Is displaying a bunch of similar things an exhibit? According to Patricia Cosgrove, no.
The White River Valley Museum director, a recipient of several awards for inspired exhibits, discussed her underlying philosophy for exhibit design at the March AKCHO membership meeting – that the basis for all exhibit design should be to tell a story.
“Take the idea of things and look at them as story-making tools,” Cosgrove encouraged the audience. “Our collections are a bunch of ‘things’ waiting for their chance to tell a story.”
To illustrate, she led the audience through a series of slides that showed past exhibits at the White River Valley Museum. A few years ago, the loan to the Museum of some landscape paintings by well-regarded Tacoma artist Abby Williams Hill, for instance, was not just a chance to display some pretty pictures. The artwork also provided a way to talk about how railroad history, women’s history, and advertising history intersected at the beginning of the 20th century.
Between 1903 and 1906, Hill received several commissions from railroad companies to render scenes of some of the magnificent destinations travelers could expect to see along the Western routes. Hill was a working mom – she often took her four children along as she worked on her assignments, spending weeks in the wilderness.
For the exhibit at the White River Valley Museum, Cosgrove supplemented Hill’s paintings with a physical campsite set-up – helping visitors to imagine what it must have been like for a woman to conduct one’s art and work in the wild, while still keeping tabs on four youngsters.
Some of the questions from audience members reflected a frustration that many historical societies just don’t have the kind of staff and resources that are available to the White River Valley Museum.
Cosgrove, who was the first paid staff member of what once had been an all-volunteer operation, pushed back: even with limited resources, the idea of focusing on compelling stories is a scalable approach. Furthermore, volunteers at local historical societies shouldn’t hesitate to seek out assistance – from the general public as well as local electeds.
“‘Don’t be afraid to ask’ is one of the tenets of my career,” Cosgrove told the crowd.
She also talked about how spotlighting different stories over time can engage different kinds of visitors – at the White River Valley Museum, Cosgrove has done exhibits on veterans’ tattoos, quiltmaking, Japanese-American members of the World War II Military Intelligence Service, and – currently – women’s underwear.
This AKCHO membership meeting was hosted by the Historical Society of Federal Way. HSFW President Jerry Knutzen shared some stories about the first small settlements in the area, and told how Federal Way got its name when four tiny school districts were combined into one larger district, and the locals decided to name it “Federal Way” after the new federally-funded Highway 99 that was being built through the midst of their community. The name eventually was adopted by the entire community.
“As far as we know, we’re the only city in the country that’s named after a federal highway,” Knutzen said.