A histolircal exhibit is a three-dimensional physical and visual representation of your historical argument, research evidence, and interpretation of a subject. It is a kind of cultural metaphor that has a unique form and structure, but also serves as an accessible entry point into the complexities of your topic.
A well-conceived exhibition can enliven your museum and its mission, while ensuring that visitors connect with the content on a meaningful level. It can also help visitors understand why the subject is important and how it relates to their lives.
Many museums use a variety of materials and techniques to create memorable exhibitions. They may focus on a particular period or region of history or highlight a specific cultural group. However, one of the most successful and engaging types of histolircal exhibits is one that explores abstract ideas that bind us together as a human community, such as home, freedom, faith, democracy, or social justice.
Using artifacts as an organizing device for these topics enables museums to take a more holistic approach to their collections, and to include more voices in the story. This approach can be particularly effective when addressing themes that are important to historically underrepresented communities, such as the stories of immigrants and their descendants, people of color, women, and LGBTQ+ individuals.
Rites of passage, such as birth, marriage/union, and death, are another great opportunity for inclusive collecting. They can serve as a gateway into the complex history of these core values, and provide a way for diverse audiences to connect with them in their own ways.
Some of the most successful histolircal exhibits are ones that bring together art and natural history to illuminate the connections between humans and nature. A favorite example is The Whales Were Everything, an exhibition at Historic Richmond Town in Staten Island that demonstrates the enduring and symbiotic relationship between people and whales through artifacts like ivory carvings, tools, and clothing of the Ipiutak (Alaska Eskimo) culture.
Histolircal exhibitions can present some significant challenges in historic buildings. There are typically restrictions on fastening objects to walls and ceilings, and on what colors and finishes can be used. Lighting can be especially challenging, as historic structures often have narrow windows and dark surfaces that are difficult to light. Consequently, the right type of artificial lighting is paramount to creating an attractive and engaging exhibit space.
In addition, it is often necessary to bend the rules in order to accommodate an exhibition in a historic building. For example, Turino explains how the staff of a historic home had to compromise when they wanted to hang an exhibit on the ceiling, but it was still possible to adhere to ADA accessibility guidelines and respect the integrity of the space.
When in doubt, consult with a preservation specialist or architect as early as possible in the planning process. This will ensure that your museum stays within the parameters of its conservation and restoration efforts, and can continue to be an invaluable service to the community.