There is a perception by many museum visitors that museum exhibits are static, unchanging, frozen in time. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Museum exhibits can evolve! The end point of a museum exhibit, or what a visitor sees, is only a small part of the journey. In this article I would like to highlight the process and the transformative steps our most recent exhibit Postcards and Perceptions: Culture as Tourism has undergone.
The Big Idea
The process of creating the Postcards and Perceptions: Culture as Tourism exhibit was atypical due to the fact that the postcards idea had already been exhibited in the past. The decision to refurbish the exhibit was an interesting one. Usually exhibits do not revisit the same theme and if they do, a significant amount of time must have already
passed. Upon revisiting the subject matter it was revealed that we could create some incredibly interesting storylines that the first exhibit did not touch upon.
The original exhibit was called: Seminoles Look Back: Our People in Postcards and was featured in the later part of 2005 and most of 2006. In the original curatorial statement it was revealed that since the museum has such an extensive collection of postcards (over 600) they only had time to scratch the surface of this interesting topic. Most of the original exhibit dealt with the craft and history of postcards, the photographers who captured the original images and the tribal members who were most prominently featured in postcards of the time period. The exhibit also displayed historical dress from the museum’s permanent collection which was actually depicted in the postcards. In many ways this exhibit was successful and it effectively displayed a segment of the museums collection with great historical value.
When re-creating a previously well done and popular exhibit it is extremely important not to fall into a few traps, for example: How do we create new and fresh storylines when using previously exhibited material?…and…How can we change the exhibit design and layout to make it even more exciting than the last? The first thing we had to do was revisit the previous exhibit and ask ourselves what subjects did the previous exhibit not cover. This involved sifting through the postcards used in the exhibit, then going back through the postcards we had in the collection. The long and somewhat tedious process eventually started to reveal an obvious theme.
Most of the postcards depicted Seminoles in tourist camps which were popular in the early to mid part of the 20th century. Building upon the tourist camp idea, we took it a step further to examine how Seminole identity was being portrayed, revealed and changed through the medium of postcards. When examining the literature of the time period, what also becomes apparent is that there was some definitive perceptions of Seminoles and American Indians in general placed upon them by the popular culture of early 20th century America. Most often, depictions of American Indians at this time was unflattering, an unfortunate circumstance of minority relations with the population at large. On the flip side, the tourist camps provided an economic opportunity for the Seminoles. Over time, Seminole entrepreneurs purchased, owned and promoted their own tourist camps. Today the Seminole Tribe of Florida enjoys economic success and political independence. These roots stem from the experiences, struggles and opportunities of the tourist camps.
Exhibit design and layout is also a key factor in attracting the visitor’s attention. To enhance the postcards theme we have incorporated details that we hope will appeal to the visitor. All text panels and labels will be styled in the likeness of either a postcard or a postage related theme. The actual postcards will be displayed on the wall in a scrapbook like collage. Adding color to postcards was a key selling point back in the early part of the 20th century. We wanted to do the same with the exhibit and create a colorful environment by adding banners and color to the exhibit walls. Visitor interaction is an incredibly important aspect to any exhibition. We have created a fun photo opportunity with a life size postcard. Visitiors can get their pictures taken and we hope they will friend us on Facebook and post their pictures to our site. We have also created a visitor feedback area in which the visitor can make comments. The exhibit poses a question in the beginning: “How did the tourist camps effect Seminole identity?” Visitors are then asked to think about this question while touring the gallery. At the end the same question is posed. The intent is to get the visitor to formulate and comment on their conclusions at the feedback area.
Have Exhibit, Will Travel
A branch of the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum’s exhibits division is called STEP, an acronym for Seminole Traveling Exhibits Program. We are very excited about this program and it will allow us to create exhibits, available for rent to the museum public nationally. Sharing the Seminole story is vital and STEP allows us to share with a much wider museum audience. One of the intentions of Postcards and Perceptions: Culture as Tourism is to first, exhibit at our museum and secondly, transform it into a traveling exhibition. This also has posed some challenges when trying to develop, such as: When creating components, how do we take into account the rigors of travel?…and…How do we make this exhibit appeal to a wider audience?
Considering the first issue, when developing this exhibit for travel we had to be flexible in the design elements. We also had to be flexible in the sense that some sensitive artifacts, included in the showing at our museum, could not be included into the traveling exhibit due to conservation concerns. This needed to be taken into account when creating the storylines. The goal was not to lose intent when an artifact had to be removed from the exhibit for travel. We also had to be able to tailor the exhibit spatially to meet other institutional needs. The exhibit is presented in sections and not in chronological progression. Telling the story in sections rather than sequentially allows other museums to be able to change the order of the sections or even subtract a section and not lose the original intent of the exhibit.
The second issue we had to consider is that we had to broaden our storylines just a bit to be able to meet a wider audience. The exhibit is still focused on the Seminole Tribe of Florida. However, the social situations, opportunities, and obstacles the Seminoles faced are a microcosm of what Native Americans also faced during this time period. For any exhibit to be a successful traveling exhibit it has to be accessible to all audiences and fit in a myriad of institutions.
The evolution of an exhibit is an exciting and a dynamic process! We hope you visit us and experience Postcards and Perceptions: Culture as Tourism. If you do, think about the journey the exhibit has taken to get to its present state. Who knows, it might even come to a museum near you!