Engaging with Artifacts

How much should we rely on introductory text panels in exhibits? As we’ve discussed earlier in this blog, if you don’t engage visitors at the beginning of the exhibit, they’re more likely to proceed through the whole thing with a continuing (and maybe growing) strain of museum fatigue. Objects have the power to raise questions and inspire imagination. But, if they’re buried inside too much interpretation (a common fault in history museums), that power is overwhelmed by pedantry.

One blogger for TourSphere recently reported on an engaging exhibit experience where the museum did not provide much interpretation up front and instead allowed the artifacts to spark viewers’ curiosity. Read this account and think about how the design of your own exhibits facilitates curiosity and imagination or, rather, squelches these experiences from the get-go.

Old North State Detectorists Club

A tangential point the TourSphere post addresses, and one with several several examples in North Carolina, is the way that metal detector hobbyists can be involved in uncovering cultural heritage. (Be sure to click on the “dude with a metal detector” link within the TourSphere blog for a great image.) Some North Carolina exhibits and the Office of State Archaeology (OSA) have benefitted from our local troop of “dudes with metal detectors.” Dr. William Purkey, for instance (pictured above with a detector) uncovered a significant Revolutionary War button during an OSA-led survey at the Alamance Battleground State Historic Site.

Let’s create and/or revise history exhibits to allow artifacts to raise questions and give visitors a chance to participate in interpretations by inviting them to imagine meanings. This type of engagement is surely a part of what motivates treasure hunters like the Old North State Detectorists. There’s probably always space for an expertly written narrative of the past, but should viewing it always be mandatory? In the case of the National Geographic Museum, profiled on the TourSphere blog, visitors could opt into the narrative documentary. What other designs, media, or exhibitry techniques might forge exciting partnerships between visitor-imagined meanings and research and interpretation?

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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 March 2, 2012, in archaeology, collections access, Exhibitions, historic sites and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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