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Behind the Scenes of “500 Years of Women’s Work”

Tomorrow is your last opportunity to visit an exhibition of select items from the Lisa Unger Baskin collection at the Grolier Club. This exhibition opened at the beginning of December 2019 and has received a great deal of attention from media outlets like The New York Times, The Washington Post, Smithsonian Magazine , and New England Public Radio (just to name a few). We have been so pleased to hear all the positive feedback and see images of the Grolier’s ground floor gallery packed with visitors.  Many of our staff put a great deal of work into making this exhibition happen, and, as we prepare to travel back to New York to pack up, I thought it would be fun to share some of the “behind the scenes” photos of installation.

The week after Thanksgiving, a team of Duke Library staff braved sleet and snow to begin our installation at the Grolier Club. We arrived to a brightly lit exhibit gallery and lot of carefully packed collection material on temporary work tables. We had five days to install five hundred years of women’s history – and it was going to be a busy week.

The Grolier Club exhibit space, filled with packed boxes.
Day 1: Head of Exhibition Services, Meg Brown, surveys the exhibit space… and the large pile of unpacked boxes.

After a short huddle and review of our work plan, we broke up into two teams and dove right in. The first team was assigned the task of unpacking all the signage and large reproduction images that would be hung at the tops of the case walls and in the gallery alcoves.

Open exhibit cases with reproduction images placed on shelves.
Senior Library Exhibition Technician, Yoon Kim, matches reproduction image panels with the proper exhibit case.

After locating each hanging piece and placing them in the appropriate exhibit case or location, the process of actually hanging began. Some objects, like the life-size reproduction suffrage banner (pictured below), required a special platform so that staff could safely access hanging hardware above the wide table case vitrines.

Grolier Club and Duke Library staff hanging a large reproduction banner
Grolier Exhibitions Assistant, Bee Hughes (left), Meg Brown (center-right), and Grolier Exhibitions Manager, Jennifer Sheehan (right) hang a large reproduction banner.

As the hanging continued, Lauren Reno, Head of Rare Materials Cataloging at Duke, and I began the process of unpacking and checking the condition of over 200 collection items that would be going on display. Each object needed to be accounted for, unwrapped, and reviewed for potential changes in condition. Last summer I wrote about our new method for documenting exhibit loans. I was able to run some small field tests last fall using the new method and computing hardware, but this was the first time it had been employed for such a large loan and with such a time crunch. The new documentation system performed very well and we were able to finish condition reporting ahead of schedule. I plan to share more about the documentation system in future blog posts.

Library materials spread out on a table.

With the hanging complete and each item unpacked and checked off, it was time to sort out the exhibit supports. Yoon Kim had spent many months fabricating the custom cradles, upright angles, or support boards needed to safely support the wide variety of collection materials. During packing, we affixed small labels printed with the item’s Aeon transaction number to the underside of each piece of the support. Using a wire frame diagram of each case layout, it was easy to assemble each book cradle and place it in the correct location inside the exhibit case.

Empty book cradles arranged in an exhibit case
Empty supports (with labels) placed inside the exhibit case.

At this point the teams converged to begin mounting each item to it’s support and installing them inside the correct exhibit case. Objects were secured to their mount using polyester or polyethylene strapping.

Books and photographs being strapped to their custom supports

While we were all working to ready the physical materials, Grolier staff were setting up the large digital display, which would rotate a gallery of images from the collection. Despite the crowd of tables and equipment on the floor of the gallery, you could really see the exhibition beginning to take shape.

Tables and equipment out in the space during installation.

Sometimes because of the weight distribution of an item, a cradle needed to be attached to the glass shelves or metal case decks. In those situations, we were able to use stacks of neodymium disc magnets to secure the cradle. The printed exhibit labels were also attached to the case backs and label rails with small magnets.

The same case after installation is complete and lighting has been adjusted. With all the items in place, we began the final step of lighting the space. Going case by case, we took light readings at each object and then added, removed, or adjusted LEDs to an appropriate level. It is such a challenge to achieve lighting that is bright enough for visitors to clearly see an object and is also appropriate for the light sensitivity media or photographic materials; however, after many rounds of review and tweaks, we were finally ready!

The Grolier Club exhibition space, ready for opening. Even though we had already exhibited this same collection of items at the Rubenstein Library in early 2019, this somehow felt like a totally different exhibit. It required a great deal of planning and preparation to travel and install a loan of this size at a partner institution and we all learned so much throughout the process. In the end, I think all that work really shows in the final product and I’m glad that we were able to contribute to the mission of our institution by sharing and bringing awareness to a small sample of the cultural heritage we look after.

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