Behind the Scenes at the Museum

J. D. Kay and Ed Desjarlais survey the case, while Dana Signe Munroe gets ready to inventory the contents
The collections staff at the John Brown House Museum has been working for several months preparing the former silver and pewter gallery for a new installation. Recently, they added the first floor gallery to the list of “places needing change” and began preparing that space for a partial new installation as well (the Voyage of the Sally will remain).
Creating a new exhibit takes months, multiple skills, and lots of patience. It starts with object lists, which means cataloging, and the lists are always much longer than the space you actually have. Once a draft list is compiled, and objects are grouped, usually by theme, sometimes chronologically, it becomes necessary to turn attention to the physical space. You can’t put a 10 inch surgeon’s box into an 8 inch case, no matter how much you want to use the item.
J. D. Kay investigates the case lights
We turned our attention to the old silver and pewter cases installed some decades ago at the John Brown House. When we removed the glass fronts and the objects, we discovered that the lights were not all they could be. Digital Imaging Specialist and Assistant Registrar J. D.  Kay and Buildings & Grounds Supervisor Ed Desjarlais inspected the lights, and Ed deemed them in need of replacement. Ed is a man who likes things to be right in his buildings, and therefore he makes them so.
From there, JD and Registrar  Dana Signe Munroe moved on to patching and painting the cases, and when that was finished, JD switched back to Digital Imaging mode to prepare scans of broadsides and engravings for use in the exhibit.
Preliminary case layout, with French Officer
This past week, I started working out final case layouts using our  in-house CAD program, caffeine-assisted design. Using sheets of trace and a sharpie, I can mark up a case without damaging the paint or having to use actual objects, though I do place them temporarily as I work. It’s a simple system, and next time I could use PhotoShop and Illustrator and place everything on my computer screen, but this old-fashioned system seems to be working–as long as Dana and JD can read my handwriting.
By far the most exciting moment of the process was the relocation of Marsden J. Perry’s player piano. We have seen a lot of large objects moved at the JBH in the past few years, and even know a man called The Human Pry Bar,  but the piano is the most fragile and enormous item we had cause to move. While we thought getting it from the east side of the gallery to the west was a feat, the men from economy moving showed us a real trick.
5 men move a piano
Appropriately for an exhibit called Rhode Island at War, this move had a kind of Mount Suribachi moment, and required five men.
The piano was moved without incident, creating room for the Civil War section of the new exhibit. Rhode Island at War opens June 28, with a celebration at 5:00, just before the American Band kicks off our 2012 Concerts Under the Elms series. I hope you’ll join us.
~Kirsten Hammerstrom, Director of Collections

2 thoughts on “Behind the Scenes at the Museum

  1. Thanks for taking us behind the scenes. I find it fascinating and fun. And I’m glad to hear that when you update the gallery, the Sally exhibit will remain. Before he went off to Stanford, Jim Campbell did a great job with that — it’s well-researched, nuanced, informative, and interesting. Like true professionals, you guys make it look easy, so it’s good to see how much work actually goes into these exhibits.

  2. Very interesting–what a team effort goes into these exhibits! Looking forward to seeing “Rhode Island at War” tonight when it opens.
    (Best part is the image that came to mind when you mentioned the “Human Pry Bar”)

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