Tag Archives: artifacts

Adapting a Traveling Exhibit

At the Imperial Valley Desert Museum, we promise something new at every event. This promise has kept us hopping. The most visible change we’ve made is the installation of a temporary exhibit from Exhibit Envoy.

Exhibit Envoy is a California based non-profit organization that develops traveling exhibits available to museums for a nominal fee.  They provide the research, text panels, hands-on materials, and educational curriculum. For small museums like the IVDM having all these materials arrive in three neat little boxes is worth a couple thousand dollars. Our job was half done… but only half.

The broad challenge of this project was to take the stories in Gold Fever! and make them relevant to our desert community. Gold Fever! Untold Stories of the California Gold Rush focuses on northern California where the Gold Rush was at its peak. It was also developed in 1998 by the California Council for the Humanities in collaboration with the Oakland Museum of California. Now fifteen years later, visitor expectations lean towards the dynamic, particularly the IVDM’s audience of energetic desert adventurers. As we unpacked the materials we recognized an opportunity to enhance the standard exhibit. In the end, we added 43 supplementary panels, a miner’s cabin complete with early Imperial Valley newspaper wallpaper, and developed two interactive scale exhibits: at one you can calculate the price of a pound of coffee in 1850, at the other you can calculate your weight in gold.

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The most important aspect of this project is that it focused a Californian story to an Imperial County story. Sometimes we are forgotten in this outskirt community, but that only means that this is a place where people can discover. The adapted Gold Fever! exhibit reveals secrets of the desert that you visit and in which we live. Supplementing the exhibit with local information supports our preservation strategy by encouraging pride of place to promote preservation of our landscape and cultural resources. The more people that learn about Imperial County the more conscious they become of our unique environment and the mysteries it holds.

We added to the exhibit in four key ways:

1)   highlighting facts and quotes in the provided text

2)   using existing online resources to supplement the exhibit

3)   incorporating local stories and players

4)   incorporating present day interaction with historic sites

 

1)   Highlighting facts and quotes in the provided text

The text developed by the Oakland Museum is incredibly interesting and the panels contain a wealth of research, but when we unpacked the 24 panels and lined them up, I was conscious of only one thing: a wall of text. Without a visual break in the information you have a foreboding that reading about the Gold Rush is going to take a lot of energy and focus. As a curator, it is my job to learn the history we interpret, but visitors don’t want to work. They are on vacation, or just trying to get the kids out of the house, or having a leisure day. We needed to facilitate the learning experience and help them pinpoint the most interesting bits. As the staff read through the text, we highlighted our favorite facts. The best one was that the first millionaire in CA wasn’t a miner, he was the guy selling the shovels. We used the flagged information as inspiration to develop meaningful stories for our audience.

 

2)  Using existing online resources to supplement the exhibit

One of the panels reference William Swain’s surviving journal. A little online research turned up a digitization project by Yale’s Beinecke Library making Swain’s journal accessible. An old desk and a printer allows visitor’s to read Swain’s first hand accounts in detail.

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We are trying to make this relevant to Imperial County, so why stop with an out of town-er like Swain? The US census shows miners in Imperial County from 1850 through 1900 and the Library of Congress’ Chronicling America project has Imperial County newspapers back to 1901. Cited appropriately, these make for some really easy, useful resources.

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3)   incorporating local stories and players

Inspired by Swain’s journal, we sought loans from the local Bureau of Land Management office. The additional artifacts and photographs create a fuller picture of mining in Imperial County. Coupled with the census material, we could now compare Swain’s experience with early pioneer life in Imperial County.

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4)   incorporating present day interaction with historic sites

This leads us directly to incorporating present day life. Our 1930’s historic collection includes images of visitors having a picnic at the American Girl Mine, our field books describe archeology work at Picaho Mine, and two weeks before the opening of the exhibit I was hiking at Elliot Mine. The Valley’s residents and visitors have always moved in and around this history. Exhibit Envoy and the Oakland Museum sent us the facts of the Gold Rush and with a little time and effort and a large format printer, we used that baseline to develop an exhibit relevant to our local history, our mission, and our modern visitor.

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Taking the time to adapt the exhibit had far reaching implications. Strategically, it was a fund raising tool that met our mission, met the expectations of our visitors, and furthered our strategic plan. It was also a community resource. One of the first comments a student made to me about the museum was “when is it opening? I’ve never been to a museum.” Now we have an exhibit in which our community is a main player. Imperial County may be geographically isolated, but these days that is a boundary easily transcended. Supplementing the exhibit turned a statewide story into a local story and it has the potential to show our community their role in a broader world and spark the idea that they have a place in it.