A little over a year ago, I was asked if I would like to curate a small temporary photograph exhibit that would be featured in a newly created space on the third floor of the Nebraska History Museum. Exhibits Coordinator Tina Koeppe gave me an open license to create an exhibit from the hundreds of thousands of images I care for as photograph curator at the Nebraska State Historical Society. I know that I have said it before in my blogs, but I really do have a very cool job and feel very privileged to get to do what I do. With that said, I have not curated an entire exhibit before and the thought of it was a bit daunting.
You might be asking yourself, “What does it take to curate an exhibit?” Well, let me tell you… It takes a lot of planning, careful research, painful selection, and a lot of printer cartridges. I started my planning process by thinking about all the amazing photograph collections I have encountered in my three years as photograph curator. My idea list was about three pages long. I wanted to choose a topic that both surprised me and fascinated me. I figured if something made me say “Wow,” maybe our visitors would like it too.
So, what did I choose? Mug shots! We hold several thousand original glass plate negatives and photographs take of prisoners as they entered the Nebraska State Penitentiary. The earliest mug shots date from the 1860s and captured the faces of criminals of all types. Our very talented and incredible helpful Reference Room staff has helped hundreds of genealogist locate their family’s lost black sheep among the prison records. Often, the mug shots they find is the only photograph the family has ever seen of their notorious ancestor. What better way to share this unusual collection with our visitors but to create an exhibit from the interesting faces and fascinating stories found among the mug shots?
With so many amazing mug shots to choose from, selecting only 23 to be featured in the exhibit was very difficult. From chicken thieves to safe crackers, I found enticing story after story as I read through the prison records on microfilm in the Reference Room. Our Digital Imaging Lab created crisp, high resolution images from the
original glass plate negatives and prints that brought out the stark beauty of the mug shots. Tina’s fabulous exhibits team blew up the images bigger than life and installed the mug shots as if they were artistic portraits so popular among Hollywood actors rather than law enforcement identification tools.
I had a lot of fun putting together this exhibit. I would like to invite all our wonderful blog readers to please come visit the Nebraska History Museum and meet a few of my favorite criminals from Nebraska’s more notorious past. Remember the Nebraska History Museum is FREE, but we are always grateful for donations. Doing Hard Time: Historic Nebraska Mug Shots is open now, August 31, 2012 – February 13, 2013.
Also, check back on this blog over the next few weeks. I have a few more misbehaving criminals that I would like to introduce you to.