What’s involved in turning an idea into an exhibition? This was a big mystery to me when I was assigned the task of heading the development of the Awesome Arctic exhibition, which opened at the museum on November 29, 2011.
As explained in my previous posting, I am the museum’s DNA Lab Coordinator. Developing an exhibition was a new challenge, another interesting turn in my work at the Canadian Museum of Nature.
The idea that we were to turn into an exhibition: our scientists conduct fascinating and diverse research in the Canadian Arctic. The approach for presenting this idea: a photo show of our researchers working in the North, and of the plant, animal, mineral and fossil specimens that they collect and study.
This sounded straightforward to me! How hard could it be to get some photos onto a wall? The project team—including Mariana the co-curator and text writer, Marc the design lead, and Annie the graphic artist—filled me in at our first meeting: from idea to exhibition is a multi-step journey.
Here was our to-do list: collect photos from the researchers; select the images that best tell the interesting stories of our Arctic research; design the image layout; work with a post-production artist to clean and correct the photos to make them look their best; select the printing and mounting method; write, edit and translate text to describe the images; design and proof the layout of the text; design banners for the entrance to the exhibition; coordinate the production of the final photo prints, text panels and graphics; develop an Arctic soundscape to play in the exhibition space; configure this space, including patching and painting the walls; coordinate and supervise the final installation; and finally, rest up and dress up for a big preview-evening event!
My head was in a spin after that first meeting and I had a new understanding of the hard-working exhibitions group.
Imagine you were given a pile of 20 000 photos and told to pick out only 56 that summarized all of the other images. This was the job in front of us. My co-curator Mariana and I spent several long days scanning through 13 000 digital photos and 7000 old-style slides. Looking through these photos took me back to the Arctic’s big expanses of tundra and water, and got me exhilarated about the project. Selecting those photos that were the most exciting and dynamic, we decided on a short list of 300 images.
After printing snapshot-sized versions of these 300 photos, we worked with them in a scale model of the exhibition space. After many hard decisions and a few late nights, we had 56 images neatly arranged in a mini-version of the Awesome Arctic exhibition.
Mariana then sat down with the researchers who were involved in the work that is shown in the carefully selected photos. From these experts, she learned about the plants, animals and minerals that drew them to the North. The scientists also shared their experiences of living and working in the Arctic—the mosquitoes, the 24-hour summer sunlight and the diet of dehydrated food.
The final production steps transformed our small model of the layout of the photos and Mariana’s text into a full-sized exhibition that tells fascinating stories about our Arctic research.
At the preview evening, there was excitement in the air. The researchers are thrilled that we are sharing with the public our passion for studying Northern environments and ecosystems.
So, next time you are at the museum, come and see Dr. Kathy Conlan’s cold underwater adventures in marine biology, our botanists’ explorations of the tundra to document Arctic plant diversity, and the fossil found by Dr. Natalia Rybczynski and her team that is a “missing link” between seals and an extinct terrestrial ancestor.
Come and discover the Awesome Arctic!