Taking a Closer Look at That Ayres Look
The newest You Are There: That Ayres Look, is unlike any previous exhibition in the Indiana Experience. This exhibit dives into the multidimensional fashion- and business-infused influence the L.S. Ayres Department Store had on Indianapolis. I sat down recently with Eloise Batic, IHS director of exhibitions research and development, to discuss the newest experience, the process it took to create it, and the profound fondness Indianapolis has for this inspiring department store.
Where did you find most of your research?
We were lucky in this project to be able to work from Ken Turchi’s book, L.S. Ayres and Company: The Store at the Crossroads of America. So unlike previous You Are There projects, the bulk of the research was already done. We worked very closely with Ken – he worked as a personal consultant for the project, so he really did help shape the nature of the stories we told and certainly provided us with the resources to be able to write text and find objects and graphics. But more typical of a You Are There, we talked to people. We got funny stories that will resonate with people – it is those really subtle things that spark memories.
How is this exhibit different from past You Are There exhibits?
In the past, a You Are There was designed to be a fully immersive experience, with the idea that you would pass through the fog screen and be enveloped in a completely authentic, dimensional recreation of a historic space. This You Are There is a departure from that. We didn’t feel there was one image that allowed us the opportunity to immerse visitors in one era that would convey the incredible variety of experiences that people had with L.S. Ayres. We zeroed in on a photograph from our collection where you see workers cleaning the iconic L.S. Ayres clock in the late 1930s and are using augmented reality technology to bring that to picture to life. In addition, we have actors in the exhibit space, which is a nod to the traditional You Are There treatment. But overall, it is very different from what visitors are used to.
What is the most fascinating thing you learned about Ayres?
There was a life to Ayres, and the people who worked there knew they were a part of something special. You saw racial diversity at Ayres and even diversity of sexual orientation – there were a lot of out gays and lesbians working at Ayres in the 1950s and 1960s. This was a place that encouraged you to be yourself and to bring your A-game in terms of creativity. If that meant you didn’t fit the standard norm, that was not only tolerated, but it was welcomed and celebrated. That has been a real joy to discover.
What was your favorite part of developing the exhibit?
Dan Shockley, head of our Museum Theater Program, and I spent three days interviewing about two dozen people, some of them on camera with WFYI, to create a series of films are included in the exhibit. It was both stressful, exhausting and completely an honor. These are some wonderful people with incredible stories. This project is filled with these “characters," who we turned into the characters in the museum space.
Why do you think people love Ayres so much?
For so many people, L.S. Ayres taps into memories of growing up in Indianapolis. The people we interviewed, certainly the shoppers, remember the experience of getting dressed up, taking the bus downtown and spending an entire day shopping, which is something we don’t do today.
What do you think visitors will take away from visiting the exhibit?
This is a nostalgia piece, and visitors – certainly those who stepped foot in Ayres – are going to have some memories sparked. We hope that they are able to remember and share the stories and what it meant to them to go to Ayres, or to a similar downtown shopping experience. My overall goal would be for people to see that Indianapolis has had a tremendous, long-lasting, downtown business core, filled with lots of visionary movers-and-shakers, and that is something this city should be proud of.
You Are There: That Ayres Look opens March 16, 2015, and runs through Aug. 6, 2016.
Leah Grynheim is an intern in the Marketing and Public Relations Department at IHS. She is a painter, pianist and English literature enthusiast.