Museum planner and designer Barbara Fahs Charles says: “If we do our jobs right, no one should notice we were there.” (D.A. Peterson/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

Growing up, our family always had a puzzle open on a table. I’ve always been good at seeing relationships between things. I’ll see something and think: That’s over here, that’s over there, but maybe it would be better if they came together. Everything you see in an exhibit, somebody designed, for good or for worse. We do that design. The simplest example is in a painting exhibition, where the decisions could be about wall colors, lighting, graphic design, wall placement or flooring. We concentrate on the tiniest of details — logo fonts, bracket finishes — but have to constantly pull back out and look at it like someone seeing it for the first time. If we do our jobs right, no one should notice we were there.

We’re using artifacts, we’re using history, we’re using photographs and combining all of those to tell another story. We did the exhibitions at the Thomas Jefferson Visitors Center at Monticello. There you’re trying to get across his ideas about liberty. Well, there are not a lot of artifacts of what was in Jefferson’s head. That was done as a large-scale video installation. We didn’t create the videos; we worked with those who did. We’re the people the museum is counting on to make sure the story makes sense.

It all matters if you are as compulsive as we are. Just in terms of brackets [to hold objects], there are excellent bracket makers, there are not-so-good bracket makers; there are bracket makers that use brass and paint it to match the artifact and those who like acrylic. You have to be really careful that you understand different people’s talents so you don’t put different styles in one case. It would be like putting two slightly different reds next to one another: All you would notice is the difference. If you were watching ballet and the chorus line couldn’t keep in step, you would have a hard time keeping your eyes on the principal dancer. In an exhibit, it can be things like the labels not being at a logical place, so you spend too much energy looking around and not enjoying the art. I remember going to an exhibit [of] Native American material. Each area was themed by color. Indians that lived along the water got blue; Indians that lived on the plains got a tannish orange. The color orange was reflecting off of everything. Things that should have been this beautiful tan leather were reflecting this awful orange. All I wanted to do was leave.

I think of seeing a finished exhibit for the first time as “Alice in Wonderland.” For so long, for so very long, this exhibit has been small, on drawings. We were bigger than it. All of sudden, you walk into [the exhibit], and it’s so much bigger than you are. Everything is flipped. You are standing in the space that was in your head. At that point, it really is beyond us. We have to let go, stand back and watch. That’s the fun part.