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Using Unconventional Materials as a Key to Exhibit-Making

July 1, 2017

When I think of unconventional materials, I think of competition shows like Project Runway, creating gowns out of pet supplies, or artists creating new pieces out of paper clips or macaroni noodles. Museums are no strangers to using unconventional materials and creative solutions when installing an exhibit, and the MuseLab even more so because of its small size, small budget, and experimental nature. These types of materials can hide secrets of construction and highlight innovation and creativity. Using unconventional materials in a museum exhibit can come in many forms and aspects of the creative process.


During the planning stages of our exhibit, Tales from the Curb: A Front Row Seat, we had to take into account our budget (which was small), our time limits (which were tight), our space (also small) and our abilities when designing elements for each of the four sections that made up the exhibit (see Tales From the Curb: A Front Row Seat for explanation of exhibit). As we worked to give each chair its own story, our focus on visitor interpretation and interaction also influenced our design choices. Our goal for this exhibit was to evoke an emotional connection in visitors, and by incorporating the Object-Knowledge Framework, we were able to use nontraditional techniques and unusual objects to do so. The structure of the exhibit itself is unusual, as each space is connected by a storytelling theme but also exists in separate spaces; each chair is almost it’s own mini-exhibit. To bring these stories to life, we needed to find materials that could be used in multiple ways during construction and installation. As one of the most unexpected obstacles we encountered in developing our exhibit from scratch, finding common and available objects and materials to be repurposed was a test in our creative problem solving skills. A lot of brainstorming and a little luck went into deciding on materials that seem so commonplace; it actually takes a lot of creativity and resourcefulness to think about simple components that can be used in unconventional ways. For example, we needed large circular frames for one section of the exhibit which features historical photos. It was difficult to find very large round frames, so we decided to paint hula hoops, use them as frames, placing images inside them.
































The rocks and concrete found in the pile of rubble from the same section, as well as the curb in the introductory section, are hand-carved and painted foam sheets. The house frame found in the introductory section was constructed out of raw scrap wood, and many of the decorations throughout are real household items we bought at the Goodwill store or brought from home.





















Working with these simple materials unconventionally poses its own challenge; repurposing something that already has a function, or even material that is meant to be transformed, can be a challenge. Shaping large sheets of foam with the tools available in the MuseLab took some trial and error. Producing the results we wanted was at times a slow process because of the amount of times we had to try different methods or experiment with the process.



At the beginning of our project, there were two things Dr. Latham told us to remember throughout the building of this exhibit: 1) it’s going to be harder than you think, and, 2) it’s ok to mess up. Remembering that failure was going to be inevitable and to treat each screw-up as a learning experience was vital to both the process and our spirits. Using the MuseLab as a space for practicing the skills that I will use throughout my career and being able to create this exhibit from scratch, gave me a taste of how challenging, but more importantly, how rewarding my future in the museum field will be.