Adventures in Exhibition

My final update about my experiences in my second semester of grad school is about the exhibit produced through my course on Museum Exhibition. The exhibit was easily the most challenging and work-intensive project this semester, but it was also the most rewarding. I learned so much about exhibit planning, designing, fabrication, and installation and I am proud of the final product my team and I produced.

As I have mentioned in previous posts, the exhibit is a continuation of the Volga to Cape Fear Project, which we began working on last semester in the course on Historical Collections. This semester we took stock of the objects we had collected, the oral histories interviews we conducted, and we did new research in order to decide on our interpretive themes. We realized there were 3 major time periods to discuss, the early 1900s, the Cold War era, and the Post-Soviet period. We also conducted visitor surveys with patrons of UNCW’s Randall Library which houses the Public History Graduate Student Gallery. We were hoping to glean information on what college students, our primary audience because of the location of the exhibit, already knew about Russia and Eastern European Immigration, what they might want to know, and what kind of associations they had with those places. We discovered that most college students knew little about that region of the world, had mostly stereotypical associations with it, but were asking many of the same questions as us about life in Russia and Eastern Europe, reasons for migration, and adaptation to the United States. The visitor responses influenced many of our interpretive decisions. For instance, we decided that the exhibit should feature well-labeled maps to provide geographic context, and that a timeline with dates more familiar to Americans would help place our topic in temporal context.

From all of the research, the objects loaned to us, the oral histories, and the surveys we created a mammoth of a document called our interpretive plan. With feedback from our advisory committee and our professor, Dr. Tammy Gordon, we edited the plan, striving to cut down words for objects labels (not my strong suit, but I think I got a little better!), and trying to include issues that were important to the community whose story was represented. With all of this we moved into creating elevations and designing our panels. I learned to use both Illustrator and Photoshop. New technology can sometimes be difficult to get used to, especially when running these programs on a Mac when I am used to using a PC; however, after I got comfortable with the programs I found I enjoyed designing and editing my panels. The elevation I did not enjoy as much as measurements and imagining space and depth do not come as easy to me; however, I successfully produced an elevation for my section of the exhibit.

The back of my head as I designed my object labels. Photo by Dr. Tammy Gordon.
The back of my head as I designed my object labels. Photo by Dr. Tammy Gordon.

The final part of the exhibit process was fabrication and installation, which included making mounts for the artifacts going on display and designing and fabricating the interactive elements.  Mount-making was a new experience for me as well. I have worked with objects before in several different settings and have created storage before, but creating mounts was a bit tougher. Storage does not have to disappear from view; it just needs to keep the object safe. Mounts have to do both. Most of the mounts I created were simple book mounts; however, I had a few objects that required something more complicated. One such object was a child’s 3 piece suit and shirt. Dr. Gordon helped me to create a body-shaped mount that could accommodate all pieces of the suit.

Sewing the body-shape to the padded hanger to create a mount for Anton's suit. Photo by Dr. Tammy Gordon.
Sewing the body-shape to the padded hanger to create a mount for Anton’s suit. Photo by Dr. Tammy Gordon.

We fabricated all aspects of our exhibit, including the travel panels and interactive elements. My section of the exhibit included two hands-on components. The first was a magnetic 2D suitcase that resembled the suitcase on display on loan from the Starodubtsev family. The interactive element allows visitors to select magnets with the kinds of objects migrants might bring with them. They are then asked to think about which kinds of things they would have chosen to bring along and what kinds of space limitations there would have been. The other interactive element was a group of flip panels that described the various kinds of visas and how to obtain them. Hopefully these flip panels give insight into how complicated and expensive the process is.

After installing the shelf it needed a few paint touch-ups. This area was my interactive corner. Photo by Dr. Tammy Gordon.
After installing the shelf it needed a few paint touch-ups. This area was my interactive corner. Photo by Dr. Tammy Gordon.
Suitcase Interactive Component. Photo by Dr. Tammy Gordon.
Suitcase Interactive Component. Photo by Dr. Tammy Gordon.
The interactive area and the case displaying the original suitcase. Photo by Dr. Tammy Gordon.
The interactive area and the case displaying the original suitcase. Photo by Dr. Tammy Gordon.
Cleaning the cases after installation. Photo by Dr. Tammy Gordon.
Cleaning the cases after installation. Photo by Dr. Tammy Gordon.

After installation came the most awaited event–opening. Members of the advisory committee, the St. Helena community, the UNCW History Department, as well as other visitors and guests attended the opening in the Student Gallery in Randall Library. Each of us student curators gave a short curator’s talk about how we made some of our curatorial decisions. My approach was to begin with the personal stories we had gathered through the artifacts and oral history interviews and connect them with larger issues I found in my research. The result, I hope, is an exhibit that both explains the big issues of immigration since 1991, but also tells a personalized history that causes empathy in the visitor. The opening was a very successful event with a large attendance, but more than that it provided a space to discuss issues of immigration. I witnessed recent immigrants comparing their experiences to the family stories told by descendants of the early 20th century immigrant community in St.Helena. I also heard conversations about the current situation in Ukraine and how it may impact travel back and forth to the area, a concern of more recent immigrants who still return home to visit family and friends. Overall, the exhibit is not the end of this project, but rather a new beginning that will hopefully spark dialogue, questions, and interest in the history of as well as the current state of immigration from Russia and Eastern Europe.

Photo by Dr. Tammy Gordon.
Photo by Dr. Tammy Gordon.
For Love or Money: Post-Soviet Migration (My section) Photo by Dr. Tammy Gordon.
For Love or Money: Post-Soviet Migration (My section) Photo by Dr. Tammy Gordon.
One of my cases.  Photo by Dr. Tammy Gordon.
One of my cases.
Photo by Dr. Tammy Gordon.
Dr. Gordon introducing us student curators. From left to right: Jayd Buteaux, Leslie Randle-Morton, Beth Bullock (me), and Dr. Gordon.
Dr. Gordon introducing us student curators. From left to right: Jayd Buteaux, Leslie Randle-Morton, Beth Bullock (me), and Dr. Gordon.

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