Exhibiting Skills

During the first week of February, The Huntington hosted colleagues from public gardens around the country who had a common educational goal: getting more value from plants. Ten people spent a week in a workshop called “Exhibiting Skills,” building mock-ups of interactive exhibits and testing them out with visitors inside The Rose Hills Foundation Conservatory for Botanical Science.

“Exhibiting Skills” builds on The Huntington’s own experience creating and running “Plants Are Up to Something.” When that exhibition opened in the Conservatory in 2005, The Huntington became a national leader in interpreting living plant collections. That leadership was recognized by the Excellence in Exhibition Award from the American Association of Museums.

A 2010 grant from the Institute for Museum and Library Services helps us to fulfill that leadership role by helping other public gardens develop the skills to interpret their collections as well. During the course of the three-year grant, 50 gardens in North America will send staff to The Huntington for a week of intensive training. Each garden commits to installing three new exhibits with living plants.

“What is unique to this training is the emphasis on plants,” said one participant. “It really was a switch to think about plants as primary subjects of exhibits and not just as a backdrop to pollinators.”

The initial round of participants came from as far away as New England and as close as Pasadena. Kidspace Children’s Museum and the Los Angeles County Arboretum each sent someone for the week, as did Brooklyn Botanic Garden, Cleveland Botanical Garden, Five Rivers MetroParks, Greensboro Children’s Museum, Klehm Arboretum & Botanic Garden, Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden, North Carolina Botanical Garden, and Wellesley College Botanic Gardens.

Rachel Vourlas and I led the workshop, with help from Beverly Serrell. Rachel, The Huntington’s botanical education manager, drew on her extensive experience leading professional development programs for informal educators as well as managing the Conservatory. Beverly has more than 30 years of experience helping public gardens and museums of all types to create effective exhibitions. As the co-curator of “Plants Are Up to Something,” I was able to pass on what I’ve learned about planning plant exhibits.

The group worked very hard, sharing experiences while developing new exhibit ideas. Participants paired up to create a prototype of an exhibit and then let the public interact with it. Armed with feedback, they made some changes and tried again. These rounds of improvement ensure that, in the end, the intended message is delivered to the intended audience.

We’re now gearing up for the next round of “Exhibiting Skills,” scheduled for November. Keep a look out and you may even get to try some new exhibits!

Captions: Participants of the “Exhibiting Skills” workshop, held in the Botanical Center; participant Grant Parkins, from the North Carolina Botanical Garden, building a prototype.

Kitty Connolly is the strategic initiatives manager in The Huntington’s education department.

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