Apr 28, 2017

Belmont’s GIG – Designing a Guitar Museum in Music City

Located on the campus of Belmont University, the Gallery of Iconic Guitars (GIG) is a unique space in Nashville. Part museum, part performance venue, it carries the legacy of a notable collection and provides a calm musical sanctuary amid the bustle of a busy campus and a booming city.

When ESa architects approached Advent with the opportunity to serve as the design architects for a space housing the Steven Shaw collection of rare musical instruments, the project came with a particular set of challenges. Design director Davy Fisher designed a gallery where a valuable vintage instrument collection could share space with an intimate live performance venue, all tucked in a modest footprint in the university library. Valuable instruments must be displayed in a public space while allowing for the elbows of milling crowds and the equipment of musicians, as well as film and sound crews. It must be beautiful, and it must be functional.

The design solution was to look within. “We started looking at some beautiful photographs of the insides of instruments,” Fisher said. “This macro photography of all these curvilinear surfaces and woodwork that you never see. When the macro photography is in there, they look like rooms, these beautiful curved rooms.”

Gently curved walls in warm tones not only echo the shapes of acoustic instruments, they elegantly divide the space, creating dedicated areas for individual displays while directing the flow of visitors through the gallery. Strategic use of lighting and marked design differences between displays also break up the room, resulting in a space that feels much larger than it is.

The materials throughout the GIG were selected to continue this macro view of musical instruments, with warm wood veneers reflecting the rich finishes and intricate inlay on the guitars and mandolins, and pearlescent brushed metals mirroring mother-of-pearl inlay. The resulting palette serves as a fitting backdrop for the instruments, supporting them without competing with their individual beauty. A large spiral inlaid in the floor echoes the beautiful scrollwork on the rare F-5 mandolins that are a showpiece of the collection.

Ultimately, the Advent design and story teams created a museum that didn’t feel like a museum, while honoring the history of the collection.

Advent’s story team collaborated with vintage guitar expert George Gruhn on the selection of the instruments and their placement, telling important stories and setting aside a central display for the “Crown Jewels,” the rarest and most notable instruments in the collection. In addition, Fisher and the story team created dedicated displays for the three most notable manufacturers in Shaw’s collection — C.F. Martin & Co., Gibson and Fender — opening up the opportunity for future partnerships and brand-specific events.

“Part of the challenge was mixing the gallery feel with an intimate concert hall setting and not making it feel like a retail space,” Fisher said.

Advent designed a custom instrument hanger system to fit within the cabinetry, breaking the visual profile out from the common retail look and supporting the instruments from the bottom while stabilizing them at the neck.

“The guitar stands are custom mounts built around Cooper Stands that are hand-fabricated and made of wood,” Fisher explained. “They’re different from the mounts you’d find in a guitar shop. The wood tones match the space, so the mounts themselves that the guitars rest on have a cradling feel.”

Finally, Advent addressed the overarching challenge — balancing a vintage instrument collection with a performance space, making each fit naturally with the other while keeping the Crown Jewels safe from milling crowds.

“One of the delights of design thinking is problem solving,” Fisher said. “So, the problem was, how do you mix those two environments? How do you create, in a very elegant, designed space, a comfortable environment that doesn’t destroy the aesthetic of what’s going on and yet still, when it’s time for an artist to get in and entertain his or her audience, can it be transformed?”

Fisher chose to place the performance area along the center of the widest section of the room, allowing audiences to gather close around the performers, rather than lining up in a narrow concert hall setting. When not serving as a performance space, this area houses four instruments from the collection that are available at all times for any GIG visitor to pick up and play, honoring the collections desire that the instruments be played and heard.

In fact, this desire for intimate access to the instruments drove Advent’s design choice not to place the instruments behind glass. All instruments, including the Crown Jewels, are out in the open and, as often as possible, displayed so that the beautiful backs of the instruments are also viewable. “The collection needed to be seen and interacted with,” Fisher said. “Our philosophy on that at Advent is that, where we can, we get them out from behind the glass. Whether it’s a Heisman trophy or a national championship trophy, or whether it’s a rare instrument, we create the feeling that you’re interacting with it.”

View more images of the GIG here.