Last week I attended the United States Institute for Theatre Technology (USITT) Convention in St. Louis. A far cry from a history conference, I still managed to explore my combined history and theatre background by attending some sessions about curating and historical accuracy from a costuming and theatrical perspective.
The session I attended on curating was entitled “Curating 101: Costumes, Exhibits, & More” featuring Constance Case, Julie Potter, and Shannon Meyer. Two panelists were university professors who had curated exhibits of theatrical costumes and historical clothing, and the third panelist was a curator at the Missouri History Museum who had put together large exhibits on historical clothing. The purpose of the session was to provide a framework for exhibits of any size using theatrical or historical textiles, and encourage the audience to put displays together at their institutions. While they were specifically referencing textile exhibits, their framework would work for any type of exhibit.
One of the biggest messages of this panel was that more people should put together exhibits of their own. Even if you do not work for a big museum, there are opportunities to put together exhibits at colleges, libraries, local sites, or special events. These steps will vary depending of your specific exhibit, but hopefully this framework will help inspire more creative exhibits!
STEP 1: CHOOSE YOUR TOPIC
STEP 2: CHOOSE YOUR THEME
*These first two steps seem pretty obvious as a starting place, but make sure you have a solid concept in mind before you move forward to the planning stage.
STEP 3: IDENTIFY YOUR AUDIENCE
*Identify your primary, secondary, and tertiary audiences. Who do you want to attract to this exhibit? What audience will be attracted to this subject? If your main audience is children your exhibit will look very different than if your audience is adults, for example.
*Identify if you have a “natural” audience. Do you have an audience that will come through the exhibit no matter what the topic is. At museums, this is most likely your members and supporters; at universities, this might be your faculty and students.
STEP 4: CREATE A TIMELINE AND ORGANIZE YOUR RESOURCES
*Your timeline needs to be done first! You need to form a team (if you will have multiple people working on the exhibit), determine your budget, and organize your list of deliverables.
*Figure out what resources you have available for the project: space/gallery, time, money, personnel/support team, artifacts.
*This timeline needs to include/consider:
*Your artifact list
*A design of your gallery
*Exhibit prep. time
STEP 5: SELECT OBJECTS FOR DISPLAY
*Editing is key to this process. You might have hundreds (or just a few) objects for display and you need to pick the pieces that best fit your theme (and are stable enough for display).
*Once you pick your objects, do a conservation study to determine if any of your objects need repairs/conservation. Conservation takes a long time and is often expensive, so depending on the condition of your items you may need to go back and edit again to choose new objects.
STEP 6: DETERMINE HOW YOUR OBJECTS WILL BE DISPLAYED
*Decide what order your objects need to be in and how the audience will move through the exhibit.
*Decide on any subtopics you might have. These will assist with editing and organization.
*Decide on whether you will have interactive parts of your exhibit. These can be high- or low-tech, include a take-away item, and/or involve both visitors and the wider community. Be creative!
STEP 7: FINALIZE THE EXHIBIT LAYOUT
*Make sure you have all the objects, materials, and staff you need for installation.
STEP 8: WRITE AND PRINT LABELS AND WALL TEXT
*Use an editor (or at least have other people read your text) to ensure there are no mistakes and that a general audience will understand what you are trying to communicate.
STEP 9: INSTALLATION AND FINAL EDITING
*Install your exhibit!
*Any editing at this point will depend on the scale of the exhibit. For large-scale museum exhibits there is no room for editing at this point, but for smaller exhibits you can keep editing while you install.
STEP 10: PUBLICITY
*Technically, this step will begin while you are still preparing your exhibit.
*Publicity can be physical (postcards, rack cards, billboards), through social media (use facebook, twitter, etc.; create a # handle for your exhibit); advertise through local media (newspaper, radio); and invite specific important people individually (for example, if at a university, personally invite the president).
STEP 11: OPEN YOUR EXHIBIT!
*Have an opening event and schedule other events and tours to bring people to your exhibit.
ADDITIONAL STEP: A CATALOGUE OR BOOK
*Some exhibits have a catalogue or book to accompany them. Try to decide if you will do a catalogue/book early in the process so that you can do all the photography for both the book and exhibit at the same time. If you don’t want to have a physical book available, explore digital/virtual options or companies that do print-on-demand books (you can upload your book for free and then a copy is printed when a customer orders one).
Kathleen Logothetis Thompson graduated from Siena College in May 2010 with a B.A. in History and a Certificate in Revolutionary Era Studies. She earned her M.A. in History from West Virginia University in May 2012. Her thesis “A Question of Life or Death: Suicide and Survival in the Union Army” examines wartime suicide among Union soldiers, its causes, and the reasons that army saw a relatively low suicide rate. She is currently pursuing her PhD at West Virginia University with research on mental trauma in the Civil War. In addition, Kathleen was a seasonal interpreter at Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park from 2010-2014 and has worked on various other publications and projects.