Fellowships  
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    Practice

Rethinking Traveling Exhibitions for Small Museums: Observations on  the Exhibit Production Process

Charles Regier

The production of a quality museum exhibition requires the close interaction of people who bring together many different skills and disciplines. My Fellowship in Museum Practice was interdisciplinary, geared towards practical, hands-on work in exhibition design and production. The goal of my research was to analyze current approaches to design, fabrication and
transportation of traveling museum exhibitions and to develop more effective approaches to the production of these exhibitions. I was excited by the opportunity provided by this project and am thankful to the Office of Museum Programs for considering my nontraditional proposal. This broad, technical overview of traveling exhibitions, while generating many
interesting ideas and tidbits does not lend itself to a neat summary. There are certainly exhibition systems, new types of hardware and fabrication techniques, new tricks and methods that can help produce better exhibitions that are more accessible to small museums. I was constantly reminded during my time at the Smithsonian that the most crucial elements in the production of quality traveling exhibitions are not technical, having to do with systems and hardware, but relate more to the exhibition production process itself. 

My experience with traveling exhibitions to small venues is best illustrated by the work I did on "The Mirror of the Martyrs," a traveling exhibition I helped produce at Kauffman Museum, a small natural and cultural history museum affiliated with Bethel College in North Newton, Kansas. In many ways this exhibition is very conventional: walls with graphics, text and large photo blow-ups, cases with artifacts. We wanted the exhibition to have a strong impact in any venue. We did not sacrifice large graphics in the traveling version; we also designed self-contained lighting into a modular exhibition system to acheive the same effect at each venue. The modular system consists of an aluminum framework - 19 sections,  20 wide  by 80  tall and 28 sections, 40  wide by 80  tall - covered with 1/8th inch thick plastic panels held in place with hook and loop fasteners. Electrical components for the lighting system are hidden in the frame work, with lights clipping to the top rail of the frame. The removable panels allow the exhibition to be reconfigured to a variety of spaces. Walnut end caps serve as both corner connectors and legs.

The exhibition also needed to be available at a reasonable cost to diverse venues across the United States and Canada. We were able to accomplish this using a small moving van outfitted to transport the custom designed exhibition system. (The exhibition panel sections slide into felt lined tracks in the back of the truck.) A Kauffman Museum staff person drives
the truck from site to site and assists in the installation and packing of the exhibition. This has ensured that the exhibition is maintained and set up in a configuration that best suits each venue, regardless of the skill or availability of staffing at each site. An unexpected benefit has been the direct feedback regarding the exhibition from the local hosts. Kauffman Museum
staff can also be available to help with docent and volunteer orientation to the exhibition after the installation is completed. Since 1991 the show has been to over 29 venues in nine states and two Canadian provinces.

The Fellowships in Museum Practice program is intended to give  museum professionals the opportunity  to think more broadly about their ideas...  As the primary exhibition production staff member at a small museum  there is little time to think beyond the pressing deadlines of the next opening. I welcomed the opportunity to gain a wider view of the exhibition
production process in the Smithsonian environment yet I was also surprised at how difficult it is to think about my work in the abstract. As a builder, inventor, tinkerer and designer, I was reminded of my need for concrete projects and challenges. It takes a specific problem to get my creative juices flowing. As I began work at the Smithsonian's Office of  Exhibits Central
(OEC) this point was made in another way by Ken Young, retiring senior designer. I explained my project to him, describing the need for a better traveling exhibition system to access small rural venues. He responded that each exhibition is unique and one can t come up with one solution for all problems. This was good advice, although it did put a damper on my
search for the perfect solution.

Many of the curatorial, design and production issues related to traveling exhibitions are the same as those for a regular museum installation. However, producing an exhibition that can travel introduces a new set of concerns, especially when the destinations are small, distant venues.  "A Rural Initiative: Reaching New Communities," a report developed by the
Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES) in 1993, presents some of the considerations related to the production of   small format  exhibitions for rural exhibition venues. Most of these sites have two or less full-time employees, work with exhibition and program budgets of less than $500, can make approximately 500 square feet of exhibition
space available and see less than 12,000 visitors annually. At the same time the exhibitions sent to these venues must create  an architectural presence that justifies the programming efforts surrounding it, and adequately embody the visitors  expectations of a  Smithsonian exhibition. 

It may seem impossible to produce an exhibition with  architectural presence  that can easily be shipped by UPS. The plastic panel system developed at OEC as a part of  SITES' Rural Initiative project is one ingenious solution. In this system interchangeable plastic panels stack together with simple connectors. The whole system packs into off-the-shelf plastic cases capable of being shipped by UPS. The panel system is used in two SITES exhibitions, "Produce for Victory" and "Saynday was coming Along," and is planned for use in other exhibitions now under development. Another inexpensive solution to creating an effective presence is illustrated by the traveling exhibition, "Monumental Propaganda," in the
Smithsonian's International Gallery Concourse. The exhibition design uses large banners to define space. All the banners for this installation came in one small box shipped by UPS,  yet when installed dramatically transform the exhibition area. 

In working out solutions to  impossible  problems I am often reminded of the  A, B, C, Q approach recommended by a friend involved in product design. The  A, B, C, Q   approach involves generating several  safe  design proposals,  A, B, and C  and then proposing another completely unorthodox  Q  solution. Rarely is the  Q  solution used, yet it often helps in the refinement of the final design. The search for creative approaches to traveling exhibition design needs  Q  solutions, ways to help reconceptualize exhibition production. Realizing that each exhibition will require unique solutions, I offer the following suggestions for new and creative ways to view exhibitions and their development.

Understand exhibitions as a process, not a product: We often think of an exhibition as a product originating with a curator, drawn by a designer and then built in the shop. When the exhibition opens or ships the product is completed. It is at this point, though, that an important phase of the exhibition process actually starts. Visitors use the exhibition, react to it
and may generate feedback. In our attempt to make durable, visitor-proof exhibitions, however,  we often create exhibitions that become static and difficult to modify. From curation to fabrication, exhibitions should have the potential to be dynamic and capable of being modified based on feedback from each  venue.

Improve tools of communication in exhibition development: People with diverse skills and from different backgrounds come together to create exhibitions. Effective communication is crucial among these exhibition team members. In my experience, new ideas or possibilities often arise as the exhibition design nears completion. The curator may only fully understand
what the designer has intended as the exhibition installation nears completion. One could ignore these last minute ideas because  things are too far along  but often it is these new ideas that add an extra something that makes an exhibition excellent. The earlier in the design process that all members of the team can accurately visualize the intended outcome the better. Extra time and money spent in communication and presentation in the early phase of exhibition design helps ensure the production of an effective exhibition. For the exhibition designer this requires improved tools for conceptualizing and sharing design ideas. A set of two dimensional drawings may not adequately convey to others the three dimensional reality
of the exhibition. Often a simple conceptual model can be built in less time than it would take to draw a preliminary plan. Other members of the development team can understand the spatial relation of exhibition components and alternative arrangements can be suggested and demonstrated simply by rearranging parts of the model. In the museum field we know that people learn best when they can use their hands, but we often forget to use this knowledge in presenting our own ideas to each other.

Use a more inclusive concept of exhibition team: There is much discussion about the team concept in developing exhibitions. Nowhere is this concept more applicable than in the production of traveling exhibitions. Constraints on weight, cost and space often require creative experimentation with new materials and fabrication techniques for small format
traveling exhibitions. The input of people who will be doing the final stages of fabrication is crucial. If possible, the users of the exhibition should also have some representation on the development team.

Rethink the definition of an exhibition: To create the  impossible  with traveling exhibitions, to be open to the possibility of a  Q  solution, we need to rethink our definition of  exhibition.  We often think of an exhibition as a collection of artifacts with walls and graphics. At its most basic level, an exhibition is an attempt to communicate with an audience in a three dimensional environment. How can that communication best be accomplished with the given exhibition content? A few questions to scratch the surface....Can shipping cases become vitrines? Can large fabric panels or banners help define the exhibition space? Can special lighting be used to shape the visitor s experience? How are text and artifacts best
presented to viewers?

Take Risks: All of these suggestions require the willingness to try new ideas and take risks. It is easy to dismiss a new proposal if it doesn t fit our preconceived standards of what an exhibition should be. The preoccupation with ADA guidelines, the desire to be politically correct, even the concern for durability can take our attention away from the larger goal of producing innovative exhibitions, accessible to a large diverse population scattered across the country. An occasional failure may be the cost one pays for exploring and discovering  new solutions to the challenges of small traveling exhibitions.

When I returned to the Kauffman Museum after completing my fellowship I was often asked  What did you enjoy most about your time at the Smithsonian?  It was exciting to learn new fabrication techniques at OEC. It will be helpful to use some of the new materials I was exposed to. But more important than these techniques was the process. How an exhibition is
conceived and developed, and how one views the exhibition medium itself, determines the solutions available to the problems presented by traveling exhibitions. It is not individual projects that come to mind, but the people with whom I had the chance to work and visit. In the end, the exhibition production process is about interaction between people.

(Charles Regier has worked at Kauffman Museum since 1985 as exhibition builder and technical designer and is currently involved with exhibition design and development. Mr. Regier is the Smithsonian's seventh Fellow in Museum Practice.)

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