Teaching curatorial work and developing an exhibition, at the same time

Teaching curatorial work and developing an exhibition, at the same time

The semester is over and the exhibit is open, on time and on budget, and it’s been well-received. I think it’s pretty good. But it’s been a complicated journey to get to this point, and it seems worthwhile to think about why, and what I might learn from the process. The exhibit is Little Compton Connected at the Little Compton (Rhode Island) Historical Society, a history of how transportation shaped the town. It argues that the town was, and is, more connected than it likes to think. It’s a small exhibit (about 700 square feet) with about 50 artifacts, 100 images, and a script of about 7,500 words.

About the course

I am both a professor of history and American studies at Brown University, occasionally teaching courses about museum work, and a volunteer (and president of the board) of the Little Compton Historical Society. I thought: why not bring the two groups together? Students would get practical experience and a hands-on project. The LCHS would get new ideas and approaches. Professor Francesca Liuni, who teaches exhibition design courses at the Rhode Island School of Design, also saw the value of a real-world project for her students. Eight Brown students (half graduate students, half undergraduates) and 13 RISD students worked on the project over the course of a semester. 

The range of interests and expertise of the groups involved made for a complicated process. A committee of the Board of the Society had general oversight, providing ideas and suggestions. Students in my History Curatorship class at Brown researched the history, conceptualized the stories to tell, chose objects, and wrote the script. They worked with students in an Advanced Studio class at RISD, who designed the exhibit. Then I worked with the staff at the Historical Society (it has a staff of two) to pull together all of the pieces, make final decisions about content and design based on some very practical constraints of the sort common to very small museums, built the exhibit, and installed the objects. A lot of moving parts. 

Teaching and learning

The curatorial students started off with a few weeks discussion of curatorship and then a quick overview of local history and its methods, and then chose one aspect of the transportation story to explore in archives and collections. (Here’s the syllabus for the course.) Some focused on big ideas: women’s role in transportation, the way new ideas came to town. Others focused on particular objects in the collection: a steamboat bell, a carriage. They pooled that material to brainstorm “big ideas”; what did they want visitors to know, to feel, and to do? The RISD students began by examining the space, making measured plans, and thinking about exhibit possibilities. 

Students then switched to working in small groups. Brown and RISD students worked together to conceptualize the exhibit as a whole, each group drawing on all of the work done to that point. They prepared main and section labels, major object and photo lists, as well as floorplans, elevations, schematic sketches and more detailed designs for a few sections. 

The students presented their plans to about sixty community members at a Zoom meeting, and then I met with the Board’s exhibit committee to get their feedback. Community feedback was mostly positive. It’s hard to generalize, but in general, the community folks thought that some of the students’ work was too theoretical, too far removed from the details of transportation, the cars and boats they thought should be central. They thought it left out the fun part of the subject, recreational fishing and sailing, car racing and collecting. 

How to reconcile all of this detailed research, these wonderful ideas, eight exhibit proposals and lots of advice? It would have been best to have the classes sit down and decide, but this kind of synthesis is hard in a committee, and even harder in a class. I took on the job of chief curator and created an exhibit scheme that included something from every team and from community discussions, covered most of the topics, and, most important, was doable, and would work for our audience. From one proposal I chose large photographs as backdrops; from another, the recreation of a general store. We chose colors—bright yellow!— from another proposal. I tried to include the most interesting objects and photos the students had found, and at least one design or curatorial element from each of the proposals. It was important that all the students see something of their work in the exhibit, and that the Board committee and the community feel listened to. My job was to balance the work of the students with my sense of what likely visitors would find interesting and useful. LCHS Executive Director Marjory O’Toole, with her fine sense of what the community cares about, how far one might push, and local politics, was very helpful here. 

The next step was for new Brown/RISD teams to each develop one section of that overall plan more fully. At this point we were close to the end of the semester, though, and only one section was developed, and not in as much detail as I would like. There wasn’t time for the back-and-forth between designers and curators that turns a good exhibit idea into a good exhibit. They had done enough, though, that the crit (RISD’s term for the end-of-the-semester presentation of projects to outside experts) was useful both to the students and to project. 

