Exhibiting Excellence: How a Museum Exhibit is Built

We are all getting excited about our upcoming museum exhibit. “Generations: The Descendants of Lew and Susan Wallace” opens to the public Tuesday, March 12. If you visited us today, you would find the Lynne D. Holhbein Education Room mostly empty, which just a handful of vinyl labels and an artifact or two. But show up on March 12 and you’ll find a full-fledged exhibit!

Since this is my first time behind the scenes of putting together a museum exhibit, I was fascinated by the process behind putting an exhibit together, and wanted to give you all a behind-the-scenes look at how we put together the story you’ll see in a couple of weeks.

How do you decide on a theme for an exhibit? Is it done by the whole staff or a single person?

It is usually a staff decision.  We talk about what we have done recently and what questions we get frequently from visitors.  Sometimes the exhibit decides itself.  For example, in 2010 when the Study was closed for renovation, we still wanted visitors to see the iconic pieces of the Study and still be able to tell Lew Wallace’s story without them actually going into the Study.  That led to us doing the exhibit “Sanctuary”.
Right now we are in the middle of the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, so last year it made sense to talk about what Lew was doing in 1862 since that was big year in the war for him.  He really didn’t do a lot as far as the Civil War goes in 1863, so we decided to take a year off from talking about the war. We wanted to focus on the rest of his family because that is something visitors frequently ask about, and we wanted to learn more about them as well.

What factors are involved in deciding what the exhibit should focus on?

It helps to already know something about the topic.  Even if we don’t have a lot of information to begin with, as long as we have a starting point, we can usually fill in the rest later.  We also have to think about what artifacts we have to go along with the exhibit topic.  Objects sometimes tell a better story than what we can do through exhibit labels. If we don’t have artifacts in our collection, is there somewhere or someone out there that does have them?
We also have to think about how big of a story it is.  We have a very small exhibit room so we have space limitations to deal with.  No one wants to stand in that room for an hour reading exhibit text, so we need to be able to tell the story we want to tell in a short and concise way that is interesting.

What is the research process for a museum exhibit?

We always have an exhibit fact sheet for each exhibit.  This tells us the logistics of who is responsible for what, what the budget is, who the audience is, what the thesis of the exhibit is and what impression we want visitors to walk away with.  This really guides where our research should go and what we want to tell our visitors.

Research often starts a year or two before we actually install an exhibit.  We start with what we know and what has already been written about that topic.  Sometimes we have interns who have already researched and written up papers on it. An intern last summer researched Lew Wallace and the Henry Wirz trial and wrote up a paper on it.  We will start with this when we plan our exhibit for next year.  

We also look at Lew’s own words about a subject by looking at his autobiography.  That usually leads to more information or even more questions that need to be answered.  We have a group of Wallace scholars that are always willing to answer questions.  You never know where you are going to find an answer to a question. 
Our Associate Director: Education (Erin Gobel) often does research on the internet. She often finds some obscure piece of information completely unrelated to her original search.  We always file these away so we have them when we need them.  The Indiana Historical Society has a huge collection of Lew Wallace material so we usually look to see what information they have as well.  For this year’s museum exhibit, Amanda and Erin spent a day looking through records to find out more about the Wallace family.

Who picks the artifacts that are used in a museum exhibit? How do you make those decisions?

This is usually done by the Associate Director: Collections (Amanda McGuire) with input from the rest of the staff.  She looks through the collections records and compiles a list of artifacts that are relevant to the exhibit subject and shares that with the staff.  Then it is a matter of logistics and what makes sense.  There are some things that are just too big to fit in our exhibit cases.  Often times these are items that are already on display in the Study so we just make sure to point them out on tours and relate them back to the exhibit. 

If something is in really poor condition, we try not to put it out on exhibit.  If we can, we make a replica to display instead.  This is often done with photographs or letters.  We also try to avoid putting the same things on exhibit year after year.  When we talk about the Civil War again next year we will try to have different items on display than we had out last year.


Stay tuned for the next post in our series on exhibits, when we’ll talk about some of the challenges we face when putting an exhibit together!


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