Planning an Exhibit: How to Make Exhibits and Displays That Work

When I began my position just over two years ago, I was tasked with implementing an exhibit program at the Pritzker Legal Research Center. Different libraries handle exhibits in different ways. Some have an exhibit committee with an schedule looking years in advance; others simply plan for exhibits as opportunities arise.

I found myself somewhere in the middle, doing exhibits independently, rather than as part of a committee, but I would have a set schedule with ideas planned (at least somewhat) in advance.  In this piece, I highlight some of my practices for curating and presenting exhibits at the Pritzker Legal Research Center.

Scheduling Exhibits

As we are an academic library, it makes sense to schedule our two exhibits according to the academic year—one in the fall semester, and one in the spring. The Law School hosts Alumni Weekend in the fall, making it an ideal time to to debut an exhibit. I then like to leave it up for a while–usually until Spring Break.

I try to plan the installation for the week that students are gone so that there is a new surprise when they return (it also helps to have the space relatively quiet and empty for the transition!). Regardless, finding events to coincide with the exhibit opening or closing is a great way to generate interest for those events.

Creating the Concepts

I start each exhibit by creating two concepts—contextual and visual. For example, our fall exhibit features a fantastic recent acquisition of Clarence Darrow materials.

Contextual Concept

This collection had belonged to Arnold Greenberg, a New York City bookseller and father of Northwestern University alumnus Mike Greenberg. Mike and his mother donated the collection after Arnold passed away, and so this exhibit was as much a tribute to Arnold, a fervent admirer of Darrow, as to Darrow himself.

Understanding the contextual concept helped me come up with the title: Clarence Darrow: Selections from the Arnold Greenberg Clarence Darrow Collection. Since there was no single theme in the collection—the materials covered different parts of Darrow’s personal and professional lives—I decided that the context of my exhibit would simply be to show off some of the collection’s most exciting pieces.

These included signed editions of his books, pamphlets relating to his debates on religion, and publications featuring his work as a defense attorney. By studying these items, I came to understand Darrow better: he believed that life was without purpose or hope, but that it was still worthwhile to try to make it less painful for others.

Visual Concept

From here, the visual concept came together. This idea of justice in the face of bleakness kept coming back to me, and with it came certain associations: bleak colors such as brown, gray, white, and black; strong, sharp shapes (squares versus circles). A very clean, simple display.

Exhibits present an opportunity for academic librarians to stretch certain professional muscles that are often at risk of going sedentary. Exhibits do require lots of research and writing — the mainstays of academic library work — but they also present a tremendous opportunity to be creative. From designing graphics to arranging frames on the wall, working on the artistic aspects of an exhibit are some of the most fun parts of my job.

Designing Graphics

Much of my design work takes place in Adobe Creative Suite. For example, I wanted an interesting visual element for the Darrow exhibit that would draw people in while going along with the simple, stark visual concept I had in my mind. I ended up scanning a document that Darrow had signed, and then used Photoshop to isolate the signature.

In Adobe Illustrator, I turned that signature into a vector graphic, and from there I was able to make it almost four feet long. I then designed this cut into vinyl at FastSigns and affixed to the exhibit wall. Having the title in the subject’s own handwriting was a strong statement piece that tied together both the contextual and visual concepts.

Adobe Creative Suite played a critical role in the design of the title, but it is not the most intuitive or accessible software for all librarians, especially those who are beginners to design. In that case, Microsoft Word can work for certain tasks. This is especially true when planning a layout.

Using the shapes function, I made a to-scale drawing of the exhibit space and the cases. I added in frames for some of the smaller paper elements that I wanted to hang on the wall as well as decorative text elements on the wall. This not only helped me to see how much material I could display, but also made the installation much easier for our facilities team.

Assembling  & Installing Exhibits

Other elements of the exhibit are pre-determined. Fonts and additional colors, if necessary, are usually chosen from the organization’s branding guidelines, and materials are displayed with previously purchased props. Card stock is helpful to keep exhibit labels from curling, and an organic linen cloth can cover up ugly or mismatched stands. All items should be acid-free, UV-protectant, and safe regarding humidity. Companies like Gaylord and University Products have a great selection if additional products are needed.

Promoting the Exhibit

After installing the exhibit, we hosted an opening with light refreshments. This past fall, we invited the donor’s family and got to experience the exhibit with them. The creation of any exhibit is a significant and stressful undertaking, but seeing it come together is one of the most rewarding experiences I have as a librarian. Hosting the family and seeing their response to their loved one’s collection on display made it even more so.

Clarence Darrow: Selections from the Arnold Greenberg Clarence Darrow Collection is on view through early March at the Pritzker Legal Research Center. To come see it, or to ask any other questions about the process of creating exhibits, please contact Brittany Adams, the Special Collection, Digitization, and Archival Services Librarian.

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