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Preparing Exhibits — Interview with Bonnie Parr

An Interview with Bonnie Parr, Historical Documents Conservator at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum

Susan Howell, Cataloging and Metadata Librarian, Southern Illinois University Carbondale

For 2019-2020, the CARLI Preservation Committee is sharing a series of interviews with preservation managers, conservators, and other library specialists who graciously described their experiences on preservation and conservation topics of interest to CARLI libraries. This month, Susan Howell, Cataloging and Metadata Librarian at Southern Illinois University asked Bonnie Parr, Historical Documents Conservator at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum (ALPLM), to share some of her experiences working with exhibits. Lance Tawzer, ALPLM Exhibits Director similarly contributed his expertise. Carla Smith, ALPLM Registrar, and Mike Casey, ALPLM Exhibit Designer were consulted as well.

Interview with Bonnie Parr on Preparing Exhibits with input from her colleagues Lance Tawzer, Carla Smith, and Mike Casey:

What is the Preservation role you play in your institution? Can you give us a summary?

BONNIE PARR: My position is Historical Documents Conservator at the ALPLM. I manage an in-house conservation laboratory for the treatment of materials in the library’s collections, monitor the environment in collection storage areas, assist museum exhibit staff with conservation issues concerning the display of artifacts, and conduct outreach activities such as responding to preservation information inquiries and presenting workshops on preservation and conservation topics.

What level of expertise do you feel you bring to creating exhibits and preserving the objects displayed?

BONNIE PARR: My role in creating exhibits is all about preserving the objects displayed. I assess the condition of requested items. These are the issues I think about -is the item too fragile to handle? how light-sensitive is it? is it in good enough condition to put in a display environment for the length of the exhibit? does the item need conservation treatment to stabilize it before display? how do we mount the item to protect it from stress during display?

How do you choose what to display?

BONNIE PARR: Typically, our research historians choose items for display, although museum staff, library staff, and exhibit staff have curated exhibits in the past. There are themes in the ALPLM’s “Journeys” galleries – Lincoln’s home, work, and political life, decisions and actions Lincoln made during the Civil War, reactions to his assassination, and his legacy to the nation and the world. The museum has three other galleries that are not tied to specific themes and can be more open to a variety of exhibits – the Treasures Gallery (which highlights Lincoln-related items of significance from the ALPLM collections), the Illinois Gallery (exhibits have run the gamut from artwork, historical events, social issues, highlighted items from the ALPLM collection, and borrowed touring exhibits – not necessarily about Lincoln), and the Ghost Queue (a case in the waiting area for one of the museum shows, “Ghosts of the Library,” featuring exhibits covering a wide range subjects, usually highlighting ALPLM collections). Display spaces in the library include an open atrium area and wall cases at the entrance to a reception room. Like the Illinois Gallery, there have been a variety of exhibit types in these spaces.

What is the goal of exhibiting?

LANCE TAWZER: There are multiple goals and reasons for providing changing exhibits. Primarily our goal is to provide changing and on-going interpretive story-telling as a mission-based function to be relevant to our community. Our educational goals include ensuring the public trust of integrity and scholarship in our interpretation. Our subject matter topics for exhibit themes are developed as a committee to address the changing landscape of history and to provide a variety of topics from the challenging subjects to more celebratory content.

How does space relate to the exhibit and what you choose to display?

BONNIE PARR: Case size determines how many and what items (and their mounts) we can display. Most galleries have secure cases (wall and free-standing) for the display of historical items.

The Illinois Gallery and the library atrium are more flexible spaces where walls and cases are used in combination, as appropriate for the items on display.  Consideration of the flow of visitors walking through these spaces and the exhibit “story” determines placement of cases, wall displays, temporary platforms (for large-scale objects like carriages), and temporary walls.

Does exhibiting in one space draw attention to another space in the museum?

