Exhibit Design: What Killed the American Hat?

placer county museums hats 6

This exhibit started with the simple idea of showing off the Placer County Museum’s great and varied collection of women’s hats. The richness of the collection made the exhibit an easy win, but it also posed a great question; If hat wearing had been all but mandatory since well before the birth of our nation, why did they all of a sudden disappear?

Keeping with the period of the hats, 1940s – 1960s, we looked around pop culture of the era for an iconography that would make a good platform to showcase our collection and invite people to become part of the exhibit. To that end we chose to stage it as a detective’s office from a Crime Noir novel. We came up with the appropriately provocative title, “What Killed the American Hat?” and were off and running.

Now that we were going to put the answer of the titular question into the hands of the audience we needed to figure out a way to give them as much information as they wanted about the forces working to dislodge the hat from its perch as a fashion necessity.

There was a lot of anecdotal information about the change but we were having trouble finding any reliable sources. It wasn’t until we stumbled upon the archive feature in Google’s news search that we found what we were looking for. Just by typing in keywords and choosing a date range we had access to scans of newspapers from around the country, and the world, concerning hat culture.

In order to display all this information without overwhelming the viewer we created an analog of an internet drill down menu in the form of desktop file folders.


These folders were left loose on the desk so that people could pick them up and leaf through them, though the table was labeled as to where the folders should be replaced.

Since we were asking people to make their own decision we had to give them a way to easily register their conclusion. To that end we built a counter out of hand held tally counters and attached it to the side of the desk so that people could just push a button to record their vote.


If people disagree with all the suspects we’ve chosen, we have provided them with a note pad to nominate a different suspect. Once filled out they are slipped into the desk drawer where museum staff goes through them and posts them on bulletin board to the left of the exhibit.


The background of the exhibit is in homage to Saul Bass, a popular graphic artist of the era whose work included the opening credits for Alfred Hitchcock’s films. Our first sense of how the exhibit would be received came while painting the background. The title alone caused groups to stop in front of the empty case to discus and debate their views on the causes of the hat’s disappearance.

While the presentation of this exhibit was unorthodox for our museum, it’s been well received by our visitors and docents. It’s inspired a lot of conversation, participation, donations and even a poem by our local Red Hat Society.


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