July 16th, 2024

Eye on the Esplanade: The Inner Workings: The beginnings of an exhibit

By Medicine Hat News on July 14, 2017.

In the dark a single artifact sits in a display case, a quiet hum of machinery the only sound in the cavernous room. In the distance a lock clicks open and footsteps approach, crossing the polished concrete floor. The lights flicker on. The low, focused light reveals the lone artifact in its case — a single pencil. In a room 2,000 square feet in size. There are text panels on the walls and a number of images, but just the one artifact. How on earth could a museum exhibit have only a single artifact?

Are the staff lazy? Did someone steal the other artifacts? Is this a joke? How dare they waste our time! But maybeÉ maybe there is a reason. What’s so special about that pencil anyway?

Could an exhibit really only have a single artifact? Yes, in fact, it could. It all depends on the artifact, the story, and how that story is told. If the pencil has a truly remarkable story it might be enough to fill the gallery. To whom did the pencil belong, and what did they do with it? Was it used to write an important book or sign an important document or treaty? Do we have enough supporting evidence to tell the story? An exhibit is much more than just a room full of old stuff.

The Esplanade Museum focuses on preserving, providing access to, and interpreting the history of the community. We focus on developing exhibits that are important to, and resonate with, our community. Sometimes they are on a strictly local topic, such as our Hand Made by Altaglass exhibit (2011). Sometimes they are of a national or international scale such as our 2014 First World War exhibit, Medicine Hat’s War: 1914-1919.

As the museum technician, people sometimes ask me how we choose our exhibits and how we choose the artifacts. Developing an exhibit is a complex task. The exhibit theme may focus on an event, a topic, or on a collection we have. We do our research and examine both the museum and archive collections for artifacts and images. When we have enough material we will tell the story with photographs, text, and perhaps even video footage. Sometimes we look to other museums, too, which means working with their staff and making formal requests to borrow from their collections. Sometimes we curate shows with members of the community. For each exhibit we develop educational programming as well as marketing and advertising plans.

A good exhibit design must also be mindful of the needs of our visitors. We keep the text easy to read, both in content and quantity. No one wants to read a book standing up! We use very specific, legible fonts and carefully chosen colour combinations. All of the text and photos are placed at a height that everyone can easily see, including children, adults and the mobility challenged. We design the layout of the gallery with wheelchair access in mind, and include a resting place for those who need it. We keep lines of sight for fire escapes and try not to box the visitor in — no one enjoys feeling like they are trapped in a maze.

We design and construct our exhibits using both the oldest analog techniques such as blacksmithed mounts for heavy artifacts to the newest digital techniques such as graphic modelling and image production. All the factors and decisions require clear and effective communication between the team members. It takes more than one person to create an exhibit and it requires many people to do it well. The Esplanade Museum staff communicates and works closely with the archives, art gallery, and other city staff. We all contribute in developing the exhibits. When people ask how long it takes to develop an exhibit in-house, they are surprised to find out it can take years of cooperation, dedication, and hard work!

Tom Hulit is a museum technician at the Esplanade.

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