BONNIE PARR: The “Journeys” in the museum are connected and guide visitors from one space to another, ending with the Treasures Gallery. We hope visitors see the other exhibits (they can’t fail to see the display in the “Ghost Queue” case while waiting for one of the museum’s shows). Interestingly, many museum visitors come across the street to see the library because of how the museum’s exhibits highlight the library’s collections.

How do you want visitors to experience the exhibit?
  • Displayed in chronological order?

LANCE TAWZER: Each story is told utilizing the best approach. History is not always interpreted chronologically; sometimes the stories are told thematically.

  • Relationship of different objects to each other and the exhibit as a whole?

LANCE TAWZER: Objects and artifacts are not usually the story, per se, they are usually chosen for how they help provide context and authenticity to support a story.

If you have an interactive exhibit:
  • What technology do you make use of?

LANCE TAWZER: We make use of touchscreen interactives, mechanical interactives, simple flip interactives, tactile components, motion sensor technology.

  • Comments/visitor book?

LANCE TAWZER: We have several mechanisms for gauging public reactions to our exhibitions and patron experience through our Operations groups’ surveys.

  • Social media integration?

LANCE TAWZER: We have yet to include any social media interactive components; we design in opportunities for people to take pictures and post to start conversations.

What type of exhibit events do you plan?

LANCE TAWZER: We look to provide diverse programs to accompany and complement the theme of our shows, lectures, tours, interactive programs, in-gallery programs, off-site programs – we look to maximize the corresponding components.

Does your audience affect theme/display of exhibit? Who is your target audience? Do demographics (race, gender, socio-economic standing, etc.) figure you’re your exhibit?

LANCE TAWZER: We ask ourselves many questions about who are our stakeholders for any project - who currently cares about this story? who should care? how does this fit in the school curriculum and at what age / grade levels? We ask ourselves are we developing interpretation for all or for some, and are we doing enough to reach under-served communities.

Who plans/participates in the exhibits?

BONNIE PARR: The Exhibit Development Committee (exhibit director, research historians, education director, systems tech director, exhibit designer, exhibit fabricator, graphic designer, registrar, and conservator) brainstorms ideas and programming for future exhibits. A smaller group (research historians, collection curators, exhibit designer, registrar, and conservator) gets together to select artifacts, determine the layout of the exhibit, and decide on appropriate mounts. Everyone has their special expertise to contribute in creating the best possible exhibit experience for our visitors.

Is there a budget specifically for exhibits?

LANCE TAWZER: We develop a budget for each project which is approved.

Do exhibits travel to other institutions to reach more viewers?

LANCE TAWZER: We have had a traveling exhibit program; we are looking to re-launch it in some capacity in the coming year(s).

Do you have a schedule of exhibits?
  • On average, how long are they on display?

BONNIE PARR: Generally, one year; special or more sensitive objects are displayed for a more limited time (for example, 2 weeks per year for the Gettysburg Address).

  • How far in advance do you schedule/plan exhibits?

BONNIE PARR: Ideally, 6 months in advance for the “Journeys,” Ghost Queue, and Treasures Gallery cases; 1-3 years for exhibits in the Illinois Gallery and library atrium.

  • Do you market your exhibits?

LANCE TAWZER: We work with the marketing department to develop an approach that will put our exhibits in the best light.

  • Do you make use of posters, direct mail, email, social media, website, other?

LANCE TAWZER: Yes, to all.

How does the preservation professional contribute to exhibit design and preparation?

BONNIE PARR: I look at the physical condition of artifacts chosen for display to determine whether they are stable enough to be exposed to exhibit conditions, check my records for display history (we do not want to overuse artifacts that have been on display before), take photographs and prepare condition reports for paper-based items (both ALPLM collection materials and borrowed items), do necessary conservation work to stabilize items (ALPLM collections only), and, in consultation with the exhibit designer and registrar, determine the best type of mount that will protect and support items and fit in with the “look” of the exhibit.

How do preservation practices figure into display?


