Building A Museum Exhibit - Part 2

In the first part of this very tiny series I talked about a few exhibit techniques and gave a few examples. In this second part I'll be talking about the process of actually putting together an exhibit - a behind the scenes look. Come to think of it, I don't think I've ever personally seen museums advertise a look at how they put their exhibits together, but as a teenager I was curious about it. Visitors only ever get to see the end product and rarely get to see the process of idea development, artifact selection, exhibit building, and text writing along with the messy, hectic things that go on behind the scenes as the final countdown to the grand opening approaches. So, I'm hoping to give you at least a little glimpse using an exhibit I personally worked on while working for the Utah State University Museum of Anthropology.

Creating a new exhibit in the Museum of Anthropology was one of the assignments for our Intro to Museum Work Class. I requested special permission to redo this exhibit and had three other girls from my class working with me. The exhibit was used frequently, because learning about the Great Basin is required learning for 4th graders in Utah. And as the exhibit needed a serious face lift, I felt it was an important project. We had about 3 months to finish our work.

The picture below is the Great Basin exhibit we had to revamp.

Boring, white background. Not all the artifacts were labeled and none of them explained which collection they came from.
Another huge problem was that there were some replicas mixed in with original artifacts, but as there weren't proper labels, the visitor would have a hard time distinguishing between the two. Pictures weren't labeled very well either.

We stripped the exhibit down and got planning.
Exhibit under construction!
This was the depth of the case we had to work with. It was pretty narrow, so we had to get creative with the space we had.
The exhibit space was narrow and long.
We had several meetings talking about what exactly we would cover in the exhibit. The history of the Great Basin region is very long, so we decided to cover the native peoples who hunted & gathered during a specific time range. We had to choose appropriate artifacts from the museum collections to go with the information we wanted to convey. (This was harder than you'd think!) We also decided on color schemes and drew up plans on where the information and artifacts would go in the exhibit.
Once we had approval from the museum director for our ideas, we put in a paper mock-up.

Our exhibit mock-up of artifacts, text, and exhibit structure.
You can also see the paint chips in there for our color scheme.

Next we painted the exhibit with the creamy yellow we had chosen. We wanted the exhibit to be a different color than any other exhibit in the museum. This yellow was a great choice which made it really stand out! Once it dried, we put the paper mock-ups back in and constructed the base of our structure - a desert floor with a food cache. We had some great tips from an exhibit constructor at the Idaho Museum of Natural History for building our food cache. The main material used? Rigid insulation foam! I wish I had pictures of how we put that together. It was a huge mess cutting the foam and none to easy either.

Painted exhibit with mock-ups and foam structure
The next steps were finishing the desert floor and food cache, finding pictures of edible plants Great Basin Indians used, writing up text, and finding an appropriate map to be used in the exhibit. (A map was essential!)

We had to be careful in what natural materials were placed in the exhibit. We used sterilized playground sand stuck to dyed drywall plaster, washed rocks, plastic plants bought from the craft store, and cedar bark kept in a freezer to kill any bugs present and then used to line the food cache. Bugs in a museum full of wool and cotton artifacts is a nightmare! So, extra caution is always necessary and vitally important.

Another important aspect of putting together an exhibit is that if you use photographs or artwork, you need to make sure you have permission to use the images in your exhibit. Being that we were a non-profit university museum, we didn't have any problems getting permission, but it took a lot of time and we had to be really on top of it making sure we heard back from everyone. The plant pictures came from a great academic botany website where botanists post pictures of plants from all around the world. It was an awesome resource for us and the photographs were beautiful. 

During this whole time we were also doing research on the Great Basin and writing and rewriting text for the exhibit. 

The exhibit slowly coming together!
We still used replicas in our exhibit, but needed to add a scissor snare to the atlatl and the bow we already had. So, we commissioned a student who made excellent replicas (and who puts them to use in the wild!).

One of the original inspirations was to have projectile points seemingly floating in the air. To do this we had to choose projectile points from the collection and mount them to a piece of plexi-glass by drilling holes in the plexi-glass and attaching the points using museum wax and fishing line. Then we suspended it from the ceiling of the exhibit. It turned out awesome!

In the final stages of the exhibit construction we had to make up the exhibit sign, text, photos, and map in Photoshop, print them all off and send them off to be mounted on foam core and cut. The Photoshop work alone took many, many hours. There were a few mistakes in the foam core mounting, so we had to get some redone. Then we mounted them inside the exhibit case, mounted/hung/set in the artifacts, cleaned the glass, hung the sign, and we were done! Whew!

Our completed exhibit!
Can you see the "floating" projectile points?
After hundreds of combined hours, we had a completed exhibit. We were really proud of how well the exhibit turned out and how it became a beautiful addition to the museum. It gives me warm fuzzies inside that so many students are learning about the Great Basin through our hard work and passion put into this exhibit! I feel it is such a great honor.

Well, there is your inside look at constructing an exhibit. If you have any questions, leave me a comment below!

Go back to Part 1


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