I continue in my fervent belief that anyone and everyone who works in a museum should at least spend some time out on the floor observing what visitors do--what they look at, what they say, what they don't look at. A few weeks ago I spent time observing a prototype exhibit at Maison des Esclaves (the House of Slaves) where the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience is working with the Department of Cultural Heritage of the Government of Senegal, to revitalize the site and its interpretation. Gorée Island, where Maison des Esclaves is located, is Africa's first World Heritage Site, a place of great importance and meaning.
We produced the prototype exhibit (designed by Studio Tectonic here in the US and produced by Mandarine in Dakar) to learn more about how different audiences made use of different kinds of information and perspectives. The story of Maison des Esclaves is a complicated one, and one of our goals is to make that complicated story, based on new information and research, accessible for visitors. We also are connecting the history of the trans-Atlantic slave trade to contemporary issues of slavery, hoping to inspire action on those issues. This prototype is a capsule version of the full new interpretation.
Here's just a few photos to show what we learned:
People like maps! In this case, at least two maps allowed visitors to their own place in the larger world: a very simple map of the transAtlantic slave trade and a map showing the rates of contemporary slavery around the world both got lots of attention.
Exhibit text in two languages has extra value for all kinds of people. One girl, a native French speaker, was very carefully sounding out the English-language text for her father.
People make unexpected meanings. Evidently, the school opened by LeBron James has a central staircase that greatly resembles Maison des Esclaves. Did he intend it? Who knows. But we did hear that discussion.
Visitors love sharing their own perspectives--and they are usually great at connecting past to present. There was also lots of pointing and sharing, as people looked at the exhibit together.
To our greatest surprise--people of all ages, from all over the world, were reading, intently reading, our exhibition text--even taking photos of the text. The eagerness to know more about this history was really inspiring to us.
We also had a chance to chat with girls from Mariamma Bâ School on the island. They had visited the exhibition the week before and they had so many great ideas, observations and concerns. So much so that as we were leaving, three girls hustled down the path to share more ideas with us. When I think about our primary audience for the exhibit--it's those girls, those girls who can shape Senegal and the world.
What did you learn in your exhibits today? No excuses, get out there!