How can small museums develop high quality, low-cost exhibits? Curators at small museums are expected to make big statements and tell meaningful stories despite our limited resources and workforces. I’d like to pass along what I’ve discovered while developing exhibits at the Elkhart County Historical Museum in Bristol, Indiana, and the History Museum at the Castle in Appleton, Wisconsin. Any exhibit, regardless of budget size, can effectively address a visitor’s needs and questions by using this planning blueprint:
- Community voices strengthen planning. Involving your community enriches your exhibit’s content, attracts new members, and can pull in new sources of revenue. Conduct visitor research to learn what did or didn’t work in the past. Survey your community to learn what subjects interest them. Host listening sessions and place questionnaires throughout your community. Record oral histories related to your topic. Ask community members to donate or loan artifacts for the exhibit.
- Thorough research gives your stories meaning. Don’t limit your research to the century-old county histories that used to define your community. Are there any untold stories or new perspectives on local history? Shed new light on your community’s past by digging into newspapers, diaries, correspondence, maps, and other primary sources. Weave selections and interpretations from academic historians and other secondary sources into your narrative. Reach out to include under-represented people as part of your storyline.
- Tell a story and set educational goals. When developing an exhibit, I try to achieve two or three learning objectives. These core concepts help me as I lay out the floor plan, write the narrative, select artifacts, and create interactive components. Present every element in your exhibit within its appropriate historical context. Exhibit scripts should reflect your intended audience. Most adults read at an 8th– or 9th-grade reading level, so adjust your terminology and text length accordingly. If your audience includes sizable numbers of school-age students, consider aligning your learning objectives with your local school district’s curriculum standards.
- Collection stewardship is central to design. Donors have entrusted your institution with the long-term care of their former collections and heirlooms. Objects are especially at risk during exhibition, so you need to take certain precautions. Keep all artifacts either out of visitors’ reach or secured in glass or acrylic vitrines. Archival materials, such as Mylar, provide effective protection. Object mounts, made of special acrylic or acid-free cardboard, can present artifacts in an interesting way while keeping them secure. If you let visitors handle a collection of replica artifacts, there’s no problem discarding any damaged items.
To make your exhibit even better:
- Use striking colors, images, and sounds for impact. Painting walls is an inexpensive way to reinforce learning objectives. Really bright or dark colors can heighten senses, create emotion, and emphasize important text panels or artifacts. Photographs can easily deteriorate while on display, and they’re usually too small for visitors to see and appreciate.
Instead of using original photographs, I usually scan, replicate, and enlarge them either for easy viewing or to create dramatic, wall-sized images. Music or sounds related to your topic help create an engaging ambiance. You can also hook up relatively inexpensive audio players to motion sensors.
- Be creative with technology. Computerized gadgets constantly unlock new and innovative approaches towards exhibits. Free or inexpensive social media services break down traditional walls, enhance learning objectives, and take exhibits beyond the gallery and into the community. QR codes, simple to make, can direct visitors to online YouTube videos. An exhibit about local schools, for example, could invite visitors to post their school portrait or sporting event pictures to Facebook. Advertise through Twitter by encouraging visitors to “tweet” their memories of your exhibit.
- Fewer artifacts can mean more to visitors. Small museums too often try to show their entire collection in the galleries. Emphasize quality over quantity. Sometimes a few intriguing artifacts can help visitors focus more on the message or story you’re conveying.
- Ask for donated services or products. Consider asking local businesses to donate their services, staff time, or older products in lieu of a financial contribution. Do you need a flat screen television? Perhaps a merchant can donate an older model or offer it at a reduced price. Do you need help installing that television in the gallery? Ask an electrician to donate his or her services. Before you know it, you may suddenly have a $20,000 valued exhibit on your hands! Acknowledging every one of these donations shows how broad-based your community’s support is. After all, it’s their museum, too!
After your exhibit has opened, reflect on the process. Survey your visitors to measure their responses to the exhibit. Did you adequately convey your learning objectives to the public? Create a five-year plan for exhibits, so your staff and volunteers are continually developing the next gallery.
To learn more about exhibit development, check out Exhibit Makeovers: A Do-It-Yourself Workbook for Small Museums. This book has many cost-effective ideas to improve your exhibit strategies.
I hope these points help you, as community educators, develop professional, effective, and engaging exhibits.
Nicholas J. Hoffman, Curator
History Museum at the Castle