Hart Cluett Museum and Piloting a Smithsonian Traveling Exhibition
Hart Cluett Museum was one of ten museums selected from across the nation to participate in the Smithsonian Institute Traveling Exhibition Services’ (SITES) pilot program for “The Way We Worked” exhibition. The Museum collaborated with the Smithsonian Institution to develop a unique humanities-based exhibition about local work history. SITES had two goals for this pilot program, to exhibit more of their collections in the wider community and to lower the barrier for smaller museums interested in participating in SITES. Hart Cluett used this pilot program to change the way it developed exhibitions and center their social media around storytelling.
Hart Cluett was the only museum in New York State selected for this collaborative pilot program. The museum applied in late July/early August in 2019, received notice of participation in September, and the exhibition opened to the public on February 28, 2020.
The museum raised $130,000 to support additional programs, pay for the cost of the panel production, repainting of the gallery spaces, for new cases, and to increase staff time.
“The Smithsonian had a basic script that had been used within their institution,” said Stacy Pomeroy Draper, Curator at the Hart Cluett Museum. “So they had a template, they had text, they had a concept but the concept for this pilot program was to allow the participating museums to tailor it to tell their story. The topic of “work” was easy to work with, especially since it has evolved rapidly in the last 18 months.”
The Smithsonian provided the museum with Adobe inDesign software for graphics in order to customize the panels in order to switch out text and images. “Everything had to be approved by the Smithsonian, which was not the way we usually work,” said Draper. “Here in a small institution, yes we sometimes do collaborative projects, but often it tends just to be me and I think that’s pretty typical of small museum staff.” For Draper and museum staff, this added time to the overall exhibition process and a logistical change. The museum provided feedback to the SITES throughout.
The Way We Worked
“The Way We Worked” was adapted from an exhibition originally developed by the National Archives that explored how work became such a central element in American culture. It traced the many changes that affected the workforce and work environments over the past 150 years.
The Smithsonian did not send any physical artifacts but provided between 80–85 digital panels to be used by Hart Cluett. “We made the decision early on not to use every panel from the Smithsonian but we used the majority of them,” said Draper. “We also didn’t change every panel but we did add text to most of them in order to focus the content around Rensselaer County.” Hart Cluett included historical images, art, artifacts, and oral histories from their collection.
The exhibition is divided into four sections: “Where We Work,” “How We Work,” “Who Works?” and “Why We Work.” It covers just over two centuries and showcases early technological advances in agriculture, trade, detachable collars, and iron and steel manufacturing.
“We included historic clothing to help tell individual stories of working whether it was a military or nurse uniform. The clothing stood in for people and topics,” said Draper. “I think the thing that we are still tackling is how work has changed.” Draper got approval from the Smithsonian to change one of the panels regarding home versus office work. “It was so ironic that work was the topic but it was the perfect example of how work evolves and why it evolves, not just because of the pandemic but because of the role of technology.” An advisory panel consisting of more than two dozen area professionals from widely different regional workplaces provided a contemporary perspective on the ever-changing nature of work. The panel included experts with backgrounds in technology, construction, agriculture, education, and workforce development.
“I think this exhibition is special in comparison to a lot of our other exhibitions because it is really personal,” said Samantha Mahoski, Assistant Curator and Outreach Coordinator. “Everyone works in one way or another so to see the police uniform or the nurse uniform you can see people you know and that makes this exhibition personable in ways that other exhibitions haven’t.”
One of the challenges for Hart Cluett and this pilot program was that the museum shut down on March 12, 2021 in response to the pandemic, only two weeks after the exhibition opened to the public. “Even before COVID, we had a conversation about creating something digital that would be interactive and a new way to look at the exhibit that was beyond the physical space,” said Mahoski. “Once COVID started, it became evident that we needed something to keep people engaged because we had spent the last six months promoting it and we were excited to share this with people.” With the permission of the Smithsonian, Mahoski created an Instagram account, @the_wayweworked, that was entirely dedicated to the exhibition. Mahoski needed to create a social media plan for the Smithsonian to review and approve where she outlined the account’s purpose, its goals, and an overview of what would be posted.
“It was fun to walk through the process of creating this Instagram account with the Smithsonian,” said Mahoski. “We wanted this to be fun and engaging because social media should be fun and engaging. We wanted to highlight things that you wouldn’t see at a surface level as another way to present the material and the process because people were interested in behind the scenes, documenting what we were doing.” Despite the challenges caused by the pandemic, the museum took it as an opportunity to review their own social media plan. “It forced me to think about what is the point [for the museum’s social media channels] and what are we trying to do,” said Mahoski.
For this exhibition, the Smithsonian looked at a 150-year time frame. “One of the very first things that we requested was to increase the time frame to 225 years which corresponds to the founding of our county,” said Draper. “This also made it a challenge because it is such a broad swath of storytelling.”
Hart Cluett planned on tackling this challenge with more focused programming, but have not been able to implement the plans because of the pandemic. The @the_wayweworked Instagram account helps the museum go beyond the images and panel text and into more detail. “It takes the place of, in essence, a gallery guide which we would normally do,” said Draper.
The museum hopes to resume its in-person programming for this fall. “We have a series of behind-the-scenes tours throughout the county showcasing different work environments as well as lectures, and more,” said Draper. The Smithsonian extended the exhibition through the end of 2021. Hart Cluett has the rights to their own version of the exhibition for 5 years. “Even though the exhibition isn’t going to be up for 5 years, we can take a component of it or move it to another venue.” Currently, the museum is working on their schedule with the next exhibition focusing on agriculture.
“The direct connection to the present is really clear in ‘The Way We Work’ exhibition,” said Draper. “We’re trying to continue to do that because it helps people understand and gives them something to connect with.”