Behind the Scenes: Installing a Museum Exhibition

08.19.2016
Blog

By Patricia Raynor, Loan Coordinator

Entrance sign in the exhibition

Have you ever wondered how a museum exhibit is installed? Take a look behind the scenes at the National Postal Museum’s newest exhibition “Trailblazing: 100 Years of Our National Parks.” Once the objects and design is selected, the hands on work begins. In the following photographs, you will see museum staff and contractors install graphics, props and objects--thereby transforming our historic Postmaster Suite into an engaging space that evokes the look and feel of our parks.

The larger objects were handled by contractors from Brigid Mountmaking under the watchful eye of National Postal Museum preservation and collections staff.

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Here, the team installs a cross-section of a Sequoia tree, on loan from the University of Arizona.

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Preservation Specialist Manda Kowalczyk installs an envelope in a table top case. The envelope and its letter were sent by a family member to Frederick Douglas at his home, Cedar Hill, in 1890. Cedar Hill is now part of the Frederick Douglas National Historic Site, managed by the National Park Service.
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Contractor Erika Johnson and Preservation Specialist Rebecca Kennedy carefully secure a World War II calvary saddlebag. The saddlebag was used to collect and carry mail out of Phantom Ranch, Grand Canyon National Park from the late 1940s.

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Exhibits Specialist Eric Chapman, along with Preservation Specialist Manda Kowalczyk and Conservator Linda Edquist, lift and place a large panel in an upright case. It takes a village to install a brand new exhibition!

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Our Postmaster Suite Gallery is upstairs and our storage facilities and conservation lab are located in the basement of the museum. So how do you move objects to the gallery space? Sometimes we have to be creative. For example, this slightly-modified book cart was the perfect solution for transporting a mule mail riding saddle.

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Speaking of mules...this object provided quite an interesting challenge! It would travel upstairs on the elevator, of course, but is far too heavy and unweildy to be simply carried.
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Our clever exhibits staff--Eric Chapman and Shawnie McRaney--affixed the creature to a couple rolling platforms, bolting the feet in place to prevent the mule from going rogue on its jaunt!

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Here is our mule in its new home, representing the mail delivery process to the Supai Village deep within the Grand Canyon, a downward hike of 8 miles.

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Once objects are installed, the preservation staff check light levels with a meter. Light damage is one of the most common agents of deterioation. Light damage is irreversible and causes fading and discoloration. It can also catalyze the physical breakdown of organic materials.
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Preservation Specialist Manda Kowalzcyk and Exhibit Specialist Eric Chapman work as a team to meticulously adjust the light levels so that they are at a safe degree for the objects. Even after an exhibition is fully installed and lighting is set, museum staff continue to monitor and record light level readings on a regular basis.

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This overall view of the “Trailblazing...” exhibition in the Postmaster's Suite shows the results.

Postmaster Suite with decorative fireplace

"Trailblazing: 100 Years of Our National Parks" will be open through spring of 2018 at the National Postal Museum. Come explore the rich history of the National Parks Service and learn about its many connections to the United States Postal Service--we've saved you a seat in our "lodge," right next to the fire!

"Trailblazing: 100 Years of Our National Parks" commemorates the 100th birthday of the National Park Service, which officially occurs on August 25th, 2016. Visit the National Park Service website for more information about special centennial events and programs at National Park Service sites across the country.

All photographs were taken by the author.