Giving Voice to History
January 20th, 2017 by Susan Suggs

Deb Burdick with the “Pensacola: City of Five Flags” exhibit she and the Alvaré Design team created for the T.T. Wentworth Museum several years ago.
Photo by Michael Duncan

With each project, exhibit creator Deb Burdick strives to offer an experience as her team tells a story

Exhibit master Deb Burdick is part Disney and part historian.

As one of two professionals of the Alvaré Design team in Pensacola, Deb is responsible for many familiar exhibits at the National Naval Aviation Museum, the Flight Academy, Voices of Pensacola, the Appleyard Storytelling Cottage and the recent Trader Jon’s exhibit at the T.T. Wentworth Museum.

Deb says it is a challenge to describe what she does.

“When someone visits a completed exhibit and asks me, ‘What did you do here?’ the answer is, ‘Wherever you look, there is likely not much I haven’t helped measure, visualize, demolish, install or finish,’” Deb says. “I put the emphasis on helped because as part of our small-by-choice exhibit design partnership, I get to experience the whole creative process from start to finish.”

Originally from Michigan, Deb and her husband moved to the area to pursue work opportunities.

Deb wasn’t sure what she would find.

She got her start by joining a Pensacola-area museum exhibit designer seeking research and writing help 17 years ago. Working as an advertising copywriter at the time, Deb’s project-based work gradually grew into what is now the partnership of Alvaré Design.

Deb says designing and creating exhibits draws from a broad range of skills, including subject research, presenting concepts, drawing and reading construction plans, finding and hiring subcontractors, graphic design and production, installation, woodworking, metal working, sewing, cleaning, organizing and writing.

The team does not just tell a story. It creates an environment for the viewer to experience compelling stories in unexpected ways, Deb says.

“When we create an exhibit, our first question is always the one we anticipate prospective visitors asking: ‘What is this, and why should I care?’” Deb explains. “When you experience one of our exhibits, I hope we’ve managed to give its subject a voice. That might be, what was Pensacola’s role in the Civil War? How does the weather affect the Navy? And most recently, who was Trader Jon? We thrive on the challenge of creating genuine, lasting interest in whatever the subject of our current project might be.”

Deb comes from a long line of entrepreneurs. For several generations, her family owned and operated a Christmas tree farm and landscape company.

Although she has done many other things through the years, the time spent working in the family business in her youngest years left an enduring imprint.

“The value of working hard—doing whatever needed to be done, having a good attitude, attending to even the smallest details—those seeds were planted very early and they took root,” Deb says. “All the skills, habits and values picked up from childhood and through the years resonate in the work I’m doing now. I cannot imagine a life that doesn’t include words and stories.”

Deb enjoys the variety of subjects and people she gets to know. Each project is unique: different space, different subject, different approach, different timeframe, different budget and different client.

Yet with everything that is different, she says some things are the same. Regardless of size or scope, every project follows a similar progression.

“Initially, all we’re looking at is thin air, or construction drawings, or a space that needs to be demolished and reconstructed,” Deb says. “Based on years of experience, that’s the time we listen most carefully to the space and the subject, and visualize how something will look long before it ever exists.”
Since 1994, Alvaré Design has collaborated with a broad range of clients, subject-matter experts and other exhibit specialists to create world-class exhibits that travel around the world aboard U.S. Navy ships and have gone into space on the International Space Station.

Students from Alaska to Florida are learning in immersive classroom environments at the National Flight Academy, where Deb has given a four-story building the look, sound, feel and even smell of a modern U.S. Navy aircraft carrier.

“This work has given me incredible opportunities—things I never imagined getting to do, like a tailhook landing and catapult-assisted takeoff aboard the USS Enterprise, and meeting people I never imagined getting to know, like one of the original Tuskegee Airmen,” Deb says. “I’ve asked a million questions, and learned there is so much I still don’t know. I’ve learned the importance of being generous with time and resources and wisdom and encouragement, and of giving those who will follow in our footsteps the benefit of all those things.”