Building a Museum Exhibit - Part 1

There are many ways to build an exhibit from professional level at a prestigious museum down to the volunteer amateur at a local historical society. The techniques and methods are as far ranging and different as there are museums. I love going to museums and taking pictures of exhibits that really strike me.

For the first part of this 2-part series I wanted to go over some unique and interesting exhibits and briefly talk about some of the techniques used. In the second part, I'll be talking about the nitty gritty details of how we put together our Great Basin exhibit at Utah State University's Museum of Anthropology.

1. Robinson Nature Center - functioning mechanics
Robinson Nature Center - Columbia, MD

This is behind plexi-glass and the spinning wheel has plexiglass to protect little hands getting caught in the spokes. Spinning the wheel doesn't actually operate anything itself, but you can spin it to start the mechanics inside turning - kind of like pushing a button. Realistic sound effects of a mill turn on as well, coming from a speaker above the exhibit. What I love is that it is an actual working mechanism of gears and belts that show how a grain mill functions. My son stood and stared at this exhibit for at least half an hour. It really was so fascinating! I thought this aspect of the exhibit is what really stood out - the use of mechanics in a functional, truly instructive way. If it had been a static exhibit, it would still have been interesting, but it wouldn't have been nearly as captivating. (They have an extensive and detailed nature exhibit downstairs that didn't come close to capturing my son's attention as much as this one did - he was age 4 at the time.)

I also liked how well they labeled it - with each step of the milling process explained. This keeps the purpose of the exhibit clear and instructional.

2. Golden Spike National Historic Site - life-sized objects
Golden Spike National Historic Site
- 32 miles west of Brigham City, UT
I really liked this exhibit below. It used a similar technique with the exhibit I worked on at Utah State with the hanging plexi-glass. I found it interesting they used that technique for their signs and used the white wall to set off the black text and pictures.

I love the still life created here with the tools and a set up of some railroad ties!
Note the use of lighting. Lighting in an exhibit is one of the most important things!

 What struck me about this part of the exhibit was that it was open, and was a realistic set-up of working on the railroad with the actual objects in life size. They could easily have set this up as a diorama-type exhibit, but I think this is much more effective. Standing so close to the objects you can get a real feel to what it would have been like to be there working on the railroad - at least in relation to the objects themselves, not the actual conditions. :-)
I'm always interested to see how museums hang larger objects like this shovel mounted to plexi-glass and suspended from the ceiling. 

An example of the text and pictures mounted on clear plexi-glass.
The lighting created a funky shadow with the black text on the white wall. I don't know if this was a good thing or a really distracting thing...
3. Living History Farms - walk-in/hands-on immersion
I love this next example! At the awesome Living History Farms in Iowa, there is an entire 1930/40s kitchen you just walk into. No ropes, no barriers. You are there inside. So amazing. This exhibit is very hands-on with little signs that invite you to "Open Here"! You are free to just snoop around to get an awesome look an Iowan kitchen from the past. A few of the cupboard doors and drawers had some actual exhibit signage explaining different aspects of Iowa farmhouse kitchens.
Don't you just love being able to "walk into the past"?

Stuff like this gets me really excited. I really felt like I was snooping in someone's kitchen from the past.
And it is very practical with the plexi-glass screwed on top. You get a nice view, but the objects are protected.
My daughter liked inspecting the very cool fridge. Look at that tiny ice box!
The fridge door was the perfect size for my 3year old to freely inspect inside. The contents are also behind plexiglass, but it would have been cool if you could play with the food inside.

Toaster, bread box?, and "Open Here" drawers!

Looking under the sink is what every little kid wants to do, but usually can't do it safely. In this exhibit you can safely see the typical cleaners of the time behind plexi-glass. How cool is that?! I just love these little details.

Inside one of the drawers.

Another cupboard. Cool!

The next time you're at a museum, pay close attention to the exhibits that stand out to you. What is it that makes them grab you? What techniques did they use to help you relate to the subject matter? Take some pictures!

On to Part 2!


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