Showing posts with label exhibit. Show all posts
Showing posts with label exhibit. Show all posts

Monday, April 9, 2012

Avoiding Obsolescence in Contemporary Society: The Small Historical Society Part II

Good exhibits grow from strong administrative tools and
strong collections like this at the George Peabody House Museum
Last week, I began discussing some of the challenges small historical societies face when considering their future. The post focused on some basic ways to revitalize a typical historical society's exhibits. Today's post will address ways to ensure the historical society has a solid foundation, including proper documentation and administrative tools, to prepare for more dynamic display and description. Not every organization will need to address all of these issues and some may need to consider alternate stumbling areas. These bullets provide some idea of things that an organization may want to address. I presented these points as part of an initial proposal of things a professional can do for and with a local historical society in an attempt to help them plan for the future.
  • Create a collection development policy to strengthen collections, engage the community and pursue grants. Review administrative materials for collections. Perform a survey of records and artifacts collections. Note gaps in records. Note areas where collections can be stronger.

  • Using the information garnered in an initial collection review, create a plan for appropriate rotating exhibit themes. For example, if there are many materials related to World War Two and the soldiers, this might be considered for an exhibit. Design exhibit ideas with an eye toward your town's cultural heritage.

  • Record information about the Historical Society’s exhibits. Take photographs, record society members’ memories about exhibits, and use any appropriate administrative information that tells more about collections to ensure that the Historical Society’s past exhibition history is remembered.

  • Redesign exhibit spaces keeping in mind themes by subjects or dates and based on the exhibit theme plan. Create a space plan that incorporates existing display cases and recommends new furniture if necessary. Discuss how to make the exhibits more interactive and engaging.  Create or help create appropriate labels for new displays that places items in context. 

  • Create a space plan for storage of materials when they are not on display. Recommend appropriate furniture etcetera. Discuss the different needs of archives versus objects.

  • Review the Society’s current procedures and create a formal procedure manual. Include information about creating finding aids and other indexing tools. Add a section for creating appropriate exhibits. Review and update procedures for labeling items. Add information and resources for creating programs launched from exhibits.

  • Make recommendations for the preservation and conservation of collection items in need of repair and better maintenance. Add information about the preservation needs of the collection to the Society’s procedure manual. Discuss how exhibits can lend themselves to collection wear and how this can be addressed.

  • Create a volunteer manual that provides information about finding and managing volunteers. Discuss the appropriate diverse roles for volunteers in the institution and how to generate volunteer enthusiasm.

  • Look to the future and consider all of the above to create a long range plan. Once the institution puts its on-site procedures in order, it should consider reaching out, which involves creating an outreach plan and establishing some social media policies.
Before an institution one can take good advantage of new technologies and new ways to reach out to diverse communities, the institution's core and vision of purpose needs to be strong. That is where I find many institutions fail. It is exciting to immediately jump into exhibits and programs, but without a strong mission, vision and collection policy, without a procedure manual and planning documents, local organizations flounder without the money and support needed to perform all the activities they would like to do. Take the time to build strong tools to guide you and let them become the foundation that keeps you going and your community behind you.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Avoiding Obsolescence in Contemporary Society: The Small Historical Society

Many small historical societies are struggling with their identities.  Run by local volunteers and aiming to re-define their roles in a global society, many such organizations are afraid to spend time and money to change the way their activities "have always been done." Feeling grounded in a solid / beloved local history and retaining a strong sense of identity is beneficial. Yet, being unwilling to rethink strategies for attracting new visitors and neglecting to look for ways to make sure you remain relevant in the lives of long-time visitors can cause the downfall of a local institution. Small institutions can easily become marginalized and irrelevant in a quickly changing society.

With this in mind, I recently presented the following ideas to a local historical society in an effort to help them re-energize their exhibits. At the outset of our meeting, the Society president defined her goals. She aimed:

1. To make exhibits more interesting and interactive for a 21st century audience
2. To encourage increased visitation
3. To provide appropriate labeling in order to offer a context for historical subjects to which visitors can relate, connecting the past and the present
3. To ensure that artifacts are properly cared for and preserved

After an initial review of the institution, I suggested the following:

A. Focusing and rotating exhibits periodically will allow the Society to create more interesting displays and programs. It will also encourage visitors to return to see things they have never seen in the past.

B. Rotating exhibits will enable the Historical Society to better preserve materials. Displayed items (especially archival materials) are negatively impacted by light and other environmental factors. They are better protected in proper boxes and can be rotated out of secure storage for periodic viewing. Stored materials can be monitored and volunteers can work on preservation techniques while items are not on view.

C. Development of new exhibits will encourage more active community participation by highlighting areas for collection development and drawing out areas of interest. (I am a strong proponent of collection development policies with mission, vision and goals. These bring the purpose, value, and shared community interests of your Historical Society directly to your audience and can help encourage an active interest in the success of your institution.)

D. Updated exhibits will enable volunteers to more easily address issues of context through an emphasis on focused ideas (built around eras or themes) and more appropriate label copy. Focused brochures, interactive exhibit design, and updated programs can also be part of emphasizing context. Context is especially important in this modern era. It is valuable to connect our past to our present and future -- to show why history is valuable to each individual.

In order to accomplish these goals and activities I made some recommendations that would help the Society achieve success in steps while re-examining some basic administrative tasks. I will address these in a post next week.


Many articles in recent years have talked about re-conceptualizing the role of the historical organizations and the need for change. Here are a couple of creative ways to think about the "new" historical society that I have found very interesting:

Thursday, February 2, 2012

The Brick Store Museum - Kennebunk Maine

While driving into Kennebunk to do some research earlier this week, I noticed a sign for the Brick Store Museum. I have heard many good things about this institution, but I couldn't remember specifics. (Now here's another reason I love Twitter...) I tweeted, "I've heard good things of the Brick Store Museum and here it is right next to the library.... Shall I try to fit it in later?"  My friend Sarah @greenmuseum tweeted back, "Yes, you should." And so I did. And I am so very glad that I did! (And if you don't know Sarah Brophy and you are in the museum field, you should get to know her. She is the brilliant author of The Green Museum and Is Your Museum Grant Ready. She has guest posted on the ArchivesInfo blog too.)

First Impressions

I walked in and was greeted immediately by a friendly person. I was given some information about what I was about to see and was shown brochures about the institution. I asked if I could take pictures. YES! So, I am happy to share some of the remarkable things that I saw with you. 

The entrance featured information about a museum renovation and was followed by an exhibit about historic homes in the region. Photos of the homes were accompanied by text about the history of the homes, owners, and architecture. The exhibit explained architectural elements and the development of architectural styles in the United States. It was all very interesting and there was quite a bit of information with context. The colors were fabulous. I was invited to interact with exhibits, but I honestly do not remember the specifics of that. I had been told that there was an exhibit about the museum founder in the back. My interest was piqued -- My personal preference is to view an exhibit about historic people over one on architectural history. I had planned to return to the architecture if I had the time. I didn't because I spent so much time on part II. (I should note that it was lovely that the museum had both. Many people will prefer the historic building exhibit.)

Swept off My Feet

I'll start by saying that I am now enamored with the historic figure of Edith Barry. Rather than tell you about this remarkable woman, I refer you to the Brick Store Museum's web site that has a good movie about her along with other information. (The video is not nearly as dynamic as the exhibit itself and perhaps more consideration can be given to that for future exhibits, but it is informative. It is also wonderful that they thought to add a video to their web site.) About Miss Barry, I will just say that I dare any person interested in remarkable people to not be impressed by her. I doubly dare any woman who is interested in strong female personalities to not be inspired by her.

Instead of focusing on the woman, I am going to concentrate on how the Brick Museum highlighted her story and what I most liked about it.

Right off the bat, the exhibit was eye-catching (as was the architecture exhibit in the other room.) Small details, such as the wall in the image to the right that was painted like a map with pleasant colors, made the exhibit inviting.

The exhibit was actually split in two and was separated into two rooms. The first part "Impressions of a World Traveler" focused on Barry's travels. It used her photography to highlight her story and the stories of the people and places she visited. Photography was balanced by text that explained the travels and the context of the trips -- what was happening in the countries Barry visited and around the world at the time. The text also connected this context to Modern day happenings. For example, it talked about the recent Revolution in Egypt to describe changes in this country.

Objects, photography, archives, and label text were all balanced seamlessly together in the exhibit. Documents were not added as an afterthought, as I often see in exhibits and which is of particular interest to an archivist such as myself. The different media  were used together to great effect, providing a stunning visual treat and serving extremely effectively as interpretative and educational tools. Music was playing in the background to further set an appropriate tone.

    The obvious educational elements of the exhibit were also outstanding, inviting participation from visitors. The museum invited us to connect our own experiences to Barry's through tools such as this one above and to the left that asks, "What are your travel memories?" Participants were given paper and pencils to write their responses that staff would later string up for all to see and share. 

    I was completely surprised to enter the second room. The travel exhibit made my visit worthwhile on its own. Somehow, I hadn't caught on that Barry was also a remarkable fine artist. Her beautiful work filled the second room. It was again placed in context, with the curators using documents and other media to tell her story.

    In room one and room two, small tables held guest books and little cards for the taking that reminded me of old-fashioned calling cards and invited me to "follow" Miss Barry on Twitter @EdithBarry. I was live tweeting during my visit and sure enough, the next day, I found a tweet from the account that said, "Thank you for your thoughts! We're glad you liked the exhibit!" I am now a follower. I look forward to hearing more through Twitter and am glad that they seem to have found a way to keep visitors engaged even when they are no longer on the premises. (The only "criticism" I have is that I see before tweeting to me in February 2012, they had not tweeted since September 2011. I hope they find ways to keep the account going and to keep it interesting.)

    In short, the exhibit was not only effective, but it was also captivating. I was thoroughly impressed. This is an exhibit that will stick with me for awhile because of its remarkable subject, but more I think, because of how well the subject was handled by an obviously very talented group of museum professionals.

    One final note: At the back of the building was a room labeled as the library and archives. I peered in the window and hope that I may have the opportunity to visit there one day ;)   

    Wednesday, April 27, 2011

    "What Kind of Museum are We?" Peabody Essex Museum Tries to Mix Diverse Cultural Items

    A magnifying glass to look at small details of a painting can also
    be a fun element for a child at a museum. 
    Yesterday I attended the exhibit "Golden: Dutch and Flemish Masterworks" at the Peabody Essex Museum with my young daughter. Let me begin by saying that we both had a great time. PEM always tries to play to diverse audiences. It was recognized a few years ago as one of the ten best art museums in the country for children. Beyond its special Art and Nature Center for kids, it lives up to its reputation for this age group by providing diverse ways to interact with exhibits. My seven year old was particularly thrilled with the idea of using a magnifying glass to see the details of the Dutch paintings and though I tweeted about my nervousness related to the use of magnifying glasses so close to paintings, I was impressed with the idea myself. I can continue to sing praises about the museum and this special exhibit, but that has been done all over the Internet. "Golden" has been praised by the New York Times. It certainly doesn't need my voice added to that. Instead, I want to focus on an anomaly in the exhibit that I think is indicative of the museum, archives, and library world(s) today.

