Friday, March 23, 2012

Bite-Size or Banquet? How Do You Like Your History?

Several weeks ago I was in Indianapolis and had a chance to visit both the Indiana Historical Society and the Indiana State Museum and was struck by the differences in the way they presented history, differences that reflect both the DNA of the organizations (one primarily an archives and one an encyclopedic collection)  and a distinct approach to involving visitors.
The Indiana Historical Society is, unlike many historical societies, solely an archives, a repository of millions of photographs and archival materials.  But it's housed in a big, grand space that has now become a place to experience,  on a changing basis,  bite-size bits of Indiana's past.  The You Are There project takes a historic photograph, re-creates the particular space, and peoples the space with live, first-person interpreters to, in any way you wish,  connect with the visitor.  While there,  I heard a bit of Cole Porter sung, met a sponsor of a Holocaust refugee resettled to Indianapolis as she described their arrival, and a listened to a true-believing (and a little cranky) WCTU activist at the site of an illegal still.   I stood in the dark as Robert F. Kennedy announced the death of Martin Luther King to a shocked audience.   Each experience surprised me and led to interesting conversations with my fellow visitors (museum professionals all on that morning). 
The project is an ongoing experiment as the historical society staff listen to visitors, work hard to pick engaging photos from their enormous collection,  and figure out what works and what doesn't.  Several elements take the experience further:  there's a staff member, sort of an introducer, outside each experience.  S/he sets the scene, and even said, in one case, "I like to ask her about..."  to give shy visitors a starting point.  Wall exhibits outside each experience allow interested visitors a place for deeper exploration. 
After RFK's speech,  a staff member engaged us in conversations about the speech, about the members of the audience that night (we were all given a simple description of one and got the chance to learn the rest of their story);  and encouraged us to use a talk-back board sharing what gives us hope.    I'm a sampler,  I like to dip in and out of things,  and this approach really gave me a chance--not to learn a full overview of Indiana history--but to connect with the stories of the state. 
The Indiana State Museum takes a familiar, now seeming a bit old-fashioned, approach. After the You are There experience, I struggled to find the same kind of meaning.  The State Museum takes the long view, starting with the geographic formation of the state.   I've been in meetings where we try and figure out the appropriate sized time period to include in an exhibit.  Here it was the birth of the earth to now--the really long view.
Artifacts and text were layered and layered and layered, to the point that it was tough to make sense of any of it.  I appreciated the care that clearly had gone into developing the exhibits (like the embedded roads, below) but I couldn't find myself caring about much of it.  And I couldn't find that I would find much reason to return to the museum.   But in the case of the historical society,  I'll be fascinated to see the next photo chosen and the next stories shared.
And, by the way,  in this contentious election year, it was meaningful and important to hear Kennedy's words that sad night spoken aloud, "What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence or lawlessness, but love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice towards those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black."
Bite-size or banquet?  I vote bite-size.  I think that the historical society's approach could serve as a model for so many other historical societies, large or small.  If the model of the billion years ago to now exhibit is the encyclopedia,  perhaps as museum workers, we should be considering if we're headed the way of the Encyclopedia Britannica.  But the historical society's bites of history perhaps better suit contemporary life.  No high-tech media,  just solid research,  a commitment to training great staff, engaged presenters,  and a passionate desire to share meangingful stories.


Bob Beatty said...

For me it depends. There are days I prefer the "banquet" approach and days I want my snippets of info.

But in general I'm very much an artifact/text visitor on my own and experience-driven when I'm with the kids.

Knowing both institutions well I think they both complement each other well. The state museum has a mandate that is much more comprehensive--encyclopedic as you note. IHS is private and has its own mission as Indiana's storyteller. So they can use vignettes to tell stories.

And their approaches both fit their missions well.

Ginny MacKenzie Magan said...

Am I the only one who is a bit put off by "re-enactors?" To me ANY re-enaction feels false and stilted because I know, of course, that it is. But one's imagination can be encouraged and brought out by a great exhibit--simply evocative photos with minimal but GOOD interpretation makes, for me, the story come alive in my head with no actors necessary. They feel, in fact, terribly distracting. Does anyone else have this reaction? (I have never admitted this before!)

Linda Norris said...

