Press "Enter" to skip to content

A Chat with the Libraries’ Exhibitions Guru

When asked about her role as the Smithsonian Libraries’ program coordinator, Susan Frampton retorts, “Well, this week I’ve chased down old photos of women with dead birds on their hats.” The truth is, there is no ordinary day for Susan; she’s like a cook who has many pots on the burner at once, and it’s a lucky day when there are no stray fires to extinguish. She regularly collaborates with Libraries staff, as well as with colleagues around the Institution and beyond.

Susan thoughtfully pauses when I ask her about why she likes working in exhibitions. “I like the organizational aspect,” she replies. “I like the design and physical construction, going behind-the-scenes to look at and select specimens and objects, and forming long-lasting relationships with curators. My work allows me to move within the museums and see more, do more, and take in more than I would otherwise.”

Susan poses with her 1920s feathered hat near our "Once There Were Billions" exhibition cases.
Susan poses with her 1920s feathered hat near our “Once There Were Billions” exhibition cases.

Putting together an exhibition is no small feat. The Libraries maintains rotating exhibitions in the Museum of Natural History and the Museum of American History and loans books and manuscripts for exhibitions in many other Smithsonian museums, including the Cooper-Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum, the Air & Space Museum, the American Art Museum, and the Smithsonian Castle Building, and external venues. Additionally, Susan organizes special exhibition opportunities (such as the recent collaboration with Smithsonian Gardens to bring The Lost Bird Project to the National Mall) and oversees traveling exhibitions, online exhibitions, and public programming for the exhibitions.

A typical exhibition starts three years in advance. Susan sends out a call for proposals, library and museum staff assemble submissions, and a review panel selects the proposal based on three criteria: context, how library materials will be used, and the potential for fundraising (Smithsonian exhibitions require 100% external funding to produce). Once the proposal is selected, Susan sets up meetings with the curatorial team. They discuss and develop the “big idea,” the themes, and the objects, specimens, books, and images to be used. All of this material is then used to create a script, a hefty document containing the written text of the exhibition with thumbnails of all the materials and images (the toughest part of the process, says Susan). Once the script is complete, it advances to the Smithsonian’s Office of Exhibits Central, who ultimately designs, edits, fabricates, installs, and eventually de-installs the exhibition.

At the heart of every exhibition are the people we want to reach: visitors, both in person and online. “Our exhibitions provoke the visitor, encourage them to explore more, and have just enough of the unexpected to delight,” emphasizes Susan. “Our goal is to give museum and virtual visitors a chance to step outside their everyday life, to see something new, and to be inspired.”

Susan earned her B.A. and M.L.S. degrees from the University of Pittsburgh. In her free time, she enjoys yoga and spending time with her dog, Annie, a cairn terrier mix. Susan did eventually receive permission from The Metropolitan Museum of Art to use an image of a woman with a deceased Carolina parrot on her hat; come visit Once There Were Billions to see it!

Be First to Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *