How to display museum objects

Being a museum person myself, I look at exhibitions as our gift to our visitors. Just like a good gift, much thought and preparation go into finding exhibitions that meet the needs of the audience and complement the organization.

By definition, museums must have at least one permanent collection of objects of importance that they care for, or conserve, and make available for public exhibit. More than just displaying objects, museums use those objects to tell stories and educate the public.

To continue to educate the public about their collections, museums bring in temporary exhibitions. The temporary exhibitions show connections to what is in the museum. From the perspective of an art museum, that connection could be to a particular artist, era in history or technique. Sometimes, temporary exhibitions are curated around specific themes to bring ideas and theories to the forefront, or they may otherwise fill a gap in the collections.

In addition to using exhibitions to connect with the permanent collections, museums choose what to exhibit based on mission and strategic plans, market demand and relevancy and, of course, budget.

For example, the current temporary exhibition at Bergstrom-Mahler Museum of Glass is “Beauty Beyond Nature: The Glass Art of Paul Stankard.”

Stankard is an internationally respected master glass artist who is represented in more than 60 museums worldwide. He is known for interpreting nature in small-scale glass sculpture that celebrates the fecundity of the plant kingdom.

We chose this exhibition for several reasons. First, we are a museum that exhibits glass and Mr. Stankard’s primary medium is glass. This show fulfills our mission to “engage, excite and educate using our glass collections and temporary exhibitions.”

Second, his work is represented in our permanent collections of paperweights and contemporary sculpture, and so we are using the permanent collection as a jumping off point to expose the public to the depth and breadth of the artist’s work. The exhibit expands the understanding of our collections and tells the artist’s story.

Third, the artist’s subject matter is plants and flowers. He brings spirituality into his narrative and celebrates the fragility of creation. This is definitely a topic that is relevant to our audiences, especially as society discusses climate change.

Finally, this is an exhibition organized by a private collector, Robert Minkoff, who is passionate about the work of the artist and wants to share the work with as many people as possible. We are fortunate that the Robert M. Minkoff Foundation partially sponsored the exhibition. The sponsorship definitely helps the museum stay within budget.

Next time you are walking by the Trout Museum of Art or Bergstrom-Mahler Museum of Glass, stop in. Have a look at the collections and temporary exhibitions. Marvel at the gifts the arts provide for our community.

—Jennifer Stevenson is the marketing and development director for Bergstrom-Mahler Museum of Glass in Neenah. This column is prepared through the Fox Arts Network, a grassroots organization of nonprofit arts groups serving the Fox Cities and surrounding communities. FAN’s goal is to encourage trial in all art forms. For more information contact [email protected]

Voices of the Arts

A community columnist from the Fox Valley arts community writes on issues, trends and observations from the arts world each Monday in Life. Today’s columnist is Jennifer Stevenson, marketing and development director for Bergstrom-Mahler Museum of Glass in Neenah.

There’s an art to writing compelling exhibition and artwork descriptions. Read on to find out tried and true tips for successfully introducing your exhibition, artworks and objects to your visitors.

Writing Your Exhibition Description

The Exhibition Description acts like the entry text panel in a bricks and mortar exhibition space. It is the first piece of text visitors will see and read before they enter your exhibition and it should explain the themes, ideas, concepts and inspiration behind your exhibition.

We have compiled some pointers to help you write a compelling description and successfully introduce your exhibition to your visitors, so keep reading!

1. Include the ‘Big Idea’

The ‘big idea’ of your exhibition answers the question “What is this exhibition about?”. When writing your exhibition description it is important to make sure you include the Big Idea so your audience can understand and make sense of the themes and ideas you are presenting to them through your artwork.

It is also good practice for exhibition description writing to start with the specific and then move to the general, start with the present and work to the past.

This is the opposite to how we normally write as we like to paint the overall picture (no pun intended) before we get to the nitty gritty details. But if you introduce what you are trying to do now first, you can take your audience on a journey as you explain why you are doing this and how it fits into the big picture.

2. Don’t Repeat Your Bio

It is easy to think you have to talk about yourself and the artists being exhibited in the Description. However, this is not going to get the ‘big idea’ across to your audience and they will have to keep reading to the end before they think “Oh, this is what I’m about to see”.

Instead, on The Exhibit, the Exhibition Entry page has several prominent links to the Exhibitor profiles of the artists, curators, galleries or cultural institutions involved in the exhibition. And on each individual artwork page inside the exhibition, visitors can also read the artist’s bio information (please note this feature isn’t available for Collections Pro users). So there’s no need to feel as though you have to repeat information about yourself in the description as this information is all easily accessible to your visitors elsewhere throughout your exhibition.

3. Avoid “Artspeak”

The art world has a tendency to use lots of jargon and w*nky concepts which are particular to the discipline of art. However, not all these words and ideas will be understood by your visitors and you don’t want to write your description just for visitors who are art professionals or who have done a degree in fine art. If you make your visitors feel stupid, because they don’t grasp the language you are using or the points you are trying to make, they will disengage from your exhibition.

4. Don’t dumb it down too much

But to continue on from the point above, you don’t want to do the opposite either. You don’t want to make your exhibition writing seem like it is for dummies, by over simplifying your language and avoiding central concepts and ideas. Instead write in a direct and friendly way and as though you are talking directly to your audience in person.