The Making of an Exhibition

By: Jane Weinke, curator of collections/registrar on April 28th, 2010

As I struggled over a blog topic, I remembered some practical advice – “Write what you know!” Amazingly, an idea came to mind.

For many years the Woodson Art Museum has organized thematic exhibitions drawn from the permanent collection to share with other museums. The industry jargon is “traveling exhibition.” To date, nine Woodson exhibitions (not including Birds in Art, which travels annually) have traveled to dozens of museums across the country and around the world.

Naturally Drawn, Natural Wonders, A Reflective Nature, Fowl Play, Visual Poetry, and Wild Things are among our popular offerings. Some of the titles provide a hint of the subject or focus.

Since I am currently developing three new exhibitions, I thought I’d share the organization process specific to one. It’s not a difficult task; I liken it to being in a shoe store with a nearly limitless gift card. There are many styles, colors, sizes, textures, and materials; the challenge is to make the most thoughtful choices.

I like to first establish a theme, next select supporting artworks, and then bestow an enticing and overarching title on the exhibition. Following these three steps, I tackle the nuts and bolts.

A recent bequest included hundreds of paintings, drawings, books, and ephemera from the studio of Don Richard Eckelberry. This gift offers a wealth of material from which to draw works for an exhibition.

Beginning in 1959, Eckelberry made repeated visits to Trinidad to birdwatch as well as capture the avifauna in watercolor. Because the bequest included dozens of these exotic and spectacular works along with journal narratives, the birds of Trinidad and Tobago seemed a natural theme.

While cataloguing the bequest, I examined many intricately painted, vibrant watercolors of tropical birds, each so beautiful it screamed–or should I say squawked – to be shared. The exercise of culling the works to a mere 50, while challenging, was a treat for my eyes.

Now for a catchy title. My particular working style consists of accumulating descriptive words and phrases, writing them down in a column on the left side of a page, then making combinations on the right that tell the exhibition story. I share these ideas with others who add more word combinations. I do more tweaking until reaching that aha moment! A Naturalist’s Eden: Don Richard Eckelberry’s Birds of Trinidad and Tobago.

Tremendous behind-the-scenes work follows, including identifying possible venues, gathering education materials, writing object and didactic labels, and the list goes on.

And then there are the artworks. Each must be carefully prepared, including matting, hinging, and framing. Crates are built or retrofitted to safely move the exhibition, and packing and shipping instructions are written.

Each step in the overall process involves a great deal of work by members of the Woodson team. Nearly everyone on staff plays a role. Though projects such as this consume hundreds of hours, the end result is always rewarding.

A Naturalist’s Eden: Don Richard Eckelberry’s Birds of Trinidad and Tobago debuts at the Woodson Art Museum mid-August.

If you know a museum in your area that might be interested in this traveling exhibition, please contact me. I’ll provide venue updates in a future blog.

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