Before I worked in the exhibits department of a museum, I had never even considered how objects and artifacts in museums were presented. I always focused on the object or the label or the overall feel of the exhibition. It never crossed my mind what went behind taking a delicate object and suspending inside of a glass case.
The first major exhibition I worked on was Making Connecticut and we had to present over 500 objects from our collection. About 1/5th of the objects needed to be mounted by professional mountmakers. We hired ParaMounts, company that specializes in the custom design, fabrication and installation of artifact-specific, conservation-quality mounts for museums, traveling exhibits and private collectors.
It was then I realized just how much effort and skill went into properly showcasing an object. The mountmakers first took inventory of what needed to be mounted. Then they measured the object and traced the every little detail. They conferred with us on how each object should be displayed. Then they traveled back to their shop in West Virginia and molded, cut, soldered, and bent metal roads and plexiglass boards according to their dimensions. They came back to Hartford, checked their mounts with the objects, and finally painted the mount so it matched the color of the cases they would be screwed into.
First and foremost, a great mount needs to delicately hold the object as safely as possible, for as long as possible. The mount cannot damage or potentially damage the object over time. Second, a great mount is invisible to the casual viewer. I walk through Making Connecticut every day and I rarely see the mounts that were made for the objects because they blend in so well with the environment. Third, a great mount gives life to its object. Although some objects need to be conservatively mounted due to their condition, others can benefit from creatively displayed. One of my favorite mounts in the exhibit are the trick ball and cups that were used by a magician named Albert Walker. The way they are shown puts them into context and gives the viewer a fun way to see the object.
Now, I have a much more appreciative view on the behind-the-scenes work that goes behind the creation of an exhibit—and every time I visit a museum I look at the mounts more than the objects!
Nerd alert: Here’s a gallery of my favorite mounts in the Making Connecticut exhibition.
Mike Messina is the Interpretive Projects Associate at the Connecticut Historical Society.