Traveling Exhibits

Thanks to Sara Drumheller, Patrick Golden, Andrew Talkov, and session participants for their contributions to this post.

Early in November some of our C2C staff participated in a roundtable discussion as part of the Southeastern Museums Conference in Williamsburg. The topic was “Traveling Exhibits for Small Museums: What Works?,” and several important points emerged from the presentations and discussion.


  • The typical traveling exhibit format consists of graphic panels that include text. This is not a very effective way to engage participants with information in and of itself. Venues must add artifacts, interactive components, and/ or programs to flesh out the borrowed skeleton and encourage audience participation. Borrowing that foundation, however, can be a cost-effective shortcut for host staff who want to offer additional graphic content and related community events at their sites.
  • For museums establishing traveling exhibits, remember to reach out to libraries as important venue possibilities. According to Andrew Talkov, Coordinator for the “Virginia’s Civil War” traveling exhibit, an initiative of the Virginia Historical Society, libraries make up approximately 70% of the borrowers for their shows. Also, many libraries have an active schedule of public programs. They often possess the staff and the audience to connect with exhibit themes successfully. Some libraries borrow exhibits regularly from the American Library Association, which requires public programming components as a condition of hosting.
  • Flexibility is crucial for smaller host sites. Panels must be able to be configured in various ways and still make sense. The show should still work even if one or two panels must be deleted. Chronological stories, then, are not so compatible for small venues, which often need to arrange in ways that deviate from the expected formation. Themes that can dovetail well with materials that a venue can add in are most desirable. Topics that are too specific to a lender’s location may not have broad appeal for potential borrowers.
  • Consider incorporating technology when building traveling shows, but be aware of its limitations for audience engagement. For example, QR codes are the current fad and hold promise as a way to connect interested exhibit participants with more in-depth information than a panel can provide. However, currently only half of the population has the necessary mobile devices and an even smaller proportion has downloaded the software to enable reading the codes. Additionally, some websites take several minutes to load, leading to participant frustration. An added complication is the lack of cellular service at various potential venues. Read more here about alternatives to relying on visitors’ mobile devices.
  • Borrowing fees for traveling shows should be scrutinized. Preparing the shows for your own institution can be time consuming and involve additional mounting and programming costs. Some organizations create traveling exhibits as a revenue-generating measure. These are often cost-prohibitive for small institutions. The Smithsonian Institution produces Museums on Main Street as a low-cost outreach program for smaller, often rural, venues. Here in North Carolina, several institutions offer low-cost or free traveling shows. Our State Library lends framed images and accompanying labels at no cost, provided the borrower transports the show to another regional venue. Oak View County Park in Raleigh has produced several framed panel exhibits for their own site and staff has adjusted them for travel. Staff have also decided recently to waive borrowing fees. The North Carolina Collection at UNC Chapel Hill offers a free traveling exhibit on the photography of Bayard Wootten.  Preservation North Carolina has a number of graphic panels on North Carolina architecture and related topics. Several cost $600 to rent.

Has your institution tried traveling exhibits as a way to augment the materials your own staff can provide? If so, what worked?


About collectionsconversations

This blog will contain posts from the C2C project staff on a variety of topics related to collections care and disaster preparedness. Enjoy the posts and let us know if you would like additional information or have a topic you would like for us to address.

Posted on December 18, 2012, in Exhibitions, historic sites, museums, public programs and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. This is very helpful information–thanks for this post. I would like to add that the North Carolina Collection at UNC also offers a free photographic exhibition on the photography of Bayard Wooten. Of the places that borrowed this exhibition, one was a courthouse, so that may be another venue to think about when advertising.

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