What We Learned about Mounting an Exhibit . . . Reflections from the Gloucester Maritime Heritage Center

You know how little kids love to “play school?” One person’s the teacher and the others are the students. They setup makeshift desks and chairs, grab books, papers and crayons and then the teacher tells them what to do. Sometimes they “play store,” stocking shelves built from blocks with plastic fruits and real cans of beans and boxes of cereal.

Well when I was a kid, we liked to “play museum.” We’d draw splendid pictures and tape them to a wall. We’d collect bugs and worms and exhibit them in jars on a table. We’d dig out treasures like bits of sea glass or the demitasse spoon embellished with the Florida state crest, and line them up along a windowsill. Then we’d corral anyone we could find to see our exhibit. And we’d tell them all about our artifacts, beginning with how we found that bright blue fragment of glass scrambled up in seaweed on a visit to the beach when the tide was dead low.

This past year I’ve discovered that putting together a real exhibit is no easy task. It’s made even more complicated when you’re planning an exhibit for a gallery that doesn’t yet exist. At the time my organization (the Gloucester Maritime Heritage Center) applied for a Cultural Economic Grant from Mass Humanities in 2006, we figured we’d hire a designer/architect to assist with development of the exhibit and to provide us with schematic drawings. We also wanted this wonder person to make us a model of said proposed exhibit, which we would then use as a fundraising tool to attract resources for said proposed gallery. (You probably realize we were already in trouble.)

We soon discovered that we were a long way from being able to make a model of the exhibit. So instead, we proceeded to commission a digital model of our build-out, with interior glimpses of the new gallery that hinted at rather than defined the exhibit. This was certainly a different slant on our initial intentions but the beauty of it is–it worked! We aired the DVD at house parties and other events and people contributed! In addition to private funds, we became the beneficiaries of $50,000 in Preserve America funds. The Commonwealth awarded us $95,000 from the Massachusetts Cultural Facilities Fund. We were on a roll!

 In 2007 we started construction of the gallery (which is the highlight of an addition that ties together three existing buildings on our industrial property overlooking Gloucester Harbor). We completed it in 2008 and thought the hard part was done. Boy were we wrong. The exhibit still lay ahead. With almost no money in hand, we realized we were pretty much on our own. But that didn’t mean we were bereft. A professional museum exhibit installer decided to help out. Two gentlemen with extensive knowledge of ship models stepped up. Members of our board of directors, including the architect who had done the plans (gratis) for the addition, got to work. Within a couple of months we had a real plan – not a definitive plan, mind you, but a plan nonetheless. And we had a story line. “Fitting Out” would focus on the shoreside industries that supported the local fishing fleet at the dawn of the 20th century: sail lofts, spar sheds, icehouses, chandleries, cooperages, blacksmith shops, a foghorn manufacturer and more.

Throughout the summer of 2008, we worked on the exhibit. Mostly that means we got the word out in the community that we needed stuff. We went on local cable TV, begging for artifacts. We hit the Internet. We attended local auctions (where we discovered we were no match for the antique dealers and more sophisticated collectors). We contacted all the fishermen and family of fishermen we knew, begging for artifacts. Finally, we posted a flyer in the local newspaper and around town. Here’s what it said:

The Gloucester Maritime Heritage Center needs marine artifacts from the late 1800s and early 1900s for a new exhibit. Please call us at 978-281-0470 if you can donate or loan any of the items listed below. Thanks!

Paper and Packaging (advertisements, posters, and packaging from fishing related products)

Account Books, Log books, Bills of Sale

Sailmaking Equipment (sailmaker’s bench, canvas, needles, sail twine, palms, fids, awls, bench hooks, marlin spikes)

Oilcloth (Sou’wester, raingear, advertisements)

Cooperage (barrels, tubs, buckets, tools)

Fishing Equipment (trawls, hooks, keg buoys, flags, tubs, net floats, jigs, anchors)

Netmaking and Net Mending Equipment (nets, cord, needles)

Sparyard (spars, lathes, hand tools)

Ropeworks (tools, manilla/hemp rope)

Before you knew it, we had stuff. Great stuff, weird stuff, just plain stuff, and downright disintegrating stuff. Great iron mast hoops, worn leather sailors’ palms, old wood salt cod boxes, a Gloucester made foghorn. Even a cast iron mold for shaping a Sou’wester. We were ready to assemble an exhibit. And thanks to the generosity of a venerable museum, we were the beneficiaries of some splendid cast off display cases, not a single one of which would be in our possession if we had to pay for them.

Now, surely, we were nearing the fun part – the part where you just arrange the objects until you like the way they look. Should be a snap, just like when I was a kid. Another rude awakening….mounting an exhibit is thoughtful, demanding work. It involves figuring out how to locate pieces to best tell the story you want to tell. Then there’s flow to consider: where do we want people to go first?

What else did we learn? Mounting an exhibit involves properly identifying artifacts, then cataloging and labeling them. It involves learning how to borrow pieces from other museums. It involves negotiating with donors and would-be donors (When someone says, “I want you to have my grandpa’s fid but you have to promise to display it forever,” what are you supposed to say?). And what about safety considerations? We wanted “hands on” components, but how do we display our foghorn so kids can sound it without damaging the hearing of a child who might decide to stand directly in front of the horn? We wanted to introduce some video pieces but how to do that without having the sound tracks get in each other’s way? And so much more.

Although our exhibit wasn’t ready for viewing until after we closed for the 2008 season, we have welcomed two audiences to “Fitting Out.” In November we held a reception to thank the donors who made it possible. In December, we held a community open house. Our audiences could not have been more generous with their praise.

But we know we’ve only just begun. With twelve weeks to go before we open on May 7th for the 2009 season, we still have a lot to do to transform “Fitting Out” into an exhibit we can be proud of. At the last meeting of our Exhibits Committee (all volunteers), we identified sixteen specific problems that need to be addressed. We’ll get it done.

In the meantime, Mass Humanities has awarded us a second Cultural Economic Grant targeted to the development of interpretive components to enhance the exhibit. We feel fully supported as we negotiate the final lap of this long, tortuous, and altogether rewarding journey. The web of people and organizations that has helped us along the way is both intricate and sturdy. When we make mistakes they straighten us out, when we need help, they give it. What more could we want?

Author: Harriet Webster

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