What Inspires a Great Exhibit?

By: Greg Palumbo

Over the last week I took a vacation to Washington DC. In a city with some of the world’s best museums it’s hard for an exhibit designer to stop thinking about how they can incorporate new elements into their own exhibits.  As a Tribal employee, it was important that I made a stop to the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI). I even got a behind the scenes tour from a very accommodating Collections Manager, Gail Joice.  But one of the most inspiring places I visited on my trip is sort of a hidden gem of the Smithsonian museums, the National Postal Museum. 

As I walked though the NMAI it was clear that there was a deep commitment to native peoples in the exhibits. This, I believe, was the intent from the onset of the museum, and it shows in a very appropriate way.  Native co-curators are showcased in the exhibit areas and helped tell their stories. Each exhibit space was somewhat different from each other and reflected the individualities of the Tribes.  The concept of community co-curation is something that we here at Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum will be bringing to our rotating gallery space in the years to come. This will allow the different communities within the Seminole Tribe of Florida to in the development of the exhibits that will tell their stories.  We are also in the process of developing a more consistent advisory committee for both the museum as a whole and for the Interpretive Planning Committee (for those unfamiliar, this committee helps to develop a lot of the programming in the museum).   

Another inspiring element that struck me, and will influence my future exhibit designing was in the “Our Lives Exhibition” gallery.  The exhibit in this gallery features the inclusion of a modern art piece which was seamlessly integrated within the middle of what is essentially a history exhibit.  I say essentially a history exhibit, because nothing at NMAI falls neatly into traditional museum boxes.  The concept of many voices and many hands developing the exhibits in a more community based way lets NMAI push the norms of museum design.  Art mixed with history, with a dash of anthropological explanation, a community center vibe, all make for a vibrant museum that is alive with energy.  The “Our Lives Exhibition” gallery uses the idea of a storm swirling around, encompassing the native world.  From contact, to daily life, to legal battles, these struggles take the form of a hurricane spinning its way around the gallery, but in the middle is a conceptual art piece by Edward Poitras (Saulteaux/Metis) entitled “Eye of the Storm” the label reads,

“This is a place of stillness, a space in time where Indians regrouped, adopting elements of the storm to keep their cultures alive.  The piece features evidence of Native survivance: seeds of corn, cardinal direction markers, pages from the Biblical book of Revelation, and the hat similar to one worn by Wovoka (ca. 1858-1932)… Storms come and go, but life continues.  There is regeneration and renewal, rebirth and rebuilding – always and forever.  Native history is not over it continues as yet unwritten.”

“Eye of the Storm” Edward Poitras (Saulteaux/Metis)

This piece was impactful even without the explanation above and the feeling of a still, reflective space in the middle of a tempest of information and overwhelming abundance of artifacts, exhibited on a scale intended to overwhelm, created a powerful experience as a visitor, an experience that I will not soon forget.  For professionals, we hope that moments like these will instill in the visitor a drive to learn more and understand the subject matter after they have left the space, even if they don’t retain all of the information written in the text. 

Another experience I had in DC, that I will not soon forget, was my visit to the National Postal Museum.  Tucked next to booming Union Station, this museum tends to be overlooked by visitors. However, it is well known in the exhibit world that this is a place that is getting things right.  When you walk into the museum you’re greeted by the all too common security check and then what I think might be one of the only failings in the museum. When you enter the beautiful old post office with grand architecture, you have to be guided by the security guard around the corner to actually enter the museum, which is then past a small information desk and down an escalator.  After talking to some staff, I know that this is something which is being addressed in the next two years and there will be more of a museum presence in the old post office.  However, once you are in the museum you are in for a treat. 

National Postal Museum Main GalleryStamp Collection Display at NPM


The NPM features exhibits that lead you in and out of beautiful immersive environments, interactive elements that even we most senior of kids can have fun exploring, and hierarchical text panels that allow the visitor to get the quick facts and move on or read more in depth when they find something that sparks their interest.  Many elements in this museum can be held up as examples of how things should be done. One element in particular is the way that the museum has identified their audience and reflects it in the exhibit spaces.  The more difficult concepts for younger people to understand (i.e. legal issues, development of the early mail systems, route management) are dealt with in interactive immersive elements that allow the visitor to make discoveries and learn at their own pace while making sure the major themes and concepts are conveyed.  Meanwhile the NPM also knows that they are recognized mainly for the post offices icons such as their mailboxes, trucks, and most of all their postmen and women, and they don’t bury the lead.  As you come down the escalator you enter an atrium that houses the trucks, trains, planes, stagecoach, mailboxes, and postal worker statues that everyone immediately recognizes as postal.  But we can’t forget the largest revenue stream for the post office and how millions of people interact with the post office… stamp collecting.  The NPM has made sure that they dedicated ample space to this pursuit with an area geared toward the youngest stamp collectors in a fun design gallery, to the most serious who can go through dozens of collections racks to view stamps from all over the world.  The NPM also doesn’t forget what every stamp collector wants to know the most either. How can I get more?  The NPM has a special gift shop just for the collectors where they can purchase stamps right from a teller in a classic style old post office counter. 

Stamp Collection Display at NPM


       As someone who is an exhibit designer and who loves museums I didn’t have any allusions that my vacation wouldn’t involve some work.  But with terrific institutions such as those of the Smithsonian I don’t mind punching the clock.  While the National Museum of the American Indian is a must see for any fan of this blog, try to carve out a little time in your DC trip to stop in to the National Postal Museum and see what’s new, you won’t regret either stop. 

GregPalumbo@semtribe.com , Exhibits Manager


Author: Greg Palumbo

Hi, my name is Greg Palumbo and I am the Exhibits Manager at the Seminole Tribe of Florida's Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki-Museum.

2 thoughts on “What Inspires a Great Exhibit?”

  1. perhaps someday you might give thought of how seminole clothing [bright colored patch work] came about. l’m sure a lot of people do not know that the clothes of today wern’t like the late 1800’s

    1. Betty, Thanks for the great comment! Currently on display we have some of the older clothing on loan from the Smithsonian. Unlike today, the Seminoles had very few belongings and therefore wore their clothing until it was worn out. Because of that, we have very few examples of older clothing. We see patchwork start coming around in the 1920s and it became more and more elaborate and even marketable as time went on. Patchwork was most likely born out of necessity when only scraps of fabric were available. It soon became a beautiful tradition. For more information on Seminole patchwork, see http://www.semtribe.com/Culture/SeminoleClothing.aspx.

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