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  • Writer's picturePhillip Ratliff

Leeds Depot: Working with a subject matter expert

Updated: May 6

Subject matter experts are of all types. Backstory has worked with Greek food enthusiasts and pharmacists, radio buffs and immigrant communities. 

What they have in common is passion for their subject. 

Passion is on full display in Backstory’s work for the MidSouth Railway and Locomotive Society. Here’s a link to their latest newsletter.

Besides having the story in their heads, one MSRLS member, Marvin Clemons, has gotten the facts down in print — twice, in fact.

His first book, Terminal Station: Birmingham’s Great Temple of Travel, was the basis of an exhibit at Vulcan Park and Museum, running May 2019 and closing January 2020. He has another book, The Very Best of Colorized Railroad Images: Southeastern Steam to Early Diesels, out later this year. 

Backstory needs to grasp the story and eventually own it, but getting behind the knowledge of subject matter experts is essential. Don’t undermine that level of expertise. Instead, think of it as a wave to ride, or train, as it were. 

Subject matter experts have a story to tell. If they’ve spoken on the subject, they know what’s interesting about it and what tends to make others’ eyes glaze over. 

Those experts are also often word driven. Exhibits, in contrast, are driven by objects and images. Ideally, text gets behind the visual. 

So, how does an exhibit fire on all cylinders? In other words, how does an exhibit integrate the visual with the verbal? 

Reminding visitors that there’s an option in print for finding out more makes Backstory’s job a lot easier. Helping content experts rethink their presentation for a more visual medium is a process, but that’s what makes it fun. 

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