  • Cases: cases and lining materials are made of chemically inert materials where possible; walls and cases that have been painted (with zero VOC finishes) are cured (aired out) for at least a month before being used for artifact display to avoid outgassing issues; fabric (usually unbleached cotton muslin) used for case and mount linings is first washed and then rinsed twice to remove sizing.
  • Enclosures: all display mounts are made of acid-free or chemically inert materials, including acid-free mat board for mats and book cradles and acrylic for object mounts, stands, and risers.
  • Lighting: all artificial light sources are dimmable and have little to no UV output; typically, we keep light levels in the galleries at 5 foot candles or lower for paper-based and light-sensitive items -the registrar, conservator, and exhibit designer work with system technicians and the electrician to make sure light levels are appropriate for the display of historical artifacts; some cases are internally lit with fiber-optic lamps (power units are located outside the cases); for cases and spaces that are exposed to bright light from windows or non-gallery room lighting, we choose artifacts that aren’t as light-sensitive (such as wood, ceramics, glass, or stone).
  • Atmosphere: dataloggers (we use Lascar EasyLog-WIFI-TH+ devices) are placed inside cases to record temperature and relative humidity; since the dataloggers are connected to a wireless system (monitored by the conservator, registrar, and chief engineer), we don’t have to open display cases to check on the devices; we work closely with our chief engineer and his staff to make sure the HVAC system is maintaining the right conditions for preserving historical materials; we aim to keep the temperature between 68-72 degrees F and relative humidity between 45-50% in the gallery spaces.
  • Security/protecting from theft: cases are secured with either mechanical locks or security hardware; we have used security clips on wall-hung items; ALPLM volunteers are stationed throughout the museum galleries, and there are security guards monitoring throughout the ALPLM.
How do you mount or display objects without damaging them?

BONNIE PARR: Our mounts are designed primarily to provide appropriate support for items on display.

  • For documents (usually encapsulated) and photographs: mats and backer boards are made of acid-free mat board; I use polyester corners or channel mounts (for thicker items) to attach paper-based artifacts to their mounts; mats and backer boards are larger in dimension than the attached items in order to provide full support.
  • For books: I make custom-fit book cradles out of acid-free mat board for books that will be displayed open; the angles of the cradle are measured and constructed to allow the open book to rest “comfortably” without stress on the spine or the binding.
  • For textiles and 3-D objects: our exhibit fabricators construct acrylic mounts that are shaped and padded to protect items from abrasion, vibrations, sliding, or stress on fragile parts; pins or other mount supports made of metal are covered in polyolefin heat-shrink tubing or padded with sueded polyethylene (synthetic leather); as appropriate, I’ve used polyester straps, monofilament, or fine thread for securing textiles and small objects to their mounts (using existing holes or going between – not through – historical threads when sewing items to their mounts).

We don’t permit historical artifacts to be used as props – no “artful draping” of documents or textiles allowed!

How do you balance the benefits of exhibits versus the environmental impact on the objects displayed?

LANCE TAWZER: We will not exhibit an object or artifact if it is determined that it’s display could be potentially harmful. We work with Preservation and the registrar to ensure that we are being good stewards of the collection.

Do you have any recommendations or suggestions on how others might learn more or keep up-to-date on this topic?

LANCE TAWZER: Join American Alliance of Museums (AAM) professional groups – go to museum association meetings, curatorial round-table discussions. Join Facebook groups that look to ensure and share museum best practices.

BONNIE PARR: Recommended resources below:

American Institute for Conservation Wiki – “Exhibition Standards and Guidelines
Northeast Document Conservation Center – Preservation Leaflet 2.5 “Protecting Paper and Book Collections During Exhibition
Raphael, Toby, Exhibit Conservation Guidelines:  Incorporating Conservation into the Exhibit Process, National Park Service, Division of Conservation, 1999.  CD
Connecting to Collections Care – Links to Resources about Preservation and Exhibits

Return to Preservation Interviews: Learning from our Collective Experiences, the homepage of the Preservation Committee's 2019-2020 Annual Project.