Thursday, August 3, 2017

At the Front, Behind the Scenes: Prototypes and Reality

Designing an exhibit is a lot of fun, but requires attention to detail. Being organized kept the exhibit visually clean and cohesive as well as ensuring that all the documents I pulled were protected and didn’t get lost. I used two techniques for the actual organization and aesthetic of the display: one was using guidelines from two different exhibit books and the other was prototyping the exhibit with a 2-D model.

These two books, Exhibits in Archives and Special Collections Libraries by Jessica Lacher-Feldman and Great Exhibits! An Exhibit Planning and Construction Handbook for Small Museums by Beth Hansen provided organizational guidelines and aspects of a good exhibit display that I have never consider. Lacher-Feldman provided a comprehensive list of questions that forced me to consider things like the space for my display, building accessibility and clarity of signage, as well as how to navigate the strengths and weakness of the collection.[2] Hansen’s books discussed aspects of executing the exhibit, for example the importance of labels at eye level and the angles used to prop up objects. [3]

The second tool I used was creating a paper layout of the documents. This allowed me to manipulate the “documents” for layout without over handling them. Powerpoint proved to be a useful tool for display case layout. 

Even after measuring the case, it became clear I had too many documents to fit comfortably and neatly, when I eventually tried place the documents in the case.

I had put less than a third of the manuscripts I wanted in the case and already there was no room for labels or descriptive text. I went back to the paper layout and had to decide what to keep and what to remove from the exhibit. That was one of the most challenging parts of this project because every object that I had picked was there for a reason and I wanted to tell both the author’s and recipient’s stories. In Matters of Conflict, editor Nicholas J. Saunders wrote that the academic focus “on material culture…offers to revitalize investigations into the physical and symbolic worlds that war has created, and that defines us as subjects through memory, imagination, and technology.” [5] This emphasis on “inquiry through objects” forces you to make decisions as to what order and importance each item carries for study, and this eventually dictates how we understand and “remember” history. I had to weigh what was important to the exhibit, but also what would attract the attention of the visitor best: a letter from an unknown soldier writing to Manning or a letter also to Manning about collecting from future President FDR?

While I wanted to share the story of Daniel H. Walsh, a soldier who sent his Army Pass to Manning for his collection, I also knew that part of the appeal to any historical exhibit is a bit of name dropping. As the curator of the exhibit, I admit to being in awe of touching a letter that FDR, Booker T. Washington, Jeannette Rankin, or General Pershing signed; it’s one of the reasons I want to be a historian, tactile historical research ie., handling significant things. So, while the letter from Walsh is not displayed, his Army Pass is, next to FDR’s letter.

The flat prototype laid the groundwork for the physical display case, after a good bit of rearranging and finesse. Part of that includes making props to display letters at differing height levels. Not only does this make the material easier to see through the glass but it creates visual interest. 

The prop on the left holds the mailing tag of a German helmet sent to Manning by Harold Duncan Cochrane. The one on the right was cut to fit a six-page letter from Eugene Brumaghim to Manning. Other items were raised up, at least one in each of the three thematic categories: soldiers, civilians, and collectors. In addition to the documents themselves, the category labels had to be raise to different heights so that they were visible and easy to read through the glass.

You can see from the sideview that the “Civilians” label on the left is lower and faces more upwards. The “Collectors” label on the other hand is a traditional “tent” label with a single fold.

Eventually the completed case looked like this:

The last pieces of the exhibit are the text panel and the brochure, where you take all the weeks’ work that you did and distill it into an engaging and concise 300-700 word documents.  Even the brochure requires a bit of curation to get the color scheme, style, and information just right, download link below. Case in point, the image on the cover next is a pocket map of the western front. The book is however hot pink but the image had to be changed to fit into the overall theme of the exhibit and ways in which World War One is thought about. 
An exhibit is never big enough or lasts long enough to present all the information a curator would like to express. Keeping in mind that people will only spend a few moments at the display case before moving on really helped me when working on the main text panel. It had to be engaging, intellectually challenging but in a meaningful way that the audience can enjoy in the moment and reflect upon later. Choosing what to ultimately display and what would remain in the collection boxes was challenging. But much like the text panel, exhibit labels, and the brochure, the exhibit case needs to be concise and an accurate distillation of the collection according to project themes. The exhibit is currently open in the foyer of Washington’s Headquarters Museum. 

Click to enlarge or download:

This blog post by Claire Du Laney, North Carolina State/University of NC, Chapel Hill. 

Part one HERE.

[1] All photographs were taken by the author unless otherwise specified.
[2] Jessica Lacher-Feldman, Chapter 11, “What Makes a ‘Good’ Exhibit?: Exhibit Development in an Institutional Context” and Chapter 12, “Evaluating Exhibits: Assessment Tools and Measuring Success,” Exhibits in Archives and special collections libraries, (Chicago: Society of American Archivists. 2013), 109-124.
[3] Beth Hansen, Great exhibits!: an exhibit planning and construction handbook for small museums, (Lanham, Rowman and Littlefield, 2017), 70. 
[5] Nicholas J. Saunders, Matters of conflict: material culture, memory, and the First World War, (London: Routledge, 2004), 5.

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