Visualizing an Exhibit

One of the most important things any exhibit can do is catch your eye. If the exhibit can get you to look at it, then half of its job is already done. Even while I was a tour guide, one of the first things I was taught how to do was to directly reference the objects around me while I was talking, since it’s much more interesting for a visitor to look at a cool old item than it is to watch me speak.

By the nature of how 2020 has been as a whole, the exhibit got changed from being a physical exhibit to a virtual one, but the concept holds online as well. I had to make sure the images I chose to display were both eye-catching and relevant, while allowing me to talk about the Reynolds family and the Homestead. Easy, right?

Thanks to the lovely people at the Reynolds Homestead, I had plenty of images to work with. Some were photographs of events taking place at the Homestead, there was the previously mentioned book by Nannie Tillie, and scans of various items that have been donated to the Homestead over the years. All of the items were given proper documentation in the form of metadata, so I knew exactly what they were and how they related to the Reynolds family, if they did at all. If that last comment confused you, then you would be amazed to hear that in my experience, museums and historic sites often have a lot of bits and bobs donated to them that are completely unrelated to the topic or period the site discusses. This time was no exception either; one of the items I was given was sheet music for the VT Corps of Cadets band.

Regardless, I was extremely lucky to be given many, many items that were visually interesting and provided good material to talk about. In fact, there were several items that I wanted to include, but ended up leaving out for various reasons. Some of these items included:

  • A personalized letterhead from R.J. Reynolds’ original office in Winston-Salem,
  • An 1816 deed describing 25 acres of Patrick County land, and
  • A sketch of Nancy Susan Reynolds from an unknown year.

My process of elimination for potential exhibit candidates involved me asking myself a series of questions about the item:

  • Is the item visually interesting and easily identifiable?
  • Does it provide an avenue to talk about a topic for at least one paragraph?
  • Is there an item that accomplishes the same task more succinctly?

For example, I eliminated the 1816 deed because although it was cool to look at, the entire document was in faded cursive which made it hard to identify as a deed. Thus it failed to meet criteria #1. The sketch of Nancy Susan Reynolds, though unique in that it was the only sketch of a family member we had, did not meet criteria #3 as we had many photos of Nancy Susan, and thus had several items that would serve the same purpose more effectively.

After I sorted through the items and decided which ones would make good additions to the exhibit, I found a consistent theme with them that gave me a new direction with which to go for my research. Most of the items I found and wanted to include were related to specific family members, be it photos or journals or letters. So my next goal post-tobacco research was to find out more about specific family members and learn which ones had unique impacts that I could talk about.