On the Road with NLM’s Traveling Exhibitions

Almost as popular as tickets to an Adele concert. Or Springsteen. Or Yo-Yo Ma.

Okay, we’re exaggerating, but the National Library of Medicine’s traveling exhibitions are definitely in demand.

Within one week, they’re usually booked for four years. They’ve been in all 50 states and abroad.

How it happened

You could call it serendipity.

In 2007, NLM’s History of Medicine Division’s exhibition program partnered with Reginald F. Lewis Museum of African American History & Culture in Baltimore to co-curate Opening Doors, an exhibition celebrating the contributions of African-American academic surgeons. The exhibition launched simultaneously at NLM in Bethesda and at the museum in Baltimore.

“The content of the exhibition highlighted a subject that, until this point, had received limited recognition,” explained Patricia Tuohy, head of the NLM Exhibition Program. “Audiences were eager to learn more. Although it wasn’t our intention at the time, seemingly everyone wanted to host Opening Doors.”

Coincidentally, they could.

Exhibition team members stand with a banner from the Confronting Violence exhibition.

Traveling exhibition services staff (left to right) Jill Newmark, Erika Mills, and Jane Markowitz with a banner from the newest traveling banner exhibition, Confronting Violence: Improving Women’s Lives.

The banners that comprised the exhibition were attractive, durable, and, most importantly, easy to install and transport.

“There was a groundswell of interest—really a tidal wave of interest—from other institutions to borrow this show,” said Tuohy.

And so NLM began sending traveling banner exhibitions to libraries and cultural centers around the world.

Similar but different

For 20 years, the exhibition program drew from the HMD’s prized collections to mount exhibitions illustrating the history of science, medicine, and society. These exhibitions were displayed in the rotunda, foyer, and History of Medicine Reading Room at the National Library of Medicine, on the main campus of NIH in Bethesda.

The on-site exhibitions at NLM and the traveling banner exhibitions tell stories through a combination of words and visuals. Unlike the on-site exhibitions, the traveling banner exhibitions do not include three-dimensional objects, but organizations that borrow the shows usually supplement the graphic banners with objects from their own collections.

Going places

NLM banner exhibitions have been seen at libraries, museums, schools, and medical colleges in all 50 states, plus Argentina, Canada, England, France, Germany, Guam, Micronesia, Turkey, and Venezuela. In 2015, a reported 760,817 people saw an NLM traveling banner exhibition.

Which traveling exhibition is most popular?

That depends on how you measure.

The exhibition program sometimes judges “popularity” by how quickly exhibitions are booked, explained Tuohy. “When we launch a new show, there are generally 48 slots for two copies of the banner exhibition, with each copy available for six bookings per year, for a four-year tour. Those 48 slots will book within a week of availability. If we measure by waitlists—how many institutions ask to host the show but there are no available slots—then Confronting Violence: Improving Women’s Lives—is most popular with the longest wait list.” Twenty-three institutions are waiting to book the show.

If you consider the number of people who know the subject and relate to it through popular culture, the most popular would be Harry Potter’s World: Renaissance Science, Magic, and Medicine.

Time and talent

It takes an A-team of experts and two or more years to go from an exhibition idea to an opening.

A woman stands behind five people sitting shoulder to shoulder.

Exhibition Program staff (back to front, left to right) Patricia Tuohy, Daniel Caughey, Jane Markowitz, Jiwon Kim, Jill Newmark, and Erika Mills.

Key to the team is a curator with expertise in the subject as well as knowledge of NLM collections that can help tell a story. Other team members include the exhibition educator who develops resources for teachers and students, the exhibition registrar who secures permission to use photos and objects that don’t belong to the Library, and the exhibition coordinator who tracks the details. To support the team, the exhibition program contracts with exhibition designers and web developers. All team members work on more than one project at a time.

In addition, the exhibition program team consults with subject matter experts who work as guest curators. These experts usually teach and publish within the field that is the topic of the exhibition.

When an exhibition script is close to final, everyone involved reviews the script for accuracy.

Now and coming soon

The exhibition program launched two new titles in the fall of 2015:

Confronting Violence, Improving Women’s Lives tells the story of nurse reformers who advocated against domestic violence in the 1970s and 1980s. Their work conducting studies, developing protocols, and advocating on behalf of patients were in the vanguard of changing the medical profession, which until that point, didn’t recognize domestic violence as a significant health issue.

For All the People: A Century of Citizen Action in Health Care Reform looks at how ordinary citizens advocated for health care reform over the last 100 years.

This year, the exhibition program is working with a scholar from the University of Maryland at College Park to develop Fire and Freedom: Food and Slavery in Early America, which will launch in November 2016. A second project, Physician Assistants: Collaboration and Care, will open in December 2016. This banner exhibition is being developed in association with, and with funding from, the Physician Assistant History Society.

Based on customers’ responses, most banner exhibitions could continue traveling in perpetuity. The NLM Exhibition Program is considering ways to meet demand while introducing new titles.

That’s what happens when you’re popular.

Keep up with the latest exhibition news via the NLM Exhibitions Facebook page or find an NLM exhibition near you.

More Information
NLM Exhibition Program, including a full list of exhibitions