Wednesday, April 13, 2011

What's the Story? A Straight Line?

While in Kyiv, I decided to try an experiment.  My Ukrainian language skills are still very weak and I wanted to see what I could learn about history by just looking at objects in a museum exhibition.  After all, we all know that many museum visitors don't bother to read labels.  With English labels,  I automatically read them,  but with labels written in Cyrillic,  it's a different story.  So I went off to the National History Museum,  just down the block from my apartment,  to see what I could learn.  Like many museum visitors, I had a broad outline of Ukraine's history already,  but certainly not many details.  What did I discover? 
First there were people who used stone tools and wore beaded necklaces.  But a map told me where those people might be located.
Then settlements began, in huts, where people hunted animals--but then we got to a settlement that's kind of recognizable--the second photo below is a big diorama of the early settlement of Kyiv.
Then in somewhat rapid succession,  people farmed,  Christianity became important,  factories opened and people had fancy furniture.  But some people still lived in traditional ways.
Then there were wars.
And then, looming on the horizon,  independence.
As I went through the museum, I was struck by how similar a narrative this is to the permanent exhibitions in many history museums anywhere.   I think some museums are still drawn to a straight line narrative of history like this.  Interestingly,  Ukrainian museums almost never use the center of their gallery spaces and the cases you see in some of the photos here are often the same dimensions, so history gets reduced a bit to case-sized bits so the straight line has even a greater emphasis.  Plows, Victorian furniture, military service:  I could be anywhere!   And of course,  without me being able to read labels,  the narrative was reduced to its simplest terms.

The photo at the top of the post,  a bas-relief as you enter the museum,  reminded me of a long-ago comment to a museum colleague.  In teaching fourth graders about primary sources she asked them how they would find out about what something in the past was like.  "I'd go to the historical society,"  said one.  "How would they find it out?"  she asked.  The student's reply, "They look it up in a big book in the back."  To me, this exhibit represents the big book approach to museum-story telling with a straight line narrative that brooks few doubts or questions.
But then I saw an exhibit there that I thought of as not a big book,  but a beautiful little short story.  There was a temporary exhibit on Serge Lifar, one of the great male ballet dancers of the 20th century.  I hadn't known anything about him,  but this small exhibition just had so much life to it in ways that were hard to explain.  Dancing shoes,  tiny models of ballet sets,  wings,  drawings of connections--he felt alive in the room.
So if you work in a history museum or a historic site, try going through your gallery or site without reading labels or a guided tour.  Imagine that you know only what the objects tell you.  Is it a straight line narrative?  or do the objects themselves and the exhibition design allow visitors to consider the twists and turns of history?

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