New exhibit now open — A Century of Great Songs: E. L. Jorgenson’s Remarkable Hymnal–(and some reflections on creating exhibits for archives and special collections)

I spent much of the last year reading and selecting items for the newest exhibit on display at ACU Special Collections. The result is below, which can be seen in person in Abilene and also fully online at the links below. The descriptive text accompanying each scan corresponds to the item labels in the display cases.

For what its worth here are some thoughts about how I built the exhibit, and I hope they are useful for someone like me who finds themselves doing exhibits on the fly without training. This is neither a how-to guide nor a philosophical reflection on any number of aspect of collection development or exhibition theory. It is a retrospective play-by-play. I don’t commend this as a model of what ought to be, rather it is description of what was. Your mileage may vary, take it for what it’s worth.

I learned exhibits like my mother learned to swim. As the story goes the family was enjoying a day at the river and I think it was an uncle who was throwing all the kids off a boat dock into the water. My mother protested that she didn’t know how to swim. He said, ‘sink or swim’ as he tossed her in. And so she learned to swim by swimming. Sometimes you take lessons, sometimes someone teaches or shows you, sometimes you hold your nose and learn to swim.

Several years ago I was told to replace an exhibit by a certain date. ‘Come up with some ideas and we’ll discuss it,’ functioned for me like ‘sink or swim’ did for my mother. So I learned exhibits by doing it. I did not take a course, did not go to a seminar, did not have a mentor or teacher. The prerogative to wave it off into a colleague’s lap or assign it to an underling was not mine to enjoy. I was able to hold my nose a little before I landed in the water.

I learned something then (actually learned a lot about a lot, but this post is about exhibits) that stuck with me. The process I used was simple and was born out of necessity. And since it seems there has been one deadline for a new exhibit after another, more or less, ever since, I remain guided by the same basic approach. Again, maybe it is helpful for you to hear me rehearse my process out loud, so here we go.

Having no idea where to start, I started with what I appreciated about museum exhibits. For me, as a consumer of exhibits, I like a good story. I also like an accurate and concise description.

What I realized, in about the same fashion as hitting the water for the first time, is that in practice…when it actually comes down to making an exhibit, those are mutually exclusive. ‘Good story’ and ‘concise description’ are mutually exclusive.

You will have to choose which will be dominant. And get over it that the other will have to be recessive.

For the Jorgenson exhibit, I had a hundred-year-old hymnal that I wanted to celebrate. It also helped that it was not just old, and at a milestone age, it is an important hymnal. Anyone can keep printing something for 100 years, or a thousand, but really, is it even important? The Jorgenson hymnal is important, and that became the focus of my research as I tried to sift the literature and the displayable objects (anything and everything is not displayable) to see what emerged that could be deployed to tell the story. Actually, first step is to determine what story there may be. Or which story to tell. Obviously the ‘good story’ angle in this case was going to be dominant.

So I started reading and went where the footnotes led. The ‘suggestions for further study’ at the end of the link below consists of the first and best places I went to begin. But a lot of work was in turning journal pages, one at a time to get a feel for the story. Word and Work especially, but there were others. I found the Gospel Guardian ad, the World Vision, Christian Leader, Firm Foundation and 20th Century Christian, and the Christian Chronicle articles and ads only because I went looking. It helped a lot that as the project continued the digitized issues of Chronicle became available. What didn’t make the cut this time also came through page-by-page discovery: Gospel Broadcast, Gospel Advocate, American Christian Review, Macedonian Call, Christian Standard, Biblical Research Monthly, and more.

At this point I had the basic chronological and narratival structure in my head. The chronology helps a lot just for skeletal structure. The narratival structure depends on conflict and resolution at two key points in this story. First, look for the tension that produced the hymnal. Tension in the young Jorgenson, and tension in the landscape of the hymnal publishing world of the early 20th century. There is also some tension in how Restoration congregations sang their faith, and which vehicles (i.e. hymnals and hymn-books) they employed to do it, and the limitations of those vehicles. That tension is resolved by the publication of Great Songs. That ELJ did what he did, and what he did in doing it, resolved that set of narratival tensions. Then there is a tension internal to Churches of Christ over the book and premillennialism. That tension is resolved, ultimately, when the new publishers deleted ELJ’s name from the title page; also it seems significant that other and later books began playing the hymnal game by the standards ELJ set (sometimes literally lifting pages from his book to do so).

I do not explicitly lay this out in the exhibit itself, but I think a discerning reader can see it at work. The rising and falling plot tensions, and the resolutions, make for a good story and hook the reader.

The driving point of this exhibit is to address how this hymnal endured and why it was important.

As for practicalities about exhibit design and construction. I have four table-top cases, two a bit deeper, and two rather shallow. Each case needs to stand on its own as much as possible, and earn its keep as one stage in a larger sequence. I do not number the cases since our display area is only open when staff are available. So I can guide viewers from case to case. The arrangement from case-to-case and within each case took about a month. I set something up, left it, looked at it, then adjusted. Item placement and arrangement is one thing. Whether to prop them up (or not) and how is another. All of it is trial-and-error. I would work a while, then go do other things that needed to be done. Come back and revise.

Once I was fairly satisfied with how many items I could get by with (sometimes less really is more; sometimes more is more) I put everything back that I knew would not make the cut for display. That means what survives is ready for scanning. With this Great Songs exhibit, I wanted covers and title pages, and good high-res scans of all the articles. A student worker scanned them and followed a file-naming convention I devised so the scans would auto-sort into case order. Here is an example of that file-naming convention for the cover for the first edition, first printing of Great Songs:

ACU_Exhibit_2021GreatSongs_Case1_GreatSongsofTheChurch_1921_Front

I decided years ago that anything we scan that we have in our own collection gets ACU as a prefix. That is also a way for anyone who downloads it to know it is from ACU. We could utilize the embedded metadata features in the image file itself, and we probably should, but at some point you have to realize you can’t do everything they way you’d like. Especially not with a staff of two people. The other elements, and their order, in this file-naming sequence I think will make sense.

At this point I began drafting the lead text for each case. In these I tell the story and set up the items in each case. At the link below they are the longer thematic paragraphs before a group of photos. With those drafted I turned to item descriptions. The process here is to condense as much as possible, as clearly as possible, to get things down to a card that does not take up too much space at 18 or 20 pt font. The viewer has to see it in order to read it, and I’m not writing a book, only an item description. So, condense, condense, condense. Get to the point in as small a space as possible.

Then I print the text, cut to size and go back to the cases for another round of arrangement. The placement of cards in the cases changes the look of things, and that means another couple of days of trial and error.

Finally, at some point, decide to stop. Declare enough is enough, make sure everything is spelled correctly, items are in the final places, print the final cards and declare it finished.

Now with scans and text complete, I turned an analog exhibit into a wordpress blog post. Some edits here and there. For example, in a display case I can describe an item below or left or right which will not make clear sense to a reader of a blog post. So, after another round of careful proofreading, I declare it, too, finished.

And with one exhibit finished, I begin to chew on ideas and prep work for next year. I leave main exhibits up for one calendar year.

Perhaps this outlay of my thought process is helpful for those among us who mount exhibits. Perhaps I’ll do it again in the future. Good luck.