A view from the RISD crit.

What the students missed was what came next, the nitty-gritty of turning ideas and designs into a physical exhibit, the making-it-all-fit, and all-fit-together, part of the exhibit development process, the last 30 percent of design and all of production. A professional graphic designer turned the students’ design suggestions into graphic layouts. I did the final curatorial work: cut or add a few words or images here, find an object to fill this space, realize that there’s no good-quality image for a desired old photograph and choose another, run up against image-rights deadlines and printing deadlines. Work with museum staff in ways that fit into their processes and schedules. Decide what there’s just not the time or the skills to do. 

Value engineering, on the fly. This detail work is practical, not theoretically interesting, perhaps, and I think it is often overlooked in class projects, which often end with plans, not with products. It requires, especially in an idiosyncratic space like LCHS’s, repeated trips to the gallery and forthright discussions with staff. It demands quick decisions, based on deep knowledge of the collections and the story, in the gallery space. And it takes a lot of time; exhibits have many, many details, many small decisions The six weeks between the end of class and the opening of the exhibit was more than filled by final design, production, and installation. It’s a shame the students weren’t able to participate, or to see it. 


But what of the end result? The exhibit is done. I’m pleased with it, the staff of LCHS is happy, and to judge from early reactions, the public enjoys it. Including the best aspects of each of the eight student proposals was a challenge but made for some imaginative conceptualizations that the museum would not have come up with on its own. The design students brought new ideas both big and small that broke the LCHS out of its traditional style: large photographs with three-dimensional extensions, splashes of bright color, and an easy-to-produce presentation of words and images. The exhibit is much better for the student involvement. 

Equally important: how did this work as a course? What did the students think, and what did they learn? Overall, judging from course evaluations, the Brown students enjoyed the course. Working on a real project was important. One wrote: “I’m so grateful that we had the experience to curate an actual exhibit, instead of an imaginary one. This made the project more interesting, with higher stakes (higher motivation!) and a bigger reward.” Students noted the challenge of working with outside groups, and wanted more meetings with the RISD course, better coordination between the two courses, and, of course, more time.

Developing an exhibition as part of a course has clear tradeoffs. The best educational experience may not lead to the best exhibition. Trying to include ideas from all of the students means that an exhibit may become unfocused. Those downsides are, ideally, more than overcome by the new ideas and energy that students can bring to a project. The balance between doing the best exhibit and the best class, though, is real, and needs to be taken into account in planning a project like this. 

Future improvements

How would I change this course, if I were to teach it again? Having two semesters would be nice: one semester for research and conceptualizing, one working with designers and undertaking production. Or I might do the background research before the course and provide it to the students—though those skills are important for future curators to learn. 

Exhibit production is not usually part of curatorial courses, for good reason. While I believe that curators should know that aspect of exhibition development, it may be that the idiosyncrasies of exhibit production need to be learned on the job, for a particular museum. If I were to include it, I would schedule the exhibit to open before grades are due. That would require devoting more of the class to the details of production, though, and would cut into the time we spent learning how to research and conceptualize exhibits. It’s the endless challenge in museum studies courses, how to balance theory and practice. Two semesters might be the answer. 

Exhibit development is hard work. It requires individuals with very different skill sets—curators, designers, educators, collections managers, registrars, conservators, and more—to work together with good will and understanding. That process is an essential element for museum workers to learn, in addition to the design or curatorial skills that they need for their jobs. Two courses of students, with different kinds of expertise, working together on a real-world project, is not easy. I think it’s worth the effort. 

I’m already thinking about next year’s project!

A few images of the final exhibit.

Listen to the students talk about some of the objects in the exhibit on the Bloomberg Connects app: https://www.bloombergconnects.org. Download the app and search for Little Compton Historical Society

One thought on “Teaching curatorial work and developing an exhibition, at the same time

  1. I came across this on LinkedIn, Steve, and have shared with my coworkers (and interns) here at NMAH’s Design Studio. Your reflections on the nitty-gritty effort to bering an exhibition to the public—and maintain it—reminds me again of what a pleasure it was to work with you. Congratulations to you, your students, and the many hands and minds that brought this project to completion.

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