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Greetings from [Your City Here]: How to Transform Your Historic Postcard Collection into an Engaging Exhibition
Kansas City Public Library, MO
Innovation SummaryThe historic postcard is an important document that lends itself wonderfully to many American libraries interested in engaging both the broad community and niche audiences through relatively inexpensive exhibitions and public programming. The research, design, and implementation lessons learned at the Kansas City Public Library can be replicated easily elsewhere.
Historic postcards, preserved in the special collections of many libraries, provide the visual evidence of a largely vanished time and place, invaluable as historical records and as doorways to lost worlds. The Kansas City Public Library (KCPL) drew from its vast collection of 16,000 postcards for “Greetings from Kansas City,” an exhibition of more than two hundred images. The colorful result illustrated the golden age of the national “postcard craze” and the vibrant urban life of downtown Kansas City, Missouri during the first half of the 20th century. The special exhibition presented the KCPL with the challenge of taking a largely overlooked, underappreciated, and “obsolete” medium of communication and gave the Library the opportunity to illustrate how the ordinary postcard was the “instant message” of its day. A combination of easing government postal regulations at the turn of the 20th century, combined with rapid technological innovations, nurtured the rapid growth of a revolutionary vehicle of communication. The penny postcard of American popular culture revealed much about its photographers, publishers, and consumers. It became a means for residents of and visitors to Kansas City to express through their selection various opinions of hometown pride, civic identity, and outsider curiosity.
Our research, design, and implementation efforts with “Greetings from Kansas City” revealed that this story can be duplicated in other libraries. The exhibition story was broken into three categories: (1) Business and industry, which featured images of local stores, factories, the iconic Kansas City Stockyards, and transportation (trains, trolleys, and automobiles); (2) Entertainment, arts, and culture, which emphasized theaters, museums, parks and boulevards, and shopping districts, such as the Country Club Plaza; and (3) History and heritage, which centered on local historic points of interest, monuments, and traditional events, such as the American Royal livestock show. (In addition, while virtually every community in America generated postcards, Kansas City held a special connection with the phenomenon – Joyce Hall, the founder of Hallmark Cards, began his career here as a postcard dealer, and early examples from his company were highlighted in the exhibition.) For the design of “Greetings” a standard template was produced in-house, one that has great applicability for displaying postcard collections held by other libraries. This design allowed for a variety of sizes of the historic imagery, which makes it adaptable for a range of gallery spaces. The implementation of the exhibition allowed for a mix of panel and case displays, reproductions and original pieces, and an assortment of gallery layouts. The Kansas City Public Library has created the tools and template for guiding one’s own exhibition research, planning, design, fabrication, marketing, and public programming, which makes “Greetings from (Your City Here)” eminently replicable in other libraries.
• Exhibition attendance: 4,118 to date; exhibit runs until May 31, 2013. • Public program attendance (include Jan. 30 kickoff lecture): 103 • Media attention (interviews; stories): • January/February 2013 Kansas City Studio Magazine, “Greetings from Kansas City Captures Appeal of Postcards’ Sunday, January 6, 2013 The Kansas City Star, “Greetings from Kansas City Postcard Exhibit” Friday, January 18, 2013 Time Warner Cable, “Newsmakers – Eli Paul: Greetings from Kansas City Postcard Exhibit” Thursday, January 24, 2013 Kcur.org, “Greetings from Kansas City – postcard exhibit” Thursday, January 24, 2013 KCUR 89.3 FM, “KC Currents – Greetings from Kansas City Exhibit – Eli Paul” Tuesday, January 29, 2013 KCTV5.com, “Greetings from Kansas City Exhibit – Eli Paul” Kcur.org, “Greetings from Kansas City Exhibit – Eli Paul” Sunday, April 7, 2013 The Kansas City Star, “Greetings from Kansas City – Star Magazine Article (Forthcoming)” • Outreach to the branches with programs that highlight the history of the local neighborhoods via postcard collections will be held on Sundays at 2 p.m. at the following Library locations on the dates listed below: Trails West Branch, April 7, 2013 Bluford Branch, April 14, 2013 Waldo Branch, April 28, 2013 Northeast Branch, May 5, 2013 • We learned the value of special collections that combine the elements of broad popular culture with local history to appeal to the broad community, as well as niche audiences. Such topics lend themselves well to public programming and marketing efforts that reach beyond the Central Library.