Exhibition planning for beginners: from idea to execution
The idea of running an exhibition in association with a public engagement grant is probably quite a common thing to come up with. Actually planning and launching one is much more difficult. Iona Mcleery offers her experience.
It all starts with a plain white box: four walls and a floor…
There are numerous questions to answer when coming up with a small exhibition to accompany your project: where is it to go, what objects and images can be displayed, and most importantly what is the key message to be transmitted through the exhibition: why do it in the first place?
For You Are What You Ate: Food Lessons From the Past, we answered these questions with the help of the experienced cultural officers on the project team from Wakefield Council’s museum service in West Yorkshire.
Where: we planned three exhibitions to go in two of Wakefield region’s most prominent exhibition spaces: Wakefield Museum (2011: Sugar & Spice and All Things Nice; 2013: Food for All Seasons) and Pontefract Museum (2012: The Dark Side of Eating).
What: we focused on the museums’ own collections in accordance with the expectations of local people (they want to see local heritage). It is unusual to start with an exhibition idea and then find the objects for it; most museums derive exhibition ideas from their collection, not the other way round. As You Are What You Ate focuses on food and (un-)healthy eating in the 14th to 17th centuries and much of Wakefield’s collection dates from a more modern period, we had to be imaginative with our choices of artefacts and loans. A major feature of each exhibition was the display of archaeological human remains (showing pathological bone changes), thanks to the important osteology collection curated by the project’s other major collaborator, the University of Bradford.
Messages: an exhibition reaches a larger and more diverse group of people than almost any other activity. We wanted to use the fun side of eating (Sugar & Spice) as a way to present research on the history and science of taste. We then managed to present the clinical consequences of a wide range of nutritional disease without being too grim (Dark Side of Eating). The current exhibition Food For All Seasons focuses on the agricultural year during a period of famine in early fourteenth century England. Our subtle message here is a reminder that famine has not always been a distant event in a foreign land, and that we perhaps take our fridge-freezers, supermarkets and imported fruit too much for granted. We also want to show that medieval people had strategies for survival. Through agricultural tools, recipes, human bones (displaying sings of scurvy and rickets) illuminated manuscripts and meticulous court records, we demonstrate their great artistry and endeavour as well as their suffering.
Each exhibition begins with a plain white box: four walls and a floor. To fill this space, it is necessary to think about lines of sight, measurements, lighting and display cases. Everything has to be ordered or built: fragile documents and artefacts require carefully-controlled light and moisture conditions; video footage and images have to be filmed, photographed or applied for from copy-right holders. 3-D models and computer graphics are useful ways to explore the look of an exhibition that has to appeal both to keen museum goers and to children on a school trip. Most of all an exhibition needs text. Panels should have no more than 120-150 words each not including image captions. It is a challenging – and invigorating – task to boil academic research down to such a few words without ‘dumbing down’. Everybody should try it!
Food For All Seasons opened on 2 March and runs until 29 September 2013. For a series of talks running alongside the exhibition please see our website for more details.
25 April – Professor Janet Cade, School of Food Science and Nutrition, University of Leeds (modern research on why we should eat fruit and vegetables)
16 May – Dr James Shaw, School of History, University of Sheffield (17th-century fishing and fish processing)
6 June – Robert Sherman, Horticulturalist, Garden Organics (historical fruit and vegetable varieties and organic gardening today)
27 June – John Mackey, Scottish beef farmer (the secret of good beef)
You are what you ate is funded by a Wellcome Trust Society Award.