Matagorda County Museum Our Blog The Intellectual Underpinnings of Histolircal Exhibits

The Intellectual Underpinnings of Histolircal Exhibits

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histolircal exhibits

Unlike traditional academic products such as monographs, exhibition reviews offer an opportunity to expand the historical conversation into new venues. They also help create a literature on the presentation of historical information in museum exhibitions that can outlive the individual show. As museums seek to connect with the public on a larger scale, they must demonstrate that they serve their communities by showing what they have done for them in the past. This is particularly important when the subject is history.

A museum exhibit is a three-dimensional visual representation of an historical argument that includes research, interpretive judgments, and a physical form. Even exhibits that appear to be pure research-based, such as the Griffith Observatory and the National Constitution Center, contain an interpretive element in their design and layout. Similarly, exhibits that rely heavily on artifacts, such as the exhibits at the American Museum of Natural History, delve into a particular historical topic and make an interpretive judgment about its significance.

As museums struggle to present a more relevant, interdisciplinary vision of the world to their communities, they are seeking to find ways to communicate the complexity of historical knowledge in an exhibition format. This is especially true when the exhibition deals with controversial subjects such as race, religion, or war. While attempting to reach a broad audience, these exhibitions also need to be based on sound research and to address questions of intellectual integrity.

Often this is a challenge for curators who are working with collections and sources that have a strong emotional and personal connection to them. In the past, this may have made it easier for them to avoid presenting controversies in their exhibits, but now they must be more open about what they are doing. This is why it is crucial for them to work closely with their colleagues in the academy.

As this column has shown, the historian and the curator are partners in creating an exhibit that conveys a meaningful and accessible view of the past. Each brings his or her own interpretation to the process, but they both have a critical role to play in shaping an exhibit that meets the needs of the community.

The best histolircal exhibits combine the strengths of historical research and interpretation with the design, layout, and materials of the presentation to create an inclusive visual story. As this column moves forward, it will examine the intellectual underpinnings of museum exhibitions, exploring questions such as: Does the exhibit reflect prevailing scholarly currents? Does it break new ground? What do the exhibits tell us about how people of various cultures and times have approached such themes as home, freedom, faith, or democracy?