Where do we go from here? The life and times of temporary exhibitions

By Intern Elisabeth Hart
Female staff member wearing blue gloves prepares to remove a brown Girl Scout uniform from an exhibition case

Why don't our exhibitions last forever? Where do they go when we take them down? Intern Elisabeth Warsinske reports on the afterlife of a beloved display.

Have you ever wondered about the afterlife of a temporary exhibition? What happens when the display case is opened back up and the objects that spent months nestled together start the next phase of their museum life? The exhibition I'm talking about in particular is a "History Highlights" exhibit which went on display on June 1, 2012, marking the 100th anniversary of Girl Scouts of the USA, and was taken down in April 2014.

The Girl Scouts display opened on June 1, 2012, in time for the Girl Scouts “Rock the Mall” event a week later, bringing record numbers of visitors to the museum
The Girl Scouts display opened on June 1, 2012, in time for the Girl Scouts "Rock the Mall" event which brought record numbers of visitors to the museum

In 1912, before American women could even vote, Juliette Gordon Low began the Girl Scout organization for empowering future generations of girls to become leaders. The exhibition that explored her legacy has come down now, but for nearly two years, the objects displayed together were essentially like roommates. Uniforms from as early as 1918 and as recent as 1990, a box of Girl Scout cookies from 2012, a pocket knife from 1960, a photo album from 1919, and a cooking kit from 1955 are just some of the objects that shared this space despite the differences in their age, material, and individual conservation needs.

Clothing and textiles like uniforms can only be displayed for a few months at a time due to their delicacy and sensitivity to light. The same goes for paper objects. Metal items such as the cooking kit and the pocket knife have a much longer "shelf life" (so to speak). So how do we create a harmonious living environment for all of these various items? The objects that can tolerate more exposure to light stay in the exhibition longer while the light sensitive objects are rotated, swapped out for alternate objects. Every few months, the two Girl Scout uniforms at the center of the display were swapped out for two different uniforms—there were eight different uniforms in all. A Girl Scout calendar and the 1919 photo album were also displayed. Since their pages and pictures will fade with exposure to light, they were turned periodically as well.

While 20 of the Girl Scout objects were on display downstairs, I was upstairs doing an inventory of the museum's whole Girl Scout collectionalmost 200 pieces! I looked up each object in the American History database and made sure that each object's record was correct and complete so that everything was accounted for before the exhibition came down. When Girl Scout items didn't have records, I created them. Some recently cataloged uniform items didn't have a catalog number (each object's personal identification number) markings, so I made fabric labels and sewed them into the clothes.

Taking down the Girl Scout exhibition. A museum professional always handles the collection skillfully, carefully, and, of course, with photogenic grace.
Taking down the Girl Scout exhibition

After their time in the sun (or the shade as it was), the objects were removed from their display mounts with glove-clad hands and moved in cozy cardboard boxes to permanent homes. These homes come in different forms. Sometimes when an exhibition comes down, the objects are moved into museum storage, either in the museum itself or in an off-site storage facility. Some objects may get an extra "15 minutes" of fame when they are placed into another exhibit, while other objects are photographed and find homes on the museum's website and Flickr page

Moving day at the Museum Support Center
Moving day at the Museum Support Center

In the case of the objects related to Girl Scouts, they went to one of the off-site Smithsonian storage facilities called the Museum Support Center (MSC), where some 40% of the Smithsonian collections are stored. This storage center, which was established in 1983, is the size of large college campus with five giant storage warehouses called "pods," each holding different types of collections from many Smithsonian museums. 

material and subject. Mainly paper objects and books are tucked into this drawer. The Girl Scout objects are comfortably situated in drawers inside large cabinets, sorted and grouped together by
The Girl Scout objects are comfortably situated in drawers inside large cabinets, sorted and grouped together by material and subject. Mainly paper objects and books are tucked into this drawer.

Though the objects are out of sight at MSC, they are far from out of mind. Each exhibition at the museum gets a permanent file and each object has a record which can be used to plan future exhibitions. With their exhibition fame behind them, the Girl Scout objects are now resting in individual cushioned boxes that are safely locked in cabinets. Until we see them again, we wish them a well-deserved rest. Who knows when they will be called upon again to do their duty for the nation?

Elisabeth Hart is an intern in the Home and Community Life division. To learn more about the history of the Girl Scouts, check out these blog posts: Collecting a century of Girl Scouts, Summer memories of Girl Scouting in 1919, and 100 years of Girl Scouts parts 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5.