Exhibitions and Interpretive Programs

Museum Exhibitions and Interpretation

Spencer Crew and Lonnie G. Bunch, May 1990

Every year, the nation's history museums interpret America's past for millions of visitors. While well known institutions such as the National Museum of American History, Colonial Williamsburg, and the Chicago Historical Society garner a large share of this audience, smaller entities such as the California Afro-American Museum, the Oneida Historical Society, and the Valentine Museum also contribute significantly to this number. This popularity is due, in part, to the fact that museum exhibitions, regardless of location or subject, appeal to diverse audiences because they encourage the visitor to examine, explore, and engage the past in ways that scholarly monographs, popular books, or public lectures cannot.

Museum exhibitions are a unique medium that give vent to the public need to view the past through the interplay of historical objects and their personal experiences, touchstones that keep the history alive for many visitors. It is this intersection of ideas, interpretation, visual images, and material culture that imbues the exhibition medium with special characteristics and challenges that distinguish it from other modes of historical discourse. Unlike traditional academic products, historical research and writing are only a part of the exhibition process, not an end in itself.

Another element that contributes to the uniqueness of this medium is the collaborative nature of the exhibition process. While a curator's scholarship and passion drives an exhibition, his/her vision is influenced, and at times altered, by museum educators, designers, production staff, and the intended audience. Successful curators must draw upon management and interpersonal skills, knowledge of material culture, a sense of visual literacy as well as historical knowledge. Successful exhibitions, then, tell simple, accessible stories that are firmly grounded in recent historical scholarship and expand the parameters of our knowledge through an imaginative marriage of ideas and objects.

This column seeks to broaden the collaboration between the academy and museums by informing Perspectives readers of key issues and essential discussions pertaining to historical exhibitions and interpretation in museums. While the column will examine noted accomplishments by individuals or by institutions, innovative programs, and important collecting initiatives, the major focus is exhibitions. Reviews of exhibitions, supplemented by listings of major new openings, will be the mainstay of this space.

Each year, hundreds of major history exhibitions are mounted throughout the country. In many cases, these shows are crafted and shaped by the best of current scholarship. Often these works contribute mightily to expanding our knowledge and understanding of the past. Until recently, few scholarly journals acknowledged this large body of historical information. While more publications now recognize the importance of museum scholarship, the literature, vocabulary, and form of exhibition reviews is still evolving. Unlike a monograph, the life of the exhibition is usually brief. And once the exhibition closes, the remaining forms of presentation, such as videotapes and catalogues, provide only the shadow of the exhibition.

Reviews consequently are especially valuable for so temporary a medium. The publication of exhibition reviews creates a literature of historical presentations in museums. This record makes the exhibition scholarship more accessible to the profession and thereby more useful and assures that critical assessments of both the content and the form of the show outlive the exhibition. The exhibition reviews published in Perspectives will also contribute to the creation of a common vocabulary and methodology for the review process.

Another contribution of exhibition reviews is their ability to foster exchanges between scholars in the academy and those in museums. Rather than view these reviews as critical pronouncements, we see this endeavor as an extension of the collaborative process. Far too often, the exhibition work of museum curators suffers from a lack of effective evaluation by their peers. To encourage this dialogue, occasionally, this column will have exhibition reviews written jointly by an academic and by a museum professional.

One of the goals of this column is to ensure that an exhibition is reviewed on its own terms. Exhibitions are not books. A successful exhibition is well researched and written, but it must be more than "a book on the wall." The reviews, therefore, will seek to analyze critically the exhibition from the perspectives of both visitor and scholar.

Each review will examine the intellectual underpinnings of the exhibition. Is the research sound? Does the show reflect the prevailing scholarly currents? Does the presentation break new ground? Are its claims supported by historical evidence? Exhibitions, however, are most effective when they convey historical information in a manner that is accessible to a wide audience. Therefore, it is essential that each review also explore what the visitor sees and experiences. Does the design and layout help convey the exhibit's information at a level that is accessible to a general audience? Are the exhibit labels in readable locations? While each review should note the creation of a catalogue, videotapes, public programs, and living history presentations, the exhibition must ultimately stand on its merits, independent of ancillary products.

The "Museum Exhibition and Interpretation" column will not try to review every major museum exhibition. Rather we seek to emphasize innovative work that stretches the established parameters of interpretation, presentation, and collecting. Exhibitions that suggest new ways to improve collaboration between the academy and the museum profession; community driven collecting initiatives that redefine a small museum's relationship with its local residents; shows that utilize new techniques of exhibitry to engage non-traditional or underserviced audiences—all will receive attention in this column.

—Spencer Crew is the chair of the Department of Social and Cultural History at the National Museum of American History. Lonnie G. Bunch is the supervisor of the Division of Community Life at the National Museum of American History.