Behind the scenes Exhibitions Long read

Behind the Scenes – Steps to Organise an Exhibition

Ilaria Camerini writes:

Walking in a gallery, enjoying the atmosphere created by the items showed in an exhibition, it’s a beautiful and fascinating experience. But, did you ever think about how an exhibition is born? Exhibitions are just the last step of lots of activities and people that work behind the scenes. Let’s take a look!

Elaine and Janay from collection care
E. Sheldon and J. Laudat installing the Peterloo exhibition in the John Rylands Library.

Step 1 – The choice
What is the aim of the exhibition? What do we want to show to visitors? What are the themes we will cover?

Curators are key players in this stage. They know the history and the relations between each item in the Library’s collections. In this first step, they will answer all these questions, choosing the most meaningful items to show in the exhibition and the most representative way to display them, in order to achieve the aim of the exhibition. They interact with the Engagement and Marketing teams for exhibition planning and for the creation of panels, labels and digital displays that will explain the exhibition to the visitors.

Step 2 – Condition assessment
Once the list of items is finalized, Curators consult the Conservators: this is to decide if it’s feasible to show the original items or to use facsimiles instead. This choice depends on the state of conservation of the items and their sensitivity to light and environment: these are always checked by the Conservators. If the original items can’t be shown, the Imaging Team will digitize them and create high quality facsimiles.

Step 3 – Conservation treatment and mounting
Most of the time, the condition of the objects chosen allows the originals to be to shown in the exhibition cases, but every so often conservation treatments are necessary to enhance the visitors’ experience: there could be creases, tears, losses or stains that compromise legibility. In these cases, Conservators write detailed condition reports and perform conservation treatments, in order to make the exhibits easier to handle during the installation, and more legible and suitable for visitors’ enjoyment.

As soon as all the objects are ready, they need to be mounted on a support to be displayed. During this phase, the box-making machine is a Conservator’s best friend, as it can speedily cut made-to-measure cradles and mounts. Sadly, sometimes items need a particular kind of mounting which cannot be made by the machine: in these cases the only option for Conservators is to make handmade mounts. This takes much longer, but makes use of their skilful hands and a huge amount of imagination to make it work.

Step 4 – Installation

The first activity in the installation process is cleaning the exhibition cases, when all you need is inner peace – it can be really tricky to clean the inside of the cases!

Then, following the instructions of the Curators, the items and their labels can be inserted into the cases.

One of the most challenging activities during the installation process is the arrangement of the lights. This is to enhance the objects’ visibility but also to check the light levels to avoid any light damage. Light can have devastating effects on objects: high levels of exposure have a bleaching action that can cause fading of paper, pigments and inks. In some cases, the compounds within the paper can react with the light and turn yellow or brownish. For these reasons it’s extremely important to find the right balance between the light that can be sustained safely by the items and the level required by the human eye to view the objects and labels.

During this stage the exhibits can experience an array of features: light shadows, dark shadows, reflections and even rainbows!

Once the installation is complete and all the parties involved in its planning are happy with everything, the galleries are ready for the visitor’s enjoyment.

The exhibition installation is the fruit of brilliant cross-team work, and it gives a priceless feeling: there’s nothing better to enhance the visitors’ experience than to create a fascinating and exciting atmosphere in the gallery spaces.

The John Rylands Library has two main exhibition areas – the Rylands Galleries and the Cross Corridor – and the exhibitions change every six months in both areas.

Our Conservation Team is now working on the installation of the exhibition “Seeing the invisible – Medieval hidden Heritage revealed”, that will open to the public soon. Come to visit us!


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