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Histolircal Exhibits


Histolircal exhibits use objects, graphics, and photographs to evoke an emotional response from the audience, helping them understand historical concepts. They are more than just history put up on the wall; they’re metaphors and visual poetry, engaging us in a deeper understanding of the past than a book or an essay.

Many museums focus on a narrow field of study, such as science, art, local or national history, or they specialize in a specific type of object or material. Other museums are more inclusive and take a more expansive approach, telling the entire story of a culture or era. Museums of this kind are rare at the national level, but many cities and regions have one or more museums that cover a broad spectrum of subjects.

Whether you’re designing a small space or an entire building, a historic structure presents unique challenges for a museum exhibit designer. In addition to the usual constraints and issues, such as fasteners that can’t be attached directly to a building or limited power locations, historic structures must often comply with or exceed accessibility standards set forth by the Americans with Disabilities Act.

To overcome these obstacles, museum designers must consider the whole experience of visitors. It’s critical to provide multiple pathways to learning and to avoid relying on linear, lecture-style presentations. It’s also important to provide a sense of place to help visitors connect with the past and understand its relevance for their lives today.

Museums should be a gathering place for the community, not just a repository of objects. The public wants to feel that a museum is relevant and serves its purpose of earning tax-exempt status, that it contributes something to the lives of the people who live in the area.

A well-conceived and executed exhibition is the key to this connection. This can be achieved through innovative, immersive experiences that bring a subject to life or with more traditional methods of interpretation.

For example, an exhibit on the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation at Historic Richmond Town uses dramatic, multimedia spaces to share a factual account of the rationale behind this iconic American document that changed the course of the Civil War and freed enslaved people in the Confederacy. It also focuses on the role of Bostonians, such as Frederick Douglass and William Cooper Nell, in orchestrating events to celebrate the document’s enactment.

Another example of inclusive visual storytelling can be found in the exhibit Clotilda: The Story of a Sunken Schooner at the African American History Museum in Boston. This exhibit explores the lives of the 110 remarkable men, women, and children aboard the schooner from its West African origins to its enslavement in Alabama to its discovery in Africatown. It’s a story of individuals, their resilience, and their extraordinary community.

Regardless of the medium, good design is always about finding a window into dense research that will engage the audience and be readable in a museum setting. This is accomplished through the careful selection of objects and thoughtfully crafted label text that creates drama, context, and meaning. It’s also about making the experience accessible and interactive, so that the audience can learn at their own pace.