Think of an A&S display not as “Look how awesome I am!”, but rather as “How do I catch the interest of someone who isn’t already a Laurel in my field?” Laurels are easy to attract. A little effort, some obscure little details, a juicy source or three, and the Laurels will swarm like bees on honey. It’s the newbie, or new-to-your-art, that’s who you need to attract and cultivate. They don’t yet know that your art is their next obsession- how do you get their attention long enough for them to see that (insert A&S specialty here) is awesome?
These tips are geared toward a “stuff” display, as that’s what I have the most experience with, but the general concepts could be adapted for more research-based (medieval crop rotation research), less portable (timber framing), or more fugitive (cooking, performing). They’re also targeted towards body-of-work or multi-piece project displays at large events, but the same ideas work for individual piece entries and displays.
1. Lure their attention. Most big A&S displays (Kingdom A&S, Pennsic, Gulf Wars, etc.) are an overwhelming riot of stuff and color and people and crowds. Yes, they specifically came there to look at the A&S displays… but you need to grab their focus if they’re going to even remember your display. Have a “drive-by piece” (picture, sculpture, tool, live plant, etc). Something flashy, eye-catching, weird, etc. In the flower garden, I call it a 55 mile an hour plant. It’s bold and bright and attracts attention even when driving by at 55 mph. That will draw people in to look at the smaller stuff (i.e., research, labels, details).
For example, if I had a whole display of just little bitty hooks and eyes and thimbles and pins, only fiber people (and maybe metalworkers) would “see” it. Others would cruise by and their brain kinda goes “hunh?” as they move on because it takes actual specific focus to realize what they are and why they’re cool. Pins are tiny, and it does take time and effort to focus (and more still to read documentation). Give them something to intrigue them enough to put forth that effort. If you’ve got all little bitty pieces, you could print a large color detail photo- for example, a detail shot from a period painting showing hooks and eyes on the man’s collar.
General display tips:
Don’t just set stuff on a table. Use a tablecloth, have risers or stands: use all three dimensions- different heights, different widths, different depths. If you’re using a tri-fold board, have some 3-dimensional things in front of it. Flat isn’t engaging.
If there’s a particular orientation that’s best to view the item, make that easy for the visitor- for example, a scroll: best viewed square on, so put it up on an easel or stand so that it faces the viewer, rather than making the viewer come up close to the table and look down to see a scroll lying flat on the table.
2. They’ve taken the bait, now set the hook: Labels.
“Hunh, pretty scroll, cool, okay, I’m not a scribe, wandering on.” versus “Pretty scroll- ooh, 15th century Flemish is my time period! Waitaminute, she raised the calf and made the vellum herself?!?!?! (grabs documentation wanting to know more)”.
Especially if you have a “stuff” display, make labels. I call it the “elevator speech” description of the thing. A couple of sentences describing what/where/when and the most notable thing about the item. There will always be people who aren’t rabidly fascinated by your particular art- this is a sneaky way to get them to learn things anyway… Also, you probably won’t be with your display the entire time. And even if you are there, if you’re talking to one person, the labels can “talk” to other people who have come up to the table.
3. Reel them in: Touch. Especially if you’re there with your display, have something that people can touch or ideally interact with. The more senses they can engage with something, the better they’ll remember it. Have them pick up the glass linen smoother and “iron” a wrinkled piece of linen. Let them feel the difference between a hand-planed piece of wood and a sandpaper-smoothed piece of wood.
Caution: Not everything is safe to encourage people to touch. If it’s fragile, sharp, or otherwise not a good idea to touch, think about how you can protect both your stuff and your visitors. Perhaps the delicate embroidery is in a case, the scroll in a frame, the viciously pointy wool combs tucked away towards the rear of the display with leather sheaths on the tips. If it can be an easy-to-open case or guard, you can take it out yourself to show details to a particularly interested visitor- but the simple presence of the case will deter most people from messing with it on their own.
4. Land your catch: They’ve already read the labels, they’ve handled the piece of bloom iron you smelted, and they WANT MORE. LOTS MORE. Documentation is how you give that to them, without you even having to be there. I like to use a binder for my documentation, with tab dividers for each thing. This is where you get your full geek on. This is where you have your summary, your research, scans of source documents, oodles of period illustrations, your process photos that go into nauseating detail about how you made the thing. Laurels (especially ones in your field) will usually go straight here. This is a good thing: they can offer tips and sources and modern resources that you may not have ever found on your own. If someone has gotten this far, they are seriously interested, and you may have sucked someone into the awesomeness they didn’t know before was awesome.
Or, you may have made an ally in a related field- no art is an island, and it is exceptionally period to not be an expert in everything. Your research into early period smelting methods and the iron it produces might just have inspired and informed a fiber geek to think about the metallurgy behind period wool combs. Those allies are your “Renaissance Circle”- your “hey, I know a guy who would know the answer to that”. Unlike a Renaissance Man, who is expected to effectively know something about everything, a Renaissance Circle is connections between people, who collectively know a lot more about everything. Those connections – collaborations – is often where the aha! happens: the synthesis of knowledge from completely different fields leading to insights neither person would have come up with on their own. And that is an incredibly amazing feeling!
Credit for the Renaissance Circle concept goes to the Texas Triffid Ranch and his excellent post about it here: