You Are Here!

17 Jan 2018

How do you curate an exhibition when you have no specialist collections knowledge?

This was the challenge I faced when I was asked to create a temporary exhibition for Ipswich Art Gallery. I’m Melanie Hollis, a Collections and Learning Curator. I’ve worked at the museums for a long time, but You are here! The Making of Ipswich is the first exhibition I’ve curated.

For me, part of the answer to this question was about unpicking what an ‘exhibition’ is. The rest was about knowing my limitations and encouraging other people to contribute their skills. There is a lot of teamwork involved in my job, which is lucky because I quite enjoy it!

Ipswich objects

The part of my job I enjoy the most is identifying the needs of potential visitors and creating interesting ways for them to engage with our museum spaces, collections and staff. These were the guiding principles of this exhibition, rather than a particular object, collection or story. The objects I selected for display were chosen specifically because they could inspire conversation.

Ipswich objects
Public photos
Working with students
You Are Here! map

Just like an event or a schools session, exhibitions should be interactive and useful. I passionately believe that people must feel welcome and comfortable in museums so, as well as the objects on display, I’ve co-ordinated a whole range of ways for people to get involved. Here are just a few:

The public have been sending in their photos, which make up an interesting part of the Community Room. (Image: top left)


Games Design students from the University of Suffolk have been applying and developing their learning by creating two interactive games based on the collections. These are available to play on a touchscreen. (Image: middle left)


The Friday Friends, a community support group for people living with Dementia, have been reflecting on the themes and objects at the heart of the exhibition and using them to inspire members to keep their minds active and curious. We are hoping to explore creativity too.


Ipswich Makerspace volunteers have helped to create an interactive map of the objects on display, for both the gallery and online. (Image: bottom left)


Visitors are invited to share stories, recall memories and make suggestions about future museum displays and plans. (Image: below)


Sharing stories

Students from Northgate High School have been exploring their own family history and reflecting on how their parents and grandparents dealt with moving to Ipswich from other countries. The film they have made in partnership with Suffolk Record Office is shown in the exhibition’s Community Room.

The Big Build, in March, will see visitors working together to create a community interpretation of Ipswich town centre using Lego bricks. Schools, families and adult groups can all get involved, and there is a chance to come and view the creation during its last two days in the gallery.

A Community Room is available for local groups to hold one of their regular meetings in a new setting, or for visitors to eat their packed lunches.

As a Learning and Engagement Officer I had to ask Curators to use the collections and it wasn’t always possible. Now, in this combined role, I have the collections at my fingertips and thoroughly enjoy working out how we might best use them. I have lots to learn about caring for objects, but I’m embracing the opportunity to learn and shape how a curator of the future might look.


Where will your adventure start?