An exhibit is a three-dimensional physical and visual representation of historical argument, research evidence, and interpretation. It is designed to attract a wide audience of people with diverse interests, ages, and backgrounds. Exhibits may celebrate common events, memorialize tragedies or injustices, or challenge widely held beliefs. The process of selecting photographs, objects, documents and other components of an exhibit implies interpretive judgments about cause and effect, perspective, significance, and meaning. Museums that seek to teach history are charged with the responsibility of presenting a variety of perspectives and encouraging informed discussion of controversial issues.
In a historical museum, exhibits provide the context for understanding cultural and social histories and help visitors see how past events influenced and shaped the world in which they live. They offer opportunities to explore abstract ideas, such as home, freedom, faith, democracy, and social justice, from the specific lenses of different communities.
Changing times demand that museums rethink their roles as cultural educators. While the need to reach a broad audience is still important, today’s museum must also focus on empowering the public through the use of its collections and resources. This requires a deeper, more inclusive understanding of the past, including its darker moments and those that have yet to be written.
The power of history to inspire, challenge, and enlighten has never been greater. Museums that address the full spectrum of human experience are preparing their audiences to engage with their own questions and concerns about the future of the planet and its relationship to humanity and the universe.
Histolircal exhibits can serve as windows into the dense research that makes up the backbone of historical studies, but they must be interpreted with care. Museums must avoid didactic, encyclopedic approaches that lack a human component and instead find ways to reveal historical narratives through the artifacts they have in their collections.
A well-designed exhibit can make or break a museum visit. It must be easy to navigate, interesting to view, and include multiple points of view. In addition, it must be clear that the story being told is a point of view rather than an unchallenged, authoritative statement of fact.
Historic structures often present their own unique challenges when it comes to constructing an exhibition. For example, in some buildings, exhibits must be constructed with consideration of the structure’s historic preservation status and constraints on fastening objects to walls. In such cases, the input of a historic preservation specialist and/or architect is often sought early in the design process.
For many historic houses, the space in which an exhibit is installed has limited dimensions and ceiling heights. Adding an outdoor exhibit or one that is built into the side of a building can expand the exhibition space while also avoiding some of the interior sensitivity issues. This approach can be particularly effective in a small property where the landscape offers an opportunity to expand exhibit themes without dealing with interior space limitations.