Sunday 30 October 2011

Fireworks, Confetti, and the Daily Mail

The Rose-Tinted UL by Esaj on Flickr

On 19 October John Wells, Joint Exhibitions Officer at the University Library, gave a very entertaining and informative talk about mounting exhibitions at the UL.

At the Library there is a distinction between curators, who write the exhibitions themselves and change with each exhibition, and the Exhibition Officers, who are the members of Library staff who administer the exhibition programme and manage the curators. John has been Joint Exhibition officer for 6 years, and has also curated several exhibitions. John has managed to find records of exhibitions in the Library as far back as the 1920s, but the modern era starts in 1998 with the opening of the current exhibition centre.

John noted that the Exhibition Officers at the UL are very fortunate to have the support of other departments in the Library--photography and conservation chief amongst them--who handly a lot of the practical work.

The design of each exhibition is also undertaken by outside companies. John commented that it's very important to make the design of posters and flyers as bright and showy as possible (difficult when many of the things displayed are "mostly brown and beige") as they'll have to compete against the circus and the pantomime for the public's attention!  

Choosing Themes and Exhibits
The UL assumes that the audience for its exhibitions is "the educated general audience". The themes of exhibitions will generally show off on the strengths the UL collections, the collections' breadth, little-known items from within, or they might tie in with important anniversaries or just be borne of someone's enthusiasm for a particular topic.

Individual exhibits are chosen because of both attractiveness and interest. Sometimes a small tatty book will have a much more interesting story behind it than a large, beautifully illuminated one, but you need a balance of both in the exhibition. Exhbits should, after all, generally reflect well on the Library and its stewardship.

Most of the items shown are, of course, printed books, manuscript codices, or papers, but exhibitions have included some stranger items including confetti, (used) fireworks, contraceptives and a stuffed duck (borrowed from elsewhere).  

Writing Captions
Writing an exhibition caption is "a literary genre in its own right". It's been said that curators always want their own captions to be long, but the captions in exhibitions they visit to be small: there is always a balancing act between telling the visitor all the interesting things that your research has discovered and having a caption that's a length they'll actually stop and read.

John was once given advice that exhibition captions should "use short words,short sentences and be suitable for a reading age of 12-14, rather like the Daily Mail." Given the intended audience for its exhibitions, the UL ignores this advice!

When writing exhibition text and captions you have to allow for the different ways in which people approach the exhibition. Some will start at the beginning and work all the way through in order, but some will dip in and out, stopping to read the captions of the items that particularly catch their eye. You have to make sure that the text is useful to both.

A good practical tip is to write captions with the item to be displayed in front of you. Think about the questions that the visitor will ask about it, and then answer them.  

Putting it all together
Before the exhibit list can be finalised, all the exhibits have to be checked by the Conservation Department, who will decide whether they can be displayed, will undertake any necessary work, and will make bespoke display cradles. They also supervise the installation of the exhibition, using appropriate means to hold pages open.

A common mistake when planning an exhibition layout is to leave insufficient room for the captions. The captions are printed last at the UL, so that their size and shape can be adjsted to allow for any changes in case layout. The final layout of the cases is determined by the shadows cast by the lighting rigs in the cases: objects and captions will be titled, raised, lowered, or shuffled sideways so that they aren't obscured.

Exhibitions last about 5 months at a time. The exhibition centre and cases are temperature and humidty controlled according to British Standard 5454, and the lighting levels are kept low to protect the exhibits. At the end of the run there are about 4 weeks before the start of the next exhibition. The case contents are dismantled (it's much quicker to take things out than to put them in), and the display boards for the instroductory text are taken down (the foam backing is reused by the photography department). A permanent record does remain on the UL exhibitions webpages.

The current exhibition, "Books and Babies: Communicating Reproduction", runs until 23 December.

By Katie Birkwood, CLG's Membership Secretary, and Rare Books Specialist at Cambridge University Library