native daughter who became a worldwide sensation in the golden age of Hollywood.

Whether you’re reading this post because you’re a museum curator or director checking us out or a fan of Ava or her namesake museum, I hope you’ll enjoy. I apologize that my writing abilities fall quite short of being able to convey the joy and warmth I received by visiting the museum and going through decades of photos.]

Magic Murals Highlights: The Ava Gardner Museum

The Ava Gardner Museum, the only museum in the world dedicated to this amazing and intriguing star of Hollywood’s Golden Age, is located on the historic main street of Smithfield, North Carolina at 325 East Market Street. It is housed in a 6,400 square foot vintage retail building that has since been renovated into 5,000 square feet of exhibition space featuring standing collections, rotating exhibits, a movie theater and a library.

According to Smithsonian Magazine, “you’ll see extraordinary costumes, movie posters and awards that represent Ava’s 50-year career as a leading Hollywood actress. The Museum also houses a collection of personal items of china, jewelry, clothing and fine art, including portraits by Bert Pfeiffer, a Dutch artist whose collection was donated to the museum in 2001.”

At the Ava Gardner Museum, we tell the story of how a tobacco farmer’s daughter became a famous movie star. We rely on the educational, interesting and entertaining panels that Magic Murals has helped us to create throughout the museum. There is a feeling of connection with Ava when you walk into a room filled with life-sized photos and the information contained in the educational panels tell Ava’s story, from her birth in rural Grabtown to her last years in London. ~ Lynell Seabold, Museum Director

Nearly every travel blog that mentions the Ava Gardner Museum includes a picture of the entrance area featuring this large mural. This picture comes from the write-up on The Off Beat Path.

Nearly every travel blog that mentions the Ava Gardner Museum includes a picture of the entrance area featuring this large mural. This picture comes from the write-up on The Off Beat Path.

Smithfield is the quintessentially charming southern town, just several miles away from Ava’s birthplace and childhood home. Ava, herself, selected this region for the location of the museum. She considered this her hometown; she loved it here and wanted her fans to experience its genteel wonders themselves.

Ava, the museum and the town are all precious gems that more than 12,000 fans experience each year… keeping the Hollywood legend alive and drawing visitors into an historic town center that otherwise might not be on most tourists’ itineraries.

I would put the Ava Gardner Museum right up there with many of the famous museums that I have visited in my travels. I highly recommend visiting the museum to anyone traveling to or through North Carolina… then grab a bite to eat at one of the many restaurants nearby. ~ Mike Fleming, CEO of Magic Murals

The giant mural, visible from the outside of the museum, draws visitors inside.

The giant mural, visible from the outside of the museum, draws visitors inside.

While Ava was larger than life on the big screen, in person she was a humble, down-to-earth Southern girl who’d rather not be in the spotlight when she wasn’t promoting a movie or the studio. The outside of the museum, like the star herself, is rather low key.

Like her, the real treasures are all inside. Nevertheless, with an ornate “Ava” marquee above the entrance and backlit displays featuring a rotating series of headshots, movie posters and other ephemera, you’ll be sure not to miss it. There’s even free street parking (welcome to Smithfield!).

Immediately upon entering (in fact, even before entering the museum, as you can see it from outside the main entrance doors), you’ll notice the larger-than-life sized mural featuring Ava Gardner in a striking pose (and an equally striking dress) from her role as Kitty Collins in Ernest Hemingway’s “The Killers,” co-starring Burt Lancaster and released in 1946.

This large graphic is a display in and of itself, meant to welcome you and make you want to see more of what’s beyond the partition. Even before you’ve entered the doors and paid your nominal admission fee, the museum has grabbed your attention.

Let Your Guests & Patrons Advertise For You, For Free,
On Travel Blogs, Social Media & Across The Internet

Jim Swiley and Ken Marshall from travel site Backroad Planet at the Ava Gardner Museum picture spot in July 2019. There’s no need to take a selfie as the wonderful docents are more than happy to take the pic

Jim Swiley and Ken Marshall from travel site Backroad Planet at the Ava Gardner Museum picture spot in July 2019. There’s no need to take a selfie as the wonderful docents are more than happy to take the picture for you.

As in many museums, photography is discouraged in most of the building, but everyone is welcome to take a selfie in front of the sumptuous Kitty Collins. In fact, Sarah Owens, a true Southern Gentlewoman and docent who has been with the museum since inception, will gladly take the picture of you and your party.

She tells me she makes sure to get the top of the mural, the part that announces “Ava Gardner Museum,” into the picture knowing that it will be shared on Facebook, Instagram and elsewhere on social media. This one large graphic does plenty of free advertising for the museum by way of their guests’ travel blogs and social media shares.

Jim Swiley of Backroad Planet writes: “The museum is beautiful, contemporary, and quite accessible, due to its downtown location. Museum galleries provide valuable context for Gardner’s life and career in a modern, interactive way, and the collection is a visual feast.”

