Saturday, 24 November 2012

HLF conference 2012: Part 2 Exhibitions

Continuing my write up of the 2012 Historic Libraries Forum conference: Making the most of your special collections.

2) Exhibitions
The main speaker on exhibitions was Tanya Kirk (Lead Curator of Printed Literary Sources at the British Library), who had recently curated the summer exhibition, Writing Britain: literary wonderlands and wastelands. Case studies were provided by Katie Sambrook (Special Collections Librarian at King's College London) and Emily Dourish (Exhibitions Officer at Cambridge University Library).

Tanya outlined the exhibitions process at the British Library. It is run as a project, with each exhibition usually taking 2-3 years of planning and implementation. I have added comments made by Katie and Emily in their case studies to the outline below.
  • Proposal - sell exhibition ideas to colleagues and your marketing department/wider institution. Why do you think your institution is the right place for this exhibition? Does it have a broad or narrow focus, and is this likely to appeal to enough people? This will also depend on whether you are trying to generate revenue, or just raise awareness of your library/institution and promote your collections. An exhibition is an immense amount of work, even if you only have a few display cases, so are you going to be a single curator (and if so, what happens about the rest of your work whilst this is going on?) or curate jointly with someone else? Emily talked about how academics at Cambridge were keen to be involved with an exhibition because it could count as evidence for their impact rating in REF.
  • Marketing - does it link with your institution's "brand"? There was a difference here between case studies. Some had marketing departments that liked to link the exhibition to modern times, and avoid having a "dusty image", other institutions were keen to emphasise the historical aspects of what they were displaying.
  • Audience test and find out what people would expect to see if they came to your exhibition. Similarly. talk to colleagues to ensure you are remaining on track topic-wise. Know your audience - the BL aims exhibition labels at a reading age of GCSE grade C to make it accessible. Knowing your audience also means you know whether you can use technical terms or not.
  • Build a list of collection items considered for exhibition, otherwise you'll forget them. Record information about the copy you want, which opening you want and the book's condition on a spreadsheet, and take photos to remind yourself what the item looks like. Keep in mind the overall look and aim for variety in each display case. You can also use colour pictures to mock up the display case.
  • Check whether items are suitable for display, bearing in mind the limitations of your display space, for example, is the environment suitable and is the book happy to open far enough for display purposes?
  • Arrange exhibition loans, if necessary. Most institutions want to receive loan requests at least six months before the exhibition. Bear in mind that loans can be expensive.
  • When writing labels be rigorous about fact checking and always have someone available to proofread and edit. Avoid writing consecutive labels as people don't read everything and may miss some out. Start with a hook at the beginning of the label to draw people in and use active language and metaphor. Encourage people to look at the object, not just read the label. Always test your labels with non-expert.
  • Publicity - encourage people to blog about your exhibition to raise awareness. Make sure your front of house staff know about the exhibition so they can "sell" it too.
  • Katie and Emily had different policies about online exhibitions. At King's they publish the online exhibition only after the physical display has been taken down, to encourage people to go and see it whilst it's there. Whereas at Cambridge the online exhibition is published at the same time.
I thought there were some great ideas in this part of the conference, and definitely some I'll be able to use in the future. I also found it helpful to have an overview of the whole exhibition process at the British Library. Obviously, that's a lot bigger than anywhere I've worked, but the same principles apply.

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