Bob--you're absolutely right. On this particular day, bite-size was it for me--but it was great to see the contrast and the risk-taking at IHS. Ginny--another museum professional with me that day admitted exactly the same thing! So you're not alone :) I really thought of the people at IHS as not re-enactors, but conversation starters. I'm willing to suspend my belief for a bit, to see what happens. But I also agree, memorable objects and creative (which doesn't necessarily mean bells and whistles) exhibits can be incredibly meaningful and powerful. I guess that overall take-away from my post and both your comments--one size doesn't fit all! We want different things at different times (alone v. family), and to suit our different personalities. Thanks for commenting!

Brigette said...

I know both institutions well. One allows you to experience generations of information that can appeal to many, and the other controls what it shows, and has a very narrow focus. And - I might add - for about the same price.

As a mother of 2 kids - one elementary age and the other middle school - I find it hard justifying going to IHS when I get so much more at ISM. Yes - IHS is an immersive experience- but if the topics don't appeal to me - then why should I go? Also with any performance interpretation - you are getting a one sided view.

I have never understood why IHS went in this direction. Personally, I like to make up my own decisions and interpret things on my own. Experience a wide variety of things. I don't attend a museum to see a play.

Gobae said...

@Ginny - Actually the group most likely to share your reaction to re-enactors are men over the age of 60. (

It seems that the younger you are the more likely you are able to suspend disbelief and join them in the past.

Of course getting the public to "buy-in" is a bigger issue for first-person reenactors than for 3rd person. With the latter your really just dealing with a costumed interpreter doing a demonstration or giving explanations.

Betty Brewer said...

I tend to agree with Bob and Linda -- both approaches have their place. ISM is large enough that they could, if they chose, do a combination. I confess that I haven't been to either for sometime and it has usually been for meetings. I did go to IHS not long after Stories opened. At that time, the re-enactors/facilitators/or whatever you call them, were not good at engaging the visitor. None of them were. Sounds like they have gotten much better, so time to go back.

Re: re-enactment, plays, etc -- I have seen some wonderful museum theatre that can really take you deeper into a story -- IF you allow it. I believe we do that well at my institution. One of the best I have seen lately is at the National Constitution Center. It was so well done that I believe EVERY American citizen or wannabe should experience it. (Yes, it is an experience.)

Anonymous said...

The comments show that an exhibition consists of the two elements: the object and the response. So many people want the objects to infused with some humanity they are willing to pay the price of "re-enactors," and it seems relatively few in the audiences can manage to wade through the careful but thick layers that may be the product of intense curatorial effort. Conclusion: should museums always be willing to have some of each, thinking in terms of menus, rather than absolutes?

Linda Norris said...

Thanks everyone, for such thoughtful comments. The menu metaphor dawned on me today when I was driving, and I think that's really a good one--and really reflects the challenges we face in museums. It's not just what we want, but different situations/days/times/who we're with all can change what we want, as you all have eloquently expressed. With IHS, I might have had a different reaction on a different day (and in fact, found that touch screen room called something I can't remember) not so interesting. What I appreciated though, was the experimentation, and that--and a need for variety--are maybe the takeaways. Thanks all!

Matt Popke said...


I find that my own reaction to live re-enactment is one of discomfort or awkwardness whereas recorded re-enactment (in a filmed documentary for instance) is just fine for me. I think it's not so much about suspending disbelief (I know it's not real no matter how it's presented to me) as it as about putting some distance between myself and the subject. It's more comfortable to consider the content of a museum on a purely intellectual level and less so when you become emotionally engaged, or maybe when that emotional engagement feels forced or doesn't get to occur on your terms.

I sometimes wonder though if comfort is the goal museums should be achieving or if encouraging that sometimes uncomfortable emotional engagement might not make the subject matter resonate more with the audience. After all it's not enough for someone to learn about history, they have to understand its relevance and impact as well or else the institution has failed to really communicate the point.

Linda Norris said...

Matt--thanks for your comment...I'm particularly interested in the uncomfortableness of emotional engagement. And as I read your comment, I thought that I do always feel a little bit uncomfortable with re-enactors, but there's a part of me that just decides to wade the question might be--how can we make museum experiences both comfortable--in that lots of different kinds of audiences feel free to wade in--and uncomfortable, which might encourage us to think deeper.