Week Nine: Exhibiting History

For class this week our readings focused on exhibits in museums and other places, exploring how they are used and controversies they can be involved in. The main reading was Tammy Gordon’s Private History in Public, in which she looked at exhibits outside of the traditional museum by looking at community, entrepreneurial, and vernacular exhibits. Gordon stressed that exhibits at these types of places usually told an “individualized perspective” and was a history based on “feelings, beliefs, and memories” (4-5). Furthermore, Gordon argued that at these places the visitors are more likely to feel a part of history then just learning history since the artifacts re less mediated by academic authority and because these places rely more on face to face interactions (13, 26, 30). Through these differences from traditional museums, the three types of exhibits attempt to build a sense of a shared past, which is important as it connects and engages people with history more effectively.

The other three readings were articles dealing with exhibits in more traditional museums and the controversies that can arise. Ken Yellis in “Fred Wilson, PTSD, and Me: Reflections on the History Wars” stressed that there needs to be a better way to fight over history and that much of the problems arose because of the uneasiness over the fragmentation of society (334). Furthermore, by looking at an exhibit by Fred Wilson, Yellis believed that it raised questions over how one can present history and how to deal with visitor’s expectations (338). One of the interesting concern Yellis raised was that of guiding the visitor and how to balance information text and reaching the emotions of the visitor. The second article, Randolph Starn’s “A Historian’s Brief Guide to New Museum Studies” traced the changing ideas on museums and how they have been viewed through their development. One of the most impactful things from his essay was when he stated that objects do not speak for themselves; they are spoken for, which challenges the widespread popular understanding that museums simply present the artifacts as they are without any interpretation (80).

This connected nicely with the third article, Edward Linenthal’s “Anatomy of a Controversy,” which explored the conflict over the making of an Enola Gay exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum. Linenthal described the problem as stemming from tension between commemorative sources and historical ones (9). The problem arose because many veteran groups and the media felt that the exhibit was not balanced and unfairly made one sympathize with the Japanese over the United States. Indeed, many accused the museum of including its own interpretation instead of letting the facts speak for themselves, while the museum argued that it was a matter of creating either a feel good history or a critical look at the consequences of the atomic bomb (26 & 38). Despite the museums attempts to address the concerns raised through revisions of the exhibit script, pressure groups continued to insist that it eliminate any real examination of the discussion to use the bomb to the point where it removed any form of controversy. However, even with all the redactions the exhibit was never completed, which Linenthal lamented because it missed an opportunity to give visitors to confront complex stories (62). This article was very important because it highlights the problems museums can encounter when trying to engage in a deeper more critical history and the difficulties in trying to find the balance between controversy and celebration histories. The other main issue that this article raised was the museums lack of understanding of how deeply people felt about this issue and thus implied an almost disconnect between the museum professionals and the general public. This then connects back to the Gordon text because together they demonstrate the need to be connected to the public in a personal and not professional way.

Taken together all of the readings point to a need to balance professional museum ideals with the personal connection demanded by the public. Furthermore, the importance of having engaging and interesting exhibits seems to be in constant conflict with the desire of some of more feel good history. Thus, museums need to tread carefully when designing new exhibits in order to be able to get the interesting interpretation across without upsetting too many people that the exhibit is never able to be completed.  These lessons can also be applied to our work with the Powel House because it shows the importance and need of developing a personal and engaging tour that encourages people to think about the topics.

Exhibit at the Navy History Museum in D.C.
Exhibit at the Navy History Museum in D.C.
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I thought of this exhibit while reading the texts because it is an example of how not to create an engaging or personal exhibit since just throws words and information at the visitor without any effort to make the attempt to make the visitor think. While I was personally interested in the history it was trying to tell, since I was born on Kwajalein, I was even unable to as Gordon said “feel a part of history,” revealing the importance of creating a personal preservative for the visitor.

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