10. Creating Exhibits: A Toolkit for Meaningful Displays
Exhibits engage members of your community and the general public with thematic topics and documents from your collections. Exhibits educate, inform, and entertain. Create exhibits in community spaces (local library, museum, school, etc.). Develop programming related to exhibits such as gallery talks, special tours, films, and symposia.
Find Exhibit Partners
Local organizations, museums, and librarians may have opportunities for collaboration. Some possibilities include:
The Wing Luke (for Asian American Communities):
Seattle Art Museum Communities Partners opportunities:
Public libraries such as Seattle Public Library and King County Library System
The UW Libraries online Community Museum Project is a collaboration with Tribes across the Olympic Peninsula: http://content.lib.washington.edu/cmpweb/project/proj-resources.html
Create Your Own Exhibit
Exhibit Preparation: Best Practices
Exhibits should be well prepared, organized, and aesthetically pleasing. In order to most effectively promote an exhibits program, have a schedule of exhibitions planned for six to twelve months in the future.
As a general rule, exhibits should be on display for two to three months. Since exhibit conditions place a physical strain on any original materials being displayed, exhibits running longer than three months should be undertaken only under exceptional circumstances.
Exhibit Materials Handling
Exhibitors should handle books and artifacts gently and with conservation concerns in mind. In general, books should be displayed on bookstands, cradles or supports. Exposure to direct sunlight should be avoided. Panels with halogen light and cases with interior lighting can also be damaging to exhibited materials. Exhibitors should consider using facsimiles for fragile materials such as newspapers and photographs.
See these sources for more information:
Text should be printed on a high-quality printer if not professionally designed and/or typeset.
Typeface should be a legible font such as Times New Roman, Century, or Arial
Text should have contrast, such as black on white.
Introductory panels should be 150-170 words or less
Captions for individual items should be 20-30 words
Font size should be at least 28 point for introductory text panels. For secondary text panels, 18 point is acceptable if the reader can be within 20 inches. For text that only contains a few lines of copy, 14 point is acceptable.
Exhibit Support Materials:
Bibliographies, brochures and other promotional material and/or instructional materials to accompany an exhibit are recommended, as is an accompanying Website linked to your organization’s Webpage.
NEH Public Humanities Projects https://www.neh.gov/grants/public/public-humanities-projects
Members of the community
Seattle Foundation, Arts and Culture
Online exhibits are not limited by time, place, or space. Members of your community and people around the world can access your history and documents any time, as long as they have Internet access. Online exhibits do not suffer from the space limitations of physical exhibits. They continue to inform even after a physical exhibit ends. Online exhibits often include more supplemental material such as timelines, background information, bibliographies, historical notes, and additional context provided by experts or scholars. An excellent example is the Seattle Civil Rights & Labor History Project: http://depts.washington.edu/civilr/
The Library of Congress 10 Resources for Community Digital Archives blog has useful information about digitizing collections for online promotion: http://blogs.loc.gov/thesignal/2013/06/10-resources-for-community-digital-archives/
It also includes information about personal archiving in publishable web formats. This discussion, resulting from The Personal Digital Archiving 2015 Conference gives detailed information about using specific cloud-based digital storage options and web design programs: http://blogs.loc.gov/thesignal/category/personal-archiving/
Promote your community’s past, present, and future through social media channels. Your Facebook page can keep people informed of what’s happening in your community, what’s coming up through an events calendar, and even the past (ex. Establish “Throwback Thursday” by posting an historic document or photo that highlights your community’s rich history). Here are a few examples of how UW Libraries use social media platforms to promote our collections:
University of Washington Gov Pubs Finds on tumblr: http://govpubsfinds.tumblr.com/
Election 2016 Editorial Cartoons Exhibit: http://guides.lib.uw.edu/c.php?g=341884&p=2297861
UW Libraries on Sound Cloud: https://soundcloud.com/uwlibraries
Folk Mic: http://folkmic.weebly.com/
For more information, see:
7 Social Media Marketing Tips for Artists and Galleries: http://mashable.com/2012/11/10/social-media-marketing-tips-artists-galleries/#AkNY7vVVskqt
Free online platforms can be used to promote your collections and events. Possibilities include: Facebook, Pinterest, tumblr, and Weebly.
