Dec. 18, 2006

The Subtle Museum

As a visitor to a museum, do you expect to be presented with factual information and an up-to-date interpretation of historical evidence? Do you expect that you will be confronted with Truth? When the curator puts together an exhibit regarding the discovery of the New World, she needs to walk a fine line between a European point of view and an indigenous point of view. Two very different truths can be told though the same exhibit. Is it possible to share both truths at the same time?

In our last Public History discussion for the semester, we asked ourselves whether museums were a space where interpretations of truth were presented to the public or a space where visitors learned critical-thinking skills. Anybody who has had the pleasure of reading a historiography essay knows that historical truth has a very precarious position, easily toppled in the light of new evidence or the re-interpretation of old evidence. Although it is possible to keep the museum-goer up-to-date with the latest interpretation on a historical subject, it would be difficult to present Truth to visitors.

On the other hand, the public should be confident that they will learn when they visit a museum; an exhibit should encourage the viewer to think about the material being presented, to weigh the information being presented rather than simply accepting what has been written as truth. In this case, the mission of museums is not to present Truth or even a truth, but instead to challenge visitors to judge for themselves whether the information being presented has an importance transcending its entertainment value.

In our Invention to Innovation exhibit, you may notice that our text attempts to capture a sense of motion and energy. As we tied the text of our exhibit together, we succeeded in becoming more aware of the narrative and categorizations we are presenting to our visitors. In hindsight though, in a desire to force visitors to think critically about our exhibit, could we not have included blank text panels, incorrect information or dates, or placed inventions in the wrong section? I imagine that, without any hints, people would mistake these actions as errors made by inexperienced, sloppy students.

Conversely, if we were able to make subtle changes to the information, perhaps we would succeed in making some visitors take a second, more critical look at the information we had put together. The Museum of Jurassic Technology has succeeded in capturing such subtly. Check out the website for yourself, and while you’re at it, why not look at some of the exhibits that have been created by our own national institutions. What’s your impression of the museums’ virtual exhibits? Are you reading fact, the curator’s truthful interpretation, or a clever, intentional joke meant to stimulate analysis or evoke a different set of feelings? You may have to look a second time to be sure!