1. What are the key things to be aware of when planning an archaeological display?
  2. Where can I find more information on planning exhibits that are safe for my artifacts?

What are the key things to be aware of when planning an archaeological display?

‘Solving History’s Mysteries’ at The Virginia Historical Society. Photo by M. Myers. Used by permission from the Virginia Department of Historic Resources

Archaeological exhibits can be very successful ways to communicate discoveries to the public and to raise funds for and interest in future research and excavations. In order to ensure that these exhibits do not cause damage to the artifacts, and ultimately reflect poorly on the archaeological field, there are a number of considerations that should be taken into account when planning the exhibit.

These include:

  • How long the exhibit will be up? Some materials (such as organics) cannot be on display as long as others.
  • What materials will be used to construct the exhibits? Some materials are not safe for use around historic collections. They can ultimately cause long-term damage (particularly to metals) so care should be taken in choosing them.
  • What supports or mounts will be used and how will they be constructed? A poorly constructed mount can lead to stresses within an artifact and may over time cause significant damage.
  • Will the artifacts require conservation? Or, if the artifacts have been conserved will the materials used in their treatment be compatible with the display. Some treatment materials are sensitive to light, others to temperature or humidity and may breakdown in the wrong environment. Often this process is accompanied by visual changes to the artifact.
  • Will mixed materials be exhibited in the same case? Metals, ceramics and organics all have very different exhibit parameters (in terms of their tolerance for light and the relative humidity they require for safe display). This means that cases that will contain mixed materials may need special planning to ensure that everything that is exhibited can be displayed safely.

Who will maintain the cases? Exhibit cases cannot just be created and left. Periodically, they will require dusting and simple maintenance (such as light bulb replacement). If someone with a basic understanding of artifact handling does not do this, damage may be done to the artifacts.

Where can I find more information on planning exhibits that are safe for my artifacts?

The creation of exhibits and the techniques that can be used to make them safe for the artifacts in them are huge topics. The latter has been covered very well in a CD-Rom created by the National Park Service entitled “Exhibit Conservation Guidelines.” It consists of 370 pages of narrative text, technical notes, and illustrations. It is an invaluable resource for all exhibit team members because it presents a framework for incorporating conservation into the exhibition process.

Exhibit Conservation Guidelines is available free of charge to National Park Service sites. It is available for sale to all other persons or organizations for $49.95 from the Harpers Ferry Historical Association:

Copyright © 2006 Colleen Brady, Molly Gleeson, Melba Myers, Claire Peachey, Betty Seifert, Howard Wellman, Emily Williams, Lisa Young. All rights reserved. Commercial use or publication of text and graphic images is prohibited. Authors reserve the right to update this information as appropriate.