Thursday, August 4, 2016

Idea to Execution: Exhibit Development at the Marshall Steam Museum

This summer I spent my time working with the Friends of Auburn Heights Preserve at the Marshall Steam Museum. The Marshall Steam Museum houses a collection of antique automobiles and the world’s largest operating collection of Stanley Steam Cars. In addition to steam cars the museum also houses a 1914 Ford Model T, a 1916 Rauch and Lang Electric Car, two 1930s Packard’s, and 1/8th size coal fired steam trains that circle the property. 

The museum was preparing for a new exhibit, Letting Off Steam: The Stanley Legacy. Although most of the research and design was done before I started in June, there was one section of the exhibit that still needed to be completed. Thus, I was put in charge of brainstorming, researching, designing, and assembling an interactive activity and wall panel that talked about how to determine the condition of an object and help people understand how cars and other objects age over time. 

In order to make the museum exhibit more engaging we wanted to have interactive activities for children, and adults, to participate in. One such activity is a condition report. The goal of this activity was to allow people to not only see but also touch old objects, starting conversations and deepening understanding of the work that goes into preserving objects for future generations to enjoy.

Looking in the attic a number of objects were found that can be used as teaching tools, objects that the public can touch. In designing the condition report activity I took into consideration the objects available as well as the basic elements that curators and conservators look for when assessing an object. Giving people measuring tapes and magnifying glasses they are encouraged to take a closer look at the objects and try to determine the materials used, the structural condition, and if there is anything they find interesting or unique.

When designing the condition report activity it became clear that some of the questions conservators ask needed more explanation. This led to the development of Agents of Deterioration, a museum panel that describes the most common reasons objects deteriorate.

The first step in developing the exhibit display was to conceptualize and research my idea. My goal was to explain some of the most common agents of deterioration that threaten museum, and personal, collections. After some research I decided to focus on Fire, Water, Humidity, Physical Force, Light, and Pests. 

Once my research was complete, the next step was to design and prototype the display. This was done by printing the display out as a series of tiles that could be taped together. Doing this allowed me to see how the exhibit panel looked and determine what changes needed to be made before assembling the final product. Prototyping was useful because it allowed me see if the text size was readable or if it needed to be bigger. 

Finally, the third, and final, step was to assemble the exhibit display. After final changes were made, the text and pictures were printed, turned into large stickers, and mounted onto PVC. From there, the display elements were attached to the wall panel and put in place for future visitors to enjoy.

Working at the Marshall Steam Museum taught me a lot about exhibit development from idea to execution. In addition to learning about exhibit development I had the chance to see what it is like to work in a small museum and the challenges that small museums face in their day to day operation.

Kathleen Burns is working towards an M.A. in History and graduate certificate in Museum Studies and will graduate in May 2017.

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