A new Burns Library exhibit, The Object in the Archives: Networks & Materiality at John J. Burns Library is on display through June, 2018. Comprised of objects from 30 different collections at Burns Library, this exhibit examines how an object moves from personal possession to archival object and the relationships and connections that develop between and across objects, collections, and researchers. This project had its genesis in two distinct places; the first was my own scholarly work in Victorian literature, new materialisms, and material culture studies and the ways in which matter and materiality are active and independent.(1) The second was a casual comment I made over the summer while I was working that I enjoyed helping with exhibits but had never had the chance to curate one. Katherine Fox, Head of Public Services and Engagement at Burns, suggested that I pitch a proposal for an exhibit and The Objects in the Archives began to take shape.
Given my interest in material culture, the objects in Burns Library’s collection were a natural focus for my exhibit. I established the central idea—the connections between object and researcher, past and present—and then started exploring Burns to see what artifacts were available. This exploration including talking to individual staff members about some of their favorite objects in the collections, searching finding aids of unfamiliar collections for artifacts, and looking for objects that fell into categories of particular interest to me, such as textiles. The joy of the early stages of exhibit development is the possibility: there are so many choices! As I learned more about individual collections and artifacts, I began to trace networks of connectivity between items that helped to focus my searches and choices. At this point the technical side of exhibit development began. I met with Katherine Fox and Amy Braitsch, Head Archivist, to discuss the topic of the exhibit and the types of artifacts I was interested in displaying. Katherine and Amy affirmed my topic, asked questions, suggested objects, outlined care and use guidelines, and provided me with a general timeline and task list to follow.
The first step was to create a spreadsheet listing all of the possible objects for the exhibit. While this may seem like a rather immaterial start to a project considering materiality, this spreadsheet became the master reference document for the exhibit. It contained all the information for the objects I was interested in displaying: the collections they were from, physical locations, citations, notes for display and conservation, and general groupings. Eventually, as the spreadsheet was further developed, I divided the objects into what became the four categories of the exhibit: leisure, professional, personal, and sacred. This list, while tracking and categorizing all of the necessary information for the exhibit, also had the practical application of allowing any of the exhibits staff access to all of the material and how I was organizing it.
After creating the official exhibit list, I began retrieving all the objects, examining them, and considering their relevance and condition before deciding whether or not they worked in one of my four categories. Sometimes an item was not as exciting as it had seemed in the finding aid, or it didn’t have the visual impact I was hoping for. Other
objects were even better in person—the elaborately embroidered chasuble in the Sacred Objects case started sparkling and reflecting light off its metallic embroidery the moment I took the lid off the box—making my decision to choose that particular vestment quite easy. Once I had decided on an object, it had to be temporarily rehoused, complete with paperwork indicating it was on exhibit and a reference photograph to assist with reshelving when the exhibit ends. Usually rehousing consolidates exhibit materials, making them easier to store while the exhibit is being prepped. Due to the unique nature and number of the objects I was choosing, however, my exhibit materials took up a lot of space; the reading room staff was especially gracious in letting me take over multiple book trucks and lots of floor space for the duration of my exhibit prep!
Once the objects were pulled and rehoused, it was time for the curatorial reviews. I spent an afternoon with Katherine and Amy Braitsch, reviewing the objects that I had pulled. Two of my choices presented special challenges. I wanted to display both an embroidered chasuble and a nurse’s cape from the collections housed at Burns. Since stress and light are the most prominent concerns for textiles, the chasuble needed to be displayed in the Irish Room (which already has special lighting to preserve the art hung in that room) and in a way that wouldn’t damage it. My ideal display preference for the textiles was to display them on dress forms. At the suggestion of Quinn Burgess, the costume shop supervisor at Robsham Theatre, Burns was able to borrow two dress forms from Diana Larsen at the McMullen Museum. This type of interdepartmental support and cooperation defined my experience working on this exhibit, as library and university staff generously shared time and resources to contribute to the success of the project.
Layout and a meeting with Barbara Adams Hebard, Burns Library conservator, came next. Exhibit layout is a dry run, or dress rehearsal, for how you plan to arrange the objects in the case. Working on tables the length of the cases, I assembled each section of the display while taking notes on any special concerns or display needs. After seeing each case’s items displayed together, I was able to confirm the exhibit list and meet with Barbara to discuss the types of cradles and supports needed for certain items. One particular set of objects needed careful consideration: three wire and paper puppets of characters from Anansi tales. These puppets are part of an artist’s book of Anansi puppets housed in gorgeous silk-screened paper folders. I wanted to display the puppets
upright and out of their protective folders to capture the movement and whimsy of the artist’s design. Amy Brown, Head of Special Collections Technical Services, cleared the puppets for exhibit and discussed possible options for displaying them. Barbara then created ingenious supports that allow the puppets to stand up as if they were being manipulated by puppeteers. They are one of my favorite sets of objects in the exhibit and seeing them displayed in exactly the way I had envisioned was especially satisfying.
