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Behind the scenes

Before an exhibit is unveiled at Grand Rapids Public Museum, the staff spends several months planning and
building to make objects come alive.

By Marty Primeau
Photography by Johnny Quirin

On the fourth floor of the Grand Rapids Public Museum, a quote by Albert Einstein is posted: “Imagination is more important than knowledge.”

No one remembers who stuck it by the whiteboard where the staff charts the progress of every exhibit. But the quote sums up what goes on upstairs, in the part of the museum visitors never see.

It’s where exhibits come to life.

Tom Bantle oversees the planning and installation of every exhibition displayed in the Public Museum, from such traveling extravaganzas as last year’s Big, Big Bugs! with larger than life insects, to the upcoming Big Stuff exhibit featuring unique items from the museum’s permanent archives..

“The starting point is an idea,” Bantle said as he walked through the Thank God for Michigan! Stories From the Civil War exhibit just a few days after it opened in June.

Nick Nawrocki and Becke Shiel from the design department review a print for the Civil War exhibit.

Sometimes a concept is event driven; other times it’s the brainstorm of a staff member or a suggestion from visitors.

“We kick around ideas and formulate a team,” Bantle said. “First, we need a story. What will this exhibit be about? What’s needed to make it come alive?”

And that’s where imagination comes in.

For the Civil War exhibit, that meant going beyond visual displays and “engaging visitors by tapping into all the senses,” Bantle said. The team taped two Grand Rapids Community College students reading excerpts from letters sent home from a Union soldier to his wife.

“It’s one thing for a visitor to read the letters displayed in a case, but to add voices is more likely to touch people and help them make the connection to these historical figures,” Bantle said.

Every exhibit is a little different. Even though rented exhibits such as Bugs, Robotic Dinosaurs or the recent Bodies Revealed arrive ready-made, Bantle said, “It’s our job to create a realistic environment and to come up with activity stations for visitors.”

To accomplish those goals takes teamwork and collaboration between the museum’s various departments: education, research and interpretation, whose staff members handle the writing and presentation of programs on a variety of topics; exhibits, including design and construction of exhibits; and collections, which oversees all of the museum’s archive of objects.

Each exhibit is assigned an author who takes control of the content and follows through to the end, making sure everything goes as planned.

Civil War was a natural, Bantle said. “The museum has been around since 1854 so we actually have many artifacts from the war,” he said, pointing to a vintage canteen and belt from the permanent collection.

Those artifacts are housed in the museum’s Community Archives and Research Center — three buildings, including the museum’s original building at 54 Jefferson St. SE.

“We have been a collecting institution for 155 years,” said Alex Forist, a member of the curatorial department. As a result, the museum has a permanent collection of more than 250,000 artifacts — at any time, only one-10th is on display in the museum.

“We get offers of donations daily, but we have to be careful about what we accept,” Forist explained. “Once we take it, we have a commitment to store and care for each object — to keep it from crumbling.”

For recent donations, there’s a handy database that stores all the pertinent information. But for the century’s worth of stuff donated before the database was set up, it’s not so easy.

“The Civil War (exhibit) proved to be a lengthy process,” Forist said. “For instance, looking for uniforms, we had to research the entire historic clothing collection.”

Same for the weapons, documents and photographs — “they’re all separate collections that have to be searched.”

 

Alex Forist and Tim Priest work on a bison that will be part of the Big Stuff exhibit opening Nov. 12.

Once the team has a basic outline of the story and what objects are needed to tell it, Becky Shiel in the exhibit design department figures out creative ways to display those artifacts.

“I take the room or space and all the components and lay it out,” said Shiel, who says her 15 years as a kitchen and bath designer is a real advantage. She also designs the cases and the spatial relationship between the pieces.

Civil War was especially fun, she said. “We did everything completely from scratch.”

Like the smell barrel.

The team wanted to recreate the actual smells of the battlefields, so they bought an old wooden barrel and created a matching game for visitors to guess the scents: whiskey, gun powder, coffee, cigar and salt pork.

“Sometimes executing these ideas isn’t easy,” Bantle said. “The team tried several things and finally had to find scented oils that had some of those scents.”

Even rented exhibits, like the upcoming Facing Mars, present challenges, Shiel said. “We like to add something to make it unique to Grand Rapids. The author takes control of the content, but we brainstorm to see how we can appeal to different groups.”

Marty Primeau is managing editor of Grand Rapids Magazine. GR

   
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