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Museum on the move: Transforming the Great Plains Art Museum for a different kind of exhibit

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In the spring of 2012, when the opportunity came up to bring a traveling exhibition from the American Textile History Museum in Lowell, Massachusetts, to Lincoln, the Nebraska History Museum staff members were excited about the prospect.

The exhibition, “Homefront & Battlefield: Quilts and Context in the Civil War,” fit with the museum’s mission of historical education. Quilts are always popular, and the show would bring prestigious pieces to Lincoln.

The staff members knew their museum building needed renovation, but no real plan or funding was in place then, according to Lynne Ireland, deputy director of the Nebraska State Historical Society.

It was a done deal. The museum staff agreed to host the exhibition.

Then 2013 rolled around and there was a change in plans.

Originally, the history museum renovation plan called for a phase-by-phase project, keeping the museum open throughout, Ireland said. But after receiving additional architectural and engineering recommendations, it was decided that the museum at 15th and P streets would be boxed up and emptied.

Shut down. Closed to the public. No exhibitions for almost two years.

Time for Plan B.

The quilt show isn’t the kind of thing that could be set up just anywhere. Tina Koeppe, NSHS exhibits curator and coordinator, explained that in addition to the size needs -- there are almost 100 artifacts in the exhibit -- any space where the exhibition would be placed needed to have climate control, security and lighting sensitive to archival pieces.

That narrowed the list of places to which the show could be moved quite a bit.

Diane Fagan Affleck, consulting curator of the exhibit from the American Textiles Museum, flew in from Massachusetts to check out the options.

She and NSHS staff members measured every inch, looked at lighting dimness, and “nitpicky” stuff, like how they could hang Civil War-style mosquito netting.

In the end, everyone -- staffs from all three museums were involved -- decided the best space for the exhibition would be the main gallery at the Great Plains Art Museum.

But even that needed some temporary “remodeling.” And everything had to be done, knowing that it would have to be undone.

Melynda Seaton, curator and museum administrator at the Great Plains Art Museum, was on board. But she soon realized the Great Plains museum would be storing its own paintings and sculptures along with the crates for the quilt exhibition materials and reconfiguring its exhibition schedule. She made arrangements to do all of that.

Like the quilt blocks in the exhibition, the pieces had to fit together perfectly to make it work.

They started with the obvious physical considerations.

Quilts are very tall, Fagan Affleck said. The doors to the museum, which does not have a loading dock, were barely big enough to squeeze the large crates through.

The museum’s regular walls weren’t tall enough for the quilts, so temporary walls needed to be built. They used 4-by-7-foot hollow core doors that were linked together and painted. Some of these had been used for another exhibit, so it was cost efficient, Koeppe said.

The physical structure had to flow correctly, so “the logic of the narrative worked,'” Fagan Affleck said.

Additionally, the center of the space had to be open enough to hold 80 chairs for lectures.

There were a lot of emails and phone calls back and forth, Koeppe said. Questions in emails were asked in one color, then each respondent chimed in using another color, so they could keep the answers straight.

About nine months ago, lists of the exhibition's objects were sent to Lincoln and categorized. A list of tools needed for light carpentry was put together. In August, the casework arrived.

Finally, the exhibition items were on their way, coming from their latest show at the Shelburne Museum in Vermont. Lincoln is its last stop before returning to Massachusetts.

After a 30-hour trip with two drivers in a specially outfitted semi-truck, the boxed-up exhibition arrived mid January, Koeppe said. The staff in Nebraska was ready and waiting.

Unloading the truck took less than an hour. But the staff had to wait to open the cases. Even with an insulated truck, the artifacts need time to acclimate to their new surroundings.

A few days later, when Fagan Affleck and others from the American Textiles and History Museum arrived, work began in earnest. And the devil was in the details, as is always the case with an historical exhibition.

The two museums’ staff members put on their white cotton gloves and began gingerly reassembling the pieces, putting them in the proper order, with the right descriptions and making sure the decades-old quilts, clothing and other historically important fabrics were ready for the opening last week.

Five days later, the transformed Great Plains museum was set up enough for the Massachusetts staff to head home, knowing the final details of the exhibit were in good hands.

But they will be back after the show closes June 27 to reverse the process, sending the exhibition pieces back to their homes.

And allowing Great Plains to resume its usual role, too, with an a juried exhibition -- "the Art of the Plains" that will open on Aug. 7.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7214 or On Twitter @LJSkcmoore.


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