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Students explore Atlanta's history in airport exhibition

Monday, August 20, 2012 – Clynton Namuo

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Bringing a gun the airport seemed like such a good idea.

Then TSA got involved. 

And so the proposal to put a Civil War-era musket in an airport display case was defeated. It was a small loss among many victories for students in the masters of Heritage Preservation Program’s Exhibit Planning and Production course.

The class spent the fall 2011 semester creating an exhibit for the Atlanta International Airport’s terminal E that charts the city’s history via milestones like the Civil War, the civil rights movement and the 1996 Olympics. 

In the process the students learned to navigate bureaucracy (yes, TSA has a say in firearms at the airport), overcome logistical hurdles (no, a plow won’t fit in a display case) and work with a  client, in this case the Airport Art Program, which provided about $25,000 to pay for the exhibition. 

Katherine Dirga, a manager for the art program, said she watched the exhibit blossom from a disjointed set of ideas to a cohesive, professional show by the end of the semester. 

“It was a lot of research and a very thorough job they did,” she said, “definitely more so than some of the people we have partnered with.”

This July, students got to see their hard work come to fruition when they assembled the exhibit over two nights, working from about 8 p.m. to 4 a.m.

Security was exhaustive because they were bringing in tools. Students had to walk about a mile between terminals because the tram was closed for the night. Worst of all, coffee was in short supply, but it was all worth it said Katie Odum, who graduated with her masters last fall. 

“It was just a lot of fun,”  she said. “To be completely honest, I’m kind of a museum nerd.” 

Many of the artifacts on display came from the Atlanta History Center, where class instructor Don Rooney serves as the director of exhibitions. 

Working within severe space contraints, students put together powerful exhibits illustrating Atlanta’s turbulent history, Rooney said. For one display, they superimposed a picture of an African-American couple holding a baby while riding in the back of a bus with an actual bus seat.

“They had free range of our museum collection areas and they made fast work,” Rooney said.

The class gives students real world experience on all the ins and outs of designing an exhibit, from watching the glass display cases being made to figuring out the best print shop to create graphics. Along the way, students rub shoulders with all sorts of industry professionals. 

“It’s a lot about networking as well,” said Richard Laub, director of the Heritage Preservation Program.

Rooney has taught the class every other year since 2003, but this iteration has led to by far the most visible exhibition, in a space that has the potential to reach literally millions of people. 

Even in the dead of night, with the display not even fully assembled, visitors were captivated.

Odum said she was “literally holding Olympic medals” trying to put them in a case and there were people “standing there trying to ask questions.” But she understood the fascination. 

“I’m kind of an Olympics geek also and getting to look at the Atlanta Olympic medals and put them in the case was my favorite part,” she said. 

The exhibition is scheduled to run for the next year.