by Anne T. LaneAn exhibition may be conceived in a number of ways. Usually the idea is first, and the text and artifacts are brought together in support of the idea. Sometimes an artifact or group of artifacts embodies an idea, and the rest of the exhibit is built around them. Sometimes, in order to be bomb-proof or portable, an exhibition is done entirely with graphics, and it is images of the objects that support the idea. Whether the objects are part of the museum’s collection or are to be borrowed from another institution or individual, the collections department becomes part of the equation early in the process.
Choosing of candidates from among available objects is first a matter of research – into the database, into the holdings of potential lenders. A list of possibilities is given to collections staff who bring them out for the curator and exhibition designer to see. Each item is evaluated not only for suitability in telling the story, but for its condition and its vulnerability to the stresses of handling and light exposure. Sometimes mere size or weight are limiting factors, or whether or not the item can be protected from curious visitors who don’t recognize the damage their handling can cause.
Once choices are made, a series of steps is followed in order to prepare the items for exhibition. Condition reports are updated or written, and images made to support them. The exhibition designers must know sizes and lighting requirements in order to determine casework and placement, as well as the possible need for rotation of vulnerable items. Collections staff in turn must determine what mounts or supports to construct to ensure stability of each object. Both exhibition designers and collections staff must have a thorough knowledge of acceptable materials for a safe exhibition environment. This includes not only casework, mounts, and coatings, but also graphics substrates and inks, and adhesives.Installation is always a joint project. In order for it to go smoothly, everyone has to know where and when each piece is to go in. Staff and volunteers work together to transport items from storage to the gallery, clearing the path and opening and closing doors as needed. Once any objects are in the gallery, someone has to be there at all times to keep unauthorized people from wandering in. Mounts and isolating material are placed, objects are installed, and then lighting levels must be adjusted. Exhibitions staff up on ladders, collections staff on the floor, work to aim and control light levels so the objects are clearly illuminated but not endangered by too much light. The comfort of the public must also be taken into account, as a brilliant light striking into a visitor’s eyes from across the gallery is a serious flaw. A last polish of plexi vitrines, and the opening can take place.
Even after an exhibition is buttoned up, exhibits and collections staff must check regularly that vitrines are clean, that nothing has been jarred out of place, that visitors haven’t found ways to handle or disturb the objects, and that light levels are properly maintained. Collections staff also inspect for evidence of pests. If anything is found to be awry, it is reported to the appropriate department and remedied with as little disturbance to the exhibition as possible.