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Notes 60.2 (2003) 393-406

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Pictures from an Exhibition:
Curating Lift Every Voice at The University of Virginia

Mary Prendergast


Although academic library exhibitions have been referred to as "illegitimate children," 1 tangential to the chief mission of their institutions, literature on the subject substantiates their significance to both public relations and educational goals. 2 The latter objective, in tune with the fundamental service mission of libraries, is perhaps so widely touted because of its altruistic aspect. Yet interest in the forum as a showcase for public consumption of library treasures is often more pragmatic, arising in part from the need to broaden bases of financial support to compensate for a decrease in traditional sources of revenue. The incompatibility of these two goals poses something of a dilemma for exhibit designers and curators. Creating exhibits with a level of scholarship rigorous enough to engage the specialist will not necessarily attract large audiences; exhibitions must be comprehensible to both "the uninitiated as well as the initiated." 3 Yet, satisfying the public relations goal means drawing in large numbers of viewers, many of whom may have more interest in being entertained than in being educated.

At the University of Virginia (UVa) Library, exhibitions had been an integral part of library public relations efforts since the mid-1940s. 4 As the groundbreaking date loomed for the construction of the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library and its exhibition space, to be housed in the Mary and David Harrison Institute for American History, Literature, and Culture, the library's exhibitions program underwent [End Page 393] reorganization. The position of library exhibits coordinator was created and filled, and an exhibitions committee was formed with the following charge: "to generate and develop ideas for exhibits in Special Collections that would attract audiences, especially of students and faculty; raise the library's visibility; and further the library's development program." 5 As a member of that committee, I had become aware of the difficulties involved in inveigling likely curators, due to the time-consuming nature of the work and the strict deadlines imposed by the exhibits schedule. 6 Nevertheless, lured by the prospect of becoming better acquainted with the rare-music collections and armed with the promise of release time and collegial support, I accepted the invitation to curate the fall 2001 exhibition, scheduled for a five-month run from September 2001 to mid-February 2002. My task would be to choose a music topic with sufficient audience appeal, select exhibit materials, draft commentary for display labels and text, and consult on related topics during the various stages of exhibit planning and installation.

The following narrative presents a compendium of useful strategies and techniques that I garnered through contact with a network of experienced colleagues during our year of collaboration on Lift Every Voice. Much of what worked well for us can be adapted to libraries of various types and sizes, and the lack of expert staff or a large exhibitions budget need not deter any interested party from carrying out an equally successful endeavor. While many case studies of library exhibitions have been published, 7 the literature pertaining to music displays is scanty, and it is my hope that this example of a successful music exhibition may help fill that gap. [End Page 394]

Targeting an Audience

A number of forces conspired in the choice of the theme for Lift Every Voice, chief among them the library's stated goal of attracting and entertaining a wide cross section of visitors, especially from faculty and student populations. Examining registrar's rolls for courses offered by the McIntire Department of Music, I noted healthy attendance at Anglo-American Folk Music and Dance, History of Jazz, African Dance and Drum Ensemble, All Shook Up: Elvis Presley, Great Ladies of American Song, Introduction to Music in American Sound Cinema, and Popular Culture and Music, which suggested a strong level of interest in American and African vernacular genres. Focusing on varieties of vocal music, the texts of which might be presented in their literary and historical...


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