My mentor in the public history business used to say, “A museum is a communication device.” His opinion was (and still is, I suppose) that the primary objective of a museum or historic site is to convey information. In this post and the next I’d like to look at some effective techniques that museums and historic sites use to communicate. My examples will all come from my favorite site—King’s Mountain National Military Park in northwestern South Carolina.
Of course, as I write this, we’re just a few hours away from the anniversary of the Battle of King’s Mountain, so it seems like an appropriate example. Plus, I just returned from a visit there, so it’s still fresh in my mind. More importantly, KMNP has a first-rate exhibit, and if you want to illustrate how to do something well, you might as well look at the best there is.
It’s quite a bit harder to communicate with exhibits, objects, landscapes, and buildings than it is to use the written or spoken word. Text and speech are linear; they’re composed of words that the receiver must take in a certain order, while sitting in the comfort of his or her own home or a in quiet library. There are a few obstacles that can get in the way of the message, but a good writer can surmount them. With a museum or historic site these obstacles multiply exponentially. People are standing rather than sitting, they sometimes walk in the wrong direction or skip over crucial elements, there is background noise from other visitors, and so on.
King’s Mountain unveiled a new visitor center exhibit a few years ago, during the 225th anniversary festivities. I was lucky enough to be there when it opened, and I was astounded at the remarkable job the Park Service did in putting it together. Here’s what you experience when you step into the gallery.
The exhibit set looks like a southern old-growth forest with massive tree trunks. This is what the battleground itself looked like at the time of the battle. Today the trees on the slopes of King’s Mountain are younger and smaller, but in 1780 the militiamen fighting on the ridge found trees that were so large they provided cover. (One young participant remembered, probably with a little exaggeration, that the tree he used as a personal fortification was almost shorn of bark from flying musket balls during the engagement.)
The nifty thing is that these aren’t just mock-ups of trees. This is more than an immersive environment. The tree trunks also serve a more direct interpretive function because they’re the kiosks where the exhibit content is located.
Some of the tree trunks have door-like openings, and when you step inside you’re surrounded by the text and images that most other exhibits put on walls and panels. Adjacent to the trees are the artifact cases. It’s an innovative design; it creates an environment that shows visitors what the conditions of the battlefield were, and then incorporates the other exhibit elements into that environment.
It also encourages exploration. Visitors in a run-of-the-mill exhibit gallery will quickly get “exhibit fatigue” and start to bypass areas, missing important portions of the narrative. Here, by contrast, the narrative is divided among the artificial trees, each of which hides much of its content within its curving walls while simultaneously inviting the visitor to step inside the door. Like a good novel, this exhibit keeps beckoning you on, compelling you to see what’s around the next corner, inside the next tree.
Now, here’s the really cool part. When you enter one of these tree trunks, an audio recording automatically starts up, explaining what you’re seeing in more detail and providing first-person narration from historical participants. The interior of each tree also has a small video screen that provides running captions of the accompanying audio recording. If a visitor is hearing impaired, they can still tell what’s being said by reading the text.
Note that the narration shown here is describing the contents of the exhibit case next to the tree. The audio narration includes a detailed description of all the images and artifacts in that part of the exhibit. Visually-impaired visitors can still “see” everything that a sighted visitor would experience by listening to the audio. The narration even describes the graphics in each tree trunk’s interior. (“To the right is a picture of a militiaman, wearing a dark slouch hat and with a blanket roll and rifle slung over his shoulder,” etc.)
So visitors that can’t hear can still read the narration on the screens, and visitors that can’t see can still hear the narration as it describes each component of the exhibit. Visitors that are neither hearing nor visually impaired have the information reinforced by both hearing it explained and seeing it for themselves, and since they can receive it passively, they’re more likely to take it all in. Nobody gets left out. This is one of the most thoughtful and sophisticated employments of technology in a public history setting that I’ve ever come across.
I’ve been to many museum exhibits where technology has become a snare rather than a tool for the designers. They will sometimes employ a device without regard for whether or not it’s the best means to convey that particular message. I suspect there’s a kind of keeping-up-with-the-Joneses mentality at work in the public history community, in which curators incorporate the latest gadget just because they have the budget for it, not because it’s the best tool for the job. At King’s Mountain, by contrast, what you see is technology used wisely. Every exhibit element serves a purpose, and every visitor gets the message. The folks who designed this exhibit knew what they were doing, and they did it superbly.
Next time we’ll look at another innovative way the park is using technology to interpret the Battle of King’s Mountain.