More on “Forecasting the Future of History Museums”

Curiosity rover self-portrait

Curiosity rover self-portrait (NASA/JPL-Caltech/Malin Space Science Systems)

Durel’s #1 is very mercenary (and yeah, the positive children’s museum and STEM examples serve as evidence that mercenary need not equal icky results) and I worry a bit about the overall message of needing a mission statement. It’s a very corporate thing, a step down the slippery slope of monetizing everything.

I’m uncomfortable with that in general, and worry especially in fields that impinge on academic and artistic. History’s more obviously useful than, say, close readings of seventeenth century poetry…but “useful” is not necessarily obvious, nor should it be the only gauge of value. I like the idea of, say, humanity spreading outside of the solar system, and if I wanted to rationalize such an expensive undertaking I guess I’d cite the environmental concerns expressed by characters in Cyteen and Babylon 5, because really, what is more “useful” than survival of the species? But honestly, when I see pictures of the surface of Mars I’m not thinking in terms of a foothold in an alternate (but rather unfriendly) biosphere. I’m thinking that we ought to go to Mars just because. I’m aware that “just because” is a slippery rationale, and can lead to courses of action that can be deemed deeply problematic (or worse).

But still. I want humans to go to Mars just because. I want to tell the stories of dead people just because. I want somebody to own every word Donne wrote just because.

Durel’s #1 ties into #8, the increasing “Business Thinking” of public history professionals. Given my general impulse to laud interdisciplinary efforts, it feels a tad hypocritical to automatically discount any possible benefits to learning from CEOs. (Yeah, “business” is a fake discipline that was invented in the nineteenth century, the bastard child of modern industrial society and a scramble for wealth and prestige. For all my side-eyeing of MBA programs, I can’t help noticing that Ranke was writing at about the same time.) But aren’t public historians also professionals (and often educators)? What does it say that Durel phrases this as a one-way flow of ideas?

Weekly readings: exhibiting things

I remain a fan of Yellis’s contention that the process of exhibit creation is something that is worthy of incorporation into an exhibit…somehow.* The fact that our other classwork (not just the deliverables of modest scope and word count) is potentially being mined for interesting content leaves me hopeful that some sort of supplementary material might be made available in the Drexel exhibit.

Serrell’s chapters contain the most directly useful information for developing captions for the quilt. It’s all about brevity, but also dynamism and a healthy dose of Prownian analysis: visitors are there, experiencing a thing (that is what museums are all about, after all; it’s what they do, at the price of lengthy textual arguments, that a monograph cannot) so it makes sense to talk about that thing.

I’m a little ashamed to admit that I hadn’t really been thinking about the caption in this sense. (And, since the quilt is not “lacking visual interest,” as are some of the objects that concern Kirshenblatt-Gimblet, I hadn’t even thought about justifying the quilt’s inclusion in the exhibit, except to explain its former life as, and connection to, garments.) I’d considered the possibility of a descriptive label, a dry rendition of materials and dates and whatnot, but that seemed more appropriate to a context of art rather than history. I think this was partially driven by a desire to cut words, the assumption that visitors will be able to see the quilt for themselves and have their own emotional and sensory response. But now I am thinking of ways in which I can weave object description into that tiny block of text, and hopefully increase its impact.

I noticed that a number of Serrell’s points (and to a lesser extent Parman, in her discussion of text and background colors) echoed web usability advice. I’m thinking primarily of Jakob Nielsen’s eyetracking studies, including points about big blocks of text, “above the fold” information, and reading patterns. I have internalized Nielsen as “generally good design advice,” so anything that agrees strikes me as a reasonable proposition.

I am curious about the methodology involved in Serrell’s recommendations. What sort of studies have museums performed? To what extent do they rely on the work in other fields? (I recall seeing some report many, many moons ago that the sunburst “o” in the Dole label resulted from customer eyetracking studies.) And what are the mission creep implications if museums start listening to marketers or website designers? Normally I’d be all for cross-training, benefitting from the expertise of folks in other fields—and the marketing dollars a Dole is willing to drop—but items #1 and #8 in Durel’s piece leave me somewhat (over?)sensitized to the corporatization of public history.


* On the archival front, Heather MacNeil makes a similar argument in favor of colophons, which I also think is a good idea but not necessarily straightforward in implementation.

I think this is a case where the ableist part of that assumption is not particularly problematic from the perspective of caption development, because fifty words is simply not enough to adequately describe any of these objects to a person who is visually impaired (and other senses will not be particularly relevant in the exhibit context). But it does raise the question of when it’s appropriate to provide additional accessibility options and what form they might take. Audio recordings of lengthy object descriptions, plus the text of the captions? A guide reading similar material from a script? Practical factors, like budget and available equipment and staff, obviously play a significant role in answering those sorts of questions.