Friday, October 23, 2020

The Task of Exhibits — A Student’s Perspective

by Janet Danek and Leah Ryal

Leah installing pieces from the Olga Denison Collection

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Janet Danek:

Many of the artworks exhibited throughout the Park Library were gifts from generous donors. The late Olga Denison, a Mt. Pleasant resident, gifted to CMU her collection of contemporary Anishinaabe art, which she had passionately assembled over a 40-year period. The Clarke Historical Library is fortunate to be steward to this diverse resource.

To share these works with library patrons, an exhibition space on the fourth floor of the library is dedicated to featuring a glimpse of this vast body of material. The display is rotated regularly to provide exposure to the hundreds of artifacts in the collection.

The process of rotating the exhibit is complex, as each object is cataloged, archivally packed and securely stored. Precise records must be created to track all objects going on and off exhibit. Interpretive labeling and photographic records must be created. On installation day, a team is assembled to provide access to the cases, and re-secure after each is cleaned, and new objects and interpretation are set on exhibition. The task is extensive.

The complexity, necessity of archival handling and the need for project management makes it a valuable hands-on opportunity for a student interested in art, history, and/or exhibits. Fortunately, student worker Leah Ryal, who has worked on exhibits in the library since 2018, fits that criteria and was up to the challenge.

Leah working with the Olga Denison Collection

Leah Ryal:

With a full year of work behind me in preparing the Denison Collection art exhibition, I can now say that the development of an exhibit is no simple task. Throughout the process, I was able to try on many different hats from researcher, writer, designer, and more while also learning from the guidance and expertise of Janet Danek, Park Library Coordinator of Exhibits, and Marian Matyn, Clarke Historical Library archivist and associate professor.

One of the first steps of this process was research, which started at the Clarke Historical Library. I delved into the Denison Collection and learned about the art objects I could work with. During this process, I came across a wide variety of objects such as black ash flowers, alabaster stone sculptures, and sweetgrass baskets. As an art history student, I am particularly interested in sculpture and three-dimensional objects. One of my favorite sculptures on display is an orange alabaster turtle by Gary Quigno. Handling this object surprised me because the sculpture is quite heavy. While the sculpture is visually beautiful and elegant, I also appreciate the solidity and grounding weight that the sculpture has. Being able to handle the art, I could feel the weight and texture of each object, giving me a better understanding of the objects themselves.

I also conducted research about the Anishinaabe and other Native American tribes in Michigan so I could write the interpretation. For this exhibition, we introduced interpretative text that described the thematic content of each case. The goal for these texts was to provide a broader context to understand these objects. While the objects tell a visual story simply through their color, texture, and shape, the interpretation was used to further tell the story of the art that you couldn’t glean from looking at the object. Perhaps the most challenging part of this task was learning how to write for a new audience. During my studies at CMU, the majority of my writing is for professors or other students. In the case of the Denison Collection, it became an exercise in learning how I write, in order to communicate a message to a wider audience.

The final step of the exhibition process was the de-installation and installation of the objects. This was my favorite part of the process because it is the culmination of all our work. The de-installation and installation occurred on a single day and were the most physically laborious part of the development process. However, I particularly enjoyed it because I enjoy working with my hands and designing the look of each case. One of the more unexpected aspects of this process was the need for extreme organization. With so many works leaving and entering the cases, I had to keep close track of the items. To streamline this process, I kept detailed records with a spreadsheet I created. The spreadsheet helped me note when objects left the cases, how they were packed, and when they were returned. The document also had a description of each item and its accession number which helped me correctly place the labels in the cases. On this final day, with the help of many library employees, we completed the installation of the new Olga Denison Collection of Anishinaabe Art exhibition.

The completion of this exhibit has felt satisfying but also rewarding. While this is my job, I also treat it as a continuous learning experience. Through projects like these, I can learn about the unique processes and skills necessary for exhibits. Hands-on experiences give me more confidence in my skills and opportunities to strengthen my weaknesses. After graduation, I am interested in working in the art or museum field so experiences like this are truly invaluable to me. Post-graduation, I hope to continue working to make art accessible and engaging for the public. Developing the Denison Collection art exhibition has not only given me an in-depth experience with exhibits, but it has also made me excited for the possibilities to come.

A bit more about Leah Ryal:

I’m a senior, graduating in May 2021. I will graduate with a BA in Art History and Psychology. I am a part of the Honors Program. I started working for the library in Fall 2018. My academic interests focus on the intersections of art, psychology, and well-being. Outside of school, my interests include cooking, traveling, making art, and environmental activism.

Click on this image or any image to open a slide show
of all the full-size photographs in this post