The Politics of Donors and Exhibits

Putting exhibits together is harder than it seems.

In my time at the museum, I’ve put together about 3 exhibits. The first one involved an archaeological collection we’d had for ages but knew nothing about. Long story short, I found out we didn’t have the whole collection about a week before the exhibit opened. We have the rest now thanks to the kindness of the archaeologist who had boxes and boxes of the collection in his basement and donated them to us. None of the material in those boxes is in the current exhibit for two reasons: 1. Some of the materials are in another lab as part of a research project, and 2. We ran out of room in our (small) gallery.

Now the archaeologist, the original excavator’s descendants, and a whole bunch of people from the historical society where the items were found are coming up to see the exhibit tomorrow, and I’m a little nervous. I have no training in exhibit construction and am worried I inadvertently got facts wrong. I’m also worried about the portrayal of the original excavator. I tried to put him in the best light possible, but I had to explain why he kept a human skeleton in his basement for so many years and, let’s face it, that’s sort of hard to explain even historically. The pressure’s on big time, and I spent all day reading through the signage for politically offensive language, dusting things off, adjusting things in shadow boxes, etc.

I’m bolstered a little by my experience with the second exhibit I put together, which the donors saw a few months ago. This was a very emotional experience. The objects were art objects personally made by an elderly gentlemen during his retirement. The man’s daughters were cleaning out the house after the father moved into a nursing home, and had to do something with this massive but beautiful collection. The executive director decided to take it (despite my objection that we don’t really have room for it and it would cost me tons of cataloging time I didn’t have–both true!). Over the next few months, things got slightly sticky with the donors. They wanted the exhibit up YESTERDAY (as we found out, the father was very sick and they wanted to make sure he was healthy enough to see it), and frankly, I’m only one person who was getting minimal help with research. It came to a bit of a head when I finally had to tell the executive director that she could either do the exhibit research and construction herself (when you see a cow fly past you in the park, you’ll know there’s a chance of THAT happening) or back the hell off of me. She backed off, and after hours and hours of work, the exhibit went up.

The father, 92-years old, was brought from the nursing home in a wheelchair to see it. It was his first time out of the home in over 4 years. It was a deeply meaningful experience. Everyone cried, including him, when he saw it–it was really a fulfillment of his dreams. We all took pictures, and the donors ended up giving me and the museum money and gifts in appreciation.

Four days later, the father died. The daughters said the exhibit was the last thing he had wanted to live for. The schoolwork that had delayed my work on the exhibit seemed a lot less important then.

It was then that I understood, though, that exhibits are more than just educational. They contain things that defined people’s lives. Often you’re representing someone’s life’s work, and it’s a enormous responsibility. Like making a documentary, you have to worry about representation and justice issues. Underneath all the signage and research is a personal story that, to me, is one of the most important parts of any exhibit.

How much life story to include? For the art collection, I included a lot because the donors explicitly told me I could. For the current exhibit, the excavator’s descendants and I had no such conversation, and I’m hoping I didn’t intrude on their family’s privacy. Conversely, I’m hoping I included enough of the story to give their father due credit for his discovery and preservation of the collection.

Either way, judgment day is tomorrow…wish me luck!

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