The Museum of East Tennessee History will debut a new Civil War exhibit tomorrow. “Of Sword and Pen: Pivotal Moments in Civil War East Tennessee” features Andrew Johnson’s desk, original documents, and contemporary sketches. They’re hosting a preview tonight with a lecture by Ed Ayers at 7:30, so if you’re in the Knoxville area you might want to check it out.
Tag Archives: exhibits
Here’s an instructive tale for all you aspiring public historians out there who are thinking about a career in the museum biz.
This past weekend I went to a very prominent museum in a large U.S. city to see a “headliner” temporary exhibition. The museum in question boasts a huge facility, a stratospheric budget, and a staff the size of a small army. For the purposes of this little screed it shall remain nameless.
The museum entrance area—absolutely cavernous in size—lacked any directional signage, map handouts, or a docent to point visitors to their destinations. There were plenty of signs advertising the special exhibit, but none telling you how to get to it. We finally spotted a janitor, who directed us downstairs. Judging by the number of bewildered-looking tourists in the lobby, I don’t think we were the only ones who were confused.
Once we got to the line for entry into the exhibit, we noticed a few people clutching small audio devices with headsets. When an attendant walked past the line, somebody ahead of us asked him about the headsets, and he said, “Oh, those are the audio tours. Did you want one?” After shouting out something to the effect that audio tours were available, he disappeared and then came back with an armful of the devices, collecting the rental fees and making change out of his pocket while yelling directions to the crowd about how to use them. As we headed inside, there were still people in the crowd who were asking around about whether there was some kind of audio tour, whether it was free, whether you could see the exhibit without it, etc.
When we finally entered the exhibition, we found that the whole thing was arranged in a linear fashion. You had a wall of objects and text assembled in a straight line, sort of like a police line-up. (“Do you recognize the artifact who stole your purse, ma’am?”) This linear arrangement forced everybody in the gallery to queue up in order to see the material and then when you got to the end of that line of artifacts, you turned the corner to find…yet another wall of artifacts arranged in a straight line, and so on.
It was impossible to explore the exhibit at your own pace, focus on areas that you found particularly interesting, or step across the gallery to another display while the crowd died down elsewhere. There was no choice but to stand in line and shuffle along with the crowd, waiting for the person ahead of you to move on before you could proceed. One of the tricks of exhibit design is to arrange the material so that you minimize bottlenecks, but here the entire exhibit consisted of nothing but bottlenecks, laid out in a way that forced you to queue up single-file and wait for the person ahead of you to finish reading the text in their spot before you could move on.
The only exception to the police line-up approach was a huge, circular exhibit case in the last gallery, sort of like a gigantic coffee table with artifacts and text arranged around the perimeter. That turned out to be even worse, because here the line of visitors had no beginning and no end—just a continuous circle of people in single file, moving from one object to the next. In order to see any of the material in that case you had to hover on the outskirts of this ring of visitors and wait for an opening in the line to develop, cut in, and then join the agonizingly slow shuffle around the perimeter of the exhibit case in a great Circle of Life.
It was a real shame, because in terms of the quality of the material on exhibit, it was one of the best assemblages of artifacts I’ve ever seen in one place. They had great stuff, but no idea how to arrange it in an exhibition; a wonderful facility, but no thought as to what visitors needed in order to orient themselves when they arrived.
Check out Katy Lasdow’s write-up of her visit to the Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum. After forking over twenty-five bucks, sitting through a mock town meeting, pretending to dump tea chests from the deck of a replicated ship, and watching two holographic women talk about the coming war, she got to see a grand total of one original artifact.
“When does a museum stop being a museum,” Lasdow rightly asks, “and become something else?”
My former boss used to say, “A museum is a communication device.” I agree. A museum should do more than collect and display artifacts; it should use the tools at its disposal to contextualize those artifacts. The days when an exhibit consisted of a conglomeration of artifacts, labels, and pictures are over. But the use of artifacts and other objects to communicate and instruct is still the distinguishing feature of museums. That’s what separates the museum exhibit from other means of communication and instruction.
There’s no magic ratio of artifacts to gizmos that works for each and every exhibit, but when there’s only one artifact in the whole building, one wonders why they decided to call it a museum in the first place, whatever the quality of the information being conveyed or the nobility of the planners’ intentions.
After you leave a reproduction of the deathbed in the Petersen House, you enter the new building, as if emerging into the Washington streets the morning after Lincoln’s death. Church bells are tolling; broadsheets are plastered on walls. The panel text makes the atmospherics even more vivid. We learn that when Edwin Booth, the Shakespearean actor, heard what his brother had done, he said, “It was just as if I was struck on the forehead with a hammer.”
Mary Todd Lincoln was so mad with grief that White House pallbearers went barefoot, so sounds would not distress her. She neither attended the Washington service nor accompanied the coffin on its 1,700-mile railway journey to Springfield for burial.
That journey is evoked in a gallery space resembling the train car that carried the coffin. And touch-screen monitors give us the details: seven million people viewed the body where it was shown along the way, or congregated along the tracks; 300,000 in Philadelphia alone. There were hints of Lincoln’s legacy in the tributes, and signs of unfinished business too. In Washington the 22nd United States Colored Infantry headed the procession; in New York the City Council refused to allow blacks to march at all. Its ruling was overturned by Lincoln’s secretary of war, Edwin Stanton.
In counterpoint to the funeral train, we get a survey of Booth’s flight through the Virginia marshes. Parts of his diary are transcribed onto touch screens. Booth was bewildered by the manhunt: “I am here in despair. And why? For doing what Brutus was honored for.” He is tracked to a tobacco barn that is set ablaze and is shot by an overzealous soldier; his co-conspirators are hanged. Reconstruction begins, falters and ends.
In a panel about Lincoln’s vice president, the Democrat Andrew Johnson, we see how quickly the world Lincoln opposed oozed back into place. As president, Johnson vetoed civil rights legislation, approved of “Black Codes” limiting the freedom of former slaves, and wrote, “This is a country for white men, and by God, as long as I am president, it shall be a government for white men.”
Was Booth, then, ultimately triumphant? He certainly altered the shape of Reconstruction. As a result, the exhibition points out, by the 19th century’s end, Lincoln was recalled differently from the way he had been just after the war. At first he was remembered as a liberator, undermining the culture of enslavement; later memorials emphasized instead his devotion to the Union.
But we also learn of Lincoln’s afterlife and nearly universal appeal. President Dwight D. Eisenhower kept a complete set of Lincoln’s writings in the Oval Office. Franklin D. Roosevelt declared that “it was time” for Democrats to “claim Lincoln as one of our own.” The only portrait that the Chinese leader Sun Yat-sen kept in his home was one of Lincoln, while Mao directed his followers to memorize the Gettysburg Address. Here too is Lincoln’s popular heritage, in Lincoln Logs, cartoons, knickknacks.
This is a radically different approach than the cabin-to-coffin exhibit at the ALPLM in Springfield, which ends on a note of somber resolution—the war won, Lincoln’s place in national pantheon secured. The narrative at Ford’s is less reassuring. This exhibit starts with Booth’s bullet, and then takes the visitor through the post-war debates over the changes Lincoln implemented. The story meanders through an America still dealing with the ripples of Lincoln’s presidency, a nation taking steps both forward and backward, both toward the transformations wrought by Lincoln and in the opposite direction of Black Codes and the collapse of Reconstruction.
And the way in which people remember Lincoln, in this narrative, is not set in marble in April 1865. Instead, the world contests his legacy down through the years, finding multiple meanings and dropping the ones that become inconvenient.
It seems to paint a messy, complicated, and often ambiguous picture of history and historical memory. In other words, it sounds like it’s worth a visit.
The New York Times has a piece on the recently constructed North Carolina History Center at New Bern. It’s part of the same site that includes a reconstruction of Gov. William Tryon’s impressive eighteenth-century house.
What’s cool about the article is that it uses the center’s exhibits to explain some of the ways historic interpretation has changed over the years. Rather than focusing exclusively on Tryon and those who sat with him atop the pinnacle of colonial society, the exhibits widen things out a little by examining the everyday lives of ordinary North Carolinians, the ways the environment shaped human history, and so on. And, of course, the center employs all the latest gadgets in order to engage in its audience.
Check out the link to the center’s website in the article, too; it takes you to a short video where you can get a taste of the exhibits.
A reader left a comment to my last post about Conner Prairie’s new Civil War exhibit, but she posted it on the “About the Blog” page. It’s a good comment that deserves a serious response, so I’m going to re-post it here.
She says: “Your review takes very strong positions of the Civil War at Conner PRairie [sic] and completely withholds any observations about the validity of the history, the educational merits or the quality of the visitor experience. Have you visited conner prairie, Michael?”
I haven’t been to Conner Prairie, but I hope to someday. It’s one of the more important public history sites in the country and pioneered the use of living history for educational purposes. My criticism is not aimed at Conner Prairie in general, but rather at some specific techniques used in the new Morgan’s Raid exhibit.
First of all, let me address my (admittedly quite snarky) remarks about the children’s play area. I think it’s a misfire. I don’t see any educational benefit in letting kids shoot water cannons, splash around in a pool, or climb around on a structure that bears a passing resemblance to a riverboat. Kids learn by doing, it’s true—but not all “doing” entails learning.
She’s correct that I didn’t say very much about the historical content or educational utility of the exhibit itself. The reason I didn’t is because Conner Prairie’s publicity material didn’t really emphasize the content. Instead, the emphasis is on the visceral experience visitors are meant to have. The press release I quoted in my post promises that guests “will feel they have lived through a piece of the war and that they had to make the same choices about what to support and who to believe that Hoosiers had to make 150 years ago.”
Historic sites and museums seem to be hitting us in the heart and in the gut these days. Exhibit planners and site administrators want us to experience what Civil War combat was like, or understand the difficult decisions runaway slaves faced, or sympathize with Abraham Lincoln, or whatever. Increasingly, public historians are trying to put visitors in historical figures’ shoes. I think they’re not as successful at this as they’re telling themselves and their audience.
Sure, we can experience some of the outward aspects of life in the past. That’s one of the things that places like Conner Prairie can do that you can’t do with any other educational medium. We can get a taste of some common household chore or feel the heft of a knapsack. We can even sample the sights and sounds of a battle, and see how formations of soldiers moved and fought.
But no matter how much money we spend, no matter how effective our sound systems or how advanced our special effects, we simply can’t recreate the inner experiences of long-dead people. Being an Indiana civilian caught in the middle of an attack by Confederate raiders involved much more than sounds, smoke, and costumes. There was terror, pain, and uncertainty—all the emotions that one would have if armed men tore into one’s community dealing death and destruction. That’s a check that no public historian can cash.
Even if we could find a way to make visitors fear for their lives (and wouldn’t that be a hoot?), they’d still process those emotions and thoughts as citizens of the twenty-first century. One of my historical maxims is that people of the past didn’t just do things differently; they were different. Their worldviews were the products of accumulated experiences and beliefs that were fundamentally different from ours. Here’s an example from two very different books. One of my college professors, Dr. Earl Hess, wrote a very fine study about Union soldiers in combat. He noted that many of these troops compared fighting to hard, arduous work. This made sense, because a lot of them shared some background in agricultural labor. It was a way to get their heads around the experience of battle and explain it to others. In Black Hawk Down, by contrast, Mark Bowden notes that American soldiers who found themselves caught up in a deadly firefight in Somalia in 1993 compared their experience of combat to modern war films. While dodging bullets, they thought to themselves something along the lines of, “I’m in a movie!” Both groups processed the singular experience of combat in ways that mirrored their lifestyles and worldviews, but those lifestyles and worldviews were grounded in different eras.
This is not to say that I think teaching about the emotions and experiences of the past has no place in public history. It most certainly does. But both the public historian and the visitor must remember that while we can and should learn about those experiences, we can’t have them. And we probably wouldn’t want to.
I always enjoy reading the Abraham Lincoln Observer, and a recent item at that blog takes note of something that bugs me about the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield—the exhibits, while extensive, leave a lot of important things unsaid.
Of course, those exhibits have been controversial since before the museum opened. I always thought it was ironic that the ALPLM’s critics adopted the shorthand phrase “rubber Lincolns” to condemn the institution’s Disneyesque approach, because the mannequin set pieces are actually one of the most traditional exhibit techniques used there. Indeed, mannequins situated in historical tableaux have been a staple of museums for a long, long time. The ALPLM isn’t even the only Lincoln institution to make use of them. The Lincoln Museum in Hodgenville has a series of these life-size scenes, and the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum where I used to work, has also used this exhibit technique, although all but one of their mannequins are now in storage.
The more innovative exhibits at the ALPLM are actually the ones that don’t use the life-size figures. I had mixed reactions to these bells and whistles when I visited the museum a few years ago. I found some of these exhibits very effective, especially the mock television control room set-up used to explain the Election of 1860. Consider for a moment how difficult it is to make sense of a four-way presidential race using the medium of a standard museum exhibit. You’re dealing with abstract things like political principles and party platforms. How do you introduce the players and explain what it’s all about in an engaging and informative manner? The ALPLM did it by setting up a TV control room where visitors see the whole election play out in front of them. It’s not just gadgetry for its own sake; it’s a creative and effective use of the best tools available to get the job done.
I had a decidedly more negative reaction to the “Ghosts of the Library” presentation, which is intended to introduce visitors to the archives. It’s a theater presentation in which a live performer lip-synchs a recorded spiel while showing the audience replicated items from the collection which then come to life via special effects. There’s more than a little irony involved here. We’re watching a presentation intended to make us appreciate the importance of the raw materials of history, but it employs an actor parading around with fake artifacts. If all that old stuff is so darned important, then why don’t they let us see more of it? One gets the impression that the designers occasionally let their budget get the better of them, asking each other how cool it would be to do such-and-such without coming to terms with whether or not it’s actually the best approach.
But one of my biggest qualms about the ALPLM is the point raised in the piece linked above. I think the exhibits dealing with Lincoln’s presidency are a little uneven in terms of content. It’s not that I expect them to try to tell everything—that’s a ridiculous standard, as any public historian can tell you—but I do expect a facility which is the 600 lb. gorilla among Lincoln institutions to hit the most important high points. And my impression of the presidential galleries was that the debate over emancipation overwhelmed all else. Topics such as Lincoln’s role as commander-in-chief, his efforts to shape public opinion, his controversial acts regarding wartime civil liberties, his ideas about Reconstruction—these aren’t really addressed in as substantial a manner as they deserve. As important as emancipation was, one can’t understand Lincoln’s presidency based solely on that facet of it. Furthermore, it seems to me that the aspects of Lincoln’s presidential years that the galleries emphasize are precisely those things most visitors are likely to know already. He freed the slaves, he gave the Gettysburg Address, and he generally had a rough go of it.
I hope all this doesn’t sound like I’m trying to slam the ALPLM. As I said, I think some of the exhibits there are wonderfully effective, and someday I hope to go back and visit again. I like the fact that its innovative approach provoked a public discussion about how best to teach history using exhibits, which is a subject historians who don’t work in the museum field need to involve themselves in more closely.