April 13, 2020

Musings from an Exhibit Designer

by Roberta Jones-Wallace

“Long sleeves” prepared for exhibition along with other items of clothing which it might have been worn (MHS catalog numbers 1986.79.21, 1986.79.94, 1986.79.105, and L2014.08.05)

Numerous activities occur behind the scenes here at the Montana Historical Society. Newly acquired artifacts coming in must be catalogued, condition-reported, and carefully stored. Later, when we look at objects, or art, for possible exhibition, we assess items by their looks, sure, but also for their back story (their provenance), their condition (in need of conservation, or good to go?), and how well they fit the story we are trying to tell.

We look at their mounting needs (how we will display them) and case needs (how we will protect them). We think about how long an item will need to be on exhibit and plan ways to mitigate exposure for items susceptible to the damage caused by light. Clothing might need a mannequin; artwork, matting and framing; other items, small mounts or supports to allow them to “shine.” Archival and fragile paper items may need to be rotated in and out of the exhibit more frequently than less sensitive materials.

We also have to consider cultural context. We have in our collections a beautiful Chinese shirt, which we sent out for conservation in preparation of the exhibit, “Our Forgotten Pioneers: The Chinese in Montana.” When the shirt came back, the conservator made the comment that the person who wore it must have been a gorilla because the sleeves were inordinately long and the shirt itself quite broad. For each exhibit we produce, we must respect the customs and culture depicted. Our Chinese exhibit challenged us in many ways to try to depict the Chinese in Montana and show the clothing in our collections to our best understanding. In my scramble to understand this shirt and other items of clothing I had to reach into my poor memory banks—for I was sure I had seen images of Chinese wearing clothing with overly long sleeves. And indeed, I did find that the Chinese had quite rigorous protocol for clothing, color, and symbols which reflected social status and profession. This lovely shirt with its overlong sleeves may have been worn by a scholar, definitely someone of a higher status since the sleeves would interfere with manual labor.

Each exhibit we do, especially when depicting another culture, challenges my cultural bias—forcing me to try to be as sensitive as possible to representing our collections in the most respectful way I or we understand. We try to include consultants to help us in that endeavor, and to correct things when we get them wrong.