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Mandolins, composers, and hair, oh my! (When 9 different research topics become 1 cohesive exhibit)

By Carlynne Robinson, Registrar and Collections Coordinator

How do you manage an exhibition with 10 different curators? You make a lot lists, schedule a lot of meetings, and send a lot of emails.

The Bienen School of Music’s fall 2018 Music Historiography class, taught by assistant professor Ryan Dohoney, incorporated an exhibit component to go along with the class’ final paper and presentation at the end of fall quarter. Their creation, “Music Remains: Memory and Mourning in Northwestern Libraries’ Distinctive Collection,” is currently on display in the Deering Library lobby through the end of Music Remains titlewinter quarter. It includes items as diverse as braided hairlocks (Victorian mementos of loved ones, from the Michael McDowell Death Collection in the Charles Deering McCormick Library of Special Collections) composer correspondence (from the Music Library) and advertisements for turn-of-the-20th-century mandolin clubs (from University Archives).

Exhibits that are curated by library staff are often planned 6 to 12 months in advance, but for a student-curated exhibit, that gets compressed to 3 action-packed months. The biggest challenge when working with student curators is trying to give them the full exhibit experience while also being mindful of their limited time.

As the exhibit preparator my role is to work with the curator to bring their vision of the exhibit to life. This requires several meetings to discuss the message or theme of the exhibit, get an idea of the number of items that will be included, and plan layouts for the exhibit cases. The collections at Northwestern Libraries go beyond just books; our shelves hold everything from an Emmy Award to a Miss America gown to our famed taxidermy wildcat. The exhibits at the library are an effort to showcase the variety of our collections.

My goal when installing exhibits at Northwestern is to display as many things as possible — within reason! I like to showcase the libraries’ vast collection, but I also have to balance that with upholding preservation standards. I have to be mindful of light exposure, overlapping pages, and even a book’s ability to open properly. These are all things that can limit a curator’s selection for their exhibit, so when working with 10 curators I came up with the following guidelines:

  • More is more, but less is better. It’s nice to have a full exhibit cases, but most of the cases for “Music Remains” had at least two people working on it. I told the students to pull around 10-20 items per case, depending on size, so that they would have enough objects to choose from. It’s easier to remove items from a case than it is to add them.
  • Make a detailed item list! Lists are an exhibit preparator’s best friend. Each student has to submit an item list which includes the call number, title, author, and the page number.
  • Be mindful of fragility, but don’t give up if it seems too brittle! I work closely with the Marketing and Communication department to make reproductions when an item is too brittle or too big to be on display.

After the students make their selections, I prepare check their conditions and prepare them for the installation. Here are some examples of how flat paper and photos can be mounted or displayed for an exhibit.

Back and wrap example

This is called a “back-and-wrap.” I back the item with a piece of matboard and wrap mylar around it. This particular piece was brittle and the pages were torn, but now that it is backed and wrapped, it’s much easier to display.

Photo corners

This photo was mounted using polypropylene mounting (photo) corners. When an item has a more stable condition, I often use the mounting corners instead of backing and wrapping. Matboard is cut down to the size of the photo with an added ¼ inch and then the self-adhering corners are applied.

Paper mounted on mat board

Both of these methods allow for easier handling of an item and I’m less limited in the number of ways I can prop it up. It can now be tilted up with a Vivak polyester stand or laid flat as shown in the upper left corner of this picture.

In record time, we’ve turned a quarter’s worth of research and class time into a tangible exhibition that upholds our preservation standards while giving students a unique and memorable curation experience.