by guest blogger Emma Mällinen

Students in this year’s Exhibition Planning class were given a challenge: choose an image that inspires you from the photographs in Historic New England’s exhibition, “The Camera’s Coast,” and use it as a jumping-off point for a full-blown exhibition plan. Snapshots: 15 Takes on an Exhibition is to take place at the Tufts University Koppleman Gallery May 6-18, 2014. Opening reception Tuesday, May 6, 2014, 5:30-8pm. See the Facebook page here.

I am in the midst of planning an exhibition titled, “How We Describe the Wild: American Encounters with Nature,” an exhibition that celebrates the past and present of American writers who shaped the way we view our natural environment. From revisiting classics by Thoreau and Emerson to dissecting the controversial works of Edward Abbey and Rachel Carson, the exhibition highlights the milestones of American ecocriticism and nature appreciation.

Now, that sounds pretty text-based and potentially dry. How can you engage people in long texts in an energetic exhibition? This is the primary obstacle I’ve come up against, but one I’ve found some great solutions for.

Besides employing a plethora of objects in the exhibition to fill in a vivid picture of the world each writer inhabited, I’ve focused on finding images that I could use to draw interest for the exhibition in the first place.

A wonderful resource that surfaced during my research phase is the online collection of historical photographs hosted by University of California’s Calisphere, a collection aimed at educators. In it there are wonderful sets of photographs of exactly the areas many of my chosen writers were exploring – and shot contemporaneously. Yosemite is a particularly flourishing subtopic in the collection, with myriads by George Fiske, the Sierra Club, and striking stereoviews by C.L. Pond. And what’s more, the majority of photographs come with source information and dates.

They are truly captivating photographs. From among them, I was able to find an image that perfectly encapsulated my idea and that I am confident would inspire people to take an interest in the show. It is images like these that can become the “thesis shot” of a whole exhibition.