A Whale of a Tale: Archiving and Exhibition Design at The Carnegie Museum of Natural History

Shopping for furniture at Construction Junction for the Human Diorama in the new exhibition: We are Nature


A Whale of a Tale: Archiving and Exhibition Design at The Carnegie Museum of Natural History

Author: Eliza Wick

Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Fellowship at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History - Summer 2017

I came into my fellowship at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History with certain preconceptions. But I was eager to see how a natural history museum differed from the art museums that I was more predisposed towards. I also expected that I would be making decisions each day that would be effecting changes in the museum in a more direct way as well as contributing to the formation of future exhibits, however, I quickly learned that that was a bit of a naïve and idealistic view of how a museum works. My work as an intern, while important, was more of an archival project coordinating the documentation and organization of historical material and how that information related to current halls and future exhibitions. One thing that I quickly became aware of is how almost every museum has to operate from a perspective that is often overlooked: the museum as a financial entity. Despite being a non-profit, a museum still has to raise enough funds to maintain permanent displays, create temporary exhibits, borrow traveling exhibits, pay employees, and much more. Due to the fact that revenue is only generated really from grants, admission, and generous donations, creation and innovation must be altered to fit the limited funds that most non-profits must face.

With this in mind, many ideas have to be struck down to fit the reality of budget and time more so than I had naively expected. I thought that ideas could be implemented quickly and without limits; however, I learned that museums by nature take time to implement new projects, ideas, halls, etc. Work must be reviewed by many people and departments because museum work stresses collaborative and group effort. I remember someone describing the design and implementation of exhibitions as being for the long haul. Essentially you are hoping your ideas and efforts will come later in five years or so, resonating with a museum-goer deeply concerned for our natural world. Through particular implementation and design that you curated hopefully helps visitors become more interested in science or better understand a concept. Additionally, something I had not considered all the way through is how much a natural history museum differs from a more traditional art museum. A natural history museum requires much more preparation and planning of exhibitions in most cases than an art museum. There are factors like specimen acquisition, preservation, and preparation as well as thought mapping of how you want to educate the scientific topic in space. Natural history museums also make the majority of their own props, stands, cases, and anything else that will be going into the physical space. All of these considerations as well as the protection of specimens and of the visitors means that much more time and energy must be put into the final product than an art museum where the pieces stand alone. In a way, the exhibitions department in a natural history museum is like an artist and educator because they get to design and create the majority of the pieces in the exhibit. 

I treasured my fellowship, most of all, because it satisfied my personal fascination for archival research. I also cherished the fact that I personally got to make choices that affected the organization and logic of their exhibition department archival system. While archival research and organization may not seem like an urgent issue, this information is actually essential for knowledge about past exhibitions and renovations, current halls, and for the production and planning of future exhibitions. For example, there was a traveling exhibition in the mid-2000s about a whale. The exhibition required that a life-size whale be installed from the ceiling. This required some significant changes to the room's walls, ceilings, and general layout. It may not seem like a major issue at the moment, but it means that any blueprint of the area that was dated prior to this alteration would be significantly off in its measurements. And, because it is a traveling show, the whale was only temporary, but the alterations were permanent. Therefore, an updated blueprint needed to be made to avoid confusion in the future. This became especially significant after the dissolution of the exhibitions department and the later revival of it because there were many old blueprints that had dimensions that did not match the current features of the space. Being off by even an inch in one’s measurement of a room can be tragic for the installation of a future show because items might not fit. This serves as a tangible example as to why archival maintenance and research are so important.

What can be done to help expose the importance of archival work such as this? I believe that keeping the relationship open between our History of Art and Architecture Department at the University of Pittsburgh and the exhibitions department of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History would be the best way to help further develop and explore these archives as well as be mutually beneficial to both institutions. It would be valuable work if a future intern would use my archives and/or guides to conduct research on the institution or exhibits, further develop the archives, or document the current halls and exhibits on display now as a proactive project for the future of the archives. I would love to stay in touch with any future students that might encounter these archives or the wonderful group of staff that make up the exhibitions department.

Learn more about the Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh initiative here

  • Academic Interns
  • Undergraduate Work
  • Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh