Lively learning: Exhibits manager brings life to Putnam Museum's displays

Lively learning: Exhibits manager brings life to Putnam Museum's displays

From the Q-C@Work: People who make the community a great place to live series

DAVENPORT — Though fixed, the mannequin's pose atop the vintage bicycle was a tale of motion. The woman was caught midpedal, a woman with a destination. The reel-to-reel tape recorder in the bike's basket, huge and archaic by modern standards, represented the stories she hoped to find when she arrived. The suit, bright orange and equally vintage, was a sliver of another tale, one this woman told about herself to the world.

"I like this one because it is such a bright, bright way to start the exhibit," said Shaun Graves, the Putnam Museum & Science Center's exhibits manager.

Graves' design for his snapshot representation of the character Skeeter Phelan from Kathryn Stockett's novel "The Help" was meant to give a sense of life and bring the world created by the author close enough for a visitor to feel the breeze as that worn bicycle zoomed by and hear the clink and rattle of its chain and pedals.

"The books come alive, so why not make the costumes come alive as well?" Graves asked on a recent morning. Around him, other displays from the exhibit of literary heroines told the stories of other authors and books, including "To Kill a Mockingbird," "Little Women" and "Like Water for Chocolate." 

Each was mounted on a low, flat-topped platform and walled in by clear, dinner-table-sized panels.

Graves said the idea was to give visitors an intimate interaction with the material while still maintaining their safety and the security of the artifacts.

The dim lighting made the space seem cozy, though it was big.

It also encouraged the eye toward the dozen or so displays of literary heroines, while minimizing the exposure of the clothing to light, Graves said. Long-term exposure can degrade the quality of clothing, not something a museum wants in its period examples.

Graves, 52, of Moline, has been designing exhibits for the Putnam for about six years. His interest started first as a father visiting the museum with his children, then he began to volunteer, and that turned into the job he has now.

Designing an exhibit starts with a conversation among the staff members about the story it can tell, Graves said.

"What are we going to do?" he said. "What's the point?"

The whole process from concept to presentation can take months.

Graves said the scale of an exhibit depends on the information it is meant to convey, the space available, what the Putnam has in its collection that helps tell that story, and what is required to maintain those artifacts.

Early in the process, he often builds a small prototype display to get a sense of how the finished display might look, Graves said. Still, determining whether concept and reality match often is not possible until the final piece — the lighting — is added.

For the exhibit of literary heroines, the big challenge was the mannequins, Graves said. The design required dynamic, lively, lifelike poses, not just the static, standard display poses. Mannequins capable of those poses, however, are actually a challenge to find.

So Graves went the Frankenstein route, using parts from different mannequins to create new ones tailored to the exhibit. This included searching for needed parts online and visiting going-out-of-business sales.

The cycling mannequin was actually a composite of three others, he said.

"It really is a kind of scavenger hunt, where you find these things," Graves said.

Most of the other material was drawn from the Putnam's collection, but some was donated, he said.

The platforms were built in the Putnam's workshop, and Graves said he might be able to use them in future exhibits.

As he spoke, Graves was moving from display to display, removing the clear panels with the help of a small screwdriver. As he removed each, he carried it to a nearby trolly and added it to the vertical stack.

It was time for the literary heroines to have a rest, to make way for fresh exhibits that were coming. Some of those waited in a nearby room, still crated and stacked. They were new stories with which the Putnam hoped to captivate and enlighten its visitors.


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