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  • Writer's pictureStephanie Brown

Making a Great Exhibition

I use a stack of books as a laptop stand: the oldest is a book by Thomas C. Hubka called Big House, Little House, Back House, Barn, which, according to the fly leaf, I bought in the winter of 1989, for a course I took in my last college semester. It is about the architecture and design of New England farm buildings. I don't remember when I last opened it but I have kept it for 35 years because I like how the title sounds when you say it aloud. It scans. It sounds like it might be the first line to a long-lost nursery rhyme that involves chickens. Or witches. Or both.

The newest book is a children's picture book by Doro Globus and Rose Blake called Making a Great Exhibition. It came out in 2021 and I must have bought it soon after. The bright colors and clean font caught my eye, and I was taken with how the book describes the process of creating an exhibition for a museum.

The exhibition team in the book

Spoiler: it leaves out the part where the artists who make the art question their life decisions; it leaves out the part where the preparator, who installs the paintings in the gallery, and the lighting designer who, that's right, hangs the lights in the gallery, used to date and then broke up and now the whole installation experience is tense.

It does not mention that the curator is working on three other projects. Or that the museum educators believe that the only way the curator would notice that they are part of the exhibition team is if they lit the curator's office on fire. At the end of the book the exhibition opens. It looks fabulous. Lots of family and friends come to see it, and then the whole team sits down for "a fun and very special dinner." The book has the same nursery-rhyme quality as the title of my college textbook. It leaves out the mess in favor of the through line.

I re-read Globus and Blake's book today because I am thinking, these days, about exhibitions. I'm teaching a class on curatorship in which my students have to come up with an exhibition concept. The class is called Curatorship: Principles and Practices. For most of the decade that I have taught it, I have spent more time thinking about the principles than the practice. This semester I am paying a different kind of attention to the course. I have to come up with an exhibition concept myself: on October 3, an exhibition drawn from my book will open at the Haggin Museum in Stockton, CA.

Here's my first draft of the exhibition description:

Gold Rush heiress Eila Haggin McKee bought a painting by the noted French artist Paul Gauguin called Flowers and Fruit in 1929.  French celebrities and art experts coveted the painting; the New York art world raved about it. A decade later, Flowers and Fruit joined the collection of the Haggin Museum. For 80 years, the museum’s Gauguin was a source of pride. In 2018, art world experts questioned its authenticity. 

Is Flowers and Fruit an authentic Gauguin–or is it a forgery? The Case of the Disappearing Gauguin presents the painting’s story, from a friendship between two artists to smoky auction rooms to California’s Central Valley. It unveils new technical analysis of the paint and canvas. And it invites visitors to examine the evidence and decide for themselves.

And here's our exhibition team at our first meeting, posed in front of a reproduction of a 1915 ad for men's long underwear that Amanda and Andrea had just installed for the show opening that weekend, dedicated to the art of J.C. Leyendecker. Amanda and Andrea handle the Museum's: marketing, communications, collection management, museum registration, editing, and exhibition installation. Susan directs the Museum and is in charge of fundraising, setting policy, acquisitions and deaccessions, strategic planning, and managing the staff.

The exhibition team in real life, photo by security guard. Educator not pictured.

It will be an adventure. The last exhibition for which I was the lead curator was during the first Obama administration, about 73 years ago in 21st century years. Since then, I have taught several hundred graduate students the principles and practices of curation, project management, material culture, collection management, and what people in museums do all day. I admit to being apprehensive about practicing what I have preached. I admit, too, to longing for a team of 10, like in the picture book, and a budget to match. But that's a picture book, a made up story, and this is real life.

Seven months from today the exhibition will open. Right now, caterers will be setting up, guests will be arriving, and I'm sure our team--we few, we happy few--will be managing last minute details as the show opens. Eight years ago I saw Flowers and Fruit, and visited the Haggin, for the first time. Now there's a book, and we're making a great exhibition. Look what we get to do.

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