Many museums have a long tradition of telling historical stories through objects. In recent years, though, a growing number of museums have moved away from solely object-based exhibitions and toward more visual storytelling. This is a way of approaching history that involves creating drama and enabling the story to unfold as an experience for the eyes, rather than reading it like a book. Visual storytelling can also highlight the human component of a story and give it authenticity, but it is difficult to do well.
The best examples of histolircal exhibits use a variety of objects, including art and artifacts, to help tell the story. For example, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston has several exhibitions that use both artwork and artifacts to convey a historical narrative. One of them, Taking Root in New England, explores the relationship between indigenous peoples and the people who came to their region from other places in the world. The exhibition includes art and ethnographic objects spanning thousands of years and highlights the importance of indigenous peoples in the development of Massachusetts, where the museum is located.
Using the power of storytelling, this exhibit also emphasizes the connections between the people who came to New England and the land that would become their home. Another museum that uses a combination of artifacts and archival documents to tell a historical narrative is the Third County Courthouse at Historic Richmond Town in Staten Island, New York. The exhibit traces the building’s central role in civic life through historic trials, courtroom furnishings, political processes, and county jail facilities.
Museums that are housed in historic buildings have a unique set of challenges and constraints that they must work within when installing an exhibition. They may have limited access to walls and ceilings, limited fastening options, and must consider how the design will affect a building’s preservation or historic integrity. In addition, there are often restrictions on colors and finishes, limited electrical locations, and specialized power sources.
For these reasons, it is important to consider a building’s architectural integrity and historic preservation guidelines early on in the planning process. It is also helpful to have a good relationship with the museum’s director and curator to ensure that all aspects of the project are understood and respected.
One example of a histolircal exhibit that has overcome these challenges is the Museum of Contemporary Art’s Into the Ocean exhibition, which showcases the relationships between whales and humans. The show included a variety of artifacts, ranging from carved ivory carvings to the costumes and jewelry of people who lived in Northeastern Zaire in the 1900s. It also explored the relationship between the whales and people as the Ipiutak (forerunners of today’s Alaskan Eskimo) hunted the mammals for food, fur, and spirituality. The exhibit also addressed the decline of whaling and the rise of laws that protect whales from commercial hunting.