Every exhibit is built with a story to tell. If, by the end of its observation, the viewer has not grasped the message of the exhibit, then it has failed to do its job. Thus, everyone involved in the exhibit’s creation must keep one question at the forefront of their mind: does what I am doing and the decisions I am making help tell the message we originally set out to share? Bolton Museum has been working to set up an exhibit for the victims of the Manchester Attack that occurred on the 22nd of May this year. The exhibit is a display consisting of some of the items left on the steps of Bolton Town Hall in memory of the 22 who lost their lives and the 59 who were injured. Throughout the project I have witnessed the process of building a new exhibit and the challenges that come with the process. This project in particular has been filled with nuances and required extra care due to the sensitivity of the subject.
So how did it all begin? Bolton Town Council understood the importance of the memorial items in their care and desired to have them conserved and kept safely at the museum. The museum staff then took in all of the items and assessed which were able to be saved, which would be conserved and which were, unfortunately, severely damaged by the weather. From this step, the conservators and curators began to work with the objects so that each was in its best possible form. This meant freezing the stuffed animals so that any pests that had gotten into them were killed, brushing off dirt from cards and balloons, and wiping away stains from shirts and jerseys.
Items left on the steps of Bolton Town Council
The town council and museum staff knew that they wanted to let the public know what was happening with their mementos and gifts so they decided to create an exhibit at the entrance to the public library (which is in the same building as the museum). But what would the message be? What items would be included considering there were far too many to fit into the display cases? How should these items be displayed?
It was decided that the ultimate goal of the exhibit would be to portray the outpouring of love that the public shared for those affected by the attack. The purpose of the exhibit is to let the public know that their love and kindness is being kept and stored at the museum for future generations to witness. This was the main target and message that the exhibit should portray.
As a result I have been witness to many moments where the staff members have stopped and wondered what to do. How do we choose one item over another when all are important? How do we express to the members of the public that we do not value one over another simply because one made it into the display case and another has not? How can we display each item with honour, not over crowd the exhibit, and still convey the sense of overwhelming compassion?
When lost on what to do, the staff always come back to the one question: what is the story and how will it best be told? The story is the love and support of the people of Bolton. So items that have messages of love and encouragement were chosen for display. Objects are displayed in arrangements that give each their space and yet still manage to give a sense of not having quite enough room for more (because there really isn’t). There are cards and stuffed teddies and flowers and jerseys and candles to represent the way in which every showed their love a little differently. Display boards were made to explain why not everyone’s items are on display and that they are all being cared for to the best of the museum’s ability.
The centrepiece for the exhibit is the plinth holding the books of condolences that viewers will be able to read. The three books contain messages from the public and were available to be written in up until the 30th of June. The books will also be housed with the items from the steps here at the museum and treasured for the future.
While I only had a small part to play in the organization of the exhibit, I feel deeply honoured to have been allowed to work on this project. All stories are important to tell but sometimes there are those that feel extra special and necessary. For me, this is one of those stories; the love of the community centred around Manchester and the coming together to support one another in the face of sorrow. It is a story I will always remember having a hand in telling and be proud of.
I ♥ MCR
Follow along with more of Stephanie’s adventure as an intern at Bolton Museum on her internship blog.
All photos courtesy of Stephanie Whitehead