Research Notes: Repair and Temporal Relativity

As I embark on actually writing my thesis, I have a lot of ideas I’m trying to mesh together. I’m going to use this space as a little sandbox for some of those ideas in a short form to see if that works.

One of the challenges that I see in immersive historic sites is that they seem to erase the time that has intervened between the “period of significance” and the present. Richard Handler and Eric Gable, for instance, describe a visitor to Colonial Williamsburg who directly related the experience of a slave to his childhood hardships during the Great Depression.[1] This visitor wanted to make a connection to what he was seeing but the interpreters and buildings around him eliminated most of his life experience from the conversation rather than offering a sense of perspective. This is most apparent at living history sites where interpreters in character act as if they don’t understand modern technology, but the effect is present at most sites with reconstructed interiors and period furniture.

An interpreter tends a garden at Plimoth Plantation, a living history museum in Plymouth, MA. Photo by Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism under Creative Commons License CC BY-ND 2.0:

Michael Baxandall describes the interplay between museum object, curator, and viewer, in a way that I think is helpful. Specifically, Baxandall talks about the curatorial choices in an exhibit as a mediation between the artifact and the viewer. “Exhibitions in which different cultures are combined or juxtaposed are inherently more wholesome than exhibitions of a single culture,” writes Baxandall. “The juxtaposition of objects from different cultural systems signals to the viewer not only the variety of such systems but the cultural relativity of his own cultures and values.”[2]

Continue reading “Research Notes: Repair and Temporal Relativity”

I wrote an Exhibit Label!*

*Sort of.

Way back in my youthful days of last fall, I drafted a label for an exhibit as part of “Managing History” the introduction to Public History course at Temple University. I wrote about the process here on my blog, and then promptly forgot about it. A few weeks ago, I was reminded of that little label I’d written when I was invited to a sneak peek of the exhibit (“World War I: USS Olympia”) as it opened at the Independence Seaport Museum. While the label had gone through quite a bit of work since I’d been involved, I saw vestiges of my work in the final product.

Continue reading “I wrote an Exhibit Label!*”

Utilizing shared authority

Letting Go?: Sharing Historical Authority in a User-Generated World is a collection of essays published by the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage. It was a timely read for me this week as I wrote a piece for about how Anabaptist Historians should embrace public history techniques such as shared

[Lancaster Longhouse at the 1719 Hans Herr House & Museum, one of the really positive examples I identify of public history methods in an Anabaptist context]

In fact, I wish I had read Letting Go? before I wrote most of the post. I will certainly refer back to the collection of theory and case studies whenever I get around to writing the sequel. Continue reading “Utilizing shared authority”

Political Museums, Exhibits that Provoke

Our readings for Managing History this week continue the trend of considering the political dimensions of public history. While the readings–Andrea Burns’ From Storefront to Monument, Edward Linenthal’s oft-assigned postmortem of the Enola Gay controversy, and an article by Ken Yellis on Fred Wilson and provocation–are united in examining exhibits, they engage different facets of how museum spaces can be freighted with political meaning (with or without the curator intending it). Continue reading “Political Museums, Exhibits that Provoke”

On the Division of Labor

This week’s reading, Creating Exhibitions by Polly McKenna-Cress and Janet A. Kamien, picks up right where I left off: consensus building. McKenna-Cress and Kamien begin by articulating all of the ways in which collaboration is necessary in exhibit development. For instance, the more perspectives that are included in an exhibit (by involving a team), the more points of entry there are for visitors to engage the material. Most exhibits also require a variety of skill sets, from research to artifact preservation to writing to editing to design to assembling cabinets and applying fresh paint.

Yet once the authors have made their case in such concrete terms, they pull back and re-examine division of collaborative labor in more abstract terms. This abstraction helps the authors provide guidance to a wide variety of exhibit creators and also provide a division of labor that doesn’t fit within the framework of many position titles today. Instead of breaking the work of exhibit creation into discrete tasks, McKenna-Cress and Kamien divide the larger concerns that must be addressed in any exhibit.

