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Ohio Local History Alliance

Exhibit Planning in the Small Historical Society Museum

[This article originally appeared in the September/October 1985 issue of Local Historian Notebook.  It is posted here with permission.]

Exhibit Planning in the Small Historical Society Museum

By Raymond F. Schuck

Planning, preparing, and completing an exhibit is a complex but worthwhile undertaking.  With a little common sense, patience, hard work, and know-how, the results can be satisfying, providing an attraction worth viewing.

Since any permanent exhibit is created for a reason, the most logical starting point is to select a topic and decide on a purpose.  These two aspects are the most crucial parts of planning the exhibit and must be consistent with the overall concepts and functions of the museum.

This planning decision can be made either individually, by one person associated with the organization, or collectively, by a group of persons such as a board committee.  Both methods of decision-making have merit, but whichever one is employed, it should be a matter of policy.

Once the decision is made to install an exhibit and the topic and purpose clearly outlined and understood, the next step is to figure out how the final product will be achieved.  Inquiries such as whether or not the exhibit will be of value and contribute to a better understanding of the topic should be made concerning the proposed exhibit.  These inquiries need not be elaborate.  A simple discussion with people associated with the organization and familiar with the topic such as trustees, staff, members, volunteers, and randomly selected visitors at the museum should produce some useful commentary.  If the comments are negative or fail to inspire some degree of enthusiasm, the topic and purpose should be reevaluated.  This will save time and money before it is spent on something doomed to failure.

Deciding What to Exhibit
Once a topic and purpose have been successfully reviewed and accepted, the next steps are to decide what is to be exhibited and how it is to be done.  There are two approaches to deciding what to exhibit.  One method is to select a theme or the main idea of the exhibit, outline the content or what is to be used to get the theme across to the visitor, and choose the items to be used for illustration.  The other approach is to select the items to be illustrated, develop the content, and, from this, decide on the theme.  Either approach is valid but whichever one is followed should convey a message and conform to the topic and purpose.

The items selected for use should have some relevance and significance to the theme.  It is better to have more items than needed and selectively reduce the number for use than to not have enough items and attempt to “stretch” their significance.  Often a considerable amount of research will have to be done when selecting items before a final approach can be determined.

When the approach is clearly understood and outlined, specifications such as size, location, and materials needed for the exhibit can be established.  If cases are desire, the number needed can be determined by the quantity of items to be used and the manner in which they will illustrate the theme.  This can be calculated by listing and arranging the items by their size and their probable location in the exhibit.  In arranging the items, duplicates should be eliminated unless they have special significance to the theme.  From this process, the size of the exhibit should start to come into focus, and decisions can be made on the design and location of the exhibit within the museum.

Designing the Exhibit
Since most small museums do not have the funding to purchase the services of a consultant to design the exhibit and have it constructed, the work will probably be done in the museum itself.  There are several important factors the curator or exhibit preparator should consider.

Initially, any design must be consistent with the surrounding environment and with any other exhibits in the area.  As important is the physical appearance of the cases.  They serve to house the exhibit components, such as the items selected, labels, and props, and should not be constructed in any manner that will distract from the exhibit itself.  Quite often cases are so elaborate that they obscure the exhibit’s message.

Unless the exhibit case work is done by a skilled carpenter volunteering his or her time or the cases are prefabricated, it is absolutely essential that the curator or exhibit preparator have some knowledge of woodworking. Although fine woodworking is a skill, there are plenty of how-to books available offering instruction and advice for the construction of a variety of cases and props.

It is necessary before starting to become familiar with the selection of building materials.  Hardwoods, softwoods, plywoods, particle and wafer boards, hardboard (often referred to by its trade name, Masonite), pegboard, upson board, sheetrock, and drywall, in different combinations and situations, can be used successfully to achieve a variety of results in forming the major parts of the exhibit.

Choosing the Proper Materials
Choosing the proper material for constructing and fastening the cases is just as important as knowing the proper building material.  There are a vast number of nails, screws, bolts, fasteners, hooks, staples, glues, and pastes on the market to complete any job.  A hardware store or lumberyard proprietor should prove helpful in selecting the proper material.

A variety of wood finishes should be considered before deciding on the final application.  If paint is desired, choose carefully. Factory-mixed standard colors work best, especially when the need to “touch up” arises at a later date.  Generally, enamel or oil-base paint works best on the exhibit exterior, where cleaning may be a problem; latex or water-base paint is ideal for use on case interiors.  Using latex paint in such a way will also eliminate reflections caused by lighting.  Besides paints, there are numerous oils, stains, and varnish-like products which can be used effectively to enhance the case design, yet not clash with the items on display.  With some oils and stains a light coat or two of wax will help protect the finish, especially if used on case exteriors.

Selecting the proper lighting for exhibits is important. In most instances either fluorescent or incandescent lighting will effectively illuminate the exhibit.  All fluorescent lighting requires a shield or filter to block ultraviolet rays which can harm the items on exhibit and fade the colors of the cases.  The fluorescent tubes themselves are manufactured in a variety of illuminations-cool light, warm light, day light-and selecting the correct illumination is vital to the desired effect and appearance of the the exhibit.  Also, the appearance of most colors will change under different illuminations.  The tubes are made in several sizes, which makes positioning the adequate illumination an attractive feature of the type of lighting.  Incandescent lighting, too, can be purchased in different illuminations.  The major concern with incandescent lighting should be with the heat emitted from the bulbs.  There should always be proper ventilation when using incandescent lighting.

Many cases require a material to protect the enclosed contents.  In most instances, glass serves this purpose.  Glass is manufactured in many different sizes, textures, sheens, and thicknesses, and choosing the appropriate piece or pieces requires some familiarity with the products.  There is one type of glass on the market, Denglas, which reduces reflection to less than one percent, provides ultraviolet filtering, cleans easily, and generally, allows the items it protects to be seen as if the glass was not present.  Denglas, however, does cost more than other types of clear glass.  Because of this, its purchase should be carefully considered before installation.  It should also be kept in mind that angling glass slightly inward from top to bottom upon installation helps reduce glare allows for easy removal when a pane needs to be taken off a case for any reason.  The use of clear plastic sheets can serve the same purposes as glass, but the surface of this material is susceptible to abrasion.

Completing the Exhibit
Finally, the decisions must be made on furnishing and completing the exhibit.  The most important aspects to remember at this point are clarity and conciseness.  The exhibit must be made appealing, attractive, and understandable.  Utilizing charts, maps, drawings, and other illustrations will prove useful.  The entire exhibit, however, would not be complete without a means to convey the message.  This is usually done with the use of labels.

Although labels often can be made by elaborate means on a large variety of surfaces via the silkscreening process, it is not a necessity for effective labeling.  The function of any label is to convey a message.  There are only three types of messages that need to be considered to effectively explain any exhibit and the items shown: 1. Announcing the theme of the exhibit. 2. Clarifying the theme segments. 3. Identifying the content, including the items displayed. These messages can be communicated with the use of labels; and, if executed properly, can be the difference between a well-understood exhibit and a random accumulation of objects and facts.  Usually, the theme of the exhibit is announced in a few words.  This can be done with large lettering of some sort (letters cut from wood, upson board, cardboard or some other material) placed prominently at the forefront of the exhibit.  The theme segments can be clarified in no more than one or two paragraph statements using smaller labels of individual lettering or lettered cards.  The information on these labels should be concise and clearly written. The identification label should also be concise and should be within close proximity of the item it is identifying.

Any method of conveying these messages, whether it be with handwritten or typewritten cards, the use of press-on lettering, photostatically reproduced lettering on colored paper of the use of factory-made or handmade cut out letters, can be used effectively if done neatly and uniformly.

There are some additional considerations when planning, preparing, and completing any exhibit.  First design all exhibits with security and maintenance in mind.  Remember, once an exhibit is completed the time spent on it by staff is drastically reduced, and the only people near it may be the visitors.  Consequently, the exhibit should be safe and secure in every regard and relatively maintenance free.

