Written by N-YHS History Detectives Kid Reporter Riley Neubauer, age 13
When you visit the New-York Historical Society, you might wonder how their great exhibits are produced—I know I did! So I met with Lily Wong, who is the curator of the new exhibition, Muhammad Ali, LeRoy Neiman, and the Art of Boxing. I talked to Lily about why she wanted to become a curator, what it means to be a curator, and how she developed the amazing exhibit.
Riley (R): How did you become a curator?
Lily Wong (LW): I became interested in history when I was in college. The reason I didn’t like history when I was younger was because I thought it was just dates and facts and figures that you had to memorize. I became more interested in history when I realized how much it affects how we live our lives today—What lessons can we learn? How does what happened in history shape our everyday lives? And so it made sense to work in a museum since it offers a way for me to communicate my love for history to the public in an interactive way.
(R): How did you start your career at the New-York Historical Society?
(LW): I had an internship at New-York Historical and then was hired to work on the exhibition about Chinese-American history , which was on view in fall 2014. I started doing a lot of research and then got more involved with the production of the exhibit. I stayed on to help research and develop the upcoming Vietnam War exhibition, and then of course this Ali exhibit as well.
(R): How would you describe your job?
(LW): It changes a lot depending on the phase of the exhibition that I am currently working on. I do a lot of research. This involves reading books as well as looking for images and objects. We also get the chance to visit other places to look through archives and other museums. I’ve helped put together exhibit websites, books, media, and many other things. There’s a lot that goes into making an exhibit!
The Muhammad Ali show, which I recently finished working on, was a little different because we were working with one particular collection [just works by LeRoy Neiman], but for other shows we typically pull items from many different places. And part of my job is to go find those items and photos that will eventually be in the exhibits.
(R): What does your typical day look like?
(LW): I’m often working at a computer, but it varies. One day, I’m finding and sorting images and preparing press releases. Other days, I have lots meetings—my work is usually a very collaborative process. Yesterday we had a design meeting for the Vietnam War exhibit ion that I’m working on, opening in fall 2017.
(R): Who helps guide you?
(LW): Marci Reaven, the vice president of history exhibits at N-YHS. She has been the curator of the major shows that I am working on, and she really guides the shape and content of our exhibitions.
This Ali exhibit is the first show that I have done by myself—which is very exciting! I had an amazing team to help with design, content, and everything—like I said, it’s a group effort. And I was also fortunate to be able to call on Jeffrey Sammons, a historian and professor at NYU, for advice on the content of the exhibition since he’s written extensively about Muhammad Ali.
(R): What are you looking for, as a curator, in a potential exhibit?
(LW): We want something that people will want to see—a topic that is relevant to current events but perhaps has not been actively discussed. We’re also looking for good stories.
(R): What is the lifecycle of an exhibit? How long does it take you to develop the concept, do research, collect materials, write the copy, announce the exhibit to the public, and install the exhibit?
(LW): It depends on the exhibition. For this Ali exhibit, it’s in a relatively small gallery, and I worked on it for ten months or so. Once we decided we were going to work with the Neiman Foundation and display LeRoy’s works of Muhammad Ali, we began to ask, what’s the story? What do we want visitors to come away with? What works can be used to tell this story?
I had a lot of help from the folks at the LeRoy Neiman Foundation, who are familiar with the collection. I think there are some 500 works by Neiman of Ali, but only 20 in the final exhibition. So part of the challenge is deciding what works to display and what story to tell, and those decisions happen in tandem.
The exhibit also needs to be designed—how many works will fit on the walls? How will they be hung? This was mostly set by the end of the summer. After this was finished, I moved on to writing text as the design team worked out how it would all look. What would the logo be? What font would be used on the labels? How big will they be? And then slowly but surely the exhibit goes up. The walls get painted, the objects get framed and then hung, labels go up, and it opens!
(R): What is your favorite part about being a curator?
(LW): I like seeing how people react to the exhibitions. I enjoy working on exhibits that include people and stories that are not very well known. I especially like finding stories that are about everyday people, ones that are not as familiar. We get a chance to bring those to light. Or with a figure like Ali, we get the chance to show a different side of them.
(R): What are your other interests and hobbies?
(LW): I like cooking, traveling, and visiting lots of museums!
(R): Who are some of your favorite historical figures?
(LW): This is a tough question. I can’t really pick a favorite, but I admire folks like Fred Korematsu. He was a Japanese American who was interned during WWII. He brought a case to the Supreme Court, saying that internment was unconstitutional. Although he lost his case, it’s an extremely important historical stance. The people who have the greatest impact on me are people like him, who stand up for what they believe in. And there are many in that category—Grace Lee Boggs, Margaret Sanger, Elizabeth Blackwell, Julian Bond, and countless others.
I had so much fun learning about being a curator from Lily, and I hope when you visit the museum, you will strive to see all of her hard work! Often the curators participate in activities for families at the Museum, so check the calendar of events for more information!