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I am doing some thinking about the role of permanent/long-term exhibits at small history museums, particularly local history museums. I have observed that most local history museums feel they need a permanent/long-term overview exhibit that tries to tell the story of their locality. Many of us working in these museums, attempting to re-invent invent our institutions and break out of our reputations as “old-dusty-boring,” often do so by investing in new “permanent” exhibits. These exhibits cost much more than anything else has ever cost in the museum’s history and give us a new centerpiece with which to draw in visitors.

My question: Do these investments pay off? Are “permanent” exhibits an important framework for establishing a local story and an initial contact point for a museum and its visitors? Or do “permanent” exhibits drain resources and inhibit a museum’s ability to remain flexible, relevant and responsive to community needs? I would be interested in hearing about any of your experiences with the role of long-term/permanent exhibits at history museums.

Liora J. Cobin (Brooklyn, NY)

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3 Responses to Experiences with Permanent Exhibits

  1. Mary Warner says:

    Interesting question, Liora. Until you brought it up, I thought permanent exhibits were a given in museums, not optional. Why not have a museum that works on the premise that all exhibits are temporary?

    That said, there are some snaps for permanent exhibits. The signage and images we’ve used in our permanent exhibits are tougher than what we use for our temporary exhibits. Some visitors expect the comfort of seeing certain artifacts when they return & bring family members. Permanent exhibits allow us to create consistent school programs. Writing new tour scripts or creating new activities for temporary exhibits increases the time staff spend on these activities, not to mention the time spent on mounting each new exhibit. You also have to consider your print and online advertising. Every time you switch exhibits, you have to mention the change. Just some random thoughts, for what they’re worth.


  2. Vickie Wendel says:

    We use two arguments against permanent exhibits when a donor/member/public at large asks if THEIR particular item will ALWAYS be on display: 1. It’s bad for the preservation of the artifacts to be on permanent display. 2. Why would anyone come back to see the same exhibit year after year after year?

    Donors especially seem to want to have their object on display all the time, so we do our best to educate them that "sticking it away in a box where no one ever sees it" will ensure that the object will remain in the best possible condition when it is on display and that it will last much longer into the future. Most people readily accept this and we’ve even had people thank us for taking such good care of their things by the time we are finished "educating" them on preservation. It takes some time and effort to do this, but we have found it to be worth the effort it takes.

    As far as interpretation in our county museum, every exhibit we do is tied to our local history in some way, so we are always telling our local story, just different pieces of it at any given time. If a visitor wants it all, we have history books for that. Some examples we have used include an A to Z exhibit that listed which community in our county each item came from. We used county veterans’ stories in the Korean War exhibit to take a global event and channel it down to our own county. The same thing for the Vietnam exhibit and agriculture exhibits–tell that broader story with a local perspective. This has worked very well for us to always have the story of our county in the museum, but also always be changing exhibits to preserve artifacts and entice visitors in.


  3. Vickie Wendel says:

    I should have added to my previous post that we always make sure our patrons and donors know that we will get an artifact out of storage for them whenever they come (We do ask them to make an appointment!) We tell them they always have visiting rghts to artifacts not on display. This way, they feel they can come at any time to show someone the piece they donated without needing to keep it on display all the time. It seems to keep most people happy!


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