In this week's readings for Public History, Tony Bennett argues that museums developed in the 19th century from a middle-class and elite desire to give the working class an education in proper social behaviour; from a tradition of public spectacles, fairs, executions, and exhibitions; and from a need on the part of the nation to demonstrate its power. The individual reading this post may not see any traces of such roots in modern museums but have you ever asked yourself why you speak in a lower voice in a museum or don’t touch the items being exhibited? These expectations are some of the vestiges of those founding intentions.
Alan MacEachern posed the question in class that if the museum is not a natural institution (having been created for a specific purpose and out of a particular tradition), would it be possible to conceptualize the museum in a way more in line with the goals of today’s historians and curators? Should conscientious, intentional public historians continue this history of museums or take museums in a radically new direction?
Class discussion has frequently turned upon the idea that museums should be places where visitors can enter into some sort of dialogue with the items being presented, regardless of any formal or informal training that these individuals might have in history. Since such a dialogue is voluntary, it is important to be able to draw people into such a discussion. What follows is a list of ways in which “museum” could be re-conceptualized that try to keep in mind the desire for this dialogue to occur.
The History Dealer / The History Agent
A knowledgeable agent guides a small group of visitors to the items in the museum that the group is interested in seeing, contextualizing each item and drawing relationships between the different items. The group determines the speed at which it moves and is able to direct the conversation. The experience is similar to looking for and buying a house or car.
The Lecture / The Documentary
Visitors watch a presentation that guides them through a set group of items in an exhibit, clearly presenting the items within different historical narratives and guiding the visitors towards a straightforward take-home message.
The Museum Party
Lots of activity is going on across the large hall in which items of the exhibit are placed. Visitors can move from exhibit to exhibit and from group to group, sharing ideas and opinions with the people they meet. There is period music playing and activities going on in different corners of the room that help to reinforce some of the ideas being conveyed in the exhibits. Museum employees are the life of the party, engaging individuals and stirring up excitement about history. The mood and atmosphere should be similar to a house party.
Visitors come to the museum for an extended period of time. History counsellors take visitors through a program of discussions and activities meant to develop trust between individuals, whereby visitors feel more comfortable to share their opinions of the items and historical events being discussed. Visitors leave the museum with an understanding of a variety of historical perspectives on the exhibit in question.
Visitors move through the showroom, which consists of a number of exhibits created by the museum curator. By looking at the items contained in these exhibits, visitors can learn about different events or movements in history. Simultaneously, visitors pick up tickets representing the items they are most interested in (similar to getting a ticket at Ikea that tells you where to find a particular item in the warehouse). These can then be taken to the History Cashier at the end of the showroom, who compares and contrasts the items the visitor has shown interest in. Visitors thus are able to identify their interests and have somebody else help them to tie these interests together.
Historical research becomes a more transparent process as visitors are allowed behind the scenes to watch researchers in action. Visitors wander among museum researchers’ benches and cabinets of curiosity; while the researchers themselves work away on whatever item they are currently assigned to. These historians are more than willing to explain their current project or discuss any of the items in their cabinet, and they sketch out broader historical narratives or themes by drawing visitors’ attention to related items. This concept is based on the idea of telling a person, “Hey – this is really cool! You can try it too, and I’ll help you along the way!” and is a mix of Bill Nye the Science Guy and comments that Bill Turkel made regarding teaching people how to do new things using computers.
The Ultimate Interactive History Experience
In this museum, visitors travel along a moving sidewalk that moves through different historical events acted out by automated characters (similar to being on the ride “Pirates of the Caribbean” at Walt Disney World). Visitors interested in learning more about a particular exhibit can hop off the sidewalk and walk past the automated figures to a backroom set. The set is a larger version of the automated scene, and museum employees take the interested visitors through a series of interactive activities. The employees, highlighting the different perspectives that particular groups held regarding the event in question, first sketch the movement or event out. Next, visitors get to be a part of a re-enactment of the event. Each visitor chooses a character to be, is dressed up as necessary, and is given a few key lines. Museum employees play the critical figures and include the visitors in acting out the event, which is recorded by other employees. Visitors leave with a DVD containing the recorded historical event (including any flubbed takes) as well as supplementary material regarding the exhibit. In a sense, the visitor takes the exhibit with him or her. This experience is a mix between the Indiana Jones interactive presentation at MGM Studios and the idea of having your picture taken while riding a roller coaster.