How to Create an Exhibit: The Basics
Why do an exhibit?
Exhibits are an essential part of many ethnic and cultural heritage organizations. They are one of the most effective tools for furthering an institution’s mission. While each exhibit has specific goals, most have a few overarching purposes. Exhibits may:
Promote learning through display and interpretation of authentic objects, artifacts, and narratives.
Expose an institution’s collections and research to the general public and targeted communities.
Encourage communication and, potentially, future donations or involvement between the institution and the public.
Provide an opportunity to showcase unique and often underrepresented or misunderstood histories, narratives, individuals, or communities.
Allow for cultivation of relationships with community members and groups.
There is no single method for developing an exhibit. However, there are some core activities and milestones which can help to guide the process.
Step 1: Conceptualization
Most exhibits begin with a catalyst or reason for undertaking an exhibit on a specific topic. Some catalysts might include:
Missing or underrepresented narratives in the institution’s exhibition history.
Discovery or acquisition of new information or artifacts.
Advancing research into a specific topic, artifact, event, individual, or group.
New or increasing interest in a specific topic, event, individual, or person.
In most cases, an exhibit’s general topic (i.e. Female Writer’s in the PNW, World War I Centennial, Children of the Klondike Gold Rush, etc.) is tied to the catalyst for the exhibit.
Step 2: Development
Once the underlying reason for producing an exhibit has been established, it is important to examine if the exhibit is feasible, justified, or necessary. There are a few ways to go about this:
Briefly search for scholarship and historical resources to ensure that information related to the topic is available.
Develop a preliminary exhibit concept or take-away message. If visitors only remember one thing from the exhibit, what should it be?
Develop preliminary exhibit themes or overarching categories related to the topic and concept.
Briefly explore available collections to determine if an appropriate number of artifacts related to the exhibit topic are available.
Conduct a Front-End Evaluation or survey with visitors to determine overall interest in the topic and narrow down potential themes.
Establish preliminary exhibit-specific goals, aka Learning Objectives.
Create a preliminary budget.
Establish a preliminary timeline/schedule.
Establish an exhibit team.
Develop an Exhibit Brief, a document which outlines the need for the exhibit, possible concepts or themes, potential exhibit-specific goals, and a suggested budget, timeline, and team.
Step 3: Preparation
Once the exhibit has been approved by the director/board, the process of creating the exhibit content can begin. The creation of an exhibit might involve the following:
Conduct in-depth research into the exhibit topic.
Develop a final exhibit concept or take-away message.
Develop final exhibit themes.
Develop an exhibit storyline or script outlining what the visitor will see, experience, or learn in each section of the exhibit.
Explore the institution’s artifact collection and evaluate/select appropriate items to be used in the exhibit.
Explore and contact related institutions for potential artifact loans or photograph permissions.
Write labels and informational signs.
Develop interactive elements on in-gallery activities to accompany exhibit.
Create a drawing of the exhibit, including entrance/exits, lights, artifacts/graphics/labels present in each section, and any interactive elements.
Determine the colors, font, size of labels and other graphic elements.
Develop educational activities and public programs to accompany the exhibit.
Develop a fundraising plan to help fund the exhibit.
Develop a marketing plan to publicize the exhibit.
Step 4: Production
The production portion of the exhibit ensures that all the necessary elements and paperwork are completed in preparation for the installation. In many cases, installations occur on a very tight schedule. Having all the exhibit elements prepared in advance will ensure that your installation goes smoothly. During this process, you will:
Contract fabricators, label printers, and other specialized services.
Finalize loans or permissions with other institutions.