    Tucked in the corner of one of the last rooms of the exhibit we visited was a Dutch book from the 17th century. It called to me, but it seemed to attract few other people. And now, I wish that I had taken notes about it. I can not find any information on the Internet about its inclusion in the exhibit. I'm not even sure exactly what it was. My daughter was running toward paintings with flowers in them and I had to scurry on my way. But I keep thinking about this item. I wonder why it was there. The label copy in "Golden" was fabulous overall in that it provided much information about Dutch life, artists, and ideas. The interactive computer modules were also inspired. I learned so much about the time period, but the emphasis was clearly on placing paintings and furniture in context. Why was the book included here? What was it trying to tell me? How did it relate to the paintings? How did it help place them in context? What did it tell us about Dutch life during this period?

    Short thought-provoking labels are inspiring. Sometimes less
    detail is more.
    My daughter and I take turns choosing what exhibits to see at a museum. After we visited "Golden" she chose "Eye Spy Playing with Perception." This exhibit is located in the same area of the museum as the kids center. It emphasized a teaching approach, asking questions about what we saw and encouraging a dialog with the exhibit. The exhibit showed art. Books were placed about to help us learn more about what we were seeing. Videos explained more. All these elements were woven to help us better understand what we viewed and to make the exhibit fun. To me, this exhibit encouraged more communication with the pieces it included than the Dutch exhibit. It was thought provoking in a way that the Dutch exhibit didn't always quite reach. It explained the interplay between arts and sciences. It explained the artists' influences. It used multiple media seamlessly. Nothing was stuck in a corner as a sort of afterthought because it was part of a "collection." Everything related to everything else. Short bursts of words invited us to think about these relationships, to maybe even discover something that the curator didn't point out to us directly. To be fair, the diversity of included objects encouraged that, but that is my point. The items we include in an exhibit should be diverse enough to create that kind of learning opportunity. The time of the idea of "high art" is over. There is no reason a fine art exhibit cannot be more all inclusive.
    The camera captures this Campbell's soup can
    made of spools of thread. The human eye does
    not view these details unless we look into the
    glass ball included by the artist.
    As we left the museum, we were invited to take a survey. One question jumped out at me. It said something similar to, "What kind of museum do you think the Peabody Essex is?" This seemed key to how I viewed the work they were  doing and also key to the future of all museums. PEM is clearly an art museum. It is also a history museum with a special room devoted to New England Maritime Art and History. They also incorporate natural history in their kids' section....PEM is a pleasant mixture of diverse culture. Does their audience really care what kind of museum they are? Shouldn't museums of the future focus on inspiring and educating us through diverse cultural means? Why does a museum need to be one thing or another?

    And I return to the strangeness of the book in the corner of the Dutch exhibit.... Museums, libraries and archives need to become more comfortable crossing into each other's spheres. Books, archives, art, and artifacts all relate and should do so seamlessly. Items made by people who are influenced by the world around them reflect society no matter what their format, but sometimes institutions falter when they try to make this point. We need to be clearer in our own minds about these relationships. Whether we are curators, archivists, or librarians we need to recognize that all of the actions and products of our lives and our environments can inform our knowledge about our past. Making these connections should be a central part of what a cultural heritage institution does.

    Last year I wrote about the exhibit at the Museum of Our National Heritage called Jim Henson's Fantastical World. This exhibit creatively used archives and artifacts to illuminate its subject. I refer you back to my posting about it because more museums should be working this way in my opinion. Peabody Essex is on its way. I hope that they make it over the hump. I hope that is where their survey leads them.

    Tuesday, January 18, 2011

    Open House at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston - A Family Visit

    I spent yesterday on a family trip to the MFA's special Martin Luther King Day open house. It was my first time visiting the Museum since the opening of the new American wing. I interned in the archives at the museum for two years in the early 1990s as a graduate student and made many trips here as an undergrad art history student in New England, so I hold a special affinity for the place. I do not make it down as often as I would like to now and it always feels like a coming home of sorts when I enter the building.

