• Cait McQuade

That new exhibit feeling, pandemic version


In the middle of this pandemic, I went to see a new exhibit, one I had worked on. It’s open"ish." Anyone can enter it at any time. In another sense, it hasn’t opened yet: there’s been no reception, no promotion, no feedback from visitors.


Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Library of Congress

We named the exhibit “Speaking for the Constitution.” It’s installed on the ground floor of the federal Court of Appeals in Denver. Although anyone’s welcome in the building, most people enter only because they have some business with the court. The exhibit is the “chicken” in a classic chicken-and-egg-dilemma. Some court staff would like to do more public education; they see the exhibit as anchor or draw for future programming.


The staff who directed my team’s work asked us to design and write both for a general, adult public and for people with a legal background. In both groups, they were thinking mostly of people who might visit the exhibit only once: the curious who attend a public tour or talk and the attorneys who come to present oral arguments to the Court’s judges. But our clients also thought about the people who enter the building every day, legal experts or not: judges, staff attorneys, law clerks, admin folks, security guards, IT specialists, custodial staff. For them, the exhibit should inspire pride and loyalty around the Federal judiciary’s ideals.


This is my spouse, not a real visitor.

During the pandemic, though, many court staff are working from home, and the general public has less reason than usual to brave the broad steps and looming columns of this massive neoclassical structure. I drove into Denver to see the exhibit with some sadness that I wouldn’t get to watch people looking at our work. That’s one of the best parts of the job, seeing an exhibit function, finding out where people linger, what they point at, what prompts discussion. It’s a disappointment many museum folks experience right now—often overshadowed by harsher feelings about job loss or health worries.




Still, it was thrilling to find it all installed and lit up. I had the usual disorientation of both seeing it for the first time and finding it infinitely familiar, full of images and sentences that had filled my mind for months. Planning on exhibit is an exercise in approximating the final result over and over. The designers and I repeatedly envision the space through imagined visitors’ eyes, getting gradually closer to an as-yet-unbuilt reality with each round of documents.


Then, as I was photographing each panel, looking for favorite combinations of images or phrases, people came! Just a few, but it was still delightful. They were court staff on a break, including a couple law clerks, young people who’d struck gold for their first jobs out of law school. Clerking for a Federal appellate judge is a coveted role.


Not only did I eavesdrop, I interrupted them with an answer to something they were speculating about: Yes, the judges were totally posing for those pseudo-documentary photos of them at work. And—I couldn’t help myself—I solicited feedback: Did those “For Lawyers” sidebars really convey something of interest to legal minds? After studying the panels a bit, the clerks politely confirmed that, yes, that’s just the sort of nerdy detail they enjoy. As audience research, this was completely unreliable.


As a tiny affirmation of months of work, it was wholly rewarding.

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