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.

Weekly readings: the public trust

Linenthal chronicles the trainwreck that was the Enola Gay exhibit. Lacking scripts (to say nothing of the physicality of the exhibit as variously planned and ultimately executed) it’s challenging to form an independent opinion about any of the drafts. Instead, we are left to form opinions about the players; and in this account the exhibit opponents made for an unpleasant concoction of right wingers, anti-intellectuals, hawks, racists, and liars, whereas the people working on the exhibit were…just the people working on the exhibit, not particularly heroic or flawless, caught flatfooted by an organized media campaign.

Rosenzweig and Thelen document Americans’ actual relationship with history and their efforts at historymaking. Survey respondents had a relatively high degree of trust in museum exhibits and a willingness to interact with the material…suggesting that people in general would’ve been perfectly capable of viewing a complex and challenging presentation of Enola Gay material without their heads exploding. Growing distrust of celebratory national narratives might have contributed to the popularity of such an exhibit (and compounded its danger to its critics), as might the use of intimate artifacts and the personalization of the Enola Gay’s crew.

Yellis charts another path: creating exhibits that may be unconventional or uncomfortable, but talk about the process of creation. The public might not always find the sausage-making appealing, and the knowledge might shake trust in museums as objective presenters of historical facts, but such an approach might spur useful conversation that Rosenzweig and Thelen suggest Americans crave.

Backstage passes

Discussing Susan Crane’s critique of the Enola Gay controversy (“the unfortunate lesson…was just how little publics know about what historians ‘really do’…”), Yellis suggests that “Museums can start being helpful in this process [helping Americans fight over history] by becoming much clearer about what they think they are doing when they make an exhibition.”

An exhibit should “show” more than “tell”—otherwise why bother with an exhibit rather than an article?—but I like the suggestion of adding meta text, the equivalent of a preface or, perhaps, a bio note. A little bit of transparency and contextualization, to be mulled over at leisure. When I visit museums, I have no idea who designed the exhibits. I don’t have any idea of which chef cooked my meal at a restaurant, either.* I rely on the institution’s brand and genre to tell me if I’m likely to be interested. We have celebrity chefs, but how many celebrity historians? (Honest question. If you did a survey of the public, what names would pop up? And is broad-based name recognition the appropriate way to define celebrity?)

The next question, naturally, is whether we want celebrity historians. Have sixty gazillion cooking reality shows lead to breakthroughs in cuisine? A greater appreciation for the profession among the public? An increase in the number of people aspiring to be a chef? (I’m skeptical about the first, suspect the second may be true, and suspect the third may be true in a less than positive way: there’s a distinction between wanting to be a celebrity something and wanting to do it, and there’s a sharp difference between what happens on television and what happens day to day in the workplace.) Would the personalization increase the public’s interest in the historian’s work? Would it inform their interpretation of it? Would it become a distraction (for the public or the historian)? Would it lead to polarized audiences, selection based upon preconceived notions of the historians’ biases? Would the public be able to more meaningfully contribute to the next History War…or would they merely pick their favorites based on who was more photogenic or had cute biographical details, rather than the most appealing professional approach? (And, if the goal was simply public participation and engagement, would those become legitimate metrics?)

This is not actually me being an intellectual snob…not much, anyway. (Okay, I’ll cop to being a snob about reality television.) But as far as assessing experts in other fields, my own metrics are pretty damn squishy: a constellation of reputation, perceived trustworthiness and competence and, yes, whether or not what I’m hearing meshes with my pre-existing worldview. I make the assumption that most other people use similar strategies. This raises all kinds of issues of authority, who is or isn’t qualified to opine on a given topic, and sets my inner democrat and inner intellectual snob at one another’s throats.

* This wouldn’t be the case if, for instance, I went to a better class of restaurant, where I would be paying extra for the brand of the individual, as well as the institution.