    This is still the old museum I know, but it has been pushed to exude the world class status that it should be afforded because of its remarkable collections. Right from the start, the re-opened grand entrance gives one a sense of entering a remarkable institution. The addition of the building has retained the feeling of the original building, but with spaces molded specifically to frame the collections for which Boston is best known. Sargent, Copley and Cole are among the American "masters" that are now afforded more room and are properly highlighted as gems among New England's heritage. My favorite works of art, for the most part, did not disappoint me.

    This trip with my family invited me to see art through my child's eyes and I therefore did not get to do all the things I probably would have done on my own. I did not get to visit the library and archives to see if there were any changes, to examine label text as closely as I normally would, or to wander in a completely serendipitous way to gain a good sense of exhibit flow. We had specific things we wanted to see before anyone tired and we stopped to see things for which I normally wouldn't stop. There was plenty to keep my seven-year-old engaged. I found that this may be the perfect age to start seriously sharing art museums with a child. We last visited here a couple of years ago and the experience seemed more like dragging her around while trying to anticipate what might engage her. This time she was able to tell us what interested her. However, perhaps if we didn't experience our last trip here (and trips to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Peabody Essex and a few others in between) she still would not be in a state of mind to start appreciating art on this level, learning and taking a deep interest in the exhibits.

    A free open house is not an ideal day to examine my favorite paintings. There was much jostling to see more familiar works. In fact, there were few quiet places in the museum at all. The American wing was the most popular spot, but there were people everywhere. I found some respite in the rooms of Asian artifacts, but if I were attending for any kind of meditative experience there, I wasn't going to find it. As a cultural heritage professional (you can take the girl away from the job for a day of rest, but the mind-frame always stays) it was interesting to see how the public interacted with exhibits. I assume that many people who attended were not regular museum goers, but were encouraged to come here because entrance was without charge. Many people walked around with cameras to engage in a personal way with what they saw. Most seemed to know to turn off the flash. In other cases, I saw people touching statues as in the case of one man who leaned his head on a bust to have his photo taken with it and a three year-old petting the stone toes of an Egyptian saying "foot. foot" while his parents looked the other way. I also saw people lying on the floor and walking around without shoes. All of this is to be expected to at least some extent in such a large gathering and I was happy to see people beyond what we have come to know as the average museum attendee here, but I think the museum needed to be more attentive to the crowds.

    Here are a few impressions and highlights:
    - I was very impressed with room recreations of beautiful old New England houses. My family and I enjoyed imagining ourselves living in those spaces and admired the true to era wallpapers and decorative sensibilities. The many period rooms added a new dimension to the experience offered by the MFA, allowing us to be enveloped in a specific time as we would in a specialized house museum.
    - I was also impressed with new colors in old exhibit spaces. I found the yellow in the Roman section especially dramatic, with a clean / shiny / new feeling that I felt highlighted the objects especially well. Every space throughout the museum was welcoming and collection exhibit spaces as a whole felt more modern and cared for. Even the gray exhibit halls of decorative arts that used to lead me to the archives were gone.
    - I was impressed and excited by the number of works that the MFA can now exhibit and that they have taken out of storage. Our prime regional museum should be able to display and show off its best work. It can now do so. The MFA is not only a world class institution, it is also home to New England's most talented artists who should be on stage accordingly here. We have Monets to appreciate, but I'm glad that our American artists now have the prominent wing that they deserve. 
    - I was impressed with a combination of media education tools and "on spot" real-person guides. Videos immediately attracted my daughter and taught her all about furniture making. She now wants to give it a try.
    - I was not impressed with parking. Parking has always been a problem here and it seems as if issues have not been resolved.  The lot was jammed by late morning - literally. People were stuck at the top of the garage with no spaces and no room to turn around. Cars should have been cut off from this area before this kind of chaos occurred.
    - I was also not impressed with the cafeteria. The service was slow and there were no places to sit where we ate in the basement. We should have been informed of the eating space across the museum that we had forgotten about or directed to seating upstairs outside the gift shop. Even though parking and eating are secondary to viewing exhibits, they are both part of the day's experience. The museum seemed ill-prepared to handle this sort of crowd and there was much obvious frustration.
    - I was also concerned about the lack of museum guards as we watched visitors' bad behavior. Though I do not like when guards are looming over me, seemingly waiting for me to make a wrong move, yesterday I had the opposite experience. I saw few guards and much behavior that could seriously damage collections. More attention to visitors and even some gentle museum etiquette training was necessary. 
    - Finally, some of the lighting was problematic. For example, there seemed to be a glare on Paul Revere wherever I stood.

