Implementing an educational exhibit
Museums and other cultural institutions (sometimes referred to as “GLAM” for galleries, libraries, archives, and museums) offer a variety of educational opportunities to a range of audiences. While the missions and target audiences of museums will vary significantly from institution to institution, all are focused on providing enriching educational experiences for their visitors.
The roles and responsibilities of museum professionals—including curators, exhibit developers, and educational programmers—will similarly vary across institutions and may include supervising teams of people, collaborating with others both inside and outside of the institution, or working independently on specific aspects of an exhibit to help engage visitors or potential visitors in the museum’s offerings. The day to day work of these roles can involve everything from doing research and creating exhibit tags to working with a team of facilities personnel to address engineering challenges around an exhibit. To identify potential curatorial roles and get a sense of the range of museums in which you could seek employment, explore the American Alliance of Museums or Great Museums websites.
Creating an exhibit, even a small one, is a complex task. Implementation can require detailed research on specific items, grant writing and budget planning, international negotiations with other institutions about object loans, and even coordinating major construction or structural changes. This level of detail is beyond the simulation, but completing steps in the process will give you a sense of these tasks.
The process below includes the steps necessary to begin implementing an exhibit for a museum.
- Create an interpretive master plan for the exhibit
- Outline the major steps in implementation
- Plan for execution
- Create a timeline
- Identify items and generate labels
Develop and begin to implement a plan for an exhibit related to the topic of your dissertation. Read through the scenario below and then, follow the steps to outline and begin implementing a plan for the exhibit.
For this exercise, imagine that you have been hired as a museum curator in an area related (however loosely) to your graduate field of study. If, for instance, you are an English PhD who studies environmental humanities, you might imagine that you have been hired to work in a natural history museum.
You are an exhibit developer at the Washingtonian Institution, a large museum with a variety of divisions including science & technology, natural history, art, and the history of different regions of the world. You have been asked to start planning an exhibit that, as luck would have it, is directly related to your graduate field of study. This new exhibit is going to be the first in the new series—“Deep Impacts of Deep Thought”—that is focused on helping high school students appreciate the real world impacts of research.
Your task is going to be to develop an exhibit that will help high school students understand some of the influence, the impacts, or the insights provided by your field of graduate study on some aspect of contemporary society. The form could vary quite a bit depending on the nature of your field of graduate study, so be creative. The main purpose is to help an audience of high school students understand why research matters, no matter how remote or abstract it might seem. If, for instance, you study early 17th century Spanish politics, you might focus on how the expulsion of Spanish Muslims and connections to contemporary debates about immigration and religious discrimination.
Task 1: Outline the major steps.
Identify what you think are the four most important steps necessary to make this exhibit a reality (#2 of the process). These steps could include actions such as coordinating the exhibit space, promoting the exhibit, assessing its effectiveness, gathering items or resources for the exhibit, or applying for grants to fund the exhibit. Be sure that each step is connected to and informed by the larger goal of helping your primary audience of high school students understand why research matters.
Task 2: Plan for the execution.
For each of the four major steps in Task 1, identify the five most important actions for executing each step (#3 of the process). These should be discrete actions that advance the major task.
Think through a museum exhibit and imagine the kinds of steps necessary to implement it. What needs to happen? Who needs to be involved? What kinds of skills or expertise are necessary? As with the previous step, be sure that your steps are connected to, or informed by, your larger goal.
Task 3: Create a timeline.
Now take your list of 20 steps and start to organize them into a timeline (#4 of the process). For help with the structure and duration of a timeline, you can view the sample timeline on page 5 of the Exhibit Planning Tool by AASLH (American Association for State and Local History). Think about the order in which these will be undertaken. What needs to happen first? How long do you imagine that it would take to accomplish these steps effectively?
Note that many exhibits, even small ones, take months to plan and implement so be sure to give yourself plenty of time to accomplish the parts of the process that you’ve identified. Are there any major gaps that start to appear? What tasks or steps might you need to add in to implement your project.
Task 4: Identify items and generate labels.
Now that you’ve done some preliminary planning for your exhibit, you can populate it with a few items and generate labels. Pick 2-4 resources (physical objects, pictures, paintings, etc.) that you think would fit well with the exhibit that you’ve laid out above and generate items labels for these resources that contribute to the goals of your exhibit and are appropriate for your audience.
To get some help with generating labels and understanding what makes for an effective one, check out the label panel guidance and past winners of the American Alliance of Museum Excellence in Exhibition Label Writing Competition (the pdfs for each year contain guidance, winners, and information about their evaluation).
General resources to help you get started:
- The Smithsonian’s Guide to Exhibit Development
- Museum Jobs or the American Alliance of Museums Job Board to explore the range of opportunities available
- So You Think You Want to Work in a Museum (Blog: When You Work At A Museum)
- How museums shape meaning (Khan Academy course) to learn more about the development of museums
- The Smithsonian Learning Lab offers examples of innovative ways to approach teaching in a museum setting
Skills Used to Perform These Tasks
- Strategic thinking
- Synthesizing and prioritizing information
Skills Used in This Field
- Problem solving
- Time management
- Communication & presentation skills
- Writing skills
A museum curator/exhibit designer may also perform these activities:
- Create an interpretive master plan for an exhibit
- Supervise staff or interns in the development or implementation of programming
- Coordinate with other curators in the design and development of large-scale exhibits
- Translate scholarly findings or information with a general audience
- Coordinate external communications and contribute to building a social media campaign
- Content development and delivery outside of the academic classroom are defined as part of the Training job family in career exploration tool, ImaginePhD. Explore ImaginePhD, to learn how Trainers use teaching, instructional design, assessment, and public speaking skills in a variety of settings including museums and other non-profits, corporations, and government.
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Simulation author – Brady Krien, PhD candidate at the University of Iowa.
Simulation vetted by professionals at the University of Iowa.