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Making An Exhibition

An Intern's Look at "Native Fashion Now"



As a graduate student from the University of Oklahoma earning my Master’s in Museum Studies, I had the wonderful opportunity to help at Philbrook Museum of Art working alongside curatorial staff to receive university credit as a member of the preparatory crew installing the exhibit Native Fashion Now in the Museum’s Helmerich gallery space over a four-week timeframe.            

We first had to de-install the previous exhibition, A Place in the Sun, which displayed the colorful artworks of Walter Ufer and E. Martin Hennings. Working with and under the guidance of Philbrook Head Preparator George Brooks and Assistant Registrar Darcy Marlow along with Associate Registrar Heather Haldeman from the Denver Art Museum, the prep crew and I carefully took down, packed, and crated over twenty paintings. Since Philbrook was the last stop on the show's route, these paintings had to be packed into multiple crates for shipping to several locations.

I quickly learned that changing out exhibitions is a complex process requiring careful coordination and timing. The prep staff of a museum works hard behind the scenes. Each exhibit requires a unique design plan. The 5000 square foot Helmerich Gallery contains 32 portable 12-foot walls weighing 500 lbs. each. For every show in this space, the walls must be moved. The prep crew has to reconfigure these partitions. This was our next task.

Once the walls were in place, we spackled the adjoining seams and gave the walls a fresh coat of paint. We had to shim and level each wall section individually. This task was one of the more difficult parts of the project I encountered. When the walls were arranged in the new layout, we built platforms to hold pedestals and mannequins displaying the contemporary Native fashion pieces. Since the show's opening date was at the end of the four-week period, this required a very fast pace to say the least. Construction and installation of these platforms presented multiple challenges. The display platforms include many odd angles. Demanding doesn't even describe the task of making cuts for support braces and skin coverings. More experienced staff members, like Head Preparator George Brooks, Shelley Starnes-Blackburn, and Frank Campbell cut and measured many 2x4s to build the braces creating the skeleton of the platforms. That old rule "Measure twice, cut once" was an absolute necessity. And 100% true.

After the crates arrived and touch-up work was finished, we assembled the mannequins and arranged them according to the layout plan. I worked with Philbrook registrar Darcy Marlow, visiting registrar Angie Lowther from the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, and conservator Deidre Windsor to unpack and dress each mannequin in its designated attire.

Me on the job

Philbrook Curator of Native American Art Christina E. Burke and Director of Collections and Exhibitions Rachel Keith, directed our final placement of the figures. Watching the process of how the curators put together an exhibit was fascinating. Analyzing how visitors might view and interpret each object, seeing how different pieces work together, and finding the best fit seemed like working an intricate puzzle. Arriving at a final optimal result involved a considerable amount of back and forth until they were satisfied. I had the opportunity to help install a portion of the exhibition created by Louie Gong. He created a unique pair of Converse shoes with a design influenced by his Native American Northwest Coast heritage. This was easily one of my favorite parts of this show. George had me, along with crew members Frank Campbell, Cynthia Marcoux and Luke Hembree, install LED lights under the platforms, which helped gave them more of a "runway" look. 

The Native Fashion Now exhibit featured over 75 objects. During the preparation I experienced the extensive preparatory process. I had the chance to attend the Museum's exclusive Member Opening. It was exhilarating and fulfilling to observe visitors’ reactions to every display, every element. 


From left to right the prep staff, curatorial department and visiting staff: Assistant Preparator Shelley Blackburn, Elizabeth Kennedy, Cynthia Marcoux, Frank Campbell, Julie Stafford, Visiting Conservator Deidre Windsor, Visiting Registrar Angie Lowther and Head Preparator George Brooks. Second Row: Associate Registrar Darcy Marlow and Curator of Native American & Non-Western Art Christina E. Burke. Not photographed: Luke Hembree, Megan Jewell, Steve Monroe and Emily Radcliffe.

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