I have in my wallet a rectangle of wallpaper, perhaps two inches by four inches. Everyone on the team for this year’s Directed Fieldwork in Exhibit Installation course got one, handed to us by our instructor after a weekend of work installing Stories in Every Stitch at the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park. As he divvied up these scraps of wallpaper, he explained their meaning: “I want you to hold onto these, and whenever you think something’s going to go according to plan, I want you to stop and look at them.”
For me, so much of graduate school goes according to plan. I get syllabi at the start of the quarter, and those more or less tell me what all will be happening and when. Occasionally life will throw a curveball- a personal crisis, a weather emergency, restructuring a course on the fly to adjust for speaker schedules, etc.- but by and large things go according to the preset schedule issued at the start.
Exhibit installations are a little different. On the one hand, we did have plenty of time to plan. From the start of the quarter, we’d known the dates we were going to be installing our exhibits, and we met weekly to edit label text and discuss how we would put the exhibits together. We even had 3D digital models of the exhibits to refer back to when necessary, built to scale and labeled with the dimensions of every wall, case, and panel.
But, as Robert Burns is credited as saying, the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry. Object mounts were sometimes not level. Some objects we had hoped to use in our exhibits could not be used for various reasons. One of our wall panels had a typo, and there was no time to print a revised version. We found we did not have the right materials to construct the valance on which an exhibit title was to be mounted. When constructing freestanding temporary walls to display photographs and artifacts, we quickly learned that we did not have enough faux-antique wallpaper to give them the 1890s parlor feel that we had hoped for.
It was exhilarating!
For every challenge, our team found a solution. Where mounts were off kilter, we coaxed them into proper position with slivers of foam and folds of painter’s tape. When objects were unavailable, my teammates sourced replicas, modifying them themselves as needed. In the face of misspellings on our panels, the offending sections were physically trimmed with a boxcutter right there in the gallery. The valance was quickly reworked based on the available wood, producing a structure that was ultimately lighter than the original design. Moments after we determined that we did not have enough wallpaper to cover our walls, my team engineered a solution using what we had on hand: The walls were papered from the midpoint upward and the seam was covered with faux-wood veneer left over from a previous exhibit.
Plenty of things went right, I should add. Unpapered walls were painted without incident. Mounts were constructed. Fabric swatches were cut for the interactive display with minimal fuss. Everyone got a turn using a power tool. When the time came to mount labels, they went up with impressive speed and skill.
However, it was the curveballs I think we learned the most from. Every hurdle became an opportunity to think on our feet and get creative with solutions. Our team even made improvements to already functional components of the display as we worked, creating a better exhibit through our flexibility. At every turn during the exhibit installation process, I was amazed at the ingenuity and drive of my classmates.
No matter where we all end up after graduation, I know that taking Directed Fieldwork in Exhibit Installation will prove valuable. The technical skills we all learned will be useful whether we find ourselves designing exhibits professionally for the Smithsonian, running a small regional historical society, or even doing long-term strategic planning for an art museum. On a more conceptual level, though, I believe that learning how to come up with creative solutions when things don’t go according to plan and how to be flexible will be the best lessons of this class.
So I think I will keep my little swatch of wallpaper. It will remind me to be prepared for anything, true, but not only that. It will remind me of a fun and enjoyable quarter. It will remind me of how exceptional and talented my classmates are, and how having a good team makes all the difference. Perhaps most of all, it will remind me that any problem is also an opportunity to get creative and find a solution that works better than your original plan ever could.
-Michael Lowry Lamble, Museology Communications Assistant, Class of 2020