Behind the Glass of the Archaeology Lab: Creating an Exhibit

It can be daunting to look at a blank space and realize you are in charge of filling it. And not just filling it, you need to create something that will leave a lasting impression on the public. The process of creating an exhibit is much more complicated than it seems. From the initial idea to the final product, there are many steps that require careful attention.

With countless artifacts in the Archaeology Lab, finding inspiration for a topic was easy. Once I settled on 18th Century tea practices, everything seemed to fall into place. There were many subjects I could have focused on from this topic. In order to connect the idea to Ferry Farm and the Washington legacy, I chose to focus on Betty Washington and what she would have learned from her mother growing up at Ferry Farm.

This inspiration came from an archaeologically excavated pewter teaspoon handle with the initials ‘BW’ stamped into it. It is clear that Miss Betty Washington was the owner of this spoon. The spoon was likely part of a children’s tea set that Betty was given in order to teach her the intricacies of the American Tea Ceremony. This education was Mary’s legacy for Betty; it taught her how to be a proper gentry lady and interact with the upper-class circles in Virginia.

Teaspoon handle with “BW” initials.

Once I picked my topic, it was time to begin researching. Research is the backbone of any exhibit, though it might not be the most exciting part. I was able to obtain an understanding of the Tea Ceremony from my research that I applied to my specific topic. The biggest question on my mind throughout my research was: Why was this important for Betty?

While working on research, I was simultaneously creating a reproduction 18th Century creamware teapot. With the help of the Archaeology Lab Forgeries Department, I quickly transformed a Goodwill find into delicate creamware with a rose motif. The pot is the centerpiece of the exhibit on 18th Century tea practices. Many scholars wrote that the teapot is the literal and figurative center of the ceremony, bringing people together and initiating the ceremony. This concept inspired my placement of the teapot for the exhibit.

Hand painting of reproduction teapot.

After concluding my research, writing the signs for the exhibit, and finishing the replica pot, I had to choose the artifacts to include in the exhibit. Throughout this process, I kept my thoughts on Betty. The BW teaspoon handle was set aside for the exhibit as well as the replica teapot. Including teaware from Ferry Farm and Kenmore displayed the continuity of Betty’s gentry practices throughout her life. A slop bowl excavated from Kenmore, as well as a teacup and a saucer excavated from Ferry Farm were both chosen for the exhibit in order to support that point.

Once this was all completed, the excitement truly began. I saw my work come to fruition when I set up the display in the conservation window of the Archaeology Lab. Being able to share what I had learned with the public was an excited prospect. The exhibit is currently on display and can be seen in the Ferry Farm Visitor Center.

Intern Gillian Both standing behind her exhibit.

This process has taught me a lot about exhibit design and the research process. I couldn’t have completed the exhibit without the Archaeology Lab staff helping me along every step of the way. I encourage you to go and visit the lab to see the exhibit and learn more about archaeology at Ferry Farm.

Gillian Both

Fleming Smith Scholar, UMW Class of 2022