ASM curators are in the midst of planning an ambitious basket exhibit adjacent to the basketry vault, in a space we’re calling B.I.G. (Basket Interpretive Gallery). To borrow from a classic wine commercial, we will open no exhibit before its time.
In the meantime, we thought it might be interesting to read about what it takes to create, install, care for, and de-install an exhibit at ASM.
Design and Planning
This involves determining the overall theme, key messages, and footprint of an exhibit, which is done by curators, contributing scholars, and cultural representatives. Consultation, storyboarding, object selection, and floor plan design are all are part of the process, which can take months to years, depending on the size and scope of the project.
At the outset, the overall cost of an exhibit must be projected and painstaking detail. In the beginning, you want the vision to be inspired and ambitious, sprinkled with state-of-the-art technologies and museum-quality materials; but that initial vision, and its budget, will undoubtedly require frequent updating as they get tempered by reality. As with all complex construction projects, costs seem to move in only one direction–up. Realistic cost estimates must include such easily overlooked items as public programs, celebrations, and marketing surrounding the exhibit over its lifetime.
An exhibit requires curatorial oversight of its storyline. If it’s a small exhibit, just one curator is sufficient. For a large and complex exhibit, there may be a team of co-curators with different areas of expertise, all working on smaller sections but always speaking to the common theme. For any size exhibit the process involves expertise and research on the objects and cultures being discussed, and writing a cohesive story. There is much research, much copy writing, much editing, much rewriting, and much re-editing.
With that comes the sometimes arduous task of distilling it down to label copy that is at once on-point, digestible, and reader friendly. This process can take months depending on other priorities and responsibilities of the curators. (ASM curators teach classes at the University of Arizona, conduct and publish their own research, run laboratories, serve on student thesis and dissertation committees, serve on campus committees, serve on statewide committees, have leadership roles in national professional organizations, and participate in museum committees and programs.)
Object Selection and Condition Assessment
Once objects are selected, they go to the conservators for photography, condition assessment, and if needed, treatment, before they are cleared for use in the exhibit. Some are cleared; some are not. If not, the curator has to go back to find another that will illustrate the story in the same way. Depending on the number of objects and other priorities of the conservators, this process can take several months to a year. If objects must be borrowed from another institution, then the process is even more complicated.
Usually, graphic design is developed while the intellectual content is being created. You want your color scheme, fonts, and graphic elements to create an appropriate look and feel. They must come together with the intellectual content to illustrate the exhibit’s theme, enhance the storytelling, and define a cohesive visitor experience.
Once all the dominoes are in place, an exhibit is ready to be installed. What has up to this point been an intellectual and artistic pursuit now becomes a construction project. This is a noisy and bustling time in the workshop when table saws get turned on and when ladders go up in the gallery. There’s painting to be done. There are cases to be built or refurbished. There are mounts to be fabricated for each object (we’re talking hundreds). There are text panels and object labels to be printed, mounted, and cut. There are lighting tracks to be installed. There are air handlers to be programmed. There are cameras to be made ready. There are alarms to be activated. Then, finally, the objects, carefully inventoried, can be placed. Panels and labels can be installed.
Fundraising and Marketing
There’s as much careful thought, strategizing, and effort that goes into grant writing, fundraising, and marketing of an exhibit that goes in to the designing of one. This process begins months to a year prior to the beginning of the process. Fundraising then continues through the planning stages and usually wraps up sometime after opening. Marketing, naturally, continues through the life of the exhibit.
Ah, yes, opening day. That glorious day that always seems like it took years to get to. Now you see that it sometimes does!
Care and Feeding
Once an exhibit is opened, we come to the care and feeding stage of the game. Cleaning fingerprints off cases is a daily task. Picking up trash left in the galleries is, too. Occasionally, it is necessary to remove dirt, chewing gum, or even Magic Marker graffiti from text panels. In the case when removal is not possible, a panel or label will have to be re-printed, re-mounted, and re-installed. This may also be necessary if humidity causes damage to the panels during our rainy seasons. And, of course, there is the replacement of those lightbulbs that burn out on an almost-daily basis.
During the life of any exhibit at ASM, there is daily monitoring of environmental controls within the exhibit cases and within the gallery. Adjustments are made as needed. This process is overseen by the conservators.
Sometimes, for conservation reasons, an object is not allowed to be on exhibit for an extended period of time. This is common with paper, photo, and fiber items. After an amount of time, agreed to by curators and conservators, an object or several, must be replaced with another during the life of the exhibit. If the airtight seal on an exhibit case must be broken, the equipment monitoring and controlling conditions in that case needs to be recalibrated.
Once an exhibit closes and de-installation is in progress, the objects are carefully inventoried once again by the curators and sent to conservation for another round of mandatory condition assessment. Treatment occurs if necessary. Only after each and every object is given a clean bill of health are they put back in storage to await the next big thing.