GKN: Creating an exhibition

Ever wondered how we create our house exhibitions? Our curator, Henrietta Lockhart, takes you behind the scenes of our latest exhibition, which showcases the history of Guest, Keen and Nettlefold (GKN), one of the UK’s greatest steel producers and tool manufacturers of the twentieth century.

Our GKN exhibition has now opened on the first floor, in the room which was originally the Nettlefolds’ bedroom. When we open the doors on a new display, it is a ‘fait accompli’ which appears to have dropped into place fully formed! However, creating an exhibition like this involves many different tasks and takes months of planning. This blog post gives you an insight into just a few of the processes involved.

First of all, you have to have objects to display. We were fortunate to acquire a large quantity of historic material from GKN and, over the last couple of years, with the help of volunteers, all the objects have been catalogued, given a unique accession number, entered on our collections database, and arranged in a logical order in the stores. During that process, I highlighted ‘star’ objects: items that were particularly exciting because of their age, the story they told, or their visual impact. When I came to think about the exhibition, I was able to hone in on those special items.

Women working at GKN, 1946

Certain exciting items suggested themes for the exhibition. For instance, a cricket score book for 1905 led to sport and recreation as a theme, and photographs of women workers taken in 1946 lent themselves to a display about GKN during the war. Each theme needed research, and volunteers played a crucial role in that. Of course, you can only have as many themes as you have display cases to put them in. The dimensions of the available cases, and the amount of wall space for framed items, had to be taken into account. 

I also had to think about each object’s condition. Some were just too fragile to be displayed.  For some archival objects, I had to order special angled book mounts to preserve them.  Archives are vulnerable to light, so we have ordered window blinds that will filter the light, making the space safer for the objects. Rotation can help preserve objects too, so in some cases I built in a plan to swap an object for a similar one after a year or so. I gradually developed a full object list, on which I could group items into themes and record how I wanted to display each one. Did it need a bookrest, a frame or a backing board? I drew pictures of each wall and display case and roughly sketched in the objects to get an idea of how the display would look.

How it started
How it's going

Text is crucial and, in this exhibition, there are four layers: introductory panels to the whole exhibition, small introductions to each theme, in-case labels, and wall-mounted labels for individual objects. The introductory panels were drafted quite early in the process, and the text and images were sent to a graphic designer.

The object labels can’t be written until you’re sure which objects are included and where they’re going. As for the introductions to each theme, I decided to make use of quotations from our oral history recordings. This meant we had to do quite a bit of transcription, and carefully select each quotation. With all museum interpretation, there is always more to say than you have space for, so ruthless editing is required!

Introductory panel

Once the objects began to be installed, there were last minute changes. A few objects were rejected, a few new acquisitions included. I had to make sure that the object list was constantly updated, because one of the final tasks is to update the database with the new location for all the objects.

This exhibition will not be static. We may swap objects and introduce different themes over time. The important thing is that visitors now have access to some of the unique items we hold in our archive!

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