The hidden art of the museum display

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James Leacock is one of the scores of people building the exhibits at the Royal Alberta Museum’s new downtown location.

If he does his job right, you’ll never see his work.

The owner of Multiform Studios, Leacock and his crew of about nine helpers are making about 5,000 customized mounts to display the museum’s thousands of artifacts. He spoke to the media about his work Wednesday.

“This is the most challenging project I’ve ever had,” said the 30-year veteran of the museum industry, both in terms of the number of artifacts and the tight timelines.

“There’s so much to be done and not a whole lot of time.”

The museum is scheduled to open next year with some 5,300 artifacts on display, said executive director Chris Robinson.

Almost all those artifacts will need to be mounted. Sometimes that means putting them on a shelf. Other times, it means figuring out how to suspend a full-sized airplane from the ceiling.

Museum head of conservation Carmen Li was assembling a 1950s display on nuclear preparedness Wednesday, complete with Cold War-era posters and a civic defence helmet on a custom metal and foam mount.

Mounts are just one part of what goes into a museum exhibit, Li said. Once a curator determines what story they want to tell using certain artifacts, they work with designers, writers, artists and conservators to find out how to convey that story through a display and have the mount-makers construct supports to position the artifacts as appropriate.

“Most people don’t see the huge amount of work that goes into it, and that’s intentional,” she said.

“We want it to look effortless. We want them to just enjoy the experience.”

Leacock and the rest of the museum construction team have a bewildering array of items to mount, including Honda motorcycles, moose hides, Red River carts, and a kitchen sink.

“It never gets boring, and there’s never two artifacts that are the same,” Leacock said.

Leacock said he typically starts by tracing each artifact and making notes on how it will be displayed in an exhibit. You might want to highlight a certain mark on a knife, for example, or ensure it’s oriented a certain way relative to a canoe.

After welding a mount together, Leacock will often bend it to fit the shape of the artifact on site, sometimes wrapping the object in plastic wrap for protection first. The mounts have to be made of specific materials such as brass, silver or acrylic that won’t react with the artifacts, and also need to be sealed, painted, and wrapped in felt.

Done right, you shouldn’t even see the mount.

“We try to make it go away,” Leacock said.

“If you’re seeing the mount, we don’t feel we’ve been very satisfactory.”

Still, he said he finds it kind of fun to go into old galleries when they’re being dismantled to check out the mounts.

“They look like little sculptures.”

Leacock said he’s gotten to work with a lot of interesting artifacts at the museum, such as Indigenous headdresses and ceremonial pipes.

“It’s not often you get the opportunity to work on 2,500 years of history in a community.”

Museum staffers are now in the midst of crunch time with their exhibits, with sometimes hundreds of artifacts being put in displays each day, Li said. Seeing those artifacts together with their proper labels and info-boards for the first time feels incredible, and can help staffers better appreciate what they’re all about.

“To see that all brought together is really rewarding.”

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Kevin Ma

Kevin Ma joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2006. He writes about Sturgeon County, education, the environment, agriculture, science and aboriginal affairs. He also contributes features, photographs and video.