The Challenge of Designing Exhibits

Posted on
January 4, 2011

Do you ever stop to ogle the contents of the numerous display cases spread throughout Swem Library? Me neither. Or, at least, I didn’t. Now, every so often when I’m hunting for a book on the third floor, I venture over to the small flat case outside the Brown Board Room, just to check that everything is how I left it. The exhibit displayed there is the tangible outcome of my very first project as a 2010-2011 Graduate Student Apprentice with the SCRC. Sure, few others even know about that part of the library—if my exhibit had a counter, it would probably show two hits, both mine—but it feels good to see the finished product of my labor, especially since the rest of my academic life is all about never-ending revision.

My task was to research, design, and install an exhibit documenting the original construction of Swem Library, which first opened to the public on January 4, 1966. It was exactly the kind of project I had hoped to get in order to experience some aspects of museum-related work, a potential but vague interest of mine. However, I learned it can be quite difficult to check your scholarly instincts at the door. Unsure about where to begin on such an unfamiliar task, I fell back on my history training and dove straight into the research phase.

I must have read just about everything the College of William and Mary has saved related to Swem Library. I learned about the growth of the College’s library since its founding, the career history of Earl Gregg Swem, all the stages of planning and fundraising for the modern Swem Library, details of the building’s specifications, simultaneous state-supported construction projects at the College, various renovations since the 1960s…you get the idea. After gathering a number of photographs and ceremonial programs from the University Archives, I was excited to share my newfound knowledge with the world. Then came an enormous blow: Despite my pages upon pages of notes, I was told to produce a blurb for the display case of no more than 150 words at a middle school writing level. History’s emphasis on thorough and sophisticated research had completely led me astray!

I deleted each nuanced chunk of my write-up with increasing disappointment, until I was left with 143 carefully-chosen, seventh-grade words that reflected my best effort to deliver the most essential and compelling content. It was a tough lesson that forced me to consider the uses and limitations of public history. In the real world outside of academia, how does one teach history in such a way that it can be processed and understood by general audiences? How do public historians reconcile the desire to present a complex narrative with the accommodation of most people’s middle school-level attention spans? Would working in a museum with the mentality of a scholar feel like one long, frustrating exercise in compromise?

Ultimately, though, it was a great project with which to begin my apprenticeship. I am pleased with not only the finished product but also the gain of random facts I can bust out for any College-themed round of trivia. Maybe in a future entry, I will post the “Did You Know” list of facts about Swem Library that never made it into my exhibit. Can’t wait until then? The SCRC Wiki offers general information about Swem Library's construction.

Leigh Soares is a graduate student in the Department of History and a 2010-2011 Archives Apprentice in the Special Collections Research Center, Swem Library.