Backstage Pass: Exhibits

by Alexandria Brown, Research Librarian

Three to four times a year, Napa County Historical Society puts up a new exhibit. Though I spend most of my time as the Research Librarian verifying facts, researching homes and residents, supervising volunteers and interns, maintaining the website and blog, and writing historical articles for publication, every quarter or so, my job turns solely to exhibits.

With the help of the NCHS Board of Directors, we select all the exhibits for the upcoming years, but we still leave flexibility to add or subtract, depending on various factors. For example, our most recent exhibit, Farming in Napa County, was a late addition to the roster, and came about during our Annual Meeting in May when we honored the Napa County Farm Bureau for their centennial anniversary. On the other hand, our current exhibit, Weird Weather & Natural Disasters (which launched this past Wednesday!), was planned as far back as 2012.

So, how do we actually go about creating an exhibit? It sounds easy: pick out a bunch of photos and documents, scan them, print them, hang, and voilà! In reality, it takes several weeks of hard work to get everything ready to show.

First, we go through all our materials in our very extensive collection. Keep in mind, that’s thousands of documents, photos, and maps to sift through. Then we narrow down that original massive pile to a much more manageable hundred or so pieces. Then the layout stage. Once we see what we have (and what we are missing), we start organizing the exhibit into sections or into chronological order; it’s all about determining what story we want to tell and balancing that with what people want to see. We pull out images or add new ones obtained from other historical organizations. For Weird Weather & Natural Disasters, Sharpsteen Museum of Calistoga History, Napa Valley Museum, St. Helena Historical Society, Napa Firefighters Museum, and local residents all graciously contributed images for the exhibit.

After deciding on the images and arrangement, we start scanning. This is usually a several-person job, and can take several days to complete. The images are run through Photoshop, then sized using InDesign, which, again, can take several more days. Then, after multiple trips to a local copy and print store, we frame and hang and reframe and rehang until everything’s up and perfect. To celebrate, we have an opening reception and sometimes a program or event to go along with it. After all that hard work, it’s nice to wind down!

And that’s how the magic happens. If you haven’t had a chance to see our brand new exhibit, curated by myself and our fabulous new Exhibit Curator Intern Katie Yelland, you definitely should. We also welcome you to share your memories with us and become a part of our exhibit. We hope to see you soon!