Flashback Friday: Employee Spotlight - The NSHS 'Lady MacGyver' Exhibits Curator
What will you be when you grow up if you have the soul of a poet, the hands of a carpenter, and the heart of a storyteller? An exhibits curator, of course. “There’s an old saying to look at the things you loved as a child to help you find what you want to do when you’re an adult,” Nebraska History Museum exhibits curator and coordinator Tina Koeppe said. “The things I loved as a child were storytelling and old things and being creative.” Those elements shape her current day-to-day activities, which include sending emails, leading a public tour, climbing ladders, printing panels, and designing displays to hold saddles or motorcycles or dolls. “We provide support for the entire museum,” Koeppe says, explaining that while other staff collect and maintain historical artifacts, the exhibits staff works to display the items and interpret them for the public. Facilities staff members Bryce Darling and Charley McWilliams do the carpentry on big exhibit projects and numerous other NSHS staff provide additional expertise and support. But Koeppe and Jennifer Graham, the exhibits artist and only other full-time exhibits staff member, nurture an exhibit from its inception to its completion. Koeppe has a bachelor’s degree in English and a master’s degree in Textile History, both from University of Nebraska-Lincoln, but she has a less academic and more down-to-earth view on how she succeeds in her job. “We are Lady MacGyvers,” Koeppe said. “It’s a lot of troubleshooting and problem solving. Random problems you never expected to have. We do a little bit of everything all day long. We order supplies for maintaining exhibits, we get bids for supplies, we keep exhibits running. Visitors are rough on exhibits so we make sure things are maintained.” But administrative duties are a very small part of being an exhibits curator. “It’s not very glamorous. People imagine curators wandering through esoteric archives but there’s a lot of dirty work. Installing exhibits is a really physical job,” Koeppe said. “You are climbing ladders and crawling around on the floor. You’re lifting, pulling, hanging. You can’t be afraid to get dirty. I wear a titanium wedding band because my hands get so beat up.” Even deciding what she wears to work can be a challenge. “You have to be presentable to the public, and you have to be able to climb around. We wear jeans and very sensible shoes. Then there’s days we’re painting so we wear hospital scrubs to keep clean or clothes from dollar days at the thrift store,” Koeppe said. Koeppe did not see herself in an exhibits curator role when she was in college. “I was going to be a poet,” Koeppe said. “But since there aren’t a lot of jobs for poets, I worked in project management and with administrative stuff. I wanted to do something more creative. I went back to school and interned here in collections. I just love historic clothing and quilts, and I love distilling the stories.” Koeppe is a Lincoln native and
remembers visiting the Nebraska History Museum as a child. “I grew up going to this museum and to Morrill Hall and the capitol,” Koeppe said. “It’s a childhood dream to go back behind the scenes and build the exhibits.” She also credits her high school theater experience, where she worked behind the scenes, for preparing her for her work at the museum. “This is a lot like theater in ways,” Koeppe said. “You’re telling a story in 3D.” Her work even spills into her time off. “I go to museums when I go on vacation,” Koeppe said. “I’m the worst person to see exhibits with. I’m on my hands and knees to see how their displays are made. I’ll call in advance and see if I can meet their staff. I’m more interested in how things are built. I’ll ask them, ‘How do you store your plexiglass vitrines?’ Or I’m on Pinterest looking at designs. It’s a creative subculture exchanging on this forum for free, and it’s public.” Along with being a researcher, writer, and designer, Koeppe has to be a bit of a chemist and understand how artifacts react with the materials used to display them. Everything that touches artifacts has to be conservation quality. “We carve our own mannequins out of a material called Ethafoam. It looks like Styrafoam but does not off-gas chemicals that can cause damage if locked in a case with an artifact,” Koeppe said. “We use a lot of acid-free mat board, unbleached fabric, and polyester quilt battling to build mounts.” Koeppe and Graham work with their conservation colleagues at the Gerald F. Ford Conservation Center in Omaha to make sure the exhibits do not harm the artifacts. Koeppe’s also on a budget, so she has to use materials wisely and recycle whenever possible. The exhibits staff also does as much work as possible in-house. Koeppe prints, cuts, and mounts exhibit labels, posters, panels, and vinyl letters and does repair work to exhibits. She and Graham have a cart stocked with everything from screws to jars of paint. Stealth painting is often a priority. “We touch up paint all the time, but we need to do it without a group of 4th graders getting in the way,” Koeppe said.