Once the contents of the actual exhibit were finalized, I turned my focus to design, publicity, and the exhibit’s online presence. Working with Chris Houston-Ponchak, a web design & communications specialist at BC, I chose a color palette, type of font, and representative images for the exhibit. Chris then developed the poster, case panels, and labels for the exhibit. Since this exhibit will also be available digitally sometime in the future, all of the objects had to be captured with high-res photography. One of my favorite experiences was a day-long photoshoot spent with Chris Soldt, a graphics, photography, and web specialist at BC, as he photographed all of the items that I wanted to include in the digital exhibit. I received a crash-course in exhibit photography as I staged items, held reflectors, and discussed stylistic options (when else do you get to say that you would rather retain the lustre of the fabric then light a sick call set so there are no shadows?). I learned about the difficulties of photographing reflective items as we worked with the silver punch bowl that anchors the Personal Objects case, and the differences in light sources when photographing flat and three-dimensional objects.
During all of this, I was also finalizing exhibit text and developing labels for the items in the cases that allowed us to trace the ways in which the objects connect to each other. Writing exhibit text was challenging as I had to distill big, theoretical ideas into short, readable passages. This was where collaboration was helpful—Katherine and I worked together to revise the labels and text panels to meet the needs of the exhibit while retaining the scholarly core of the project. While we finalized text, we also chose new fabric to line the cases. I wanted a neutral exhibit palette that would allow colorful objects such as the biretta to stand out, rather than the brighter velvets Burns used for other exhibits. Instead, using some black cotton that was discovered in the exhibit fabric options, Katherine heroically measured, cut, ironed, ironed again, and fitted the fabric to the cases. Now the exhibit was ready to be installed!
I had three days blocked off in the library calendar for install but, since I had never helped with this part of an exhibit before, I had no idea what install entailed. It ended up being a whirlwind three days of sorting all the items into their cases, staging them in aesthetically and ideologically pleasing groups, hanging photos, lint rolling case fabric, making last minute substitutions as items didn’t fit or needed to be adjusted due to space concerns, cleaning exhibit case glass, installing case narrative panels, and playing with supports and cradles to vary the heights in the display. The two pieces that took the most hands were the textiles—Katherine, Amy Braitsch, and I worked together to dress the dress forms in the chasuble and cape, being careful to ensure the objects had the proper amount of support at stress points and were installed in such a way that they would remain safe throughout the duration of the exhibit. Since these were the first two pieces we put into the cases, the exhibit really came alive for the first time for me when we installed them. Suddenly there was height and depth and dimensionality to the cases and the objects immediately began garnering attention from researchers and staff members passing through the exhibit area. Once all of the objects were arranged in the cases, we hung posters and added labels as the finishing touches, officially opening the exhibit on Monday, February 12, 2018.
The entire exhibit process, from start to finish, took almost eight months and I enjoyed every moment of it. From learning the technical, library side of exhibit prep, to getting to work with a photographer and a designer, to the enormous amount of support and energy the Burns staff brought to the project, to marrying my academic work with my work in archives and special collections, this exhibit allowed me to learn new skills, implement the theoretical concerns I engage with as a scholar, and work with an array of artifacts that work together to create a vital material network of connectivity. I hope you enjoy viewing the exhibit as much as I enjoyed putting it together. The Object in the Archives: Networks & Materiality at John J. Burns Library will be on view through June 2018. Please stop by Burns Library Monday through Friday from 9-5 to see the exhibit in person.
- Rachel A. Ernst, PHD candidate in the English Department and Burns Library Reading Room Assistant.
(1)My dissertation project, “Mattering: Agentic Objects in Victorian Literature,” examines objects that have agency within the 19th century novel and the ways in which those objects reshape the reality of their storyworlds. My interest in materiality and active matter is influenced by editors Diana Coole and Samantha Frost’s collection, New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency, and Politics (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010) and Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010). Coole and Frost define materiality in the following manner: “Materiality is always something more than ‘mere’ matter: an excess, force, vitality, relationality, or difference that renders matter active, self-creative, productive, unpredictable” (9).