Originally posted February 3, 2010
I’ve done various exhibits at various institutions (though mainly two) for several years. I used to think what people wanted was to put a bunch of old and ancient items on display so you can see them. Certainly, in some of the largest museums in the country and the world (the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, The British Museum in London, the Pergamon Museum in Berlin the Louvre in Paris) do exactly that, and don’t suffer from lack of visitors. But they hold works that are iconic and unique, and in some cases, massive. (The Met has an entire Egyptian Temple Complex that was transported piece by piece and reassembled inside their walls–I and my museum are going to have a problem competing with that wow factor). People come from miles around on purpose to see the Monets, the Istar Gate, the bust of Nefertiti, Egyptian collections…no explanation needed. They speak for themselves.
But what do you do when you have a story to tell and you need to do an exhibit around that? Or if the artifacts you hold are fascinating, but hardly unusual? (If you’ve seen one submarine 4-inch .50-caliber bullet and jacket, you’ve seen them all, trust me. Don’t get me started on some of the other things I’ve seen in our holdings)
What captures people’s interest is the stories that these objects help tell. Sometimes, the object, like the Mona Lisa or the Tower of London, or the Declaration of Independence intrinsically tell their stories, but others need help with the interpretation, especially since culturally and technologically we’re much further away from our countrymen of 70 years ago, than they were from the Civil War veterans 70 years prior to them.
So, I usually start with artifacts with the eye to a story. What do they say to me, and how can I make that interesting and exciting to someone else? Sometimes (like the time I did an exhibit on the history of the presentation of the written word) it can be difficult. Other times, like the USS Flier, the story tells itself, I just need to figure out what to put with it to bring it to life.
Then of course, there’s the floor plan, the layout, making sure the exhibit doesn’t block the fire exits, and accommodates the Americans with Disabilities Act, all of which just make it more intriguing, not frustrating. (Well at least for me, and at least, most of the time)
Then of course, there are things like yesterday’s announcement of the discovery of Flier. Now I have to go back to the drawing board and completely overhaul the exhibit exit to reflect the most recent information.
And the budget. Can never forget the almighty budget.
I’ll show you what I mean soon.