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VOL. 127 | NO. 1 | Monday, January 2, 2012

Design 500 Finds Passion Preparing Museum Exhibits

By Aisling Maki

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Scott Blake’s home office in a historic building at 671 Jefferson Ave. is clearly the abode of a man with a deep love of art, history and design.

Design 500 Inc. is a small museum-planning and exhibition-design company that creates museum and corporate exhibits. The three-member team is led by Scott Blake, center, who’s also the founder of the Victorian Village CDC; project manager Norah Tucker; and graphic designer Monty Shane. (Photo: Lance Murphey)

Located in the Victorian Village neighborhood near Downtown Memphis, the home – circa 1861 and one of the oldest in the city – features an eclectic collection of paintings, statues and other pieces that reflect his passion for his work.

Over the past 20 years, Blake’s small museum planning and exhibit design firm, Design 500 Inc., has helped bring to fruition everything from The Wonders international exhibit series at The Pyramid to The Fire Museum of Memphis to Mississippi’s Tunica Riverpark Museum.

“I get to become kind of an overnight expert in these fields, and then tell the story of what I’ve learned to other people,” said Blake, whose career began with stage design for theatrical performance while he was working toward his degree in fine arts at Washington University in St. Louis.

“I started having the opportunity to do some corporate heritage-type exhibits and some museum work,” Blake said. “At that time, museum exhibits were becoming more theatrical. Museums were looking for things that had a lot more interactive experiences, and I’d already had my foot in the theatrical camp, and I had a second degree in art history. So it was a perfect crossover for me, and I just love the work.”

The three-member Design 500 team includes project manager Norah Tucker, who has a background in marketing and account management, and communications manager Monty Shane, who brings his expertise in photography, graphic design and technology to the firm.

Harnessing the skills of a network of local and regional specialized consultants, the trio creates a wide range of museum and corporate exhibits, carrying projects from conception to completion.

In addition to planning and design, Design 500’s services include curatorial services, interactive exhibits, documentary filmmaking, corporate heritage exhibits, and concept and stage design for events and performances.

The firm has done everything from stage design of operas in Germany to theme parties in Monte Carlo.

And historic preservation and restoration are not only Design 500 specialties; they’re a passion for Blake and his team, who in 2006 formed Victorian Village Inc. The nonprofit community development corporation has worked to revitalize the surrounding historic 19th century Memphis neighborhood, preserving its architectural heritage while maintaining a safe, clean and prosperous community for residents and visitors.

Design 500’s office doubles as headquarters for Victorian Village Inc., and the crossover also helps the team to advise museum clients in finding sources of funding.

“A lot of that is crossover with my work in historic preservation and Victorian Village because we deal with national parks, humanities organizations, and of course, the local foundations,” Blake said.

Current Design 500 projects include the design and development of a two-level blues hall of fame inside The Blues Foundation’s new digs at 421 S. Main St. in Downtown Memphis, and Gateway to the Blues, a museum and visitor center project of the Tunica Convention and Visitor’s Bureau.

The firm has already completed the newly opened Gateway to the Blues visitor center and gift shop, which is housed inside a restored train depot that was moved 30 miles north to Tunica. Blake said Design 500 expects to finish the accompanying 5,000-square-foot blues museum by late 2012.

“The purpose of that is to tell people, who know nothing about the blues, enough to know where else to go and what else to see,” Blake said. “It’ll be a primer to the blues.”

He said it’s designed to have broad appeal and will hopefully engage tourists drawn to the area’s robust gaming industry in exploring the culture of the Delta – where Design 500 has earned a solid reputation in museum planning and design.

The firm not only designed the Tunica Riverpark Museum; they helped salvage the museum’s collection just before the Mississippi River flooded the facility when it crested in May.

Design 500 implemented a disaster mitigation plan that involved mobilizing a team of museum professionals to remove all artifacts and casework from the bottom floor, packing up 700 pieces, including a 26-foot, 4,000-pound Native-American canoe that had to be hauled away in a tractor-trailer.

“We’re going in and doing some major renovations and adding some new exhibits,” Blake said. “We get to go in and do some upgrading, so it will turn out to be a good thing in the end.”

Dick Guiton, executive director of Elvis Presley Birthplace in Tupelo, was so impressed by Design 500’s work in Tunica that they hired Blake and his team to design several projects for the historic site, which tells the story of Elvis’ boyhood in rural Mississippi.

After upgrading the museum’s lobby, Blake and his team restored Presley’s boyhood church to its original appearance.

Design 500 is currently working with Memphis-based Haizlip Studio on a 10,000-square-foot addition to the main building at Elvis Presley Birthplace.

“We have many good designers in the state of Mississippi, but after seeing Scott’s work at the Tunica Museum and then what he did for us, I would recommend him at the top of the list for everything,” Guiton said. “They’re just that good.”

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