By Sara Blanchett
Through the AASLH Diversity Workshop Fellowship, I was fortunate to attend the two-day Exhibit Makeovers workshop in Charlotte, North Carolina, at the Charlotte Museum of History in early March. I chose to attend this workshop because I have worked more as an interpreter and educator, and now that my job focuses more on collections management and exhibit curation, I wanted to learn about the modern practices of the exhibit process in hopes that these skills can be translated to my current position and beyond.
I was excited to learn the tricks of the trade from Dr. Alice Parman and Ann Craig, who literally wrote the book on exhibit makeovers. Everyone received a copy of their book, Exhibit Makeovers: A Do-It-Yourself Workbook for Small Museums, which will be a very helpful resource for creating exhibits in the future.
I liken our first day to warming up before a serious run. We went around the room and introduced ourselves, what organizations we worked for, and the reasons why we attended the workshop. Each table consisted of 4-5 people, and that group was responsible for creating an exhibit based on artifacts that the Charlotte Museum of History had on a table in the room. Each table came up with an exhibit topic and ways to incorporate each artifact as a part of the exhibit. These group exercises allowed us to see how important it is for curators to successfully convey the exhibit’s message through design, artifact selection, and physical placement.
The second day of the workshop took what we learned the day before (our warm-up) and implemented it by writing exhibit text and designing the physical space. We began to learn things that were extremely eye-opening, and made me look back to my own visitor experience going through museums. What you don’t realize as a visitor is that the minute you step into a museum, everything is designed with a purpose. From the tables and chairs to the hands-on activities and stimulation of the five senses, everything is done to draw you in to connect with the subject matter.
The Charlotte Museum of History graciously let us explore and critique their exhibit space. We shared with the staff our thoughts, suggestions, and recommendations for their space, and it’s a humbling experience to then go back to your own museum or historic site and find all the things that could be given a makeover as well. What I learned when going back to my own historic site, is that there are ways to make over exhibits or areas of the site without having to spend a lot of money or jump through political hoops. Subtle changes can be made that can provide visitors with a fresh look and renewed interest if the work is put in by staff, support groups, and volunteers.
At the end of the workshop, I believe all of us wanted to go back to our museums and overhaul everything. I’m sure we’ll do as much as we can now that we are armed with the knowledge to pull our museums into the twenty-first century.
Check out our full calendar of upcoming workshops, webinars, and online courses here.