History exhibits, also called historical exhibitions, are an important part of museums’ mission. Museums that focus on historical subjects, including art, science, and cultural heritage, strive to present inclusive visual stories that help visitors connect with bigger ideas. Some museum experiences have few or no artifacts, such as the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles and the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia. Others, such as the National Museum of Natural History in Washington D.C. and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, incorporate many artifacts into memorable exhibitions.
When it comes to history, there is a great deal of material to draw from, but the most compelling stories are those that make a connection with the lives of people today. Twenty-first century museum audiences want to see how the past has shaped their own lives and how it can inform their futures. Museums need to demonstrate that they deserve their tax-exempt status by engaging visitors and performing a useful service for communities, rather than just collecting items and displaying them in a cabinet of curiosities.
The complexities of history exhibit design require thoughtful planning and careful implementation. In addition, the need for historical accuracy is paramount. For example, the use of contemporary photographs to illustrate historic events can introduce a new perspective that helps viewers understand how the past was perceived at the time. However, using these photos can also distort the meaning of historical documents or artwork, which must be taken into consideration in designing an exhibit.
Moreover, a successful exhibit depends on a number of technical and environmental considerations. For example, the temperature in an exhibition space should be kept between 77 and 85 degrees Fahrenheit. The relative humidity should be maintained between 35 and 50%. The most effective way to ensure this environment is by utilizing 24-hour air conditioning and dehumidification.
One of the greatest challenges is balancing preservation concerns with creating an inclusive history exhibit. Many historic structures were not built for museums and have unique constraints. For example, there may be limitations on fastening objects to walls or ceilings, and lighting can be a significant issue. In these instances, the best approach is to consult a preservation expert early in the process.