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Behind the scenes of a new exhibit

As we described in a recent blog post, this past spring the Fire Museum of Maryland received a significant donation from the McLaughlin Company Insurance Agency. In order to showcase this donation, we have been hard at work renovating one of our galleries. These changes will allow us to more adequately display some of the lithographs and fire-related toys that are part of this donation, and the renovation work also provides us with an opportunity to reinvigorate a space that had become outdated. Read on to find out a bit more about what goes in to creating a new exhibit….

Whenever we design a new exhibit, we pose several important questions to ourselves:

  • What do we want the public to learn?

  • How do we want the public to learn it?

  • What objects or artifacts do we intend to use to teach the public?

  • How do we want to display those objects?

Often, we have to drastically reduce our answer(s) to the first question. Time, money, and space constraints all limit what we can effectively teach to our visitors, and this must be taken into account. This is true for most museums, whether it’s due to a lack of space, an opening date that creates a time crunch, or a lack of funding. However, once we take all of those variables into account, we still want to get as much information to our visitors as we can while they are here. In many cases, we also want to continue a dialogue with them after they’ve left.

How we teach the public varies considerably, based upon what we are trying to teach and what artifacts we have to teach with. In some cases, we can provide hands-on experiences, such as during our annual Steam Show or our fall motor muster. Other times, we use audio or visual mediums to provide information, such as our video on the Great Baltimore Fire of 1904. Our text panels are always available to our visitors, but of course we only have so much space for text. Often, the best teaching method we have is the personal interactions between museum staff and visitors. Face-to-face conversations allow for both a greater amount and a greater variety of information to pass to our visitors, and also provide them with opportunities to ask questions that a text panel or an inanimate artifact cannot answer.

Our choice of artifacts is often a case of feast or famine. For this upcoming exhibit, we have more than 40 pieces of artwork and more than 30 toys to display, but we do not have the room to display everything at one time. So we must choose the items that best tell our story, provide the most information, or otherwise help us answer our first question. We can choose to display the “best” of each category, use the artifacts to show a series of changes over time, or demonstrate how different artists or manufacturers approached similar problems with different solutions.

Finally, once we have determined all of the above, we must choose how to display those objects. For something the size of a fire engine, we are limited, to some extent, in our options. Do we attach fire hoses? Are the wheels straight or turned? Is there a particular aspect of the engine that we want to highlight? For pieces of artwork, of which we have many in the McLaughlin Collection, we have that many more options. Artist, date, subject, size, framing, and layout are all variables we can use to help us create an interesting and exciting exhibit.

Those are some of the basic questions that we attempt to answer every time we put together a new exhibit. There are many levels of detail that are not covered here, but hopefully you now have an idea of some of what goes into every new exhibit that we create here at the Fire Museum of Maryland. And don’t forget to come see the new exhibit, “Playing With Fire: Toys and Prints from the McLaughlin Collection,” when it opens to the public on September 3rd.

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