How An Exhibition Comes Together

Emma Kessler, curatorial assistant for the Art of Africa, the South Pacific, and the Americas at the Eskenazi Museum of Art at Indiana University

Ever wonder what goes into planning and installing an exhibition at a museum? Today’s blog post answers that question. Emma Kessler, curatorial assistant for the Arts of Africa, the South Pacific, and the Americas, takes us through the process of envisioning and installing the museum’s new Focalpoint exhibition Hats as Materials of Culture on view now through May 7, 2017 in the museum’s third floor gallery of Arts of Africa, the South Pacific, and the Americas.

The Raymond and Laura Wielgus Gallery houses the Eskenazi Museum of Art’s collection of art from Africa, the South Pacific, and the Americas. While the vast majority of the objects in this gallery remain on continuous display, the Focalpoint section features a series of rotating exhibitions. Here we create two or three exhibitions a year on a range of topics. Recent displays include the art of ancient Peru, a look at fakes and forgeries, costumes and ornaments from New Guinea, and an investigation into tradition and authenticity in Native American art.

When deciding on a new Focalpoint exhibition, we first consider whether the topic can be linked to another exhibition, an event occurring on campus, or a new collection that has come to the museum. Our current Focalpoint, Hats: Materials of Culture, corresponds with the course Art, Craft, and Technology in Sub-Saharan Africa, which is being offered by the Department of Art History this spring. Even after the topic was selected, there was still a lot to narrow down. For example, would the exhibition look at one type of material or one kind of technology? One of the ideas I considered was a focus on beadwork. I would have looked at a wide range of objects from across Africa and made by a variety of peoples, but out of a single material—beads.

In preparation for Focalpoint, I put together several proposals, one for each of my exhibition ideas. They included 20 to 30 objects that could be used in the exhibition along with a short paragraph of the ideas and topics that could be addressed. Interestingly, this step in the process often reveals whether or not an exhibition will work. As it turns out, the beadwork idea did not work. While the objects were extremely interesting, they did not work together as well as I had hoped. As it turned out, a different idea worked much better—to create an exhibition centered on a single object type, but featuring a wide range of materials and a number of different techniques. In this case, the object type was hats.


Our collection of African hats is not only large but also of an amazing quality. When deciding which hats I wanted to use, I tried to choose a range of sizes, shapes, and materials, as that was a main focus of the exhibition. I also selected hats that are good examples of their type. In other words, hats that fit the typical characteristics of the form. This adherence to type was more important for this particular exhibition than it would be for others, because it would be used as teaching material.

Once the topic for the exhibition was decided and the objects were selected, it was time to start my research. This can be a long process. Research involves studying books and articles as well as thoroughly examining the objects themselves. After I finished my initial research I turned my attention to the cases in which the objects would be placed as well as their organization within those cases. This can be tricky. You want to arrange the objects in a way that will help communicate information to the viewer (organized by form or peoples or some other category) and be aesthetically pleasing. For this exhibition, I decided that the hats should be displayed by material—for example, beads, fiber, cotton, feathers, etc.


After all of the research and case organization was done, I began writing text for the exhibition. I typically explain the writing process like this: you need to do the equivalent amount of research and preparation for each label as you would for a term paper, then it must be condensed. The length of each label is typically between 75 and 100 words. This means that you need to choose your words very carefully. These short labels need to both introduce an object, peoples, or culture to someone who knows nothing about the subject and communicate new and interesting information to those more familiar with the topic. This requires a lot of revision.

Installation day is always a lot of fun. In fact, it may be my favorite part of the process. Focalpoint always gets installed on a Monday. The museum is closed to visitors on Mondays, so we have an entire day to work without closing the gallery. At around 8:45 a.m. I met with our wonderful workshop staff to discuss the final details. They helped me take down a textile from the previous exhibition and they removed the tops from all of the cases so that I could begin putting away the objects used in The Art of Ancient Peru. Moving items to storage, especially very fragile objects such as the ones used in the Peru exhibition, takes time and careful attention. Once all of the objects were returned to their proper places in storage, I updated our museum database to reflect their current locations. (There is almost nothing more frustrating than looking up an object’s location and finding inaccurate information.) Meanwhile, the guys from the shop were removing the cases I no longer needed and bringing in new cases that I would use. I had previously prepared a floorplan for them that listed each case and where it should be placed in the gallery.


Along with the floor plan, I also had predetermined the arrangement of the objects. This means I already knew where each hat would be placed and in which case, so I was confident they would fit. (It is always important to measure multiple times.) Even so, last minute changes are not uncommon. I rarely move something from one case to another at this stage, but it does happen. On this particular occasion, several hat stands had to be changed or swapped. I also had to determine whether objects would be staggered or right next to each other in the cases. This decision was based mostly on trial and error. For example, sometimes you think two objects will look great next to each other, but ultimately they need to be rearranged because they do not work visually together.

Once everything was in its proper place and I was happy with the arrangement, I added the labels, which had been edited, printed, and mounted, and I added numbers to the cases with more than one object. Then the guys from the shop put all of the lids back on the cases and adjusted the lighting. Finally, we opened to the public the following day. I hope that everyone who visits is able to enjoy what I have put together.

Our current Focalpoint exhibition Hats as Materials of Culture is on view now through May 7, 2017. We hope you visit and see Emma’s work in person. If you have any questions please contact us at

IU Eskenazi Museum of Art Website



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s