How An Exhibition Comes Together

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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.

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