Lessons Learned in Exhibits Planning and Collaboration

We finally opened our newest exhibit Living the Impossible this week. Over a week later than our promoted opening date 😬.

The exhibit discusses the history, the development and the construction of the San Diego & Arizona Railway as this year is the 100th year since it’s completion. It was a bit like Murphy’s law in the planning process where anything that could go wrong, would go wrong. From lenders getting artifacts to us at the last possible minute, content being written at the last minute, exhibit panel mistakes and having to be reprinted, and collaborators over stepping boundaries.

Our team is getting better on working together on these exhibits, but there are still a number of things we need to work on. First and foremost we need to work on planning these exhibits ahead of time. Now that we just finished putting this exhibit up we should theoretically be planning for the next one. Ideally you would want to start planning an exhibit of this size a year out. Larger exhibits that require more objects and content should be planned even further out. We have not been doing this and it shows. Additionally there has been no clear designation of exhibits planners or a solid exhibits calendar for our institution. Exhibition planning is not my area of focus as collections management has been and continues to be my area of expertise. Not to mention that I am juggling collections management with exhibits planning so that in itself presents problems of it’s own. While I am getting more help with each exhibit, I am still doing the bulk of content writing. This is not okay. Ideally I would work in collaboration with our Education department. While I have been working with our Education department to read over what I have written for interpretation and errors, it isn’t enough. If we want to have cohesive programming that is reflected in our exhibit spaces than we must work together. This is where my inexperience probably shows the most. While I have no problem writing academic papers, writing content for an exhibit that is easily digestible for visitors and presents a clear narrative is a beast of its own. It takes practice and experience. I really tried to get more help with writing content, but other staff members were too busy. 🤷

How does one press this more when said staff members are technically your superior and fully aware that you are up to your eyeballs in work and need help? I digress.

Back to our last minute planning… This I feel set the chain reaction for the series of unfortunate events that occurred. We didn’t get official word that the subject of the exhibit would be on the SD&A anniversary until late December/First week of January. It was then that we more or less were told we would be collaborating with another organization as well for artifact loans and photographs. This first required a trip to that institution to see what they had. There were a lot of artifacts to look at. Really too many. It would have been preferable that they provide a list of artifacts they have. It was a bit disorganized. This collaboration required a lot of patience as this institution had never loaned artifacts out, nor do they have full time paid staff. They needed create loan documents and have them approved by their board as well as have the artifact loans approved by the board. Had we know the extent of their abilities and requires processes from the beginning we would have been able to anticipate delays and make requests more ahead of time. I’m not trying to point fingers here, but these are lessons we learned and will reference going forward in future exhibit planning.

While collaborating with this organization we also found that volunteers involved in the collaboration would show up to our museum unannounced and without consulting staff on their schedules. Eventually we had to get our Executive Director to establish boundaries. I would have preferred not having to rely on the ED, so I would like to better equip myself on handling a situation like that on my own.

In writing the content for the exhibit we had board members that wanted to be involved and review panels prior to going to print. One board member ended up getting sick the week we needed to have everything reviewed and submitted. The other became hypercritical of our interpretation of some of the artifacts in the exhibit. This resulted in the board member lashing out at staff. The situation has yet to be resolved.

Technical issues arose as well in the form of edited files not saving so typos were missed and panels were still needing to be reprinted. Again, a lot of these issues would have been negated had we given ourselves more time to work on this exhibit and had multiple people working on writing the content.

I’ve highlighted a few issues that came up during the development and installation of this exhibit and I’m sure I will recall or even encounter more as time goes on while the exhibit is open. For now though I am using this blog and time between exhibits to reflect on these lessons. Ideally I would love to have a more formalized exhibitions development process, but I believe that there isn’t enough interest or time from other staff to accomplish this. It literally feels like we are in a constant state of flying by the seat of our pants due to either a lack of planning or it takes too long to get responses. I do not enjoy operating like this, but I just don’t see things changing until we either have an additional staff member or we have someone designated for exhibits. Preferably someone who has a focus on exhibition development. While I do enjoy aspects of exhibition design and development, I lack experience and formal education. I am quite literally teaching myself as I develop these exhibits.

I have some other unrelated developments that I will discuss in a separate post. Until next time folks ✌️

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