Modern exhibit design relies heavily on digital tools. Unfortunately, the best known proprietary design apps entail costly subscriptions and lock users into workflows dictated by corporate software vendors. Free Open Source Software (FOSS) can give public historians and museum specialists more creative freedom in designing multimedia exhibits, eliminate recurring subscription fees, and build solidarity between museum educators and non-profit, community-driven software projects.
In 2021, we (Joshua Wachuta and Rachel Lewis) used exclusively Free Open Source Software to design interpretive exhibit panels, maps, and a touchscreen audio player for a small history exhibit at the newly restored St. Germain dit Gauthier / Coorough House in Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin. The tools we used covered a wide range of use-cases and skill-levels, ranging from simple GUI-based design apps to advanced programming tools for data visualization and app development.
Located along the Upper Mississippi River, Prairie du Chien developed as a meeting ground in the fur trade, where Meskwaki, Sauk, Dakota, Ho-Chunk, Menominee, and other Indigenous nations met and negotiated with French-Canadian and British traders. Little of this multicultural history remains in the current built environment. In the 1860s, the arrival of the railroad led to a flurry of industrial redevelopment along the waterfront, which became known as the “Fourth Ward” after 1872. A century later in the 1960s, repeated flooding on the Mississippi River led to a full-scale relocation of the Fourth Ward community between 1978-1984. Most structures were either relocated or demolished, leaving only a handful of historic buildings behind in the floodplain.
The St. Germain House was spared from demolition owing to its unique log construction, but it sat idle for the next three decades. In 2018, the Prairie du Chien Historical Society acquired the house for preservation and oversaw its restoration, opening it for tours beginning in 2021.
Digitization makes it easy to crop, combine, or touch up historic images before putting them on exhibit. There are many tools for this job, with Adobe Photoshop as the name brand professional choice. For my own projects, however, I usually prefer another app: GIMP (The GNU Image Manipulation Program), which is free, open source, and offers all the features I need even though it isn’t as powerful as Adobe’s product. Below I look at a couple examples of how either tool can be used to prepare images for exhibit.
Collaging and Layering 2D Images for Display
For my class project this semester, I have the opportunity to use Photoshop in the campus computer lab while preparing a new web exhibit on early Chicago history. Most or all of the materials for this exhibit will be two dimensional historic images or documents, many of which are black and white or grayscale, like the following images that my classmate Kyle Mathers uncovered.
One way to liven up these gray images while also situating them in more historical context might be to create a collage layering them over a more colorful background, like this painting of Kinize’s House and Fort Dearborn as they might have looked around 1812.
Using just a few quick steps in Photoshop, for instance — selecting image excerpts with the “Magnetic Lasso” and “Magic Wand” tools, resizing and layering them into place, and adding a slight drop shadow — I was able to create a collage-like scene that put Kinzie’s portrait and signature into the scenery of early Chicago. The result certainly has more color and depth than the portrait alone, but the collage effect is a bit tacky for my tastes. What do you think? Is the more immersive image worth losing the integrity of the original items? What role might collage serve for history exhibits?
Making 3D Artifacts Stand Out in 2D Photographs
Another challenge of web exhibits is that two dimensional screen images can never fully capture the depth and texture of three dimensional museum objects. I don’t know yet if I’ll use any 3D artifacts for my exhibit this semester, but in my role as curatorial assistant to the Crossings & Dwellings Exhibition at LUMA in 2014, I took photos of several exhibit objects and used GIMP to try to pull these artifacts to the foreground of flat images. The effect is deliberately much more subtle than the collage above — I wanted the photos to remain naturalistic while spotlighting their primary subjects.
Simply by blurring the background a bit, adjusting the contrast, and using semi-transparient gradients to focus the lighting, I was able to make artifacts like a Gold Dalmatic acquired for Holy Family Parish in Chicago in the 1870s and a funeral cope at the Shrine of St. Ferdinand made by St. Rose Philippine Duchesne in about 1840 stand out more their from busy, colorful backgrounds.