New Partnerships for a State Fair Audience
This year begins the commemoration for the World War I centennial. The State Fairgrounds has a connection to that topic, since it was once the site of Camp Polk, a WWI tank training facility. The NC Department of Cultural Resources partnered with the State Fair and the NC National Guard Museum to create an exhibit on World War I as part of this commemoration. LeRae Umfleet, the department’s Supervisor of Education and Outreach and C2C’s Project Director, coordinated the project, which involved various divisions within NCDCR. She and Lt. Sean Daily of the National Guard Museum created the immersive environment—a trench. The NC Museum of History supplied some WWI artifacts and cases. Archivists, a videographer, and a graphic designer digitized historic images and produced photo blow-ups, retractable panels, and video footage.
Military Appreciation Day at the Fair (10/22) involved special programming tied to the exhibit and additional support from NCDCR staff and volunteers. About 20 NC Historic Sites staff members and a number of additional re-enactors dressed out in military attire, representing eras from the French and Indian War to Desert Storm, for a morning parade and an afternoon military uniform revue. People filled the exhibit throughout the day, and the programs drew crowds, including many veterans and their families.
Why go to the trouble of an exhibit for an 11-day event? Because the State Fair brings hundreds of thousands of North Carolinians from different walks of life together in one space. Some of those fairgoers are not regular museum or historic site participants. If the exhibits and programs pique their interest, they may be more likely to consider these institutions as worthwhile destinations. John Guss, Site Manager for Bennett Place dressed as a Civil War soldier and relished the day’s outreach opportunities. “I don’t believe there is any better collective way that North Carolina State Historic Sites can connect with potential visitors and supporters than by being at the NC State Fair each year,” he commented. Additionally, a history exhibit dovetails well with the Fair’s other educational features and helps to highlight the uniqueness of the state. Several of the exhibit’s components (specifically, the costumed manikins, graphic panels, and video) will be available to travel around the state for future WWI commemorative programs.
Did the numerous attendees absorb any of the exhibit’s information? Visitor timing and tracking studies can help answer this perennial question. The exhibit lined the pathway to the women’s room in the Dorton Arena. Consequently, many viewers were passersby and others may have enjoyed the learning opportunity while waiting for companions. A timing/tracking estimate suggests that about half of the people in the space paused to look. Most, especially younger visitors, were attracted to the trench scene and video footage. The graphic panels and artifact cases attracted fewer visitors, and these tended to be older and male. The one interactive component was a tablet for typing in “your World War I story” and contact information. Only one older woman within a 2 ½ hour period entered information. However, visitors regularly used their own mobile devices as ways to interact with the exhibit by taking pictures of aspects that particularly interested them.
What objects were most engaging? A pair of Vietnam War re-enactors had set up a 2-table display with equipment and supplies. A number of veterans of that war and their companions, often female partners, came to look closely at those objects. Many exclaimed how well they remembered something and the object prompted them to tell a story. Packaged food—“C-rations”—elicited the most reminiscing, perhaps because of the mundane and daily nature of those articles in wartime or perhaps because the memories surrounding food were less serious than those relating to weaponry and other equipment. Regardless, the objects functioned as portholes to the past for these visitors and helped them “bridge” with staff and other visitors.
Bringing historical materials out of your institution and into other community venues can have tremendous outreach benefits, in terms of both quantity and quality. Has your organization tried this? If so, how have exhibits been received beyond the museum walls?
Posted on October 28, 2014, in Exhibitions, public programs, staff and tagged Bennett Place, NC Museum of History, NC National Guard Museum, NC State Fair, NC State Historic Sites, timing & tracking study. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.