The Oregon Historical Society’s (OHS’s) Community Mezzanine Gallery is a small gallery in our museum dedicated to providing local organizations and businesses a temporary exhibit space to present their stories and celebrate their milestones. There, OHS museum staff install exhibitions curated and designed by highlighted organizations, which in past years have included The Immigrant Story, Oregon Ballet Theater, KBOO, and Oregon Humane Society. Because of the many restrictions and occasional closures resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, in October 2020, the OHS museum staff collaborated on an exhibition for the space, The Carvings of Hallie Heacock, featuring objects from OHS’s collections. Co-curated by Curator of Collections, Helen Fedchak, and Museum Services Coordinator, Tara Cole, the exhibit highlighted 47 items carved, etched, and sketched by Hallie Heacock, a longtime employee at the St. Helens Pulp and Papermill, between 1904 and 1966.
With COVID-19 restrictions easing this spring, the Community Mezzanine Gallery returned once more to its central focus, with the installation of The Portland Clinic: A Century of Delivering Health Care to the Community, curated by Morgen Young of Historical Research Associates and designed by Bryan Potter of Bryan Potter Design. While exhibits in this space are smaller in scale than those in other galleries at OHS, the installation process mirrors those used for larger exhibitions, with OHS’s collections and exhibitions staff approaching their work with the high level of care and attention to detail that is required for all museum projects. In the following video, we captured a timelapse of the transition between the two exhibitions and have included descriptions of the various steps with their coordinating timestamps. We are excited to share the many details, processes, and personnel required for installing even the smallest exhibitions at OHS.
De-installation (00:13 – 1:20)
This is also called a Gallery Strike. The Carvings of Hallie Heacock featured several cases filled with objects of varying materials and sizes, large furniture, wall-hanging carvings, and framed paintings and prints. Their removal requires close coordination between staff and extreme care. The exhibition staff begins the day by preparing the space for the work ahead, bringing up tool carts and other necessary materials, removing graphic and text panels and wall labels, and pulling security screws from cases. When collections staff arrive with object carts, plexiglass vitrines are lifted from some cases so that objects can be removed. Staff proceed from case to case, coordinating their movements and always wearing nitrile gloves to ensure objects are protected from skin oils and using glass suction cups to safely lift vitrines. As cases are emptied, riser blocks and mounts are removed and the cases are placed on dollies for removal from the gallery. Where climate cases are in use, silica cartridges must be removed as well (00:55). As carts fill up, they are removed from the gallery and the objects are moved to temporary storage where they will remain until they can be returned to their permanent homes in collection storage or, in the case of loaned items, to their lenders.
Gallery Prep (1:26 – 1:56)
Once all of the objects are removed from the gallery, exhibition staff finish removing hardware from the walls, patch any holes, and exchange the old casework for cases needed for the new exhibit. Finally, exhibition staff sand the walls. Usually, sanding would be followed by painting — either touching up the existing color or introducing new colors — but in this case, The Portland Clinic features floor to ceiling vinyl “wallpaper,” so painting was unnecessary. In larger-scale exhibitions, this would also be the time to build walls and platforms, paint cases, and prepare mounts or other support structures as required for the next exhibition.
Roughing in the Lights (2:01 – 2:31)
The exhibitions production team at OHS is responsible not only for building and installing exhibits but also for designing and implementing a lighting plan for every project. Two shows might require very different lighting approaches, and during the transition we try to re-arrange fixtures and change out bulbs, filters, and lenses to approximate (“rough-in”) what we think we will need next, even before there are any objects, cases, or graphics to light. The Carvings of Hallie Heacock was an object-focused exhibition that required many tight spots to highlight their details, shape, color, and textures. The Portland Clinic, on the other hand, is a graphics-heavy exhibition and is best highlighted through the use of floods, carefully shaped using spread lenses, to provide even light along the walls. While there will be objects in cases, exhibition staff wait until they are installed before introducing spots to the gallery. Unneeded fixtures are pulled from the track, bulbs and lenses are removed, and everything is taken away to storage.
Graphics Installation (2:38 – 3:41)
While The Portland Clinic includes some objects, curator Morgen Young and designer Bryan Potter chose to tell the story of the history of the organization primarily through the use of large-scale graphics throughout the space. These provide both a narrative and aesthetic flourishes that draw in visitors. In the months prior to installation, Potter carefully measured the space and designed the vinyl panels to perfectly fit each wall, a process that moves through many iterations in close coordination with the curator, the partner organization, and OHS museum staff. PVS Graphics then produced the graphics for installation by a crew from Custom Graphics Services. (As the installation of such large-scale graphics requires specialized skill and technique, OHS, with some exceptions, and like most museums, usually uses outside contractors.) To begin, all the panels are laid out under Potter’s supervision, measurements are taken, adjustments are made as necessary, and then installation begins. While the timelapse makes quick work of the process, this step took a full day.
Object Installation (3:47 – 4:48)
Once the graphics are up and the gallery is ready, Young and the exhibition staff lay out the cases. Collections staff then arrived with the objects (selected during the curatorial development process from the Portland Clinic’s archives and OHS’s museum collection). There are several criteria guiding the layout: theme and visual appeal, of course, but also more functional requirements, such as leaving space for labels, making sure all of the objects sit securely in place, and trying to minimize potential shadows from the lighting above. To protect the bottom surfaces of each object, the case decks are first covered with Mylar, a polyester film that acts as an inert barrier (3:56; 4:08). This is later cut out around the objects so it is not visible to visitors (4:27). As necessary, the exhibition staff provides risers to enhance the display (4:04) and mounts to ensure the security of objects (4:10). In this case, the mounts consisted of a couple of simple brad nails encased in protective foam. In other exhibitions, mounts can be far more involved and require extensive design and complex metal fabrication. Of utmost importance as well is security: whenever museum staff are not in the gallery, the cases are covered with vitrines and secured with security screws (4:48).
Fine Tuning and Final Lighting Focus (4:55 – 6:09)
During the last day of installation, the exhibition production team focuses on fine tuning the exhibition and finalizing the lighting. We remove the vitrines and Young goes over each case’s layout one last time, adjusting placement of labels and making sure all the objects are aligned correctly. After deciding the objects in one of the cases are arranged too tightly, she removes one and re-arranges the others (5:23). At the same time, exhibition staff clean the vitrine interiors and adjust the lighting on the walls to more effectively highlight the graphics. Once a vitrine is returned to its case and secured with security screws, spots are added above to focus visitors’ eyes on each object. The vitrine must be in place prior to this step to ensure the safety of the objects below and to allow us to assess any shadows that might be produced by the seams at the vitrine’s corners. After a final clean, the exhibition is complete and ready for the next day’s opening.
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