But long before Koeppe and Graham can touch up paint, an exhibit needs to be born. Even finding the right kind of idea for an exhibit can take years. An exhibit has to focus on a Nebraska story and needs to be the right kind of topic that incorporates both text and artifacts. “No one wants to read a book on a wall,” Koeppe said. “People want to see stuff. They want to see a particular object. We also have to ask – how will 4th graders respond? Is it family friendly?” During the five years Koeppe has worked in this position, two of her favorite exhibits have been Nebraska's Own Terri Lee: The Best Dressed Doll in the World and Willa Cather, A Matter of Appearances. These exhibits showcased Koeppe’s love of textiles and fashion. Her work on both exhibits demonstrates the diverse skill set Koeppe is required to have. For the Cather exhibit, she started with archival research. She then wrote a “script” that included labels for each of the items in the exhibit. She selected artifacts, photos, and anecdotes to tell the story of Willa Cather based on her clothing. “I went to the UNL and NSHS archives and started reading for references to dress and material culture in Cather’s letters,” Koeppe said. “I got pretty good at reading Willa Cather’s handwriting. And then I got to actually handle Cather’s clothes. She was about my size and height. It helped humanize her and helped to know that such a serious, serious writer loved luxurious fabrics and purples and teals and embellishments and that she had a softer side. I loved that exhibit because it was history and literature and fashion.” The life cycle from idea to display can take years, and the ideas come from a variety of sources.
“We have an executive exhibit committee, but anyone can submit an idea on the web site,” Koeppe said. “The Terri Lee doll exhibit was inspired by an idea from a patron.” Some of the pre-renovation exhibits were four-year projects. All exhibits have to be extensively researched, artifacts have to be considered and prepared for display, labels and scripts need written, and then everything has to be fact-checked. “We are looked at as the experts so we have to be right,” Koeppe said. Then, if multiple people write the script, the text needs to be re-written so the writing styles all match. If an artifact is fragile, it might have to travel to the NSHS’s Ford Conservation Center in Omaha for conservation work before the public can see it. While this process takes a lot of time and work, exhibit staff had additional challenges recently because all of the artifacts were in storage and the galleries were under construction. Koeppe and Graham could not test out the design in the gallery space, and had just three months to build exhibits in their current spaces. They use Google Sketchup to create intricate, detailed designs so the actual installation of the exhibit goes more smoothly. After all, they can’t push around artifacts in display cases like you would do if you’re rearranging the furniture and you don’t like the way the couch looks next to the recliner. The artifacts are sometimes three-hundred-pound highway markers or bulky mail coaches. They also have to make sure that the gallery spaces are compliant with the American with Disabilities Act, and that the lighting and display techniques will not hurt the artifacts. “People say, ‘Why is it so dark in here?”’” Koeppe said. “The answer is that we don’t want to fade our paper or our textiles. So when you install an exhibit, you have one person on a ladder and one person running around with a light meter.” The light meter measures how bright the lights are. The new lights in the museum are much less damaging to artifacts. “These LEDs don’t get as hot,” Koeppe said. “The lights before the renovation were halogens and got really, really hot and you had heat rising to the ceiling which meant our HVAC system was always running. These bulbs aren’t as damaging.” While the newly-renovated galleries are much better for displaying Nebraska’s past, Koeppe said that visitors have been disappointed that former exhibits are no longer on display. Installing a new vapor barrier required that all of the exhibits be disassembled as part of the renovation process.
“Filling the gallery spaces is a priority,” Koeppe said. “But developing, designing, and building exhibits isn’t like waving a magic wand. It’s time consuming and expensive.” Eight people used to be on exhibit staff, but budget cuts have shrunk the staff. While all NSHS staff members fill in if needed (everyone worked together on exhibits right before the museum re-opening), Koeppe and Graham are largely a two-person team. “I would like to build an earth lodge that people could actually walk through. But if just the two of us were going to build an earth lodge, it would take us six months and all we would have is one earth lodge,” Koeppe said. “Ideally, we’ll raise funds or receive donations so we can pay some people to help us do things.” Koeppe said that even people associated with the museum sometimes don’t realize the huge process behind the launch of an exhibit. “I’ve been in meetings where folks say things like “when the exhibit crew comes” or “when they bring the exhibits” and I’m like, ‘You mean me and Jen.’ There’s not a mysterious giant crew. There’s just us,” Koeppe said.