When the Gibbes Museum opened in 1905, the nation celebrated what Charleston has always understood: the power of art – to inspire our imagination, heal our hurt, and nourish our souls.

Behind the Scenes: Exhibition Installation

With the official opening of our newest exhibitions here at the Gibbes, Anna Heyward Taylor: Intrepid Explorer and Lying in Wait: Sporting Art by Ogden M. Pleissner, I thought I’d share a little of the behind the scenes of what goes into preparing for a new show, and 5 things to know about exhibition installation!

1. Exhibition prep takes years.

Most people are surprised to learn that museums start planning exhibitions years in advance. The Gibbes, for example, starts working on planning new exhibitions at least a year or two out! It seems like a long way off, but we all know how quickly time goes. We start planning and organizing details that far out because there are so many moving parts that go into each exhibition, and they are all different in their own unique and challenging ways. Everything from finalizing checklists with artists or other museums, to arranging shipping details for single works of art, or an entire 18-wheeler worth, there are a lot of details to sort through. The two weeks we have between when one exhibition closes and the next opens to the public is certainly the busiest, but so rewarding in the end!

Packing materials ready and waiting to deinstall A Dark Place of Dreams.

2. Expect the unexpected.

With almost anything in life, there will always been unaccounted for challenges and hiccups along the way – no matter how well planned or organized you are. Maybe you discover one label is missing from a batch of 100 the day before the opening reception (speaking from experience here…) or you have a last minute loan request approved and need to rearrange to find space for the piece in the gallery. Flexibility and the ability to trouble shoot are vital skills to exhibition planning.

3. Lighting is key.

When the last painting is on the wall, and the each and every label has been installed, the final step of the installation process is lighting. Depending on the medium of the work in each exhibition, light levels in the galleries can vary. The watercolors in the Lying in Wait exhibition for example, need to be lit with very low levels of light, since watercolor is more prone to fading than an oil painting or a sculpture. There also needs to be sufficient light for the pieces to be viewed comfortably by visitors though, so the team works carefully to ensure both the works of art and viewers are happy!

4. You can’t help but visit other museums through new eyes.

Now when I visit other museums, I find myself admiring not only the art on display, but also the craftsmanship that goes into making the objects look their best in the galleries. Whether it’s a mount made for a fragment of pottery or special brackets designed to allow a painting to lay flat against the wall, it takes skill and artistry to ensure the safety of the object while still displaying the work in an aesthetically pleasing way. My favorite project that I’ve worked on here at the Gibbes was the installation of Betwixt and Between by Patrick Dougherty back in March of 2017. Knowing firsthand how much work, both physically and mentally, goes into the creation of one of his sculptures, has given me a profound appreciation for his other works that I have been fortunate enough to see in person.

Admiring one of the gorgeous galleries during a recent visit to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

5. It takes a village.

While the actual installation of the works of art in an exhibition may come down to a few people, the work that goes into making that moment happen is a collaboration of the entire team of staff members here at the Gibbes. From the Development department who cultivate sponsorships to support the costs of the exhibition, to Education who plans programs and lectures that complement the subject matter of the show, to Security who ensures the safety of guests and artwork each and every day, everyone plays an important part!

-By Amanda Breen, Assistant Curator

Published January 25, 2019

Top image: Labels waiting to be installed in the new Anna Heyward Taylor: Intrepid Explorer exhibition. 

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