And here’s just a few of the hundreds of pictures that have been taken and shared across the internet by happy museum patrons. There are more than 150 on Yelp alone.

Museum Director Lynell Seabold takes some time to take a shot with some visitors.

Museum Director Lynell Seabold takes time to take a picture with some visitors.

Working with Mike and the rest of the crew at Magic Murals is always a pleasure. They have helped us achieve our ideas and goals in telling a story that will educate and entertain our visitors. The high quality of their work helps us to maintain a classic, quality exhibition of Ava’s life and career. ~ Lynell Seabold

Visitors at the selfie spot of the Ava Gardner Musuem

More visitors at the selfie spot of the Ava Gardner Museum.

 

Corgis love Ava Garder at the selfie spot of the museum

Corgis love Ava Gardner too – here’s one at the selfie spot of the museum.

 

Docent Sarah Owens is usually the person behind the camera, making sure to get the museum’s name in the shot and shared across the web

Docent Sarah Owens is usually the person behind the camera, making sure to get the museum’s name in the shot and shared across the web

Whenever you’ve got an opportunity to turn an off-site local marketing opportunity into a picture-worthy shot suitable for social media sharing around the world, make sure you take advantage of it like the brilliant staff at the Ava Gardner Museum.

Take advantage of every marketing opportunity available. If they love the wine, they'll really love the museum!

Take advantage of every marketing opportunity available. If they love the wine, they’ll really love the museum!

Just look at how these contour-cut standees exhibited at regional gatherings, visitors bureaus, conventions and conferences turn into selfie magnets.

Take every opportunity to promote your museum at other museums, libraries and tourist attractions.

Take every opportunity to promote your museum at other museums, libraries and tourist attractions.

Displays at visitors bureaus shouldn't be overlooked... and how could anyone overlook

Displays at visitors bureaus shouldn’t be overlooked. How could anyone overlook this?

Large Photographic Murals Provide Context to Static Artifacts
in Museum Displays and Exhibition Spaces

As you might imagine, a large part of the collection at the museum includes Ava’s dresses and other wardrobe pieces, both from her personal closet as well as from the many iconic movies in which she appeared. Ava was, after all, not only a movie star, but a fashion icon as well.

Fashion features highly in all of the exhibits at the Ava Gardner Museum.

Fashion features highly in all of the exhibits at the Ava Gardner Museum. Photo courtesy of the Johnston County Visitor’s Bureau.

While the dresses are beautiful on their own, if they were displayed without pictures of them being worn (whether on set, in a still from the movie, in a fashion shoot at her apartment, etc.), they’d be subject to misinterpretation without that context.

By including large photographic murals as backdrops to the dresses, the guest is able to stand back away from the display and view the dress on the form as well as see where, when and how Ava was wearing the garment. All at the same time.

Smaller informational cards can then be used to draw the guest back in to the display and provide additional information about the artifacts and other memorabilia. The structured use of large and small graphics provide for a nearly interactive experience as the viewer moves back and forth to take in the display in very different ways.

The travel site, Orbitz, chose a picture (above, centered) of some of Ava’s personal wardrobe favorites to run with their story on Nine Museums Devoted To Movie Stars You Must Visit.  Notice how the graphic backdrops immediately inform the audience that these are Ava’s own clothes by showing her wearing them while playing in the countryside and while appearing at an awards ceremony. One is then invited to take a closer look and get up close with the placards describing her fashion sense, status as a fashion icon and love of Corgis (who doesn’t love a Corgi?).

This picture comes from a glowing review of the museum and their 2014 annual exhibit “Ava’s Closet: Her Personal Fashion and Style,” as published at the Classic Film & TV Café blog.

This picture comes from a glowing review of the museum and their 2014 annual exhibit
“Ava’s Closet: Her Personal Fashion and Style,” as published at the Classic Film & TV Café blog.

The picture on the left comes from a glowing review of the museum and their 2014 annual exhibit  “Ava’s Closet: Her Personal Fashion and Style,” as published at the Classic Film & TV Café blog.

 

We’ve had the privilege of printing some amazing over-sized photographs of Ava. I am personally awestruck at her natural beauty and proud to know she is a native of my own hometown. ~ Mike Fleming

 

The pictures below, focusing on movie wardrobes and awards gowns, are published in the Four Square City Guide where museums and their patrons can publish pictures, information, and tips on how to get the best out of each cultural attraction.

The large graphic Show Boat movie poster adds drama and context to this display. Imagine it without...

The large graphic Show Boat movie poster adds drama and context to this display. Just imagine it without.

Note how the graphics allow us to get the best out of these fashions by providing plenty of context in which to view them.  We particularly love the enormous “Show Boat” movie poster that’s visible from 180 degrees around the main display case in this annual exhibit from 2013.

fashion display at the Ava Gardner Museum

The “Ava and Gregory” display is one of the permanent exhibits at the Ava Gardner Museum.

