First person witnesses to history have a powerful voice. Why paraphrase or simply quote a letter within an exhibit panel when you can present the words in their original format and context?
Here are some ideas and tips for using letters in your exhibits:
1. Unless you have a secure case in which to display the letters, scan the originals to make a color copy. With today’s technology, color copies are extremely high quality. Even if you plan to mat and frame the letters, it is far simpler to use a copy. Otherwise, you have to be very careful with the materials you use when matting and framing. You must create a hinge to attach the letter to the mat that is made from an archival paper and adhesive. If you are matting and framing a copy, you can use any type of adhesive you want, without worrying about damage to an original document. It also protects the original from light damage while it is on display.
2. Sometimes the entire letter is too much to use, and you want your visitors to pay special attention to a certain passage. Instead of just quoting it, scan the section of the letter that contains the lines you want to use. Using a graphic design program, “feather” the edges of the scan to soften the look. Consider making a typewritten transcription to present alongside each quote. Reading handwriting is not a skill everyone possesses! You don’t want to frustrate visitors so they give up on trying to read the letters.
3. If you’re using only part of the letter in your exhibition, you may want to consider providing a copy of the whole thing for visitors to read. Create a binder with sleeves where you can place the copied pages of each letter. Visitors can flip through the book and read what they want from the originals. Again, provide a transcription of each letter for the visitor to read.
4. Don’t forget about the envelopes! Scanned images can make an interesting graphic design element in your panels. If you’re creating a binder of the full letters, place a copy of the envelope at the beginning or end of each letter.
5. Create an interactive using reproductions of the letters and the envelopes. Print the front of the envelope with the address and stamp on a modern envelope. It doesn’t really matter that the archival envelopes might be smaller than today’s standard business envelopes. Put a copy of the letter inside the envelope. Build a mail slot or cubby hole holder to display the letters. Encourage visitors to take one out and read it. This works great with postcards too!