As Chief of Temporary Exhibitions here at Natural History, I oversee the development and installation of five to six exhibitions a year. While working on this year’s 100th anniversary exhibition, it occurred to me that I had been working here for 1/5th of the Museum’s life. While 20 years is hardly a long time by Smithsonian standards (it’s not unusual for staff to stay here 40, 50 or even 60 years), it did give me pause. In an institution that so values the past, is it possible to stay in one place and still grow?
This is why I love my job. First of all, the subject matter is always new and different, meaning I regularly get crash courses in topics that range from the social behavior of ants, colonial history as revealed in skeletons, or climate change in the Arctic. I have the opportunity to work with a wide range of curators and collections managers, all of whom are extremely knowledgeable and wonderfully passionate about the work they do. And you never know where you might find yourself, like the day two curators and I carried Martha, the last passenger pigeon, across the Mall (carefully wrapped and packed in a sturdy container, of course) to a meeting of the Smithsonian’s Board of Regents for a show and tell about the Museum’s 100th anniversary.
The materials, techniques and media used in exhibitions are also constantly evolving, and this helps me stay fresh. When I started 20 years ago, exhibit design was still done by hand. Now exhibits are not only designed digitally, but include much more digital media. Learning to use these rapidly evolving technologies to the best advantage in exhibitions is an on-going challenge and constant learning experience.
And then there is social media and the community engagement it inspires. I find this is one of the biggest challenges for museums these days, as it extends our thinking and planning beyond the physical space and the actual experience of the exhibition. For example, who knew 20 years ago that I’d be a member of a Flickr group that is crocheting a reef for the Museum’s display of the Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reef? Or that we’d be doing on-line front-end evaluation for an upcoming exhibition about biodiversity and human health? And, finally, who knew 20 years ago that such a thing as blogging would exist or that writing one would be part of my job?
So, yes, the Natural History Museum has changed a lot not only in its first 100 years, but even in the past 20 years. And I think it’s the combination of looking forward while looking back that keeps me on my toes.
Barbara Stauffer, Chief of Temporary Exhibitions, Office of Exhibits