Monday, November 9, 2015

People Actually Do That?

by Erin Doane, curator

Someone once asked me what I did as a curator. I gave the short answer that I create exhibits in a history museum. The person looked at me incredulously and said, “I didn’t know people actually did that.” My immediate thought was sarcastic. No, people don’t create exhibits. If you believe in history hard enough, exhibits just appear in museums. My actual reply was that yes, I made exhibits and I really enjoyed doing it.

Just this past Friday, we finished the installation of our newest exhibit Clean, which examines what cleanliness is on physical, social, and spiritual levels and how people work to become clean. I say “we” finished it because this exhibit, like all of them at the museum, was very much a group effort. I head the exhibit team that includes our education coordinator Kelli and archivist Rachel. We work together to create educational, entertaining, interactive exhibits. And I think we do a great job.

Our newest exhibit: Clean
So, how exactly is an exhibit created? The first step is picking a topic. Some exhibits are based on the types of objects that are in the museum’s collection. A couple years ago we did an exhibit on wedding traditions because we have a good collection of wedding-related objects. We also did an exhibit on World War I posters because we have so many wonderful examples in the archives. Other exhibits start with an idea and then we work out what to put on display from there. Clean is a good example of this.  We usually have our exhibit topics selected at least a year from the opening date. (We are always looking for suggestions of what people would like to see so if you have an idea, let us know!)

A view of 'Til Death Do Us Part - a previous exhibit on wedding traditions
Once we pick a topic, we start researching and writing. We split up this task among the three of us on the exhibit team. There are usually around 9 to 12 main text panels exploring different aspects of the topic. Each panel has up to 100 words each. After conducting hours of research, it can be a real challenge to boil all that information down to just 100 words but years of experience have made it a fairly painless process. Once we’ve all done our individual research and writing we get together to review and edit the text. This can be a harrowing process at times but better text is always the end result.

Text panel from Parks and Recreation
Once the main text is written a lot of things start happening all at once. We decide on the general style of the exhibit panels and I work on graphic design. Kelli designs and creates hands-on interactives for the exhibit. Rachel selects photographs and archival documents that will go on display while I select three-dimensional objects. I also work on the floor plan – where all the text panels, display cases, and interactives will go in the gallery. My favorite way to do this is with graph paper. I have scale drawings of all the galleries and little cutouts of display cases and other exhibit furniture. Moving things around on paper is a lot easier than moving them around in real life. I sometimes even dabble in Google SketchUp to get a 3-D view of my layout.

The Howell Gallery in SketchUp
Almost two years ago, we go a large scale printer through a grant from the Community Foundation of Elmira-Corning and the Finger Lakes. I love that printer! We can now produce our own graphics in-house. We can print up to 48” wide on various types of paper including satin photo paper and self-adhesive polypropylene. This has really streamlined the exhibit process. We no longer have to wait on graphics printed by an outside company and if I notice a typo that somehow slipped through our review I can instantly make a reprint. I have actually become quite adept at adhering large graphics onto foam board for display.

An example of a large (32"x60") text panel printed and mounted in-house
After months and months of planning, it’s finally time to install the exhibit. An installation usually takes one very long week to complete. It’s a tiring process to get everything precisely in place and ready for the public but I love doing it (despite the multiple bruises I get along the way). There is something very rewarding about pulling an idea out of the air and making it into a concrete visual experience. Creating exhibits is by far one of my favorite duties as a curator.

Housework-related artifacts in Clean
If anyone is interested in all the other stuff I do on a day-to-day basis as a curator, check out A Curator’s Day on tumblr.

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