Backstage at an exhibition

We here at the SF History Museum are catching our breaths after having put on the final touches of our latest exhibition, Women Making Financial History. You have read previous posts about the exhibition, and many are now walking through it daily on your way to and from the office. But this post isn’t about the exhibits, but about what went on behind to scenes to create it.

First, this exhibition would not be possible without our Exhibit Designer, Bill Sander, for his imaginative vision and exhibitry knowledge; and to our Historian Marianne Babal, for her indefatigable research and ideas for bringing the history to life. There were, of course many others that contributed, but these two led the way.

Women Making Financial History (Click to visit the exhibit in a new window)It never ceases to amaze me just how much work it takes to put on a museum exhibition. I would best characterize it as a cross between writing a REALLY BIG term paper, producing a theatrical production, and remodeling your home all at the same time.

Like each one of these humongous tasks, there are corresponding phases that one goes through: the giddy, brainstormy phase, when ANYTHING seems possible); the nose-to the grindstone research phase (still fun, by the way); the realization phase that we now know WAY TOO MUCH about the subject. (How can we ever whittle it down to something that doesn’t scare people?) Then there’s the start of the building phase (who would have guessed that marblized contact paper can look so much like real marble bank walls?), and the beginning-to-be-scary phase as opening day approaches.

All these phases, of course, are followed by absolute panic when we have one week to design a website (this was my fun part), and the recurring thought that we will never have a weekend away from work again.

And you never know what will go wrong, and what will go surprisingly well during the process. For instance, our Phoenix Museum Manager, Connie Whalen, had the great idea that visitors would have fun putting their photo on money. Simple, old-timey, cute. Connie took it upon herself to gather camera, software, computer, monitor, printer, big pulsing blue button — whatever it took to make this a reality….

121409-GlenOnMoney_small.jpgCountless hours later, everything was installed and the surprises continued — like how the printed “money” shot out of the printer onto the floor like a greased pig at a state fair. Connie probably didn’t plan on a second job moonlighting for the exhibition, but that was what it took to put together the coolest thingy we have for visitors to do. And you get not one, but three chances to look silly on vintage currency that you can take home with you.

Creating our “Money Vault” brought more surprises. The idea was to show the many different ways women have been depicted on coins and currency. Who would have known that our very own first First Lady, Martha Washington, was the first REAL woman to be featured on a U.S. bill? She looks rather somber, but that would be expected for such an important place in history.

There are other examples of women, from real to mythological (Lady Liberty, the most common) on money. But my favorite has to be the two young women shown on the 1939 Greek Drachmai bill carrying what looks like a large jug of, well — maybe wine, maybe not — but those gals look like they’re having FUN.

Since this “Money Vault” exhibit case is filled with gold and currency, it is not only well-alarmed, but also rather difficult to open. So the idea was to take extra care laying out the design ahead of time and attaching the money carefully only ONCE. Each piece of money had a label, and since most of the money was antique or foreign, plenty of attention was given to fact checking and placement. We are professionals, after all.

Following the careful installation, closing of the exhibit case, and final cleaning of the glass, a visitor the next day made the off-hand remark that perhaps we had mislabeled a coin. We couldn’t believe it — the errant label wasn’t for any of the exotic and lesser-known coins on display, but instead was for the 1944 U.S. half-dollar coin, labeled incorrectly as a dollar. I am as accountable as anyone, because I well remember having this rather prosaic coin in my pocket many times as a kid. It’s just that being all shiny and featured in a museum case, it naturally inflated to dollar status.

121409-Banner_small.jpgWhen the exhibition was nearly done, there was one item that we all thought would be the perfect design touch — a vintage rabbit ears antenna for the section with 1960s TV ads focused on women. The antenna would go atop the very clever (fake) 1960s-era television that Bill Sander created. Sometimes it’s just plain fun to mix the real with the re-created, to produce that nostalgic glow that makes an exhibit great.

The problem was, no one could find an antenna to match our vision. Fortunately, we have nine museums across the country, and the word was sent out among Curators to find that perfect set of rabbit ears! We can thank Steve Greenwood, our Curator in Portland, for the discovery of a really cool set — better than I had when growing up!

So putting up an exhibition is really a collaborative effort of dreaming, madness, and exhaustion — but is usually worth the effort. I hope you get the chance to visit our exhibition either in person or online. You now know that there is so much more behind each text plate and artifact, and it’s all for your edification and enjoyment.

Btw, there is one typo that has been discovered. If you can find it, go to the museum desk and identify it to our staff. We will personally thank you for reading our text so diligently! (And give you a prize!)

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4 Responses to Backstage at an exhibition

  1. Ian says:

    I took my 6 year old son to the SF museum about a month ago. He enjoyed the hands-on exhibits most, especially the hand-crank telephone and the check protector. We met a gentleman (I don’t know his name) that was fixing one of the exhibits. He was very kind to us and took time to encourage my son to try the various exhibits. Please pass along our thanks.

  2. Glen Myers says:

    Thanks for your comment – I’m glad you and your son had a fun time at the museum.

  3. kt says:

    Great story, and I clicked all the links.

  4. Bill Sander says:

    I am delighted you and your son enjoyed the exhibit. Making the past come to life is why we work hard.

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