Making History Museums More Participatory

I have been thinking about my visit to the National World War I Museum last weekend, and I find myself reflecting on a few things I would have changed in the museum to make the experience even better (don’t get me wrong, though. It was awesome). From an interpretive standpoint, I found the discussion of postwar issues (the Treaty of Versailles, the creation of the League of Nations, Woodrow Wilson’s failed effort to have the U.S. join the League, etc.), to be strongly lacking, with only one exhibit and a looping video about these political issues and the eventual rise of Adolf Hitler in Germany. Additionally, I thought the way in which the museum interpreted the experience of WWI combat to be problematic in that it almost wholly disregarded the remarkable changes in warfare brought on by the advent of flight. Then again, this interpretation is most likely due to the nature of the museum’s collections, which are full of military uniforms and firearms but lacking in airplane technology (which is understandable). That said, I will focus this post on the concept of museum design and text labels.

Historically, many museums–especially art and history museums–have relied on text-heavy labels and their collections to tell a singular grand narrative, one that often reflected the values and beliefs of the white, upper class curators who oversaw these museums. As David Fleming explains, “Many museums were designed to overwhelm visitors. The classical columns and pediments, the banks of steps, the ornate iron gates… the quasi-religious museum setting is no accident. It derives from a period when the Victorian Establishment believed that this setting was the most appropriate for absorbing knowledge” (216).

Over the past twenty-five years, the mission and purposes of museums have come under intense scrutiny. A large part of this scrutiny is due to declining attendance numbers at all types of museums–but especially history and art museums–where frustrations with the overwhelming experience of museum-going and perceptions of museums as places where the values of high society are widespread. In fact, a recent report has stated that art museums have lost 5 million visitors and history museums have lost 8 million visitors from their peak attendance numbers decades ago. Even children’s and science museums–which don’t rely on collections as much and are more participatory than art and history museums–are struggling. Indeed, five years ago Cary Carson of Colonial Williamsburg wrote a provocative piece in which he warned practitioners at history museums about the need to start preparing for “Plan B.”

Part of this critical dialogue revolves around text labels. As Deborah Perry explains, “traditionally, exhibit labels have served primarily to convey information and interpret objects and artifacts.” Text labels can help guide visitors through a museum exhibit, especially if they provide “meaningful information for visitors, information that answers their questions…information that addresses issues” (28). However, we now understand that museums are social institutions, even more-so than learning institutions. Sure, people come to a museum expecting to learn something (by which I mean that they use their critical thinking facilities, connect new information to prior knowledge, apply creative skills, interact with others in their social group, and realize past mistakes), but the primary inspiration for museum-going is to facilitate interaction with friends and loved ones in a social setting. As P.M. McManus pointed out in a 1990 essay, text labels in museums have an unfortunate tendency to be “conversation hogs” that stifle meaningful conversation in a museum setting. McManus argues that people do in fact read labels at museums, but that people will ignore text labels if they get in the way of their social interactions (4-6).

Perry challenges us to think of ways to design text labels that make learning fun and sociable. She asks, “What if rather than just presenting information to visitors like a textbook, the exhibit served as a more knowledgeable and experienced member of the social group? What if instead of ‘lecturing’ visitors, the exhibit was designed to provide the guidance and direction that is essential for visitors to…move further along in their learning journeys? What if the exhibit asked and answered questions, directed attention, explained the most salient ideas, and made personal connections[?]” (86-87). Ultimately, museums should be working towards “honoring and respecting visitors, their time, and their agendas. It’s about sharing the conversation space with them rather than monopolizing it” (29).

I thought about some of these ideas as I looked at this exhibit in the World War I Museum:

"The Birth of Modern Public Relations" Photo Credit: Nick Sacco
“The Birth of Modern Public Relations” Photo Credit: Nick Sacco

This exhibit is located in the “1917-1919” section of the museum, which spends a lot of time analyzing the United States and their role in the war. There are several things going for this exhibit:

  • It is an interesting topic (at least to me!)
  • the text is relatively easy to understand
  • there is a dose of local history with the mentioning of George Creel
  • there are war propaganda posters to the left of the text that connect with this panel

However, there are problems too:

  • The exhibit is lodged in a corner, making it hard to read for people with accessibility issues
  • If I remember correctly, not all of the artwork to the left is American war propaganda, which can create confusion among visitors (there is also no date mentioned in the text)
  • the text is a hair too long (just envisions yourself standing in place while trying to read this, perhaps with children running around you)
  • the text is delivered in a passive, lecture-based style

How do we make museums (and in this case, history museums), more participatory? That’s a complex answer than cannot be fully answered in this blog post, but I think Deborah Perry is correct when she argues that “Visitors will feel confident and competent when they experience success” (118). This means asking questions, writing clear, easy-to-read-text labels with simple sentence structures and vocabulary, and removing unnecessary or potentially confusing text from the label. By taking these measures, visitors of all ages will feel like they are capable of learning and they’ll be able to do so in a way that doesn’t sacrifice social interaction.

Just for fun, I’ll write a (very) rough draft that tries to utilize Perry’s model for “building confidence” in visitors.

The Birth of Modern Public Relations

Look to your left.

What do you see in these propaganda posters? In 1917, President Woodrow Wilson appointed George Creel of Kansas City to head the Committee on Public Information (CPI).

This organization attempted to promote the United States war effort through posters, patriotic films, and four-minute speeches during movie intermissions at theaters.

Efforts were made to spread the CPI’s messages to all Americans, including non-English-speaking immigrants, African Americans, Native Americans, and Hispanics.

Have you ever seen propaganda before? Where did you see it?

(Original Text: 119 words. Revised: 84).

(Notice how I grab visitors’ attention by directing them to look at the posters on the wall and how I “chunked information” by splitting the text into separate lines, which makes it easier to read).

It’s not perfect, but what do you think? How would you revise the original text (or would you change it at all)? How can we make museums more participatory?