When you walk into a museum’s gallery space, the site that meets your eye is usually quite serene: a calm, quiet space all set up for you, the visitor, to explore, enjoy, and learn from artworks and artifacts. But this final product comes only at the end of many months, if not years, of planning, conversations, and experimentation to create what the museum hopes will be an ideal visitor experience. The Rosenbach opened a new exhibition, titled American Voyager: Herman Melville at 200, on October 3, 2019. We documented the entire process of creating the installation and would like to share a few stories and images to help prepare you for your visit to see American Voyager in person.
Roughly speaking, the process of creating an exhibition can be divided into four steps: first, conducting research and selecting artifacts to include in the show; second, developing a layout and design to organize the show in the galleries; third, installing the show; and fourth, sharing it with the public.
Step 1: Research and Artifact Selection
An exhibition can be only as successful as the ideas behind it are carefully researched, and the selection of artifacts to be shown in the galleries is carefully assembled. The Rosenbach owns a large Herman Melville collection, which provided a solid foundation for the artifact checklist created for this particular exhibition. We also worked with private collectors and other public institutions including the Independence Seaport Museum, the New York Society Library, and the Delaware Historical Society to secure loans for the exhibition. Each of the 70 artifacts included in the show had to be carefully researched and prepared for installation. This included writing object labels for each piece that interpret the artifacts and preparing the pieces physically for display in an exhibition case.
Step 2: Design
Almost as important as the selection of artifacts is how those artifacts are presented in the gallery space, and how the exhibition design (including lighting, color scheme, and interpretive materials) help visitors engage with the pieces on display. In American Voyager, The Rosenbach strove to create an immersive experience for visitors that helps them feel like they are stepping into the world of Herman Melville when they enter the gallery spaces to engage with our rare books, manuscripts, and other artifacts. We incorporated special lighting and sound effects into the galleries in order to enhance this sense of immersion.
The art of exhibition design requires thinking about how the main ideas of an exhibition can be communicated using space, artifacts, and affective experience. Mary Anne Casey, of Olivetree Designs, with whom The Rosenbach works on exhibition design, has this to say about the process of creating exhibitions:
I think of myself as a visual storyteller; someone who communicates and illustrates complex ideas and stories through graphics and images. Visitors have so many unique ways they respond to information and I try to reach people who may not want to read every text panel or label in an exhibit. One of my primary roles in the exhibit design process is to help translate (visually) what curators and developers say with words. A good exhibit has strong themes and threads that weave a coherent narrative. The design is done with intention and is not just a bunch of text on a wall with some objects in cases. It all needs to work together to provide the best possible experience for visitors. And that takes collaboration among many people in the process.
In American Voyager, The Rosenbach worked closely with Casey to create graphics for the gallery walls (and even one of the gallery floors!) that speak to central ideas in the exhibition. Below is an example of a gallery elevation for American Voyager, which Casey presented early in the design process to help guide curatorial research and writing. You can also see a photo of the gallery in its final state.
Step 3: Installation
Depending on how large and complex an exhibition is, installation can take hours, days, or even weeks. Design elements including wall graphics need to be installed before rare historical artifacts are brought into the space, and display cases need to be moved into position and cleaned. Once design elements are successfully installed, the long yet enjoyable process of fitting objects into cases begins to unfold. Each display case is carefully polished, and then both artifacts and object labels are arranged and installed. Sometimes, lending institutions send their own staff members to install loaned material in the host institution’s gallery, which makes for enjoyable conversations with colleagues at partner organizations. The installation process can take quite some time as museum staff determine how to fit all selected objects into the galleries safely, and in visually pleasing ways.
Step 4: Interpretation
Interpretation of an exhibition is an ongoing process once a show is installed. Most of the interpretation occurs by means of the wall panels, object labels, and other literature distributed in the gallery. In the case of American Voyager, our Chart Your Own Voyage guides help visitors explore critical topics in Melville’s works. However, the exhibition is also interpreted through programs, events, and group tours that draw on topics and themes connected to works on display in the galleries. This fall, The Rosenbach is offering a stellar lineup of programs related to Herman Melville that greatly expand on ideas and artifacts presented in American Voyager. When you come to visit the exhibition, be sure you stick around for one of our programs! Click here for more information.
Curious to learn more about how to make the most of your visit to American Voyager and other museum exhibitions? Stay tuned for an upcoming Rosenblog post titled The Rosenbach’s Top Ten Tips for Enjoying Museum Exhibitions!
American Voyager: Herman Melville at 200 is on view through April 5, 2020