Exhibition and Design Skills

I wrote earlier about project management and administration skills that have can be invaluable in a number of public history roles.  Since moving into the Researcher/Curator role in February I’ve also had an opportunity to continue to expand a range of exhibition, design, and outreach practices.

Visualizing space and display design have always been something I have found challenging.  These tasks are still challenging, but like any skill I’ve found that the more opportunities I have to practice these skills the easier they end up being.  Some of basic exhibition and design practices that can be valuable to public history practitioners looking to expand their skill set include:

  • Start small.  Curating an entire exhibit from scratch can be overwhelming.  Filling a display case on a set theme can be a good place to start gaining practice in display creation. 
  • Have a mentor.  Installation and display design can involve a lot of hands on work.  The best way to learn these skills is to do them and having someone around who is familiar with common practices can be a godsend.
  • Familiarize yourself with basic tools and ‘handyman skills.’  That home renovation you’re undertaking might have more value than you know — mudding holes in drywall, hanging artwork, cutting acrylic, building basic shelves, etc are all skills which can be used during exhibit install. 
  • Learn how to plan things out to scale using graph paper.  Or how to use Sketchup or a similar program to map out an exhibition place. 
  • Following museum or art gallery listservs can be helpful.  There are is also a wealth of material in many of these listsev archives which can be useful when looking to come up with options for a specific problem.  (Eg. what type of mount to use when hanging artwork that is mounted on plexi and foam core). 
  • Proofreading and writing skills are key to creating informative and concise exhibit text. 

If nothing else this whole experience has made me take way more of an interest in the house renovations and building projects that partner is undertaking.

Public History and Administrative Skills

A lot of work I’ve been doing recently falls more under the project management and administrative support category than hands on archival work.  All of my jobs have included administrative and planning tasks that many people don’t associate with public history.  Getting ready ready to go public takes a lot of work.  Exhibit schedules do not magically create themselves and educational programming doesn’t just happen when visitors are around.

On that frame of mind, some of the administrative skills I’ve found tremendously useful to have in my public history tool box include:

  • The ability to create, implement and evaluate work flows.  I gained experience creating working flows while working as a Digitization Facilitator for the Our Ontario, Community Digitization Project.  That experience allowed me to learn how to organize the work of multiple staff working on collaborative and individual tasks. 
  • Short term and long term task management and planning. Juggling multiple projects, multiple priorities, and multiple stakeholders is fairly common in the public history world. Even more so if you are working in a smaller organization where you might have multiple hats.
  • Experience in general administrative tasks such as creating conference packages, troubleshooting printers, document formatting, book binding, filing, and general paperwork.  Creating good meeting minutes, agendas, and experience running meetings are also skills that can be invaluable in collaborative spaces.
  • Copy editing skills.  You know all those pretty exhibit labels, signage, handouts and other material created by heritage organizations?  Someone had to create all of that and chances are some serious effort also went into the copy editing of the text.  No one wants to see a giant sign go to print with the name of the organization misspelled on it.  
  • Knowing when to ask for help. No matter how hard you try you can’t be good at everything.  It’s okay to ask for help you need instruction or pass on a task because it is outside of your area expertise. 

This by no means a definitive list, but it’s a good place to start thinking about the different type of work public historians do.  Yes, some people work purely with artifacts or archival records.  But, many heritage professionals are engaged in work that requires a diverse skill set.  It’s worth thinking about all the things you do that don’t fall under typical notions of heritage work. 

Expansion through friends

December 16’s #reverb10 prompt was:

Friendship. How has a friend changed you or your perspective on the world this year? Was this change gradual, or a sudden burst?

The greatest impact my friends or colleagues have on me this year is their ability to open my eyes to new ideas and avenues. In the past year colleagues have introduced me to books, local historic sites, networking opportunities, new topics of inquiry, and additional branches of the heritage field.

This occurred gradually throughout the year and helped me broaden my perspective and interests in the heritage world. I have also learned new skills and honed existing skills based on feedback and conversations with colleagues. I have found friendship, support, and enthusiasm amongst colleagues in the past year. I look forward to continuing to exchange ideas and experiences with others in the upcoming year.