Visiting museums is one of my favorite hobbies, and working at museums makes me think about them in a whole new light. As my coworkers and I here at Canterbury Shaker Village are doubling down on putting together a new exhibit on furniture made and owned by the Canterbury Shakers – “Furnished by Faith: Shaker Stories in Wood” – I’ve been thinking a lot about all the tough decisions that go into crafting a museum exhibition. There is so much to consider.
First off the big questions: What story do you want to tell? What artifacts do you have to display? What information will visitors find interesting? But then there’s the nitty gritty questions: What fits into the exhibit space? We had a couple chairs we were dying to display, but they were an inch or two too tall to fit into our chair display case. What objects have research done on them already? With such an expansive collection as we are lucky to have at CSV, sometimes we don’t know the date an item was made or who made it, which can make it hard to interpret in an exhibit.
These questions can open up whole new avenues for research that, while fascinating, you sometimes don’t have enough time to pursue when you’re under the pressure of a deadline. Recently, we’ve been trying to find out more about an adult cradle in our collection that we want to exhibit. It can be baffling to realize something that has been interpreted for years may not have very much information out there about it.
In addition, there’s also the difficulty of moving items to go on exhibit. My fellow intern and I have been joking that we’ve really been building our upper body strength during the internship as we move furniture pieces back and forth between buildings – a task New Hampshire weather does not really try to cooperate with us on! In the end, a moving company had to be hired for a lot of the large pieces, but this can cost a pretty penny. Not to mention that every time an artifact is moved, it is put in danger of being damaged. Accidents can happen, especially after a long day of trying to maneuver huge two-hundred year-old pieces around tight corners and through tiny doorways.
There’s also the consideration of the condition objects are in: something may be an extraordinary example of a particular style of craftsmanship, for instance, but that often means that it’s been displayed on exhibit before many times. It’s important to give objects rest in humidity, temperature, and light-controlled archival storage so that they don’t get too faded by light or damaged by the wear and tear that comes from being on display – visitors who ignore the “Do not touch” signs, the stress that hanging can put on textiles, the occasional outbreak to bugs that eat textiles, the exposure of metal objects to things in the air that oxidize them, etc.
Oftentimes what has been on exhibit is the best set of examples in a collection with the most research done on them, but it’s important to give them a rest – and to let other objects in the collection have their time in the spotlight, even if it means working a little harder to tell their story or upsetting some people who want to see “the classics”.
Lastly, there are considerations of how visitors will interact with the exhibit and text. What questions do you want visitors to consider? What do you want them to learn? What myths do people commonly believe about your topic that you hope to dispel? Are you repeating the same themes too much or are they not clear enough? Are your main points clear? Is there too much text? Too little? In what order will a visitor walk through the room and read the labels? Are objects too easy for a visitor to touch or – heaven forbid – walk off with? Is the exhibit accessible to people in wheelchairs or with sight or hearing difficulties?
Are there places where it would be easy for someone to trip or knock into something? Are there going to be events held in the space? There are so many more questions, but I’ll leave it off there. At the end of the day (and the opening of the exhibit), what matters is that we, as museum workers, are doing our utmost to be good stewards of the objects and stories in our collection by keeping in mind how to best preserve them in as good condition as possible for future generation while allowing them to tell the many stories wrapped up inside to as many visitors as possible through clear, engaging interpretation.
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