The Ava and Gregory exhibit with mural background. Artifacts within the display change regularly.

The Ava and Gregory exhibit with mural background. Artifacts within the display change regularly.

It masterfully uses a full backdrop composed of a montage of graphic designs, vintage photos and infotaining text to highlight just a few precious artifacts emblematic of her relationship with Gregory Peck (whom was not one of her three husbands). The artifacts change regularly while the backdrop remains constant.

 

Another view of the exhibit, from a different year.

Another view of the exhibit, from a different year.

 

Lynell and her creative team do a fabulous job designing the museum’s exhibits. I continue to be impressed with their attention to detail and vision; a vision that always reveals something new and interesting about a specific period or relationship from Ava’s life. It definitely makes our job easier at Magic Murals by having such excellent source material to work with. ~ Mike Fleming

The "Night of the Iguana," display is on permanent exhibit.

The “Night of the Iguana,” display is on permanent exhibit.

“The Night of the Iguana,” is a permanent display on the back of the main showcase/display enclosure used for the rotating annual exhibits. The photos include scenes from the movie and from the filming location. The exhibit is book-ended by two display cases.

Photo backdrops for "The Killers" fashion display at the Ava Gardner Museum.

Photo backdrops for “The Killers” fashion display at the Ava Gardner Museum.

 

 

The rotating exhibit currently on display in the main showcase is “Hemingway’s Heroine,” highlighting Ava’s close friendship with Ernest Hemingway, who wrote the short story upon which “The Killers,” was based in 1946. Not only was her part in that movie her breakout role launching her very successful career, but it also sparked an introduction and a fast, lifelong friendship with the noted American author. Gardner went on to star in two more Hemingway adaptations:  “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” (with pal Gregory Peck) and “The Sun Also Rises.”

Adhesive graphics cover the video monitor in the main display case at the Ava Gardner Museum.

Adhesive graphics cover the video monitor in the main display case at the Ava Gardner Museum.

While the main exhibit includes wardrobe, props and other artifacts from the movies, the focal point is a large video monitor showcasing notable clips from the three Hemingway films.

Another view of the video monitor covered in adhesive graphic panels.

Another view of the video monitor covered in adhesive graphic panels.

The cabinetry of the monitor is covered in graphics from the movies.

As exhibits change, the graphics covering the monitor can be simply swapped to highlight whatever is then being played on the screen.

Adhesive panels cover the video monitor in the exhibit displaying artifacts from Ava's apartment.

Graphics cover the video monitor in the exhibit displaying artifacts from Ava’s apartment.

 

 

 

This is the way it looked just prior to the current exhibit, when the focus was on Ava’s life in London and beyond. Note, this picture is from a Germany-based travel website called BettysVacation.com . See… I told you this was a museum worthy of global adoration.

Traffic-guiding partitions in the library make great use of large graphic panels.

Traffic-guiding partitions in the library make great use of large graphic panels.

In addition to the permanent and rotating displays, the museum also houses a library with Ava’s books, books about Ava, artifacts on display, an interactive informational kiosk and striking larger-than-life portraits that serve as partitions and aid in traffic flow through the library space.

The mixed use of larger and smaller graphics provides high visual impact.

The mixed use of larger and smaller graphics provides high visual impact.

 

 

Smaller graphics with plenty of entertaining and educational copy share information about Ava’s life and loves. Again, the use of large, bold graphics combined with smaller, “personal-sized,” graphics invites the patron to stand back and then step forward, thus interacting with the images and the displays.

The Ava Gardner Museum is located on the historic main street of Smithfield, North Carolina at 325 East Market Street. You can find their hours and other information, including for group tours or facility rentals, on their web site.

We are especially excited about our newest exhibit “Ava: My Real Story”, which includes poster-sized photo prints of Ava, an interactive kiosk and informative panels that tell the intimate details of her life. Our goal is for our guests to leave the Museum feeling like they know Ava Gardner, the star and the woman, who was really a country girl at heart. ~ Lynell Seabold

Magic Murals offers museums and galleries a wide range of interpretive and environmental graphics that set the theme of their exhibits and create engaging displays, including: large archival photographic prints, multi-paneled printed wall murals for interior and exterior installation, backlit displays, banners, floor graphics, window cling and perforated window films, stand up displays and wayfinding signage.

If you’d like to work with Magic Murals to upgrade your displays with dynamic graphics, please check out our Museum Services page and/or call us at 877-448-7295. While Ava’s museum is most dear to us, we’ve done exceptional work for The Smithsonian and around the United States at numerous university and regional museums.

I am honored to work with our local Ava Gardner Museum to bring this extraordinary and famous Hollywood actress to life for future generations of people to discover her amazing beauty and talents. It’s rewarding to know that Magic Murals has a role in promoting the life of a rural, small town North Carolina farm girl that became a legend. ~ Mike Fleming

 

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