Exhibiting Museum Studies Skills

This semester, I’m teaching a museum studies course as part of our public history minor. The course has students majoring in history, interior design, education, communications, and art. We spent the first several weeks talking about the history of museums, with a focus on natural history and historic house museums. To transition into the portion of the course on museum collections, I wanted students to grasp the challenges behind organizing, categorizing, and interpreting a collection. So, last Wednesday, we spent most of our 2 hr 45 min class creating a mini-exhibition from start to finish.

For their homework, I assigned reading on collections management and asked the students to do the following:
Bring 5-7 objects you use daily—or, if necessary, a printed photograph of a large object, e.g. a bed. Each object should have a basic label on an index card with title of object, name of maker (if known), date made, and donor (your name).

In class, I explained that they would be curating an exhibition on the everyday life of museum studies students. We pushed tables together and took out all of the students’ objects and labels.


Each student then had to briefly explain their objects. After they had a sense of the full scope of the collection, I asked them to decide how they would split the collection into categories. What object groups would make the most sense–should they organize by function, color, shape, etc.? They spent some time debating this, but came to a consensus fairly quickly and came up with six categories.


The students then rearranged all of the objects and labels into the categories they had chosen. Some objects were omitted because they didn’t fit into any particular category; some objects led to long debates over where they belonged. We talked about the difficulty of coming to consensus as a large group, and the fact that museum exhibits are put together by large teams that need to do this over and over.

I then intervened as Museum Director and said we didn’t have room for this many objects in the exhibit. They would have to cut two items from each category. This led to more debate and, in a few cases, reshuffling of objects into different categories.

It also led to some interesting discussions about the multiple meanings of objects. When several students suggested removing the stapler from the “School Items” category because they usually don’t turn in physical papers needing stapling, the student who brought the stapler protested. He works as a resident assistant and uses the stapler to post announcements in the dorms. The stapler stayed in the exhibit, and I stepped in to explain the importance of doing research to fully understand how people used objects.

I split the class into pairs, with each pair responsible for one object category. They first had to choose one featured object they’d like to learn more about and devise a list of research questions. I directed them to their textbook (Ambrose & Paine’s Museum Basics, p. 204-205, 210-211) for the types of questions they could ask. The pairs then shared their questions with the full class.

Next, each pair had to write a one paragraph label for their category. It could highlight a particular object or objects, but it should not simply describe each one. The goal was to explain the common themes among the objects.


The next–and most contentious–step came with arranging the exhibition. What order should the categories go in? We were in an interior design studio room, so we had lots of moveable tables and pin boards on the walls, but the placement of the door and the pin boards left only one possible flow through the show. The students debated what the logical flow should be, which took them back to the organizing principles of their show. After arranging and rearranging several times, they finally came to agreement. Each pair carefully displayed their objects and labels.


With a better consensus on the overall logic of the exhibition, they had to complete the show by collectively writing a short introductory label. We posted this at the entrance to the show.

Finally, the students toured their exhibition. We also invited in other faculty and staff to come see their work.


We closed by reflecting on the experience. What was the most challenging part? What went well? What would they have done differently?

This turned out to be one of the most rewarding teaching activities I have ever done. The students were excited and eager, feeling a real personal stake in how the exhibition turned out. It also served as great practice for their final assignment: creating an exhibition plan in small teams on topics of their choice.

Please feel free to adapt and use this lesson in your own classes. If you do, let me know on twitter @CassAGood. Here is a condensed version of the lesson:

  1. Homework: Bring 5-7 objects you use daily—or, if necessary, a printed photograph of a large object, e.g. a bed. Each object should have a basic label on an index card with title of object, name of maker (if known), date made, and donor (your name)
  2. In class, combine objects/pics on central table and come up with organizational scheme—what object groups would you use? (organize by color, function, person who used it, etc.)
  3. Move objects into categories
  4. Ask students to remove 2 objects from each category bc show is too big
  5. Split students into teams working on separate categories
  6. Choose one featured object and create a list of research questions you’d need to answer–Ambrose, p. 204-205, 209-211
  7. Create an intro label for your category
  8. Arrange your categories into an exhibition—what order should they go in? Class will need to decide this collectively. Arrange your objects and labels with the intro label posted above
  9. Work together to create general intro label for exhibit
  10. Tour exhibit and reflect on experience
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