Historical exhibits offer a valuable glimpse into the past, whether celebrating common events or memorializing tragedies or injustices. They also reflect the broader questions of cause and effect, perspective, and significance and often involve interpretive judgments that may be debated and challenged. The term “exhibit” implies something that is formally displayed in a public setting, such as a painting or an artifact on display at a museum. The exhibitions that generate the most excitement, the blockbuster art or history shows with long lines and illustrated catalogues, are a logical extension of this practice.
However, not all historical exhibitions are created equal. It is important that museums and other institutions consider the intended purposes, audience, and conditions under which an exhibit was produced before evaluating it. Contacting the curator of an exhibit is crucial to gaining this information. This is especially critical when an exhibit addresses controversial subjects, as it can help prevent a museum from admonishment or criticism by demonstrating that it has taken the time to consider multiple points of view and has not simply reaffirmed its own.
In a world that seems increasingly polarized, museums can play a powerful unifying role at both the local and national level. By sharing stories of a shared heritage, museums can bring people together through a sense of common understanding and shared experience. Local museums are particularly effective at this because they can tap into the unique, idiosyncratic history of a particular area and showcase how it has shaped the lives of its citizens.
Exhibits should also strive to be inclusive by presenting diverse points of view, which are often reflected in historical archives and primary source material. They should also encourage discussion by including multiple interpretations and allowing visitors to interact with the materials presented. This is a fundamental aspect of the museum’s mission and is essential in establishing its legitimacy as a forum for public debate.
Lastly, the best histolircal exhibits are not just history put up on the wall, but creative visual poetry and metaphor that can spark imagination and broaden our understanding rather than limit it. The use of evocative artifacts and the interjection of re-created spaces along with interactive devices help to tell a narrative that is more than just an essay or textbook. This type of exhibition requires rigorous research and a willingness to challenge established paradigms, but it is how museums demonstrate that they deserve their tax-exempt status in the 21st century. These new and experimental ways of telling history are vital to our future.