First Time for Everything: Curating an Exhibit

When I originally switched my major to history, my parents and many of my friends asked me the million dollar question: what are you going to do with a history degree? Honestly, I did not really think about that question until after I had switched. Since the study of history falls under a humanities degree, I could honestly do anything that I wanted. It was not until my Intro to History class that I began to find my passion for history and my desire to educate others. That class also introduced me to the topic of public history. Public history is the study of history through a general public perspective, compared to the traditional academic study of history, which is tailored to a scholarly audience. As I continued my research into the field of history and the careers available, I found history museum curator. I went immediately to my academic advisor, because I wanted an internship as soon as possible. Through her, I was introduced to Amy Loch, the current director of the Stillwater History Museum at the Sheerar. She was incredibly welcoming and helpful throughout my first summer internship. That summer, I had the opportunity to learn a little bit about every aspect of operating a fully functional museum. I loved my experience at my summer internship so much that I signed up to return in the spring. However, this time I was given my own exhibit to research, write, design and install. I was initially in shock. I was about to get a full, hands-on experience doing what I hope to be doing for a living in just a few years.

I quickly learned that I was in for a lot more than I had originally expected. I had an overly simplified misconception of the entire scoop of what was needed to create an exhibit. An exhibit focuses on a narrative or perspective, but there was so much more that I had to think about when researching. Not only did I have to focus on the validity and significance of what I researched, but I also had to make sure that it was interesting and fit into the narrative that my exhibit was showcasing. Often times, I would find something interesting, but it did not fit in, and I had to leave it out of the final product. Other times I would find something that was as not interesting, but fit into the narrative and pushed the message behind the exhibit. For “Automobiles in Stillwater”, I wanted to focus on the impact that the car had on Stillwater and its residents. I chose this perspective because the car is something current day people often overlook or undervalue. I focused on early interaction with cars, the dealership business that exploded in the early twentieth century, highway and road improvements, safety and educational community movements, and the social aspects of cars. I chose these topics because I believed that they were the ways in which the car left a long lasting legacy in Stillwater.

As the weeks went by, I continued writing informational panels, visiting car clubs, interviewing people, and researching anywhere I could. With the text panels, it was a new style of writing that I was not fully accustomed to writing in. That it is why I am extremely grateful of all the advice and editing that my director and everyone else at the museum gave me. I was able to learn and practice the little nuances that went into making text panels appealing for to the general public. Even though I was the person in charge of the exhibit, I could have never done it without the help of everyone. Amy helped so much in every aspect during the last few weeks before the grand opening. It was not until the last two weeks that I truly began to see the fruits of all of my labor. We were finally finished with the editing, which allowed us to start printing, mounting and finally placing everything were it went. The text panels are all laid out in such a manner that it follows the narrative in a loose chronological path. Each of the individual walls cover related topics and showcase an assortment of photographs and additional material to supplement the text panels.

On the day of the grand opening, I honestly did not know what to expect. When I arrived, the board of directors for the museum had already begun to set everything up for the grand opening. There was punch and an entire table full of hors d’oeuvres (my favorite part). I was surprised at all of the compliments that everyone was giving m. It felt nice being recognized for something that I put so much effort into. I know that my exhibit is not perfect, but for this being my first time curating an exhibit, I am incredibly proud of myself.

Curating this exhibit has definitely been one of my most memorable experiences of my senior year and has cemented my commitment to attending graduate school, pursuing my master’s in public history and becoming a curator. I learned so much, and I am excited to continue learning and perfecting my exhibit curating.

by Jorge Chavez, Museum Intern