Robbie Terman and Kathryn Dowgiewicz 2017-05-03 13:51:18
One of the most successful ways to bring attention and interest to an archival collection is through exhibits. But for small archives with limited budgets and zero display space, a traveling exhibit might be the most efficient, economical, and effective option to reach a broad audience. The Leonard N. Simons Jewish Community Archives (LNSJCA) was founded in 1991 to collect, preserve, and make available the records and papers of Jewish Detroit. It is staffed by one archivist and a group of dedicated volunteers. The year 2016 marked its 25th anniversary—an ideal time to launch an exhibit. Except that, for a small archives, taking on a project like an exhibit can seem like a daunting and impossible task. How to plan and execute such an endeavor while still running day-to-day operations? Make It Mobile LNSJCA has a unique situation, as it is housed in two different locations. The acquisition and processing of collections take place in an office building in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. The boxes are then housed (on long-term loan) at the Walter P. Reuther Library of Labor and Urban Affairs at Wayne State University in Detroit. The initial difficulties of dual sites actually provided an outreach opportunity in both the city and suburbs. Two LNSJCA exhibits took place in 2016: one was an installation in the gallery space at the Reuther Library and the other consisted of monthly traveling panels. The idea of a traveling exhibit stemmed from the desire to reach people where they work, live, socialize, and—for the Jewish community—worship. The goal of the exhibit was first to bring awareness to the archives and its vast collection and, second, to show how history can be told through primary source documents. With input from an oversight committee, we decided that the traveling exhibit would consist of five free-standing panels. We used pull-up banners that were mobile and easy to install at each location. Within the exhibit’s overarching theme of “Creating a Jewish Community,” each panel highlighted a different topic: Jewish immigration to Detroit, Jewish neighborhoods, service organizations, Israel, and a timeline of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit (of which LNSJCA is a department). The topics stood alone, but together they created a larger story of community. Planning for the traveling exhibit began in the summer of 2015. The themes were decided for each panel, as well as the type of information that needed to be covered and the material selected for inclusion. Text was composed, photographs and ephemera selected and scanned, and the overall design determined. A Roadmap To Success The exhibit lasted for one full year, starting January 2016. Every month, each individual panel moved to a different location. This resulted in the exhibit being housed in more than thirty locations throughout the year, with several hosts taking multiple panels. Early in the process, the oversight committee made a list of possible locales and contacted the organizations with our proposal. The exhibit was free to host; we simply asked that the organization help us market it via their newsletters and social media. By December 2015, the entire year was booked. Hosts included synagogues, businesses, schools, and public libraries. In order to maximize who would see it, a quarter of the locales were not Jewish organizations. Here is our Dos and DON’Ts list of what worked and what we would have changed. DO know how much money you want to raise. This may seem like a no-brainer, but really think what you are trying to accomplish. And then add to that. Expenses are going to come up that you never expected (we had to reprint a panel that had a typo). Plus, events like this are a great opportunity to enlarge your organization’s finances. The traveling exhibit cost about $10,000, but we raised more as a fundraiser for the archives. DO fundraise far in advance. Again, no-brainer, right? However, when you are researching, curating, contacting organizations to host the exhibit—oh, and running your archives as usual—asking people for money can fall through the cracks. We launched this project before we had raised even a dollar. Every penny was sought as it was needed, which is a stressful way to work. DO know your goals. If you know what you want to achieve (in our case, awareness of LNSJCA), you can work toward that with every step. And it helps to have a metric for measuring success. While we didn’t have a way to determine the number of people who stopped to look at the exhibit, we did leave pamphlets (created in house) in a stand next to the exhibit. Over 600 pamphlets were taken during the year, which gives us at least a baseline to start with in terms of viewership. DON’T make your exhibit double sided. Seriously, don’t. This was one of our biggest mistakes. To utilize the least amount of space with the most amount of information, we made the exhibit double sided and it proved to be a problem in nearly every location. Think about where you are displaying the panels. Then think about how traffic gets through that area. Double-sided panels can’t be put against the wall, making them impediments to crowds. Furthermore, be selective regarding information and material. A few lengthy expositions and a couple of great photographs could have been excluded without compromising the panel, leading to less congestion and the absence of the second side. DON’T go out of your comfort zone. That is, when contacting places to host your panels, don’t reach out to places farther than you want to drive. At the beginning of the project, being fearful about finding enough hosts, we reached out to locations in Ann Arbor (45 minutes away) and Lansing (over an hour away). It turned out, the positive response was overwhelming and we didn’t need the distant locations, but they were already booked. That meant long drives twice—once to drop off and once to pick up. DO plan to work alone. When you are a lone arranger, assume that a majority of the project will fall on your shoulders. Especially when the bulk of your volunteer force is older and unable to help move panels each month. Be sure to take on only as much as you can handle by yourself. And don’t forget, you won’t have as much energy by month twelve as you had in month one, so prepare to overcome an end-of-the-year slump in enthusiasm. DO hire where you can afford to. While curating was done in-house, we used a freelance designer and fabrication company. When seeking these services, don’t be afraid to ask for recommendations. Although we met with several different fabricating companies, the one we ultimately chose came highly recommended by a local museum. DO know your audience. Our strongest supporters are over the age of 60, so we tried to attract more diverse age groups. Efforts included quizzes about the exhibit available on our website and a selfie contest—if you posted a selfie with one of the panels on our Facebook page, you could win a prize. Only one person entered in the entire year. Our efforts would have been better spent planning programming for our known participants. The past year was filled with both excitement and anxiety, but the outcome made it worth the hard work. We not only achieved our goals, but also have a road map for the next time we attempt such a project. If you are starting a similar project, hopefully you can avoid some of our mistakes!
Published by Society of American Archivists. View All Articles.