Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Big Idea, Election Style

I've been in lots of meetings lately where we talk about the Big Idea in exhibits--what's the big idea about innovation, about a particular community's history, about the story of vacations. It's the way in which all of us try to make sense of telling any complicated history in an exhibit format. So I was interested, last week, to hear a piece on NPR's All Things Considered on the big idea in this year's presidential campaign. As Robert Siegel said, sometimes candidates say only that "I'm better, stronger, older, younger or something...." than the other candidate. But sometimes candidates are about bigger ideas and political contributors EJ Dionne and David Brooks, using candidates own speeches, talked about who's got a big idea and who doesn't. John McCain was, they thought, a big idea guy stuck with a big idea called Iraq; Barack Obama's: building a better America; Hilary Clinton: sort of a version of it takes a village and John Edwards, a "factory floor populism."

What does that mean for exhibit goers and makers? Perhaps we too often fall prey to the same, "I'm better, stronger," syndrome in which we expect visitors, because we're the only museum in town, or because we're a famous big name museum--that the experience should be enough. Time will tell in electoral politics whether a big idea wins, but every day, our communities vote with their feet--and their contributions--about our big ideas.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

No Looking, No Learning

No looking, no learning….

Hard as that is to believe, that’s what one of my students heard a harried mom say as she marched her son towards the exit at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. The comment provided the funny end to a long day of museum looking, accompanied by students from my museum exhibitions class. We saw one surprisingly good exhibit we didn’t have on our schedule, one old favorite for unknown reasons, one not worth the hype, one worth the effort, and one that raises questions about what museums are.

At the American Museum of Natural History:
Surprisingly good—the new Spitzer Hall of Human Origins at the American Museum of Natural History. Beautifully designed and installed, this exhibit explores evolution—and our future. We saw it at the end of the day, but it still was, for all of us, the memorable one. Media installations—but not too many, and easy to watch; clever exhibit design that, as one of my students said, “allowed you to get it without reading” but plenty of deeper text for those who were interested; and perhaps most importantly, evidence of a passionate commitment to knowledge and understanding. That last characteristic importantly connects it with last year’s Darwin exhibit at AMNH. (My apologies--my photos didn't convey the exhibit well, but loved this one of visitors looking at models of their ancestors).

An old favorite—hard to say why, but there’s something about the Hall of Northwest Coast Indians that draws me there every time I visit AMNH. The objects are incredibly beautiful and meaningful far beyond the simple labels, but the installation, no surprise for something based on research by Franz Boas, is old-fashioned. It’s a reverent sort of feeling place though, and I’d hate to see them change it.

Not worth the hype: Gold. The exhibit raised lots of questions for us. We’ve been talking about the big idea in class. What’s the big idea here? Gold is cool? One student interested in geology was very interested in that section, and another liked seeing the Oscar statue at the end. The exhibit was crowded—and why, when you put objects in freestanding cased with waist-level labels, couldn’t you put those labels on all four sides so more people could see it? I didn’t watch the video, but my students who did thought that was the best part. Very ho-hum, despite some beautiful objects.

And, at the New-York Historical Society:

Sojourner Truth, Library of Congress

Worth the effort, but not perfect: New York Divided: Slavery and the Civil War. The second of the historical society’s exhibits on slavery and New York had some of the same strengths and weaknesses as the first. Strength—a very clever opening video that makes the point of the exhibition very clear. Commerce or conscience—which would govern New York’s approach to slavery? The introductory label—written as an invitation from its president, Louise Mirrer, exemplifies the historical society’s commitment to the project. Loads and loads of text—not made easier by the fact that many of the objects themselves are books, pamphlets, or other textual materials. When asked, just after finishing the exhibit, about memorable objects—students named a small drawing, or a coin, or the orphan asylum book—small objects that spoke volumes.

This exhibit though, suffered from the same overuse of media as the first one. So much so, that the sound bleed from place to place made it difficult to concentrate. One large video about a dance hall seemed a waste, while a second about minstrel shows really drew me in to watch. An exhibit worth doing—and worth seeing. If you’re there, also don’t miss the exhibit A New Light on Tiffany: Clara Driscoll and the Tiffany Girls. It’s beautiful, and an amazing look at Driscoll and the women she worked with.

And I wonder….

We also visited the Children's Museum of Manhattan. Admittedly, none of us were children, nor did we have children with us. The place was packed, and families seemed to be having a great time. But if we think museums are about objects, those objects—of any sort—were in short supply here. I particularly loved though, the places where I saw parents and children working together. In a downstairs room, small groups of families worked enthusiastically on building block projects (at left) ; upstairs, a mother and son drove the fire engine.

I didn't see many people reading them, but I really liked the labels that helped parents think about how to play with their kids in ways that enhance learning.

But is it a museum?

Sunday, March 4, 2007

What Stories Should We Tell?

I’m involved in two projects right now that focus, in part, on difficult stories in small communities. In one community, a history of labor strikes resonates down the years—so much so that the companies themselves are gone from the community. The bitter memories remain though, so much so that a 95 year old woman almost spit out the names of those who were scabs in the 1940s. On another project, a historic house, owned by slaveholders, is beginning the process of thinking about how to interpret that difficult history—another history that resonates down to the present day for both European Americans and African Americans. There is some sense—among several groups of people-- that the history might be too painful still to address.

Over lunch with a colleague (guess these kinds of lunches serve as non-virtual blogs) we talked about how much we, as historians and as museum people, want to understand these issues and how much we believe that museums and historical societies can be places to do it. We talked about not-very-serious titles for an exhibit on difficult issues—It’s About Time, or Let’s Talk About It. Larger museums—particularly those museums involved in the International Coalition of Historic Sites of Conscience have done it but it seems a much more difficult thing for small museums to do.

Maybe it’s because we're reluctant to discuss those issues with our neighbors we see everyday. But maybe that’s exactly the place that we should discuss them—and understand that change can happen right in our own backyard. Community museums could, with a good deal of listening and good will, create exhibits and interpretive plans that bring diverse elements of our community together. As Margaret Mead famously said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."