An exhibit is an object displayed formally in public, such as a painting on display at a gallery or a historical document under glass at a museum. Exhibits are usually presented on a grand scale and are often accompanied by extensive explanation in the form of text, dioramas, charts and maps. The exhibits may also feature interactive devices. Exhibits may explore specific historical events, specific cultures or broad periods of history. They may also address controversial subjects and are often intended to spark informed discussion. Museums of history are generally non-profit organizations, though some private for-profit museums exist as well.
Whether they are celebrating common cultural events or memorializing tragedies and injustices, all museums contain an interpretive element. The process of selecting themes, photographs, objects and documents for exhibition entails interpretive judgments about cause and effect, perspective and meaning. Historical exhibits, however, are especially prone to interpretation because they deal with the past, a period of time that is inherently subject to change and revision.
A well-conceived and thoughtfully executed historical exhibit is a powerful tool in the transmission of knowledge. However, the power of an exhibit to evoke emotions and stimulate discussion should not be used as a substitute for rigorous research. When evaluating an exhibit, it is essential to understand its intended purposes and audiences as well as the institutional context (e.g., budgetary constraints, availability of artifacts, and so forth). Contacting the exhibit curator is a good way to do this.
Exhibits can be as imaginative and evocative as works of fine art, provoking imagination rather than simply presenting historical facts. Exhibit designers can add visual poetry and metaphors as well as contextual elements to enhance the viewer’s ability to place themselves within a historical context. The use of re-created spaces, interactive displays and creative interjections of re-created objects, photographs and graphics can add to the visitor’s sense of the past.
In the nineteenth century, museums largely focused on telling the stories of those who lived in particular places at certain times in history. This “cabinet of curiosities” approach was effective in bringing historical subjects to the attention of a broader public. However, in the twenty-first century, visitors expect museums to engage with them, allowing them to relate to the museum experience as it pertains to their own lives.
This exhibit explored the ways in which human beings, both ancient and modern, decorate their bodies. It featured art, including sculptures, paintings and contemporary and historical photographs, as well as objects that are used for tattooing, piercing, body painting and henna.
This exhibition demonstrated how indigenous people of Arctic Alaska drew inspiration from their environment to create traditional works of art, including ivory carvings, whose subjects included sea mammals and supernatural beings. Objects on loan from the Museum’s collections, along with five small prehistoric ivory carvings made by Ipiutak (Alaska Eskimo) people, helped to tell this story.