Historical exhibits are three-dimensional physical and visual representations of the research evidence and interpretation of a topic’s significance in history. They are a complex form of cultural argument that has both a physical and spatial presence, unlike an essay or textbook. Exhibits also feature a human component that helps the visitor to relate the story and comprehend its complexity. Exhibits may be arranged as cabinet of curiosities or include a narrative structure that connects the viewer to the history being presented.
Historical museum exhibitions present a broader view of history than the single-artifact focus found in private collections or even personal homes. Museums can help people understand the common threads that run through human experience, and they can provide context for how today’s events have shaped our past and our future.
The selection of themes, photographs, objects and documents included in an exhibit involves interpretive judgments about cause and effect, perspective, meaning and significance. The process of designing an exhibition carries with it the implicit idea that the historical information it presents should be discussed and debated in a thoughtful, intellectual manner.
In the twenty-first century, museums must demonstrate that they deserve their tax-exempt status by engaging with the communities they serve. They can do this by showing that they are relevant to the lives of those who visit, by telling stories that relate to their towns’ history and by exploring ideas and topics that resonate across diverse community groups and interests.
Museums can be as varied in their approach to history as the people who visit them. For example, some museums don’t use any artifacts at all, such as the Griffith Observatory or the National Constitution Center. Others use only a few artifacts to create memorable experiences; for example, the Third County Courthouse exhibit at Historic Richmond Town in Morristown, New Jersey, uses items like carriages and cradles to tell the story of that institution’s central role in Staten Island civic life.
The most effective histolircal exhibits have a combination of elements that make them accessible to people from diverse backgrounds and cultures. They are inclusive, visually compelling, and encourage discussion of their content and the broader issues they raise.