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21st Century Museum Exhibits

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Museums offer a place where people of all backgrounds, interests and perspectives can discover common ground in the shared values and experiences they share as members of society. Museums can do this by telling inclusive historical stories that connect people in diverse communities.

Historical exhibits that encourage informed discussion of broader issues of significance, rather than attempting to impose an uncritical point of view, are in the best interest of the public and their funders. Whether they celebrate achievements or memorialize tragedies or injustices, museums are charged with engaging citizens of all ages in learning about the past and its implications for the future.

Many museum exhibits do not use artifacts to tell a story; they focus instead on the way in which objects, graphics and photographs and creative interjection of space and interactive devices allow visitors to place themselves within a historical context and experience a sense of connection with the past. Exhibits can also include information about the responsibilities of museums in relation to the preservation and conservation of artifacts, the ethical guidelines and best practices for the handling of objects, and the ways in which museums are evolving in response to changing audiences and new challenges.

Increasingly, visitors are seeking exhibitions that speak to their current lives and experiences. People want to learn about how their local or regional histories relate to the global history that binds us all together. To do this, museums must expand their collecting beyond the traditional artifacts that are often associated with particular historic periods.

Incorporating materials that explore abstract ideas such as home, freedom, faith, democracy, social justice or mobility enables museums to dig deeper into the core values and ideas that shape our history, and to show how these concepts have shaped the diversity of communities throughout the world. These kinds of exhibitions are a critical component of the mission of a 21st century museum.

Designing Historical Exhibits in Historic Structures

Museums working in historic structures face unique challenges when designing and installing exhibits. For example, there may be limitations on fastening to walls or ceilings, and power locations are frequently not available. Additionally, many historic buildings are not fully accessible and must be modified to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Regardless of the specifics of these constraints, it is important for exhibit designers to work closely with architects and historic preservation specialists early in the process.

A good starting point for finding historic materials to include in an exhibit is a review of the collection and research that a museum has on file. This can provide a strong foundation for an exhibit and will allow staff to identify themes that would be suitable for an exhibition.

Ken Turino, Director of Exhibits at the Oregon Historical Society in Portland, recommends that museums look outside their buildings for ways to interpret their collections and expand on their educational programs. Historic properties often have beautiful grounds that can be used to explore a theme and offer new ways to reach an audience.