Working at the Kankakee museum for the past few years, I have been able to work on a wide variety of festivals, events and exhibits. Some projects are small, like one day events, while other projects are expansive and take awhile to complete. The largest and most complex exhibit I have ever worked on is “The Story of Kankakee County.”
This gallery is about 40% of the exhibit space in the museum. It had the same look for about 40 years and was in need of a serious overhaul. The redesign was the largest undertaking since the gallery was added building.
Everyone worked on this project; staff, committee members, and volunteers worked for 12 months in preparation for the redesign. Some of my titles during this process were:
- Graphic Designer
- Exhibit Designer
- Committee leader
- Budget overseer
- Project manager
- Over-all basket case
Let me be clear. This is the largest scale project I have ever worked on; let alone led. There were many sleepless nights, overtime hours, and hundreds of coffee cups. It always seemed like we were behind schedule, understaffed, and every small project took twice as long to complete. There were times when I thought it would never be done by deadline. (It was. YAY!)
While this monster sized project was full of set backs and obstacles and I learned more “on the job” than ever had. I was so incredibly weighted by the notion that my designs and my actions would cost thousands of dollars to follow through, that I scrutinized decision. In my spare time I read about new techniques in museum exhibits and read articles about audience interpretations. Whether it was an extra adjective in a line of content, or moving an exhibit case two inches to the right, I thought through every possible choice to make this exhibit the best I could produce. I was completely obsessed-some might say I was a perfectionist about the entire project- and it paid off. I came into my own and I am now more confident in my skills and knowledge than I have ever been. I LOVED being the project manager even with all its responsibilities. It was invigorating to lead a great team through an almost insurmountable task.
TLDR: This project was my entire life. It was SUPER hard but worth every minute.
2015: Planning, Fundraising, and Designing
We spent about a year planning out the exhibit. According to our projected timeline, developed by Connie, the director of the museum, the gallery would close during the first week of January, and wouldn’t reopen until the Rhubarb Festival in May.
Our committee met at least once a month to discuss ideas. We were telling the story of an entire county. How would we fit everything in? How could we mention all of the cities in the county? Would everyone be properly represented? Our committee organized field trips to local museums. We visited with open minds and skeptical pocket books. At this point in the project we had no idea what our budget would look like and many of the amazing instillation we saw were thousands of dollars. Would we be able to create exhibits of the same caliber? So many amazing ideas and histories were thrown around, I still cant believe we condensed it into what we did. Our basic idea was a timeline of sorts, starting with the glacier that sat on this land and ending with the boom and subsequent bust of industry in the county in the 1908s. The basic section layouts were as follows:
- Native Americans
Each paragraph of content took hours and hours of writing, editing, and re-writing. Our editor Hannah Swale worked tirelessly on this project. There were many writers and therefore many writing styles. She was charged with not only reading the boards for grammar and clarity, but also to make sure the voice of the exhibit was concise and one individual style.
We are a very small museum. Our annual exhibit budget is remarkably small so to take on such an expensive endeavor, we renewed our “Hundred for History Campaign.” Donors gave at least one hundred dollars, and a plaque with their name on it was placed outside of the gallery. We were AMAZED by the outpouring of support from our community. Within a year, our budget for the exhibit was over $20,000!!!!!!!
With the money from the campaign we were able to finally purchase Photoshop for the museum. I had NEVER used anything like it. It was a rough start and very frustrating (Layers), but after some lessons with our very patient volunteer, Jack Klasey teaching me the basics, I became good enough with it to get some of my basic ideas down. I’m afraid in the past few months I’ve become a bit of a Photoshop snob. It is now my favorite editing software. I’m a changed woman.
For the interpretive boards I chose a green that reminded me of the nature surrounding the river. (It also conveniently matches the website). The beige tone was chosen to match the walls of the room. The concept was focus of the exhibit should be the photos and artifacts, not the boards.
I thought the theme boards (Railroads) should be prominent and pack a punch but also short and sweet. Content boards (Markets and Meals) are surrounded by large photos to illustrate the point. These tell slightly smaller stories than the theme boards, but still cover a lot of information. The caption boards (Agriculture) tell an even smaller story; a first hand story or concentrated concepts. Each board can be read and understood without having to read all of the other boards in the exhibit.
Exhibit cases, bases, artifacts and set like materials all had to be designed, also. The exhibits were broken into the bullet pointed sections seen above and artifacts were pulled that highlighted the content and stood out as interesting to the viewer.Technology was added along with interactive programming. We purchased several digital picture frames to display more photos in small spaces and we have a television that plays Kankakee related films. One of our large desks in the exhibit was filled with books and maps. Visitors can sit at this historic desk and flip through reproductions of historical documents.
2016: Moving, Constructing, and Displaying
While many helped (including a construction crew) I am proud to say that Hannah and I did the bulk of the shuffling of exhibits. We took the existing exhibits OUT of the room , and put the majority of the the exhibits together. Some of the larger pieces in the gallery, the real eye catchers, stayed in the room but were relocated with a little elbow grease, some suction cups, and sheer force of will.
We painted, moved, hammered, adhered, built, and pinned everything in that gallery. I could go on and on about just how much detail we put into each and every display. Months were spent moving exhibits from one end to another. Moving exhibits into place only to decide to rearrange them the next day. We hired a construction team to take down multiple false walls and adhere them to the cement walls. Our resident handyman, helper, and tireless volunteer, Ken Ponton spent days constructing and installing things we dreamed up.
After choosing each artifact and designing each board, we then had to find the right space to house all of our pieces. Because of the nature of the space and our inability to see a truly vacant room to plan in, we had to do some major improvising. I’m not sure how other museums do it, but Hannah and I sure when through a LOT of masking tape.
We made our own paper versions of the boards to work with and help place out.
Each case of artifacts was carefully curated to show not only the object, but to “set it upon a stage.” We wanted viewers to look at each of these exhibits and take away more than the image of an artifact in a plastic box. We wanted them to take away a story of an artifact.
For me, “The Story of Kankakee County” was a labor, but a labor of love. I could not have done it without the tireless help of Hannah. She was not only the editor, construction worker, and designer alongside me, she was a friend and sounding board.Another essential team member was the office manager, Julie. She helped with budgets, donor plaques and orders. She also helped me keep a level head (work mom). A big thanks goes out to Ken, who helped me create things I dreamed up in my mind. Jack, who taught me how to use Photoshop and provided much of the hard content. Each and every staff member put so much into this project. Committee members took time out of their schedules to plan, and volunteers dropped by to lend a hand or an eye. I would not be where I am without this team and I am grateful for every one of them. (THANKS GUYS!!) Thank you for trusting me, my vision, and my abilities. It means more than you know.
Each time I go into the gallery and see someone pointing a fact out to a friend, smiling and snapping a photo with a mannequin or siting at the desk absorbed in the information, my heart swells. I will never forget the things I have learned working in this gallery, and dream is to work on projects like this,big or small, for the rest of my career.