Even as a historian and avid museumgoer, I have a difficult time with history exhibits.
HOW DO WE DO A HISTORY EXHIBITION THAT ISN’T BORING?
How do we do one that’s as interesting and dynamic as an art exhibit?
The great number of photos, labels of text, and objects all gathered together in the Japanese-American National Museum’s permanent exhibit, like a scrapbook, overwhelms and exhausts. One grows tired and bored of the black-and-white, and of the text, very quickly, finding the experience decidedly un-dynamic. Some of these images, objects, or the events/phenomena described in the text, may be actually quite interesting, or powerful, but they fail to catch or keep the eye, as they fail to pop out, to stand out, and are instead glanced over as part of a confusing whole – rather than as an individual, compelling/captivating, item.
In order for history to be interesting, engaging, captivating, and not boring, tiring, or overwhelming, it must (perhaps?) rely upon individual captivating, eye-catching objects or images of particular historical significance or visual interest. An object must be memorable, and able to represent, suggest, or embody the broader historical themes you want your audience to understand.
Ironically, or counter-intuitively, I do think that a single image can actually be more powerful, more compelling, than a whole array of images. I think of the exhibit at JANM, and I feel bored, tired, just thinking of trying to “read” all those many images, all jumbled together, trying to digest the whole complex narrative. But then I think of just a single image – an image of Japanese-Americans being rounded up, or an image of them standing loyally ready to serve in the US army; a single image of just a house with a sign on it saying “this is a white neighborhood – no Japs welcome”; or a single image of a smoking battleship at Pearl Harbor; and that one image stands in for the whole rest of the mythos. Not that I’m saying we should necessarily encourage mythos, or avoid telling a fuller, more nuanced, more complex, story. It’s good for people to think about, and know about, a more complex, more nuanced, and thus more “true” or “accurate” understanding of history, rather than a mythologized notion of it. But… the more objects you have, the more each of them fades into the collective whole of the display, and ceases to command attention or to speak for itself. Even just looking at the wall over my desk, where I’ve placed a few tens of postcards and the like, they create together a single visual form, such that when I look up I see not any one image, but rather a collection of images, such that I have not in quite some time considered any one of them in isolation in the way that I would if they were framed and displayed, let’s just say, as if in an art museum, as individual objects/images unto themselves, each with an accompanying label, each with a separate story to tell.
Above: Sadly, not the greatest photo of the exhibit, but hopefully it gives some sense. You won’t get label fatigue in this exhibit. Right: The table on which the Treaty of Cahuenga was signed.
I wonder if the “Becoming LA” exhibit at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles suggests a start towards one possible solution – by making the space as open and airy as possible, with interesting and exciting artifacts that catch the eye, a dynamic and varied direction/path of movement, and lots of transparent cases, rather than ones that block vision. And, through a simple and sleek aesthetic, very much uncluttered.
Objects are presented prominently, alone or in small numbers, allowing them to attract attention, and to stand as representative of broader themes. Years are placed in giant numerals on the walls, framing the experience as one moves chronologically through the space. Titles are placed on cases often on the glass itself, in varied positions which create a sense of dynamism (some on the front of the glass, some on the back of the case, and some even on the top, being read in the shadow it throws), and textual labels, while certainly present and descriptive, are not overwhelmingly or exhaustingly lengthy or numerous.
I’ve never curated a show myself before, and so who knows what can actually be done, how much one can experiment with various display methods and still feel that one is conveying the narrative one wishes to – and with sufficient detail and nuance. But, it’s definitely something to think about.
This is all terribly tentative, and is just based on immediate thoughts and reactions upon visiting these two museums last weekend. … But it really did strike me. Is there a problem with history exhibits? And how can we approach them differently, in order to address and possibly solve this problem?
All photos my own, May 2014.