by guest columnist Barbara Palmer

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.

By now, you’ve probably heard that this year’s Exhibition Planning course is trying something new. Instead of curating an exhibition as a group with a set collection as in previous years, each class member is developing a proposal for an individual exhibition, with one object from a shared collection as a touchstone.

As my exhibition idea, titled, “Open Water: Women’s Swimwear and the Fight to Compete,” has grown throughout the semester, I’ve realized that developing ideas on your own can lead to feeling stuck in your own silo (or, “column of excellence,” an alternative moniker I’ve heard lately lately). Developing an entire exhibit solo not only lends a powerful feeling of freedom in making decisions without compromise or consequence, but can alternatively leave one feeling a bit alone in the planning too. In our future museum careers, the process of exhibit design collaboration in which we may be participating won’t come without a team in some way, shape, or form, so I’ve appreciated the opportunities both given and sought out to collaborate with others.

I recently sat down with a fellow classmate to examine each other’s exhibition plans and was amazed at the ideas we came away with. She helped me see that I was trying to fit too many perspectives into a space that wasn’t quite big enough, and also helped me see the story I really wanted to tell. I was trying to cover swimsuit fashion, women’s history, and athletic history all in one room, anchored around a story that just couldn’t hold it all up. Now, I’ve refocused on how developments in swimsuits for women knit together with their fight to be recognized as capable swimming athletes in their own rite. While it’s meant a lot of work to narrow my focus, re-frame, and redesign, the final product will be far better.

This small example illustrated to me the constantly changing process of producing an exhibition, and though it is sometimes frustrating to throw out ideas that don’t work (several on which you spent a lot of time), it’s more rewarding to see concepts that truly succeed.