In 2018, the Stillwater History Museum at the Sheerar has already had over 2,000 museum visitors and 6,000 auditorium users. Visitors come to the museum for a variety of reasons. Some visit regularly to see what is new, and others are looking for things to do while visiting the area. Some locals are still discovering us for the first time. Visitors are often curious about what happens behind the scenes in a museum, and one of the most common questions asked at the museum is “who does your exhibits?” Most of the time I reply with some version of “I coordinate the exhibits with the help of students,” but in reality the answer is much more complicated. Since starting at the Stillwater History Museum a little over a year ago, we have installed or revised several exhibits, and each experience was unique.
One of my favorite parts about working in museums is having the opportunity to engage and mentor future museum professionals. At the Stillwater History Museum we are in a prime location to provide students with a variety of internships and professional experiences. Each semester we have several interns, volunteers, and work-study students looking to learn about working in a museum. While many of our students are History majors, we also get a variety of other majors including Art History, Professional Writing, and Strategic Communication. Each student is hoping to get something different out of their time at the museum, and I try to give each student a well-rounded experience that ties to their interests. One of the key areas I try to include in each experience is exhibit research, planning, and implementation. Even non-history students are involved in the exhibit process through proof-reading and assisting with marketing efforts.
Having worked at the Stillwater History Museum just a little over a year, we are still striving to find the right timeline. Every time we plan a new exhibit we learn a little more about how to make the process more efficient. The first exhibit I planned at the museum was “How Dry Was it? Prohibition In Stillwater,” and while I enjoyed digging into the topic, reading newspaper articles, and searching for related artifacts, I quickly realized that, as the only full-time employee, I had a hard time justifying to myself the amount of time I spent on researching that exhibit. Our next exhibit, “Inside the Fallout Shelter: Civil Defense in Stillwater” was spearheaded by our Registrar, James Gregory. James already had a great deal of knowledge of the topic at hand and just needed guidance to help the pieces become a cohesive exhibit.
That fall the museum also partnered with a graduate history research methods class to build the preliminary research for our spring exhibit “Life in a Boom and Bust Oil Town in Payne County.” This class found an incredible amount of research, but then the questions became how to put the pieces together to tell a complete story? It took several revisions of an outline and exhibit layout plan for the organization to become clear. One of the students from that class helped to write the label text, mount pictures, and install this exhibit, along with several spring practicum students.
The museum had three practicum students last spring, and they received the most hands-on exhibit experience to date. In addition to helping proof, mount and install the oil exhibit, each student also selected a topic for the summer exhibit “Summertime Fun.” Once their topic was selected, the students learned how to search newspapers, archives, and the museum’s database for potential exhibit content. We discussed what they were able to find, what holes presented themselves, and how these issues might be addressed. Then they took their information and learned how to transform it into exhibit label text, which is a distinctive writing style that is often hard for students, who are used to writing research papers, to master. When writing museum labels, students need to think about the topic, length, and target audience. Once drafted, each label is formatted and proof read by multiple people, and I ensure that the pieces will work together to create a unified and cohesive exhibit experience. The students also dug through museum records to select the best photographs and artifacts for their exhibit sections, but unfortunately, due to timing, they did not get to install their own exhibit.
The summer interns helped to complete the “Summertime Fun” exhibit by mounting text and photographs and providing extra hands as the exhibit came together for all to see. Then they started their own research, with each student being provided a potential exhibit topic to explore. This is the first phase in exhibit development, determining if we can find enough information for the topic to be viable for an exhibit. By the conclusion of their experience, we learned that each topic could work, but all needed further digging, and some might take a few years to come to fruition. The students also got to help our Registrar, James, plan and create our latest exhibit, “Stillwater and World War I,” which will be on display until next summer.
As we move into fall, I am excited to report that two of last year’s interns are returning to the museum this fall. They will continue to learn, as they expand upon their experiences, while helping to mentor this year’s new recruits. We are currently working on our 2019 plans, which include a new exhibit on the history of automobiles in Stillwater for the spring.
To learn more about our current and upcoming exhibits go to sheerarmuseum.org or simply stop by and visit the museum at 702 S. Duncan, Stillwater. Our entrance is on the east side of the building and we are open Tuesday-Friday 11-5 and Saturday and Sunday 1-4. Admission is always free.
Originally published in Stillwater Living Magazine