Monday, July 14, 2014

Like a kid in a candy shop

We are all familiar with the standard exhibition case--that rectangular glass box on top of spindly legs. Most libraries and archives use this to display some sort of object. The National Library of Scotland created a different approach.

Exhibitions are a method for outreach and engagement with the material. In an age where numbers = dollars (how many people come through the door, how many reference requests, how often has this item been used...etc.) exhibitions are an excellent way of increasing public awareness of resources. The National Library has a few rooms set aside as exhibition space, in addition to areas within the reading rooms.

In one of the rooms is a permanent exhibition relating to the John Murray Archive, a large collection of the publishing firm's history. Several well-known authors have had relations with the company, and their writings are included in the archive. These authors include Charles Darwin, David Livingstone, Lord Byron and Washington Irving.

Image from the National Library of Scotland
The exhibition room is dark, with only colored accent lights and digital window scenes to guide the way. The front of the room is designed to look like Murray's drawing room, with bookcases along the wall and stuffed armchairs in front of the fireplace. The digital windows depict the street view, and if one looks long enough, some of the figures walking by will be easily recognized.

There are tall glass cylinders filled with objects relating to a specific author, with touchscreens in front. Pressing on the touchscreen will activate the exhibit, and lights will come on in the column. The room is kept dark so as to not damage the manuscripts or other materials in the cases. Each case had a complete outfit, a document and objects related to the character. The touchscreens give the viewer more information about the objects in the case, and a transcription of the manuscript. There is an option to have the transcription spoken aloud, as a way of increasing access and adding a level of curator interpretation on the contents of the document. It's also a way for viewers to have a personal connection with the material and see a human element in something that may have little significance otherwise. After the touchscreen has been idle, the lights inside the column dim.

Image from the National Library of Scotland as photographs were prohibited. The actual John Murray Exhibition Room was darker than this image portrays.

The contents in some of the cases change every few months, but this is otherwise a permanent exhibition. The library staff truly took a risk in creating an exhibit space so unlike any other, but the rewards are great. Our attention was certainly captivated, and the ambience set by the lighting added an entire new layer of engagement and interest in the material. If I am ever responsible for an exhibit in my future career, I will look to the National Library of Scotland as an example, and do my best to avoid the boring square glass cases.

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