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  • Phillip Ratliff

Translating a book on local history into an exhibit

Updated: Nov 19, 2019


Clarence Watkins's 2010 work "Baseball in Birmingham" was the basis of a popular exhibit on the subject.

The media are vastly different, but independently published history books aresolid starting points for exhibit content creators. Images have been sourced. The initial research has been done.


To be sure, there are pitfalls. Authors of such books approach their work as subject-matter enthusiasts, not readers or museum visitors. Books are organized by chapters, not spatially. And books present ideas rather than interpret material culture.


But self-published books and the passionate, knowledgeable people who write them can still be your greatest assets — if you know how to hack into them.


Here are some tricks I have used with collaborating with authors, including Clarence Watkins, who wrote a popular book on industrial and minor league baseball in Birmingham, Alabama, and Marvin Clemons, whose work was the basis of an exhibit in that city's historic train depot.

  • Check out the bibliography The books have not been peer-reviewed and the authors, while knowledgeable and methodical, are lay enthusiasts, not professional historians. So, get to the source of the author’s information. Besides understanding the author’s conclusions, you may also find documents, images, newspaper clippings and other visually rich items to include in the exhibit.

  • Invite scholarly review If your exhibit has received public funding from a state arts council, you probably already have assembled a scholars panel. Invite university-affiliated and independent scholars with academic training and a broad knowledge of the era. Even though those scholars probably don’t have specific knowledge on niche topics, they will have a sense of the issues.

  • Take it to the street Crowdsource, focus-group test, confer with community advisory panels — find ways to bring other enthusiasts as well as sample visitors into the conversation. As for other enthusiasts, your collaborating author probably knows the online fora you can tap into. I cover these techniques in another post, "You don't know who you're missing."

One more trick, that may or may not be available to you. When I worked with Clarence Watkins on the baseball exhibit, his publisher, Arcadia, allowed me access to each and every image in return for a promo panel in the exhibit. This arrangement saved me untold hours in image sourcing.


Phil Ratliff is President of Backstory Educational Media. Backstory helps clients across the Southeast mount exhibits and create educational content. Reach Phil at phil@backstoryed.com.


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