by Katie Maish
While recently completing a graduate certificate in Museum Studies and an MFA in photography at the University of Memphis, I redesigned an exhibit as part of an internship at Chucalissa showcasing pottery artifacts found on site. This project is really exciting for me on more than one level. My interest in museum collections tends to reveal itself in my photography: a recent body of work I made is about the history of the curiosity cabinet and what happens to our perception of other cultures when artifacts are taken out of their original context. The opportunity to craft a narrative around the pottery in this exhibit automatically contextualizes them within a really fascinating American Indian culture that lived there a long time ago. Also, from a personal standpoint, I am a native Memphian and an avid museumgoer. My first museum experience was a field trip to Chucalissa with my mother when I was in first grade, and I am sure that is exactly where my love of museums began.
Dr. Robert Connolly, museum director, is also a professor at the University of Memphis and taught a class I took called Museum Practices. As an exercise, each student was asked to redesign the previously existing exhibit that houses Chucalissa pottery. I was asked to cull through all of the feedback and create an exhibit that represents the best ideas from the group. It was in this collaborative spirit that I undertook the project, and the purpose of this blog entry is to describe my design and the rationale behind it.
Step One: Review the Mission Statement
As Rachael Bogema remarks in a previous blog post, the mission statement of a museum is a critical vehicle that ensures progress on long term objectives while simultaneously engaging visitors, making tricky financial decisions, completing short term projects and generally keeping everyone happy. Making a habit of revisiting the mission statement is the best way to avoid engaging in practices that, in the short term, seem like a good idea but may not serve the long term goals of the institution. This rule applies to exhibit design as well.
The intention of this exhibit is to interpret the pottery within its functional, aesthetic, symbolic and religious significance to the American Indians living at the site 1000 to 1500 A.D., thus it ties directly with the goal to focus on the archaeological site’s cultural and natural environments. The project meets the educational and participatory aspects of the mission statement in that a large group of graduate students at the University of Memphis engaged in its design. The University of Memphis Museum Studies program invites students from a variety of backgrounds, including anthropology, art history and studio art. I am quite impressed at the quality and wide variety of ideas resulting from this exercise; this participatory practice most definitely enriches the process and eventual outcome of the exhibit.
Step Two: What’s the Big Idea?
As Beverly Serell states in Exhibit Labels: An Interpretive Approach, “a powerful exhibition idea will clarify, limit, and focus the nature and scope of an exhibition.” The didactic material in the previous exhibit is interesting and relevant but lacks an apparent big idea that focuses the content for the viewer. The big idea in the new design not only leads the way I arrange all of the didactic panels, but it is also placed front and center on the main panel as an entry point for the viewer.
Underneath the big idea is a panel that provides some information about the structure of the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex. In it, there are three levels in our universe (Upper World, Middle World, Under World). I mimic these levels in the way I stack the text. Next to that text, a piece of pottery is placed on a custom Plexiglas mount that is symbolic of that level. For example, a Bell Plain Bat Effigy bowl is in the topmost position to reflect its association with the Upper World.
As I mentioned, the information in the previous exhibit is very interesting, but it needs more structure. After the primary message about religious significance is addressed on the main panel, what other information is crucial? I arrange most of the rest of the text within two themes that make up the left and right panel of the exhibit: “Modern Identification and Interpretation” and “Pottery Function, Decoration and Use of Color.”
Step Three: Visual Design (Font, Color Choice, Materials)
Two fonts are utilized in the exhibit, a decorative font called Tetra for the headlines and a sans serif font called Din for the body of the text. Tetra’s design has a vaguely Native American structure, and it adds some bold visual appeal to the exhibit that catches the eye while remaining legible. Din is a clean, modern sans serif font (meaning the font doesn’t have the projecting elements seen at the ends of each letter in the font you’re reading right now), but it also has some interesting curves in some of the letters that visually link the letters together, making it easier to read.
I avoid using black in the exhibit since it is such a traditional default for text. I use green instead because it naturally complements the red in the Nodena pottery. Green is also associated with nature and organic forms; the pots were recovered from the mounds outside, and since they were made by hand I think green invokes their imperfect, organic appeal that contributes to their beauty and uniqueness. I use cream and beige tones in the unbleached cotton muslin covering all paneling and the didactic panels. While the palette used in the previous design is striking, it encourages the viewer to look at everything but the pots first. It is a crucial to encourage viewers to focus on the pottery first and surrounding elements second. To make the beige panels a little more interesting to look at while not competing with the pottery, a subtle pattern is added.
Materials used in the exhibit look professional but are as economical as possible and, importantly, are easily replaceable in the event that staff would like to update the exhibit in the future. The paneling underneath the unbleached cotton muslin is Coroplast, an affordable, durable and chemically inert product ideal for structural support in exhibits. Unbleached cotton muslin (also affordable and inert) is stretched over the Coroplast. The didactic panels are printed on a wide format printer, dry mounted to white formcore and attached to the back paneling with Velcro.
There are several elements in the exhibit made of transparent acrylic. On a recent trip to Washington D.C., I noticed that acrylic is a very popular material used in newer exhibits at the Smithsonian, particularly at the National Museum of the American Indian: it is relatively inexpensive and adds a lot of support without excess visual weight that detracts from the pottery. Three title panels have green vinyl lettering affixed to acrylic. The custom acrylic mounts holding six of the pots were made by a local plastic fabricator and attached to the back paneling using standard screws. The Sinti Pot, one of the most notable pieces in the exhibit because of the intricacy of the design on the pot that is also often associated with Chucalissa, is placed front and central on an acrylic stand. A mirror is placed underneath so that the viewer can also see the bottom of the pot. Labels are printed on paper and spray mounted to triangular acrylic label mounts.
I encourage everyone to visit the C.H. Nash Museum and view the redesigned exhibit for themselves! For more information on how I redesigned the exhibit, or Chucalissa exhibits in general, please feel free to contact the museum at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Visit Katie’s website for more information about her creative projects