I spent my fall semester as a history intern at the Broadview Heights Historical Society under their president Candy Korn. My focus was to curate artifacts and write didactic material for those artifacts that would be displayed in the BHHS’s permanent home, a renovated historical building of the former Veterans Administration Hospital. Candy and I set weekly goals to achieve this focus. I learned that my skills needed to be flexible and grow as a graduate student intern through the hands-on experience that I received working for the historical society.
The first task I tackled was determining the artifacts for the exhibition. The BHHS has over 1000 catalogued artifacts in their collection, with more arriving weekly that need to be recorded, so this was no small task. The BHHS lists their collection on Omeka, an online content management system, which I used to catalogue a majority of the items. The collection is comprised of personal and political documents, photographs, books, and artifacts that span from the late nineteenth century up to the present day. To determine what was particularly relevant to Broadview Heights as a community and a city, I spent some time getting to know the members of the historical society. Understanding the history of Broadview Heights as a city and getting to know what residents deemed important to their history guided the reasoning behind the artifacts I chose to put on display. Broadview Heights has been a farming community since before it became a village in 1926 and finally became a city in 1960. Agriculture has remained an integral part of Broadview Heights’ history and community.
The research skills I learned as a graduate student prepared me to uncover the necessary provenance for the BHHS’s artifacts I chose for the exhibition. I began to see patterns in the artifacts and decided to group the artifacts by themes. This way I could keep the artifacts organized and determine what gaps existed, such as time period gaps or the lack of variety in artifact types to keep the exhibition visually dynamic. Grouping the artifacts by theme allowed me to determine the flow of the exhibition cases and provided me with a way to display Broadview Heights history in an organized way. Once the artifacts were chosen and the provenance was researched and written, I was ready to begin crafting the didactic material for the exhibition and then physically construct the labels.
Creating the didactic material was one of my favorite parts of my internship experience at BHHS. I was particularly engaged in finding connections between the importance of the artifacts as objects, their connection to Broadview Heights’ community, and their connection to broader themes. I kept in mind what artifacts would be interesting and captivating for a broad range of visitors including different age groups, ethnicities, and genders. I also curated the artifacts to hopefully be engaging to visitors that were not residents of Broadview Heights. It is a large responsibility to write didactic material because it directly shapes what and how visitors learn.
Constructing the physical labels was my other favorite part of my internship experience at BHHS. I have always enjoyed working with my hands and the label construction process involved several different procedures. It was a learning process for me to master the technique, but it was incredibly satisfying and rewarding to see the finished product. I spend a great deal of time reading didactic material when I visit museums and I have gained a new appreciation for didactic writing and label construction through my internship experience.
I encountered challenges using a historical building as an exhibition space. During my internship I designed an interpretive plan for the exhibition, which because the historical building was not designed as an exhibition space, I encountered many limitations. The floor plan is fairly open, which limits the available wall space to mount artifacts. Wall space is further limited by the number of windows in the building. These windows also impede the exhibition because the bottom of each window is lower than the top of the display cases. Sunlight is incredibly damaging to historical artifacts and serious consideration is needed to protect artifacts from harmful ultraviolet rays.
Another challenge I faced was the limitations of the display cases themselves. While the display cases have adjustable shelving and provide protection to the artifacts against visitors, they are incredibly heavy and are meant to be stationary. Because the display cases open from the back through sliding doors, they cannot be pushed up against a wall. The sliding doors of the display cases lack locks and will need to be refitted to provide the BHHS artifact security. The display cases are all different models and do not match, but I solved this challenge by placing large artifacts that cannot be contained within display cases, such as furniture and the apple cider press, in between the cases. The exhibition appears more professional using that approach, even though the cases are of various models.
The choices that I made for the exhibition were decided through best museum practices and consideration to the visitor’s experience. As an avid museum visitor, I applied my personal experience to create an effective exhibition. I had to think critically and innovatively to achieve my goals. While many people see problems as impediments, I see them as challenges to be overcome. The challenges I faced not only honed my creative problem-solving skills, but also inspired me to create goals to improve upon the exhibition for the future.
Curating and designing the permanent exhibition at the Broadview Heights Historical Society was an immeasurably beneficial learning experience to guide my future endeavors as a museum professional. Very few students have the opportunity to work from the ground up in the museum profession and I was lucky enough to have an opportunity to tackle that task. Having the responsibility and creative leeway to curate and design the BHHS’s exhibition provided me with ability to acquire new skills, like writing didactic material and constructing signs. This experience solidified my passion for museum work and I look forward to further developing the skills that I acquired at BHHS throughout my future career as a museum professional.