Exhibition planning and development is a complex process at the best of times. For curators like me it generally demands a fair bit of research to start with, which lets us identify key themes and topics. We then need to select objects from our collections, do a bit more research, write interpretation panels and object labels, decide on the exhibition layout and come up with related activities. Usually, we also source and edit oral history clips and videos to bring the objects to life.
Almost all of the above depends on vital assistance from colleagues. Our Exhibitions Officer designs the interpretation panels, graphics and floor plans, our Exhibitions Technician constructs plinths and ‘set dressing’, and our AV Technician helps with the audio-visual material. We also discuss and plan activities with the Learning & Access staff. It’s a lot of work and a big team effort!
Towards the end of 2019 we began developing a new exhibition showcasing our extensive cinematography collection. A few cinema objects are on permanent display at Summerlee Museum but most are in storage so temporary exhibitions are a great way to share the material with a wider audience. In recent years we’ve displayed a range of cinema projectors, furnishings, home cine kits and professional film-making equipment in exhibitions such as Cinemania and Behind the Scenes.
This time, we decided to focus on the picture-going experience in mid-twentieth century Britain. We wanted to develop an exhibition that would reflect the glitz and glamour of cinema’s heyday, when the silver screen transported Hollywood film stars into working class lives in glorious technicolour. In this golden era, tickets were affordable and people queued around the block to enjoy the latest epic at their local picture house.
So far, so good. Now let’s bring COVID-19 into the equation…
We’ve all had frustrating days at work when the internet drops out or the server goes down. We temporarily can’t access files and this makes us realise how dependent we’ve become on electronic systems. This took on a whole new meaning when the lockdown restrictions began on 23rd March and our museums’ doors closed for the foreseeable future.
As a part-time employee (and having self-isolated the week before lockdown began) I was without access to CultureNL’s server from mid-March until the end of May, when a networked laptop finally became available. I was reliant on my ever-helpful colleagues to send me material where possible. Juggling emails, phone catch-ups and video conferencing calls while seeking out file transfer solutions have all become routine.
There are other side effects to lockdown life. Those of us working from home in the time of coronavirus (and not just in the museum sector) are experiencing odd lapses in concentration, and spells of fear, sadness and uncertainty. Some of my colleagues have been ill, others are dealing with childcare or family issues. For the most part, being able to work from home has helped me retain a semblance of normality. There are definite bonuses too, such as flexible working hours and ready access to the kitchen – though the latter could also be considered a hazard!
Our exhibitions team rose to the challenge. They did a fantastic job of putting together luscious layouts, beautiful backdrops and gorgeous graphics from the confines of their homes. There’s only so much you can do without access to the tools of your trade, though. By the end of May my colleagues had done as much as possible and were furloughed. But I’m still able to work on object labels and other content, and the show must go on.
Sadly, it won’t be possible to install Glitz & Glamour: The Golden Age of Cinema in Summerlee for July 2020 as planned but it’s not the final curtain call. For now, you can view some of our cinema collection online and explore stories about North Lanarkshire’s cinema heritage. And the exhibition has been rescheduled for early 2021, so watch this space…
About the Author
Jenny Noble has been the Social History Curator at CultureNL (formerly North Lanarkshire Council) since 2009.