For instance, rather than discussing the role of “director” or “vice president,” the authors argue that all exhibits must have a person or persons who advocate for the institution(s) that are hosting, producing, and/or funding the exhibit. Other advocacy needs that McKenna-Cress and Kamien identify are the subject matter, the visitor experience, the design, and the project/team. By freeing these needs from position titles, the authors allow exhibit teams to think about how best to divide up these responsibilities, perhaps with individuals shouldering multiple advocacies in whole or in part.

As the various advocate roles are largely self-explanatory, I will forego a summary of each, but examine more how these various facets of exhibit creation may map onto our 12-person class for our semester-end project.

Given that we are sort of creating a plan for a plan for an exhibit (or something like an exhibit, at least), and that we will identify a partner organization(s) but not necessarily carry out the work with them, much of the advocacy for the institution will be irrelevant. We will all absorb a bit of the responsibility of making our plan meet professional standards and making it attractive to partners/sponsors (and not embarrassing Temple University) but likely not have a higher-up to approve our work on an institutional level.*

Likewise, while we have at least one artist among us and I imagine we’ll do quite a few concept sketches to communicate our ideas to each other, I doubt that any of us will fully take on the mantle of advocacy for the design. This is the piece most often delegated to outside firms and I can’t see us hiring a design firm by mid-December. That said, some portion of this too will fall to each of us, with a few team members perhaps charged with undertaking some design challenges. Most of the design we do take on will probably be centered around advocacy for the visitor experience. There are firms that can handle this portion of the exhibit process as well, but given limited budget and essentially free labor (i.e. us), I imagine we’ll all tackle this. Because it will involve all (or perhaps only most) of us and we all have different preferences and museum experiences, I imagine this may be the most contentious portion of our process. I think we will all feel very invested–as museum goers and, in some cases, employees ourselves–in our guests’ impressions and take-aways, as well as their comfort and interest levels while engaged in our exhibit.

I think the task of advocating for the subject matter will be shared between us as well, but with divisions based on specific themes or topics within the Spanish Flu tent (there’s an image for you).

Perhaps the most interesting dynamic will be who among us takes on the advocacy for the project and team. This managerial role could become a really heavy burden. I can immediately think of one to three people who could be exceptionally well suited to this role (I am not one of them). If our class leader(s) can do this well (and let Dr. Lowe simply act as a safety net), this could be a very interesting project indeed.**


*This is somewhat speculative. I would not put it past Dr. Lowe to introduce a Mazer Rackham-esque character into our classroom sometime.

**But then again maybe I’m unusually enamored of central authority at the moment having just finished Jessica Choppin Roney’s Governed by a Spirit of Opposition, which portrays the pitfalls of collaborative libertarianism.

On Consensus

On the heels of reading Serrell, our class was introduced to an exhibit that did not spring from the same framework. Rather than defining a simple, digestible theme and working from there, this exhibit works as a cabinet of curiosities in order to make a set of artifacts associated with a group of people accessible to the public. The signage will be split between imagining internal thoughts of the artifacts’ users and providing context.

I was initially very skeptical. Having just read a clearly-written treatise/guide-book on signage, I wanted to jump into using the techniques and strategies of that book. Yet if, as Freeman Tilden put it, “the chief aim of interpretation is not instruction, but provocation,” this exhibit may be wildly successful. First-person emotions, wherever they come from, are always more provocative than dry context, right? Defined as the exhibit is by a specificity of setting and characters, perhaps this approach best fits the scope of the project.

I am assigned to contribute to this exhibit, about which I had initial reservations. My curatorial concept is not that of the curator, but it is his job, not mine. Even if we were equals, we would still have to mediate curatorial visions. We’re about to confront the difficult process of consensus building in class as we determine a direction for our class project. Thirteen ideas (at least!) enter, one survives. We’ve already seen ways in which various ideas might combine to form a Frankensteinian super-exhibit, that may be the best way forward. Or maybe we’ll all come to the table with Serrell on our minds and depart with a simple, clear, and, most importantly, workable, concept. Perhaps a very small one.

I’m sure not every part of the conversations to come will be fun but we’ll come out of them with something out there on the horizon to aim for. And we’ll have exercised our consensus muscles, the ones we didn’t know we had.