Sometimes one of the most difficult things here at the Barker Mansion can be redesigning old exhibit cases. The issue we often run into is how much of what can and should be displayed is already on display. A vast majority of the items in the archive consist of paper, photograph, and small items. It can be difficult to create a new exhibit out of the 3D items as they are a true hodgepodge, and displays of just photographs and documents are not nearly as gripping as the displays with beautiful items of the time period. Despite the difficulties we can sometimes have with creating exhibits, we are always looking for ways to bring new information to the public in the form of temporary and permanent exhibits.
The small exhibit case in the foyer of the Barker Mansion holds temporary exhibits that we change out every 1-2 months with items that tend to be related to upcoming events. Currently the case houses an exhibit of Catherine’s toys that are typically in a case upstairs and are not always seen by guests. We moved some of her toys down to advertise for an event we hosted earlier this summer called The Doll Tea. This case will be redone within the next few weeks for an upcoming event in November. The larger cases, like those in the Ballroom, are not changed out as frequently, making the task of creating a good, more permanent exhibit very challenging.
There are several reasons why permanent exhibits can be difficult to deal with, especially in a museum like the Barker Mansion, which does not acquire new items to display.
This causes two problems: First, items can be damaged from remaining incorrectly displayed or displayed for an extreme length of time. A good example of an item that was incorrectly displayed was the dress that was on display in the Barker Mansion for over 30 years. We took the dress out of its case earlier this year and we were all terrified about the dress just falling apart as we tried to move it. Getting it out of the case was quite the production; taking six people hovering around and carefully lifting out the dress. Although it was on a mannequin, we still feared what the condition of the dress would be as we started to move it and take it off of the mannequin. As we lifted it out of the case we noted that it had been sewn onto the mannequin, it was too small for the dress, which worried us even more since we would now have to remove the stitches without tearing the dress. Luckily we were able to remove the dress from the mannequin without damaging it more. Another plus was the fact that the dress had much less damage than we thought it would. The worst of the damage was on the inside of the skirt where the weighted silk had pulled itself apart, which happens often to old clothing made of weighted silk. After removing the dress we packed it away and put it in the archive where it will stay for the next few years and rest.
The second issue is that permanent displays cause stagnation in interpretation and programming. A lack of change in our displays can cause returning visitors to lose interest in the displays they have seen before, so changing the displays not only pleases our visitors it reinvigorates the mansion as a whole and allows us to display new items and bring a new side of the Barker story to our visitors.
But this brings us back to question, “what do we display?”
I will admit that when we pulled the dress out of its case earlier this year I worried that whatever display I put together wouldn’t be able to stand up to the beautiful dress that had occupied the case for 30 years. Luckily for me, I found a gold mine hidden away in what we call the Trunk Room.
My original plan was to pull some of the original steamer trunks out and display them open in the case with some of the smaller travel related items we had in the archives. Imagine my shock when the first trunk I opened turned out to be a Louis Vuitton ‘Ideal’ men’s steamer trunk c. 1905! This was a very happy moment because I had just found my center piece for the case. I went on to find another Vuitton trunk that had belonged to Mrs. Barker as well as a leather bag from the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. Along with these three items I pulled out two more trunks and several small items and created what became one of my favorite exhibits to date.
While I adored the case, I knew that there were some small problems with it that I would like to address the next time I created an exhibit or had the chance to fix this one. A few weeks ago the case next to my trunk case was emptied and I was asked to create an exhibit for it. In the beginning I was stumped, because what am I supposed to put into it? There were no large ‘matching’ collections in archive that I could display aside from some of the travel related items I didn’t use in the original trunk case. Then I got the idea to connect the two cases. This allowed me to display more items in a better fashion. One of the mistakes I made with the original trunk case was overcrowding. There were too many items jammed into the case and it made it hard for visitors to take it all in. By taking out some of the items, I was able to really highlight the Vuitton trunk in the center. A few of the items that came out of the trunk case were put into the long case next to it along with some new items from the archive. I then took the time to number every item and create a list that described each item. I also recreated the sign for the display and put it between the two cases. In the end, I prefer this new display as it is not as overcrowded and it is easier to learn what each item is thanks to the itemized list.
Though it can be difficult to put together these exhibits, there is always something so satisfying seeing them finally come together. Moving forward, the staff here at the Barker Mansion plans to redo many of the exhibit cases throughout the mansion. Keep an eye out the next time you visit for our new exhibits!
Jackie Perkins, Heritage Interpreter