A couple of months ago we completed a redesign of our African-American exhibit. The redesign had been on our minds for a few months, and with the help of a generous donation we were able to accomplish the revamp just in time for a book signing by the author of one of the titles we used for research!
The African American Exhibit has been on display for several years. This exhibit was a great accomplishment. The original committee met for several months, a multitude of drafts were made, and copious amounts of research went into the first exhibition.
The original exhibition consisted mainly of photos of influential members of the community with labels listing their accomplishments and contributions. While this is an important part of history, when I read the labels I had more questions than answers. I found it hard to connect the dots and come away from the exhibit with a larger story of African-American Heritage in Kankakee County. Many of the labels referenced groups or events that had no explanation with them. The exhibit felt a little like a “hall of fame” instead of a story of heritage.
As always the first stage of the exhibition process is research. For this stage our committee pulled out all of our research files, notes from the original committee meetings, census records for Kankakee County, and the previous curator’s notes. In the previous curator’s notes I was able to find lists of contacts for the original exhibition. After calling many contacts I was able to touch base with some of the original committee members and some of the featured people in the exhibition. I was looking for more info on organizations founded in Kankakee such as ARBEZ, Operation PUSH, and the Kankakee Chapter of NAACP. I was able to track down some answers and start putting together a timeline of events important in Kankakee County.
While we were doing the research, I was also working on the design for the exhibit. I wanted to do large content sections that chronologically mapped the movement of African-American families on the national and local level, and also a large content section on the Civil Rights movement and the many national and local civil rights groups.
Once we had a layout in mind, we began the content editing and I continued the design work.
The exhibit is a little wordy, and it’s a lot to take in, but while it has a chronological layout, we also wanted it to be a free choice exhibit. If visitors want to read the large panels, they can, but if they are skimmers, there is enough information on the smaller boards and with the photos they will also learn something.
After a final proof, the boards are sent to the printer and we begin to tear down the original exhibition and make way for the redesign.
The exhibition has a timeline on the bottom portion of the wall. The top portion of the timeline discusses some of the milestones for African-Americans on the national level while the bottom portion has local events that helped shape our county.
While we wanted to tell the larger story of African-American Heritage in Kankakee County, individual people are the most important part. We kept the photos and labels from the original exhibition, digitized them, and made a slideshow for the exhibit as well.
I would not be so bold as to say that this redesign is the complete history and Heritage of African-Americans in Kankakee County. We will never have the complete history, but we are ALWAYS in search of more information both artifacts and research materials. As the Historical Society, we collect and interpret the material culture of the county. I am proud of our newest incarnation of this exhibit and my hopes are that in five or ten years time, we will have enough information to complete a second redesign.
Thanks for reading!