Recently, I had the opportunity to act in a curating role for an exhibition. The exhibit was lottery funded and commissioned by a local theatre. The exhibition, While I Breathe, I hope, focuses on the St Andrews community during the First World War.
Due to having a very small team of two volunteers, I was able to have hands-on experience at every step of the process, from conception to the installation. At first, I was nervous about the weight of the task – to honour the sacrifice and courage of St Andreans, both on the home front and in foreign fields, is no mean feat. The experience was definitely a learning curve but I feel like I learnt so much more through this hands-on learn-on-the-job experience than I would have from a book or lecture.
Here are three lessons that I learnt along the way…
1. Don’t think you have to squeeze every single nugget of information into your exhibit.
Trust me. You’re going to find out so many amazing stories and facts relating to your topic and you will want to include every single one of them – but you can’t. If you did your exhibition would be too large and lack focus. We started with the idea to include information and stories not just from the war, but also examples of the make-do-and-mend attitude from which inspired the theatres opening in the interwar years. As well as that, we were also going to focus on showcasing the community spirit which has continued to grow around the theatre – people have met their spouses there, the theatre has always worked to include local schools and children in their productions. As you can see – this was just way too much content to produce in the few weeks we had to put the exhibition together. Once we had streamlined our brief, we were able to concentrate on a few stories that really spoke to the town’s motto “While I Breathe, I Hope.”
2. Be warned, you are going to get very attached to the people you research.
It was an absolute privilege to learn about and honour the memory of St Andreans involved in the war effort – both on the fields and the home front. There were tales of hope, love and plenty of examples of the cheeky and ballsy Scottish spirit that I have come to love over the past few years I have lived here. Jock Ripley, a veteran, pretended to be younger than he was so that he could go to the front and fight. When asked about his actions, he argued that his “pen must have slipped.” He survived being shot in the head – being awarded the VC for continuing to support his fellow soldiers despite his injury and the odds of their survival. His courage and cheek made me laugh, Ripley was a real rogue one, a man with principals who knew he could help and had no qualms about bending the rules to recruit himself back into active duty.
But there were also tales of tragedy. I remember losing my temper when transcribing a letter from the front informing of a local teen’s death. The language of the letter was beautiful – if there is any comfort at all to be had at this moment, it will come from the knowledge that your brother lies amongst some of the bravest men who have ever fought for King and country – but the soldier’s name was spelt wrong multiple times. I had read so much about this young man and his brother (one came home, one didn’t), poured over pictures of him, seen his “dead man’s penny” and the local newspapers report of his death. The carelessness of the letter felt like a gross indignity. I was raging. Then I realised how many letters like this must have been written, how much of a toll it would have taken on those who spent hours writing “I regret to inform you…” over and over again. Each letter signifying another life lost in a bitter and brutal war. By learning and relating to one man from a small coastal town – I was able to grasp (or rather realise that I could never grasp) the enormous scale of lost lives, lost hopes, lost loves. It was humbling, profound and harrowing all at the same time and I am so grateful for the experience. This is why museums are so important- they encourage powerful moments of connection between the present and past, they transcend personal experiences and tap into the shared human condition. They are a thousand times more effective than a textbook.
3. Plan all you want, the installation is going to throw a few spanners in the works.
First of all, Publisher is a cruel, cruel mistress. I am sure there are better programmes to use to produce posterboards, but it was all we had to hand. Don’t get me wrong – it worked and the posterboards look clean and neat, but my god did formatting them (and reformatting them…and reformatting them) lead to sleepless nights. Before finalising the content of the exhibition, we visited the space again and drew 2D plans on where we wanted everything. It was a logistical task and we still needed to arrange printing and transport for a glass case but we thought we’d sorted everything…
Except that we’d assumed the theatre would be coming up with means of actually hanging our posterboards but that wasn’t the case. They told us that they have a wire to hang from the ceiling and that all we needed was to attach hooks to the boards. Our boards were foam though and flat, there was no way we could drill picture hooks into them. Our curator came up with the ingenious idea of attaching velcro to the walls and the posterboards and so that hiccup was solved. However well you plan your layout, the practicalities of the installation process will cause you to tweak things like where things are placed, sometimes very last minute. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, there is just a difference between seeing a layout in theory and seeing the reality of that space when it is occupied.
A bonus lesson…
I learned most of all that I love heritage and museums, that whatever I end up doing, I want to in some way be a preserver and communicator of history. This exhibition was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life!