Making a Museum: Preparing an Exhibit Case

By Kalyse Houston, 2022 Clay Preservation Scholar, Prairie View A&M University

Interning at a museum and the projects that come with it has its highs and lows. One day you may be getting to work with your hands and doing exhibit work. Next, you could be getting a papercut from the grueling process of refiling and organizing archival papers.

At this point in my internship with San Felipe de Austin State Historic Site, I was doing both. Alongside working on this large box of archival papers (my favorite thing ever!), I was able to physically begin foundational exhibit work. From beginning to end, I will be working on my very own project!

After I received an email with my objectives for the day, I got right to work on my first step. I began by choosing which case I wanted to work with. 

Reflection of a young woman in the glass of a tall museum exhibit case

A room held four case options to choose from: cases A–D. I looked around the case and inspected the outside wood for chipping and the inside for damage. Once I thoroughly looked at all four cases, I saw that case B was the easiest way to go. Work smarter, not harder, right? And once the case was selected, I was onto the next step—cleaning!

The email read “Clean your case thoroughly with hot soapy water and Dawn. Magic erasers can also be used. (The janitor’s closet has these supplies.)” The instructions were straightforward enough. As I headed into the janitor's closet, I thought this would be a breeze. The easiest part of today. All I needed was a bucket of water, some soap, and a rag.

That was what I thought until I entered the closet. Immediately I was met with more questions than answers. First, there were about four buckets in this room. Which bucket? I looked past that and searched for a washrag. Where are the rags? There aren’t any rags. What do I wash the case with? Where’s the Dawn? There were so many thoughts and an overwhelming amount of things that were wrong in such a short amount of time, that I just had to laugh.

You may be thinking, “Girl, get a grip! It’s just wood, it’s not that crucial.” But to me, it’s not just wood and it is that crucial. This is the wood that will case my very first exhibit that I ever worked on. This is a privilege that the THC and San Felipe de Austin allotted me as a Preservation Scholar, and that has a lot of meaning to me. Because this is something that I’m being trusted with, I’d like to make sure it’s done right.

So I stepped back, took a deep breath, and decided to start at the very beginning. Starting with proper hygiene, I grabbed a pair of plastic gloves, put them on, and reached for the first bucket I saw. As I brought it closer to my eye, I saw a toilet cleaner was inside it. Instantly, I was glad that I put on the gloves first! Next, I grabbed a red bucket. This one had the word “exhibit” on it. That seemed just about right. I filled the bucket with water, found a sponge, and located the soap. After making a nice soapy solution I washed that case like nobody's business!

Website of a fabric supply company with many different colors of cotton fabric

The next simple task listed was to assess the inside of my case. Inside of each case was fabric that needed to be removed and changed out. The aim for the fabric is to find a solid-colored material that matches the color schemes already at play in the main museum gallery. After looking at the colors in the cabin, the colors on the description plaques, and the colors on a website that specifically held a wide array of fabrics, I found 10 different 100% cotton fabrics that went well with the color scheme. I wrote up a list of browns and greens with descriptions. All of the colors were simple, attractive, and won’t take away from the artifacts.

The last couple of tasks listed were to use wood-rot glue anywhere the wood seems like it is chipping or flaking away. This is used to stabilize the wood. After that, I would apply wood wax on the improvements. As a beginner, these finishing tasks were a tad bit advanced for me to do on my lonesome. Because of this, the finishing touches were postponed until I could be properly supervised. Following this eventful day, I continued sorting and filing my lovely box of archival papers.

This week's work served as my first hands-on experience. So far I’m really enjoying my time and I feel like I chose the right profession to get into. I’m excited to continue on and see what else this internship entails.

Read Kalyse's introductory post: Making a Museum: Getting Started

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