Let's say that your exhibition planning process is going along swimmingly and, whoa, your collection has a serious dearth of supplemental materials--the images and reproduction documents that often give history/culture exhibitions credibility and variety. Where do you turn for contextual information on your labels or panels?
Well, this is something we know a thing or two about. I sat down yesterday with Tiffany Ruhl, resident image expert for the Museum on Main Street (MoMS) program at the Smithsonian. Tiffany has spent hundreds of hours trolling the Internet for images to use in their upcoming exhibition Journey Stories, which will begin its national tour next year.
Q. Let's say a small historical society is developing an exhibition about American lighthouses. Where would they start?
A. One good place to begin is the prints and photographs division at the Library of Congress (LOC). The library has myriad searchable databases with fairly complete tags for all of the records. Most of the time, an image pops right up. And, the great thing about LOC is that many of the images are public domain, so you don't actually have to pay for rights or usage, you just pay for the reproduction or scan. One of the library's most all-encompassing databases is American Memory (showing results from many different libraries and archives). There's so much information here, it will make your head spin. Just a basic search of the word "lighthouse" yields more than 900 records--everything from paintings, to prints, to newspaper articles.
Q. Are there other good digital resources available?
A. It may depend on the topic that's being researched, but think about region. (Tiffany says that this may be the absolute best way to get started). What states/counties might have the most information about your subject, lighthouses? It might be a good idea to check with the Maine State Library or any other state that seems to fit the bill. If you're researching Spanish missions, for example, check state libraries in Texas, New Mexico, and California. And, don't underestimate the breadth of college and university holdings either. There's some great stuff in little-known special collections out there. The National Archives is also a gem, although the website is a bit dense. Remember, that you can always call a reference librarian. In fact, I think picking up the telephone--as old-fashioned as it may seem--often delivers the best results. The folks working behind-the-scenes know 200 percent more than what appears in the records' metadata. Call, call, call!
Want to know about costs and the process of securing image rights? Check out next week's post!