A Story with Me in It
Thanks to Kate Baillon van Rensburg for her presentation at the NCMC annual meeting, which suggested this topic, and for her additional contributions to this post.
At their best, history museum exhibits can build bridges between the perspectives of participants and “the past [as] a foreign country.” Before we can interest audiences in objects and information that are not likely to be part of their experiences, we have to find “a hook” that can connect them, helping them understand both the distinctiveness of what we want to present and the relevance of it for the present.
The Levine Museum’s founder, Sally Robinson, shaped the approach of the Charlotte institution and its award-winning exhibits with a grandchild’s request, “Tell me a story with me in it.” Kate Baillon van Rensburg, VP of Exhibits at the Levine, attributes the Museum’s success to this approach. “Everyone wants a story that reflects their experience in some way. We think of our exhibits as stories…That is what engages people and keeps them coming back.” van Rensburg points to “Courage: The Vision to End Segregation, The Guts to Fight for It” and “Cotton Fields to Skyscrapers” as important manifestations of this design philosophy. “We have objects that resonate with people through the exhibit….something as simple as a washtub or kerosene lantern can bring memories back to people, create environments to help tell the story and give aspects of the story a familiar feel. Our exhibits are not telling a story about ‘the other’ but telling the story of us – how we work….. the community.” By allowing room for multiple perspectives in each story/exhibit, the reference for any one individual becomes part of a larger narrative.
Sometimes museum leaders want to tell stories that may be painful for audiences to identify with. That connection between topic and visitor may still be nurtured, and often participatory design elements can help build the bridge. The Levine installed a “community response quilt” as a colorful comment board within a photography exhibit on lynching. The heading above the comment board asks questions that help visitors connect with the exhibit’s difficult subject matter: “What would you do to make a difference?” and “How would you stand up for those without sanctuary?”
The visitor does not have to identify directly or completely with the subject matter in order to have a moving museum experience. In fact, one goal of historical interpretation is to emphasize the “foreign”-ness of the past. Participatory design advocate, Nina Simon, recently offered this guidance: “Visitors…want to see reflections, expansions, and distortions of their experiences in ways that allow them to form new connections. That’s what compelling relevance is about.” A forum for participants to record the new ideas an exhibit suggests and to contribute to its content, via a comment board or video feed within the interpretive space, will transform distant history into “a story with me in it.”