Museum of History News

Museum exhibits: From the ground up

The Museum of History supports as many as 20 volunteer interns over the course of a year in a variety of opportunities. Tori Harrigan was chosen for one of this summer’s internships; she is working in the Education Section as a programs assistant. During her stay, she has been documenting some of her experiences.

The multiple stages of exhibit development take time to grow
exhibit development at the North Carolina Museum of History
Plants take time to grow and have multiple stages of development; exhibits at the Museum of History are much the same!
Source: Upside Down Plants, 2007

A history museum wouldn’t be much without exhibits, but—as I’ve discovered—they don’t just appear out of thin air! Months, even years, of planning may go into researching, developing, designing, and mounting each presentation of artifacts, photographs, and text in their final form. During my time at the museum, I have had the opportunity to sit in on many meetings and to learn about the process and the people behind the scenes. Have you ever thought about how an exhibit came to be?

First and foremost, a topic needs to be identified, a leader chosen, a team assembled, and a budget established. Now, despite my assumptions, the team leader does not have to be familiar with the exhibit’s proposed topic; instead, they should be someone with enough time to manage and remain organized throughout the whole project. Most teams involve people from every part of the museum—curation, collections, photography, education, marketing, editing and graphic design, and fabrication—to ensure the exhibit gets attention from all specialty areas. The budget should be flexible because many costs can only be estimated at first, and since unexpected costs can pop up at any time..

Most exhibit teams at the Museum of History include

  • a curator, or subject specialist, who provides options for exploring the topic, researches and outlines the topic, proposes a choice of artifacts and photos to tell the topic’s story, writes text, and offers additional knowledge to enhance the exhibit;
  • a collections specialist, who manages legal paperwork (loan agreements and contracts), helps identify and locate artifacts and props, conserves and prepares and safely handles those objects (including helping to design mounts), and acts as liaison for conservators and handlers during installation;
  • a photographer, who helps identify and locate in-house photographs, secures permissions for the use of outside images, checks file sizes for proper resolutions, and files images for use during design, printing, and installation;
  • an educator, who puts together programs—including activities, interactives, and multimedia presentations—for audiences of all ages and suggests ways to provide supplemental information to visitors;
  • a marketing and publicity person (both print media and online/social media), who raises interest and awareness about the upcoming exhibit;
  • an editor, who revises text related to the exhibit and ensures the topic’s message gets across to visitors;
  • a graphic designer, who creates “a look” for the exhibit and provides signage needed to support the exhibit and makes everything as visually appealing as possible; and
  • an exhibit designer, or another member of the fabrication team (which could include carpenters, electricians, lighting technicians, and audiovisual specialists), who fabricates mounts for objects, creates and finalizes the look and functionality of the exhibit space, and then makes it all a reality.

To tell the truth, it is amazing how much time and effort and how many people and resources have to go into completing just one exhibit—and at the Museum of History, several exhibits are always in the works at any given time! Now, after being able to scratch the surface, I will always be aware of how much attention to detail goes into the process, and I’ll have a stronger appreciation for the work each team member has to do. I will definitely become more aware of the many elements within an exhibit that I used to just overlook.

Exhibit development, a complex process
exhibit development at the North Carolina Museum of History
“It is amazing how much time and effort and how many people and resources have to go into completing just one exhibit—and at the Museum of History, several exhibits are always in the works at any given time!”
Photo collage by Chelsea Weger.

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