Create exhibit furniture & mounts.
Prepare exhibition or gallery space.
Produce media elements, programs, or other technology to be used in the exhibit.
Produce/Print labels and other informational signs.
Produce/Print photograph reproductions & enlargements.
Consult with appropriate staff on environmental considerations and emergency plan for exhibit artifacts.
Install or upgrade any lighting elements.
Step 5: Implementation
The final step in producing an exhibit is the installation, where each artifact, label, graphic, interactive element, etc. will be installed in the space. This is followed by the exhibit launch, which presents the exhibit to the public and continued maintenance of the exhibit/artifacts.
Install each exhibit element
Prepare for Opening
Invite the Public
Maintain ongoing exhibit maintenance
Prepare a plan to de-install the exhibit
Exhibit Writing Resources
Beverly Serrell: Exhibit Labels: An Interpretive Approach
Sam Ham: Environmental Interpretation: A Practical Guide
Angela Ackerman & Becca Puglisi: The Emotion Thesaurus (for character expression)
Ann Everett: Strong Verbs, Strong Voice: A quick reference to improve your writing and impress readers
William Strunk Jr. & E.B. White: The Elements of Style
Software, Websites & Online Tools
Open Office – a free alternative for word processing https://www.openoffice.org
Libre Writer – free alternative for word processing http://www.techradar.com/reviews/libreoffice
Focus Writer – distraction-free writing environment https://gottcode.org/focuswriter/
Scrivener – one-stop writing software that allows word processing, organization and outlining www.writersstore.com/Scrivener
Ulysses – writing app for Mac, iPad & iPhone https://www.ulyssesapp.com/
Hemingway – online editor (and/or software) designed to improve readability in documents http://hemingwayapp.com/
AutoCrit – manuscript editing software for writers https://www.autocrit.com/
Mind Mapping – website that explains the mind mapping process and provides links to software, etc. http://www.mindmapping.com/
Write or Die - Lets you set a word count goal, as well as a time limit in which you have to complete the goal. Allows you to specify consequences and grace periods. Idea is to get you to write without concern for editing. http://writeordie.com/
Graphic Design Resources
J. Paul Getty Guide to Adult Interpretative Materials: https://www.getty.edu/education/museum_educators/downloads/aaim_completeguide.pdf
Smithsonian Guidelines for Accessible Design: https://www.si.edu/Accessibility/SGAED
Anytime you are using an image from another source, investigate copyright or Creative Commons licensing. In cases of websites like Flickr, make attempts to contact the original photographer where possible and ALWAYS credit.
Library of Congress: American Memory https://memory.loc.gov/ammem/index.html
The National Archives https://www.archives.gov/research/catalog/
(For easiest use, go to advanced search and select “archival materials online”)
Washington State Historical Society Collections http://collections.washingtonhistory.org/
While use is not free, there is a special rate for non-profits. Contact Eileen Price for more information: Eileen.email@example.com
Wikipedia’s Public Domain Image Resource List – read the article carefully before proceeding: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Public_domain_image_resources
Free/Inexpensive Software Resources
GIMP – open-source software similar to Adobe Photoshop: https://www.gimp.org/downloads/
Audacity – free, open-source audio software for recording and editing. Does take some time to learn. http://www.audacityteam.org/
Canva – very basic, template-based graphic design software. Many templates are free, others cost money. https://www.canva.com/
Scribus – open-source desktop publishing, similar to InDesign https://www.scribus.net/
Inkscape – free, open-source software used to make vector graphics, similar to Illustrator https://inkscape.org/en/
Techsoup – offers discounts and donations to eligible nonprofits and public libraries: http://www.techsoup.org/joining-techsoup
DaFont – free fonts. Can “preview” by typing custom text if desired. Watch licensing carefully to be sure that your choice of font can be used. http://www.dafont.com/
FontSquirrel – free fonts, including commercial use https://www.fontsquirrel.com/