    Despite a few concerns, my family had a wonderful time at the MFA. Snow is falling again in New Hampshire this morning, but I will carry the good warm feelings that the museum left with me yesterday through my day  today. I am anxious to return to Boston to see more -- but perhaps on a quieter day.

    See more on the MFA expansion and remodelling

    Monday, April 19, 2010

    Displaying Archives in Exhibits

    This past weekend, I attended the Jim Henson's Fantastic World exhibit at the Museum of Our National Heritage in Lexington, Massachusetts. First off, I must say that it was a fabulous exhibit and was fun for the whole family. It is traveling courtesy of the Smithsonian, Jim Henson Company, the Biography Channel and others. We went on the rainy Saturday of Patriot's Day weekend.

    Those of you not from New England should probably be told that "Patriot's Day" is a Massachusetts aberration that celebrates the preliminary battles of the Revolutionary War. And, yes, there are people trying to get the Federal government to declare this a national holiday. For now, we just have to celebrate in Massachusetts with the Boston Marathon, a ballgame at Fenway (that combined with the marathon makes for nightmare traffic,) and numerous battlefield re-enactors wandering the streets carrying bayonets. The Museum even has a sign on the door that says something to the effect of "no bayonets allowed inside," which seems totally random and strange unless you are aware of the local culture during this weekend...oh yeah, and only odd if you didn't see the redcoat passing the patriot in the parking lot to get your initial shock out of the way...

    The exhibit "features 100 original artworks, including drawings, cartoons and storyboards that illustrate Henson's talent as a storyteller and visionary. Among the variety of exhibition objects are puppets and television and movie props, photographs of Henson and his collaborators at work and original video productions, including excerpts from Henson's early career and experimental films."

    (Bert, Ernie and rubber duckie were there!)

    As we made our way around the circular exhibit -- about which my 6 year old daughter remarked at the end by saying, "Hey! We came out where we started!" And I explained to her the advantages of creating a design conducive to moving traffic in and out -- I was mesmerized by the exhibit's displayed archival materials. Doodles and notes were included among puppets and finished pieces of art. Yellow notepad paper was framed just as prominently as finished posters and puppets. There were papers with stains and water damage along the ends. Before the viewer, the curators placed crossed out writings and failed show pitches. This exhibit is truly about the genius of Henson and the archival material allows its audience to see how his thoughts unfolded. In one photograph was a craftsman working from a rough sketch that was placed nearby in the exhibit. It was fun to try to make connections between the notes and the finished pieces or images of works in progress.

    I remember seeing an exhibit of Leonardo DaVinci's drawings many years ago and having a similar reaction. There is something special about seeing inside the mind of a brilliant being. It allows us to better understand the genius as a person and to see our connection to him, in addition to provoking us to be awed by his creativity. Indeed, to promote a better understanding of the humanness of another person is one of the prime purposes of archives. To so gracefully and seamlessly work the ideas of the sometimes messy process alongside the finished pieces shows curating at its best. Archives can and should support more exhibit stories in this way.

    So kudos to those who worked on the Henson exhibit. I encourage readers to catch the show if you can. Reminisce about your childhood or that of your children. Admire the brilliance and reflect on the way archives are incorporated. Most of all, have fun and laugh.

    And finally...forget the new Grateful Dead archivist. I want to be the Jim Henson Company archivist!