Common Threads: Weaving Stories Across Time was an exhibition at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, in Boston, MA. that featured a new opera in five acts titled True Pearl with music by renowned composer David Lang and libretto by playwright Sibyl Kempson. Inspired by the Museum's magnificent set of 16th century Flemish tapestries, the opera was not meant to be performed live, but experienced individually through headphones so that the visitor could stand in front of the tapestries that inspired the music. The exhibition was set in a dimly lit room within the historic palace that evokes a grand hall in a northern European castle, and is full of numerous other large scale tapestries, furniture, paintings, and architectural fragments.
The Common Thread installation featured a red table in the center of the room that was a contemporary interpretation of a historic fabric-covered table it replaced for the duration of the exhibition. Its form was also an interpretation of the lyrical qualities of the opera. The table itself acted as a place to distribute and collect headphones, and also housed an introductory video. In keeping with the theme of woven tapestries, "threads" made of electrical conduit rose up from the center as if the tabletop was unraveling; these threads made their way up to the ceiling and dispersed as they made their way towards the tapestries that were part of the exhibition and acted as wayfinding pathways to aid visitors to navigate the exhibition . Each of the threads then descended in front of the tapestry to become a label holder.
The design was an integrated solution to solve a multitude of problems. Since the opera had no physical form or publicly audible sound, it was up to the design to inform visitors that there was a special exhibition taking place in the room. Placed in a historic setting with strong character, the design had to be simultaneously obvious and subtle, clearly announcing itself while not overpowering the artwork in the room. The room had two entrances at opposite ends of the gallery, but all visitors needed to be directed to the center of the room first in order to pick up a headphone and watch the introductory video. The unusual and colorful form of the red table acted as a beacon that immediately captured the visitors' attention, thus disrupting the typical behavioral pattern of going straight to the artwork upon entering the room. In addition, since only 5 of the 9 tapestries in the room were included in the exhibition, by following the "threads" that came out of the table, visitors would know which tapestries had music to listen to. Since there were no outlets on the floor to power the video monitor, one of the threads also disguised a path for electrical power from the ceiling. One section of the table was also a drawer that concealed a charging station for the media players.
Similar to the fabric strands of the tapestries that were woven to that create a pictorial story, the metal strands of the intervention tell the story of the opera while incorporating multi faceted design solutions to facilitate the viewer experience and enhance the presentation of the art piece