The Making of an Exhibit | Charlotte's got a lot | Charlotte NC Travel & Tourism
The official travel resource

The Making of an Exhibit

Charlotte’s museum exhibit masters walk us through the detailed process, from concept to execution.
Discovery Placeâs âBODY WORLDS & The Cycle of Life,â the attractionâs current exhibit, which features more than 100 plasticized human specimens, is the type of exhibition that leaves visitors wondering how in the world it was created.
Discovery Place’s “BODY WORLDS & The Cycle of Life,” the attraction’s current exhibit, which features more than 100 plasticized human specimens, is the type of exhibition that leaves visitors wondering how in the world it was created.

By Michael J. Solender 

Discovery Place’s “BODY WORLDS & The Cycle of Life, the attraction’s current exhibit, which features more than 100 plasticized human specimens, is the type of exhibition that leaves visitors wondering how in the world it was created.

While guests are enthralled by sophisticated displays of actual bodies in action and the detailed narratives accompanying them, many may not realize the level of planning, logistics and resource management involved in bringing such an exhibition to life. 

The “BODY WORLDS” exhibit is just one of the dozens on display at cultural institutions across Charlotte, each involving the hard work of a unique fraternity of specialists known as exhibition managers. 

Serving in roles mostly hidden from public view, these professionals quarterback  teams of curators, art handlers, display fabricators, educators, electricians, carpenters, lighting specialists, designers and administrators, all with the singular mission to delight, engage and inform each guest.

“We’re problem-solvers, ultimately,” said Sarah Macey, the director of exhibition design at Discovery Place. Macey and her team took only six days to bring five tractor-trailers filled with crated artifacts to exhibition readiness displayed on nearly 10,000 square feet of floor space.

 “It’s not if problems are going to happen, it’s when and how many,” said Macey. “We prepare our best and manage whatever challenges arise.”

Telling the story

The process of mounting exhibitions varies in scope and complexity across institutions, though many elements are similar.

“We always start with the story,” said Kevin Schlesier, NASCAR Hall of Fame’s director of exhibits. “Everything is subservient to that.

Whether it’s ‘Glory Road,’ and we’re picking out which 18 cars we want to show, selecting the artifacts for our ‘Hall of Honoror working with some of our special exhibits, we start out by asking ourselves what story we want our guests to walk away with. For the ‘Hall of Honor, it’s why the subject is a [NASCAR Hall of Fame] inductee. With ‘Glory Road,’ it’s about why we’ve chosen these 18 vehicles, and it’s about highlighting the people who drove them.”

Schlesier explained that exhibits begin with a narrative. Then the search begins for artifacts, like cars, photos, videos and other materials. Those pieces tell the backstory and provide supporting information that fully illustrates the concept, making it relevant for the guest.

Perhaps the most unique challenge for Schlesier is that, at any given time, nearly all of the artifacts on display at the Hall are on loan to the museum.

“Compared to an institution with a deep collection they can pull from, we are a relationship-heavy institution,” said Schlesier. “We start out with a story and rely on our relationships with drivers, teams, fans and collectors (for artifacts) to execute.”

The planning and logistics 

For Bechtler Museum of Modern Art exhibitions and collections coordinator Allyson Burke, once the museum curator green lights a show for exhibition, Burke gets the signal to begin putting all of the logistics and pieces in place.

“There is a great deal of advanced planning for exhibitions,” said Burke, noting she works on about four exhibitions per year. “It is a minimum of one year for planning each, given all the requirements. It begins with an object list. I’ll work initially with the curator and collection manager to determine what’s in our collection and what we are looking to borrow from other institutions.”

Burke shared that, for many exhibits, loan letters requesting objects from lending institutions are written. Subsequent contracts spell out terms such as shipping, insurance, conservation and preservation requirements regarding loaned pieces.

Internal objects must be inspected for restoration or repair needs and display requirements. For the current exhibit “Sam Francis: Rapid Fluid Indivisible Vision,” Burke and her team made certain that all frames and mountings to be used for display objects were free of damages and in mint condition.

Long lead times are required due to the level of personnel and resources required in the process.

Michele Leopold, director of collections and exhibitions for both the Mint Museum Randolph and Mint Museum Uptown, concurred. “It may take months or years to develop a show or longer if that show is set to travel,” she said.

Such is true of the museum’s current exhibit on Italian fashion designer Franco Moschino, “Viva Moschino!,” which relied on materials drawn largely from two Chicago-area private collections, plus institutional loans and the museum’s own fashion collection.

Leopold outlined several steps in developing an exhibition, which are not likely top of mind for museum visitors. These steps include: exhibition design; layout and space mapping; creation of labels, text panels, catalogues and gallery guides; and gallery preparation that includes painting, element installation, display fabrication, lighting, cleaning and security.

Building the relationships 

Exhibition teams work across departments within their organizations and with a host of external partners and vendors.

“Externally, we work with colleagues from other museums, couriers, conservators, fabricators, construction and paint crews, fine art packers, shippers, and art handlers,” said Leopold.  “Our relationships allow us to create better exhibitions while providing us with the opportunity to share information and trends within the greater museum collective.”

A past exhibit at the Mint Museum displayed one particular artifact whose installation alone warranted marveling.

Visitors of last year’s “Connecting the World: The Panama Canal at 100” were greeted upon entry to the exhibit by a room-filling, 6,000-pound steam shovel bucket, which was actually used in the construction of the canal.

“We brought the bucket in on loan as part of the exhibition,” said Leopold. “We weren’t really sure until the very end whether the floor would support the bucket. We coordinated with the architects for the building to determine if the bucket could be accommodated, and it was approved.

The bucket had to be removed from display in Colorado using a crane and was then placed on a large flatbed to transport it to Charlotte. A local rigging company assisted with the movement of the bucket from the transporter into our fine art freight elevator, and then we placed the bucket into position for exhibition.”

When it comes to amazing and inspiring guests, it seems no challenge is too great for Charlotte’s cultural institutions and the stories they seek to tell.

This article ran in the February 2016 issue of Charlotte Happenings.

Related Topics
Related Topics