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Ask-a-Curator: Interview with Sara Eagin

September 16, 2020 • History Factory

One of the things that sets History Factory apart from other agencies is our professionally trained on-staff curators. You may be curious, what exactly a curator does. Well, we asked our very own Sara Eagin to elaborate.

What exactly do you do as a curator at an agency?

  • I work closely with our team to turn a company’s stories, facts, photographs and objects into an exhibit. I also use my curatorial skills in support of other corporate history projects, including timelines, websites, image banks and anniversary themes.
  • Curators decide how messages are expressed— through labels, video, animations, games and interactives— and ensure that everything that goes into the exhibit ties into the larger story.
  • My job is to lead that content and messaging and to help transform and combine these things into a cohesive experience for our exhibits.
    • I research and concept the experience, deciding what messages we are sharing and what details about those messages are important to highlight.
    • I also select objects and photographs to display, and I write the labels that describe them.
    • I work with our designers to lay out the space and make sure we have room to tell the stories. We take into consideration how people use a space, the existing design and finishes, and the overall traffic flow.
    • For digital projects, I help concept and develop games, videos and digital interactives to extend content beyond the physical displays.
    • I work with our fabrication and programming partners to ensure the stories are told in the most effective way possible, across physical and digital platforms.
  • Exhibits are complicated projects that require tons of collaboration. Throughout the process, I make sure the stories are front and center.

How is your job different than that of a museum curator?

  • I play a similar role to a curator at a museum, but my work has a broader reach, and I take on responsibilities that in a museum would be handled by others.
  • At a large museum, the curator would work with registrars, collections managers and conservators to identify and care for the objects.
  • At an agency, all of those tasks also fall to me. So when we are displaying a historic item, I have to find it, identify how to best display it safely, keep track of it, transport it and install it. This can include anything from a paper document or book to a fragile glass award or a manufactured product.
  • Most museums focus narrowly on a single topic or time period, as with a science museum or a historic house. At an agency, we work across a much wider range of industries, topics and eras.
  • Agency work depends on the projects of our clients, which means that I work on many projects beyond exhibits. I use my skills of interpretation and organization to support content work on anniversaries, websites, books, content- gathering programs and more. I also support archival-related projects, including the Covid-19 Corporate Memory Project and anniversary story-gathering discovery programs.

How does one become a curator?

  • Curating exhibits is a way to tell stories. Curators typically love a particular subject, whether that’s art, history or science.
  • Many museum curators are specialists who earn a Ph.D. in a specific genre, but in recent years the field has gained more and more generalist curators, who learn the skills of storytelling and apply them across a range of topics.
  • I fall into the generalist category. I got my master’s degree in Museum Studies from George Washington University in Washington, D.C., specializing in curatorial studies. This gave me the skills to apply to any topic or industry.
  • Over the years, I’ve had the privilege of working on a wide variety of topics: insurance, banking, manufacturing, farm equipment, plumbing, book publishing, athletic apparel, electrical power generation, airplanes, engines and even manatees. Needless to say, I’m not a traditional specialist in any of these areas, but I’ve become immersed in these topics along the way.

What role would a curator play in a corporate collection?

  • For most companies, the primary historians are archivists who organize, protect, store and make available the historic materials from the company’s history. Companies rarely hire curators unless they have their own museums, in which a curator might utilize and interpret the materials for display.
  • For many companies, archivists— who organize, protect and store historic materials— serve in the role of curator as well. At other organizations, the communications department is challenged with showcasing history without having the training or expertise to make a display more meaningful than just wall decoration. Trained curators often are contracted to enhance the displays and communicate the stories more effectively. For companies with their own permanent museums, staff curators can help keep exhibits updated and refreshed regularly.

Aren’t all exhibits just a history of the company?

  • Exhibits can be a chronological history or timeline, but many are more complex than that. At History Factory, we “Start With the Future and Work Back™,” so we often aren’t trying to tell every story from a company’s entire history. Instead, we focus on telling a set of stories that relate to today. Whether they spotlight a focus on customers or breakthroughs in innovation, every exhibit is different and customized to the company and setting.
  • In execution, this could include designing a historic house, immersing people in the founder’s story, inspiring the next generation of employees in a training center with stories of innovation, or highlighting turning points in a lobby display.

Which are better: digital or physical displays?

  • I think there is a time and place for both. Digital technologies allow us to enhance an experience with video, audio or immersive experiences. But there is value in seeing real, authentic objects. But I hope we never lose the tangibility of physical artifacts on display.

What’s the hardest item to find for an exhibit?

  • When we talk about displaying real items, either objects or photographs, we are limited to what has survived history. There are many times when we wish we had a photo of a certain historic moment or object, but if that item no longer exists, I have to find other ways to tell that story.
  • It also can be a challenge to depict certain modern technologies. Some digital technologies are invisible, so showing concepts such as wireless internet or digital security without resorting to metaphorical illustrations can be a challenge.

What do you do on projects other than exhibits?

  • Beyond exhibits, I use my research skills across a range of projects. I lead our image sourcing team, locating and licensing visuals for all of our projects. I support our writers to provide content and fact checking for their written stories. I develop oral history briefing binders for our interviewers.
  • I also curate the weekly “Sara’s Friday Email,” in which I share interesting projects, histories and inspirational design and technology from across the web.

What have been some of your favorite exhibits at History Factory?

  • My favorite exhibit to curate at History Factory was the HarperCollins experience. I love to read, and celebrating some of my favorite authors was great. The spaces were unique and fun to concept, and we had a great team to create an exciting experience for the client and their visitors. (Read more about it)
  • We recently finished an interactive children’s exhibit that was very fun to develop. Between racing trains and an airplane video game, this exhibit offered new and exciting interactives that we haven’t created before. (See more here)

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