Taking a 2-pronged approach: Indiana State Museum pushes for bigger internal and traveling shows

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The Indiana State Museum is putting more emphasis on developing its own attractions, while still landing some high-profile visiting exhibits-all in an effort to keep visitors coming through the doors.

This balancing act between highlighting its internal collection and hosting popular traveling exhibits can be seen through two current shows.

One, “Footprints: Balancing Nature’s Diversity,” is already on display and features hundreds of specimens of taxidermied Indiana wildlife and fossils from the museum’s collection.

The other, “Radical Lace & Subversive Knitting,” will debut April 25. The traveling show features edgy, artsy needlework, ranging from tiny, detailed micro-sweaters that fit on a finger to an enormous knit U.S. flag made using excavators and two utility poles as knitting needles.

When the museum opened in 2002, it focused on getting its permanent exhibits up to speed and relied mostly on traveling shows to fill its upper galleries, said Jim May, vice president of museum programs.

“The first couple of years, we were very reliant on traveling exhibits,” May said. “But we’ve been evolving the system to make more of our own exhibits.”

One prime example is “Footprints,” which runs through Aug. 3. By focusing on the fossils and taxidermied animals the museum had in its collections, the exhibit turned into a localized story of the animals that lived in Indiana in prehistoric times all the way to how human behaviors now affect habitat and the ability of animals to exist.

“We do a lot of collecting and preserving, and it’s good for us to have an avenue to get that out [to the public],” May said.

It’s both cheaper to build and easier to raise funds for internally developed exhibits, museum staff said.

“Footprints” cost about $60,000 in materials and staff time. That compares with average costs of $125,000 to $175,000 for renting traveling exhibits for three months.

For internal shows, sponsors can be lined up early and their story can become part of the exhibit, said Chris Krok, the museum’s manager of corporate sponsorship and special events.

For “Footprints,” part of the story involves how Hoosiers have lived with and viewed the environment over time, from often taking it for granted to looking at it as something to be protected.

The Department of Natural Resources, which runs state parks and helps enforce environmental regulations, and its foundation sponsored the exhibit. The show includes a portion on the DNR and the environmental specialty license plates, which fund foundation land purchases.

“For the traveling shows, there is no opportunity for input,” Krok said. “It comes to us as a package and there’s no place that an individual company can actually have an impact.”

The self-made shows give museum staff a chance to shine. But they also can take away from other work, such as finding, preserving and cataloging historical artifacts. “Footprints” took about a year from conception to finished product. That work mostly boiled down to cataloging museum holdings and seeing how they work into telling a story about Indiana’s changing landscape.

“A lot of what we do should be able to focus into a statement the museum makes about itself,” said Ron Richards, curator of paleobiology. Richards’ department tracks, digs up and catalogs ancient bones found across Indiana.

Developing an exhibit is intense, he added. “Our work starts way before the exhibit’s up.”

“Footprints” should provide needed practice for the museum’s first attempt at a very large show it’s producing that it hopes museums nationwide will rent. That exhibit, about the history and impact of corn, will show here first in 2010.

Making large shows that crisscross the nation not only boosts the institution’s reputation, it can also become a decent revenue-generating stream to recoup the cost of building shows, May said.

“It’s a way of stretching our investment,” he said.

And while there’s a new focus on selfproduced content, traveling exhibits are also a must for any museum to keep things fresh and boost attendance.

Edgy knitting

The museum is hoping it has a winner in “Radical Lace & Subversive Knitting,” an exhibit designed by the Museum of Arts & Design in New York that has taken the knitting and art worlds by storm.

The exhibit was a hit when it debuted in 1997, garnering press from Vogue Knitting magazine and The New York Times. The museum advertised the show in a brochure for the international knitting convention held in Chicago in August.

“If you knit, you’re familiar with the exhibit,” said Jennifer Spitzer, the museum’s director of exhibits and an avid knitter.

Spitzer expects that knitters and art aficionados will travel hundreds of miles to see the exhibit in Indianapolis, its first opening on the road.

“Indiana has a craft tradition and this will definitely speak to that, but also completely blow your mind at how something that is so simple and traditional can really be transformed into spectacular installations and sculpture,” she said.

Successful traveling exhibitions can really boost attendance figures.

The museum saw a huge jump in visitors when it hosted a traveling exhibit, “The Lord of the Rings Motion Picture Trilogy-The Exhibition,” in 2005. The museum runs on a fiscal year ending June 30, so the bump showed in 2006 attendance numbers, which were more than 40,000 higher than 2005’s.

The museum is also planning to host “Body Worlds” in January 2009, a blockbuster exhibit that features preserved cadavers, posed and displayed to highlight different systems of the human body.

In the end, any institution has to balance internally developed and traveling shows to draw attendance and keep financials steady. One observer said it’s good to see the Indiana State Museum doing more internal shows to raise awareness about the institution.

“The state museum has a lot of wonderful resources that more people are beginning to become aware of,” said Elizabeth Wood, a public scholar of museum studies at IUPUI. “It adds to the vibrancy of the museum scene in Indianapolis.”

Breaking into the realm of national traveling show production, though, can be tough, she said.

“It’s difficult because of the upfront costs you have in creating and developing the exhibit and booking venues,” she said. But if the museum succeeds, the reward will be a higher profile.

“It’s a way to promote the museum to people outside of Indiana,” she said. “It really builds the understanding of the museum’s brand.”

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