Rewind to Refresh Formulaic History Exhibits

Beginning of "The Story of North Carolina" exhibit at the NC Museum of History

All too often history museums are compelled to tell “The Story” of the particular state, county, or town they serve.  On the one hand, this directive is understandable because:

  •  More people may experience a museum exhibit than will read a book on a particular topic.
  •  Studies show that more people trust the history they learn from museums than that which they read in books.
  •  The town or county may be small enough that a book will not be written on its history

 On the other hand, there are several difficulties with this approach:

  • Collections often do not relate to large portions of “The Story.”
  • The end result is often a “book on the wall” approach where text-heavy displays fail to maximize the potential of the exhibition medium.

 An interesting report on tracking and timing visitors’ behavior from the USS Constitution Museum highlights the reality of museum fatigue.  Remember the “streaker, stroller, studier” categorization of visitors and how the studiers usually comprise the smallest percentage of an exhibit’s audience?  According to patterns at the USS Constitution Museum, even the visitors who began touring the exhibit as studiers shifted to stroller behavior mid-way through the show.

If this is typical museum audience behavior, then history museums need to find ways to present their most engaging, biggest ideas in the earlier parts of the exhibition.  Most historical collections contain a wide variety of artifacts from the late 19th and 20th centuries and a relative paucity from earlier periods. Yet most history museums attempting to tell “The Story” strive to devote equal amounts of space to the beginnings of their town, county, or state, and exhibit materials representing the earlier periods are often less engaging for visitors.

 A walk back through time, starting with a recent part of “The Story” and winding down at the beginning, may be a more effective way for museum visitors to encounter the past.  More recent artifacts are often bigger, flashier, and can connect with many of the visitors’ own memories.   By the end of the exhibition, audience members who have time may be more willing to participate in activities that get them thinking about open ended questions on topics for which little evidence exists and/ or reflections on the overall message of “The Story.”

 Have you seen the rewind approach in a history museum?  Was it successful?  What ideas can you share to make “The Story” more engaging in exhibition form?


About collectionsconversations

This blog will contain posts from the C2C project staff on a variety of topics related to collections care and disaster preparedness. Enjoy the posts and let us know if you would like additional information or have a topic you would like for us to address.

Posted on December 16, 2011, in Exhibitions, museums and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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