The overarching theme of this week’s readings is the presentation dynamics of museum exhibits. Tammy Gordon and Ken Yellis, authorities on the subject, offer a study of exhibitionary practices in cultural institutions throughout the United States. Gordon’s Private History in Public examined the various forms of exhibitions, namely community, entrepreneurial, and vernacular. In all three forms, it is apparent that audience is key in how these exhibitions are displayed. Gordon explained quite concisely that, “Historical curation is much, much more than a professional practice. It is a social one, a practice in which strangers discuss their own views of the past with one another” (Gordon 4).
As highlighted in Ken Yellis’ “Fred Wilson, PTSD, and Me: Reflections on the History Wars” however, issues can often arise when there are conflicting viewpoints in the investment of history in this “social practice.” Yellis focused on artist Fred Wilson’s 1992-1993 Mining the Museum exhibit at the Maryland Historical Society. A departure from traditional exhibitions, Wilson crafted an exhibit that utilized unexplored artifacts presented in a nonlinear fashion. Yellis wrote that such an exhibition was an exercise in presenting an “old story” in a fresh way with differing perspectives. Yet, when the story was told in a new way at the Wilson exhibit, some visitors left feeling angry. Similarly, the Smithsonian’s Enola Gay has been cited as one of the most contentious exhibits in the field of public history. The producers of innovative stories are opening themselves up to a challenging field, particularly because consumers can leave feeling alienated and discomforted.
So, how are we as proto-public historians to react and respond to these very evident challenges? Firstly, conversations with prospective audiences must be central to any public history project. Additionally, evaluating past projects can and should serve as models for future endeavors. Gordon and Yellis’ studies are peppered with examples of past exhibits that illuminate the successes and failures of interacting with audiences. Self-evaluation is equally important. Yellis evaluated his own project Mixed Blessings: The Complex Social Life of Cliff Swallows at Yale University, where he presented surprisingly honest conclusions about the results.
These questions are foundational to our oral history projects. How are we to exhibit the final product? Our informants are the other half of the “shared authority,” but we also have the responsibility to ensure that their stories are appropriately exhibited. For me, this is one of the most daunting challenges about our work in Mantua. Obtaining the results of our oral history findings will catapult this conversation further, but it is an important question to pose. Ultimately, evaluating this project at the semester’s close will serve as an experiential model for future projects, as well as allow us exercise important skills that challenge us to think about what is effective public history.