Have you ever wandered up to the second floor of Hawthorne-Longfellow Library (H-L) to see a special exhibit on display and wondered how that exhibit came to be?
Behind the glass double doors on the third floor of H-L lies Bowdoin’s Department of Special Collections and Archives, which is entrusted with curating the special exhibits. Director of Special Collections and Archives Richard Lindemann and the department’s staff share the duties.
The main purpose of the exhibits is to make people aware of Special Collections and encourage appreciation for them.
The first and most difficult step of putting together an exhibit, according to Lindemann, is to select a theme.
“These are the kinds of things that come to you either at three o’clock in the morning or in the shower,” he said.
Once a theme has been chosen—often pertaining to an anniversary or something else specific to the College—significant research must be done and materials selected in order to craft a cohesive narrative to present the items in the display cases.
“If you take the time and have the patience, you can actually read an exhibit from beginning to end,” said Lindemann. “There is a narrative to it. There is a premise or a hypothesis or an argument to be made, and then you demonstrate that argument by displaying exhibits.”
To drive an exhibit’s narrative, captions or legends are composed. According to Lindemann, a certain skill set is required to write this text, and creating the exhibit cards is extremely satisfying.
“The writing style in particular is very rigorous and very demanding because it requires being extremely precise and being extremely succinct because people don’t want to do a lot of reading—they want to do a lot of looking,” he said.
Once the items for the exhibit—mostly books, manuscripts and photographs—are approved, curators must determine the layout. An exhibit needs “an effective display,” which requires “visual literacy,” according to Lindemann. After that, the staff prepares the necessary supports for the items, such as cradles and prop stands.
Once layout is determined, an exhibit can be installed.
A typical exhibit will contain about 50 to 60 items, though this number can vary depending on the size of the items. These items are drawn from 75,000 volumes and 5,500 linear feet of manuscripts—more than 31 times the height of Coles Tower—which are kept in climate controlled stacks throughout H-L. It takes roughly six months to plan one exhibit, and the exhibition schedule is made one or two years in advance.
The only charge for an exhibit is the expense of support materials—usually around several hundred dollars. Lindemann expressed the department’s desire to produce catalogs to document each exhibit, but at $8,000 to $10,000, a decent catalog is expensive to make and Special Collections does not have the necessary funding.
“Our exhibits are centered on presentation of show itself, but not as lasting contribution to scholarship,” said Lindemann when discussing the exhibits’ impermanence.
Lindemann said the primary challenge Special Collections faces is attracting visitors because it is difficult to draw people up to the second floor to look at the displays.
“I mean, who really goes to the second floor? In terms of the general public and in terms of capturing students, there’s a bathroom on the second floor and people go to the bathroom,” Lindemann said.
Moreover, Lindemann noted, “people don’t think of [going to] a library to look at an exhibit. They think of a museum.”
To help publicize exhibits, Special Collections issues press releases and puts up posters. The department also coordinates faculty panels or talks about displays.
The Special Collections staff put on the majority of exhibits, but occasionally their display is part of a course’s curriculum. The exhibit commemorating the 40th anniversary of co-education at Bowdoin, for example, was largely student-curated.
Even though students are not typically involved in curating exhibits, Lindemann said that if a student is particularly interested, he or she can submit a proposal for a display. An exhibit, Lindemann pointed out, is a method of publication.
Lindemann said that Special Collections, the Arctic Museum and the Museum of Art rarely collaborate and there are not many conversations about doing joint exhibits. Though Special Collections occasionally contributes items to the Museum of Art at times, the library exhibits tend to feature Special Collections items exclusively.
Though the idea of a shared exhibit with other colleges is attractive, Special Collections does not typically bring them to Bowdoin because they are too logistically challenging.
The current exhibit titled “Visualizing Uncle Tom” is about Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” A guest curator, Richard J. Ellis from the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom, put together the show. He had previously exhibited it in the UK, and will continue showing it throughout the United States after the Bowdoin leg of the tour closes on May 31, 2014.