Don't Ask for the Mona Lisa

Guidelines on how to propose, prepare, and organise an exhibition

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Don't Ask for the Mona Lisa - Guidelines on how to propose, prepare, and organise an exhibition
By Heather Birchall, Amelia Yeates

The writing and publication of these guidelines was prompted by an event held by the Committee of the Museums & Exhibition Members Group of the Association of Art Historians (AAH), at the AAH Annual Conference at Manchester Metropolitan University in 2009. The session, entitled Curators Don’t Bite, attracted a large crowd of academics and museum professionals eager to hear about the experiences, both positive and negative, of other academics and curators who had organised exhibitions. Following the event, it was clear that there was a demand for some advice on how to propose exhibitions and, once a show had been agreed, the practicalities of working with curators and other museum staff. This publication therefore aims to provide an introduction to key aspects of exhibition curation, from the early planning stages to the design and opening of the show.

Of course, every exhibition is different and, whilst this document cannot cover every aspect of exhibition planning, it does provide assistance to those organising both small-scale and large exhibitions, as well as offering guidance on working with paintings, sculptures, and contemporary installations. Whether your exhibition is to be held at a large venue, such as Tate Britain, with a team of curators, conservators, and technicians, or a smaller institution with only one or two members of staff, the intention of the authors has been to outline the possible eventualities and responsibilities associated with exhibition planning.

The first part of this publication gives guidance on why and how to propose an exhibition, and offers general advice on exhibition planning and installation. It describes the roles performed by certain staff members in galleries and museums, and the responsibilities they carry when an exhibition is being put together. Some technical terms are highlighted in bold in the main text, and defined in the

The second part comprises case studies by academics who have worked on exhibitions for both large organisations, such as Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, and small venues, including the Henry Moore Institute. This section also includes an interview with an exhibition designer that sets out some of the demands of fitting the design around the show’s theme, and sheds light on how to create a space that doesn’t overwhelm the exhibits. 

At a time when museums and galleries are constantly tightening their budgets, a page at the end of this publication includes a list of funders to be approached if the museum’s budget cannot cover all the costs associated with the show, such as producing a catalogue or organising an associated study day or conference. Although the publication is primarily aimed at academics, and also freelances and students who may be considering putting together an exhibition proposal, we hope that it will also be useful for curators in the early stages of their careers working in a museum or gallery.