Keep the design of the exhibit simple. In a small historical society museum, the emphasis should be on quality and not the quantity and size of exhibits.  Also, the maintenance of permanent exhibits will be easier and less costly.

If necessary, seek volunteer assistance from local individuals and groups for completing the various stages of the exhibit.  Do not hesitate to give credit to those whose assistance has proven invaluable or who have contributed items or money used in the completion of the exhibit.  A simple listing on a separate label near the exhibit is sufficient.

Investigate the timing of an exhibit.  Exhibits can open in connection with the observance or commemoration of certain historical individuals or events or any number of other historical society activities.  Sometimes this may necessitate putting off a certain exhibit for a year or two.  In so doing, though, the audience reached is usually greater.

Do not hesitate to build storage space under, over, or behind exhibits.  This will provide a good use for otherwise “dead” space.

Do not waste time and money completely enclosing an area from view while the exhibit work is underway, unless the exhibit construction is hazardous to visitors.  Instead, put barriers around the area to restrict visitors from entering. Visitors are curious (after all, that is why the majority of them are in the museum), and will later appreciate more the finished product.  Be polite and answer questions or explain what is being done if working in the area with visitors present.

Consider all sources when looking for material or items to enhance an exhibit.  Some sources for materials are auctions, demolished buildings, junk yards, department store rejections or excesses especially mannequins and old display cases), garage sales, local businesses and industries, and the state surplus property center.

There should be no obstructions to viewing any exhibit in its entirety.  Some exhibits in museums are restricted from view to those visitors in wheelchairs, on crutches, or with similar impairments to their movement.  Just as problematic is the exhibit installed behind a post or other obstruction that blocks off certain portions of it from view.  These are problems easily corrected at the time the exhibit design is being completed.

Most visitors (and some people working in museums) have an innate desire to touch something significant, unusual, or attractive.  This desire can be controlled by putting barriers around items not to be touched or by enclosing the items in a protective case.

As an exhibit approaches completion, serious thought should be given to its promotion.  Announcements to area newspapers, radio stations, and television stations are the easiest and most effective means of getting the information out.  In small towns especially, the need for good, fresh news is always welcomed.  Announcements can also be sent to area service organizations and churches for reading at meetings or posting on a bulletin board.  Also, if there is a local chamber of commerce organized in the community, let the people involved know about the exhibit.  They can, and often will, spread the word both inside and outside the community.  Never overlook historical society members.  Send them information about the exhibit in a newsletter or special notice by postcard.  After all, these people are the staunchest supporters of the historical society and its activities.  Finally, consider advertising.  Although it costs money, there is always the chance that a local business or industry would be interested in defraying the cost by sponsoring the advertisements.

Documenting the Exhibit
Finally, prepare a file folder for every exhibit installed.  In the folder include correspondence, notes, news releases, and other documents relating to the exhibit such as designs, blueprints, a note on the location of such material if it is kept elsewhere, and the type of finish-name and manufacturer of paints, stains, etc.- used in the exhibit.  A list of contents, including the accession number, name of donor, and other pertinent information about the specific items on displaying should also be included.  Any future information concerning the exhibit can be added to the file for reference when and if needed.  This file will save a considerable amount of unnecessary work in the future.

The curator or exhibit preparator can, with thoughtful planning and the correct materials, prepare effective exhibits in a small museum.  A well-organized exhibit will enhance the museum’s reputation as both an educational and enjoyable resource in the community.

Suggested Reading

Burcaw, G. Ellis.  Introduction to Museum Work.  Nashville, Tennessee: AASLH Press, 1975.

Harris, Karyn Jean.  Costume Display Techniques.  Nashville, Tennessee: AASLH Press, 1977.

Neal, Arminta.  Exhibits for the Small Museum:  A Handbook.  Nashville, Tennessee: AASLH Press, 1977.

Neal, Arminta.  Help! For the Small Museum: Handbook of Exhibit Ideas and Methods.  Bouler, Colorado: Pruett Press, 1969.

Serrell, Beverly.  Making Exhibit Labels: A Step-by-Step Guide.  Nashville, Tennessee:  AASLH Press, 1983.