The rap on research for the arts, museums, and informal sciences
What’s the history-museum equivalent of a real page-turner? Museum professionals talk about the power of storytelling, but often exhibit stories are so broad they feel like summaries — book-jacket blurbs rather than the book itself.
Last weekend I posted about visiting the New Mexico History Museum, whose main permanent exhibit, “Telling New Mexico: Stories from Then and Now,” opened last year but already feels dated, at least to me. Yet it represents typical contemporary practice in history museums — heck, even “best practices” in many ways. So the questions I’m raising are less criticisms of this installation and more a lob in the ongoing volley about how museums think about the “rules” and strategies of engagement.
In the same spirit, here’s an observation about the sheer breadth of the narratives that exhibits like these tend to tackle. That title, “Telling New Mexico,” says it all: this is 500 years of stories in six subdivided galleries, starting “Beyond History’s Records” and eventually arriving at “Becoming the Southwest” and “My New Mexico.”
Such breadth, coupled with the necessary brevity of panel texts and object labels, results in a level of generality that might seem comical if we weren’t so used to it. Here’s the only mention I saw of Kit Carson, that conflicted nemesis of the Navajos whose military genius led to the infamous “Long Walk,” in which hundreds of Navajo men, women, and children died:
In 1826, a restless 16-year-old Kit Carson arrived in Taos, New Mexico. Three years later, he was on his first trapping expedition. One of the most famous men of the West, he led a complex, adventurous life as a hunter, scout, soldier, rancher, and Indian fighter.
Texts like these are unsatisfying on almost every level. They raise more questions than they answer (Why was he famous? Was it somehow unusual for a newcomer to go on a trapping expedition at the age of 19? What was complex about his life?).
But the chief question they raise is, “Why should we care?” The panel feels dutiful, as if the curators were checking off an item on their list. It neither conveys their interest in the subject nor sparks our own. ...
Sure, brevity is a handicap. But consider this almost-as-short paragraph introducing Carson in a book review in the NY Times:
Born Christopher Houston Carson in Kentucky in 1809, he grew to only 5 feet 4 inches and was wiry, blue-eyed, soft-spoken and fearless. He had all the instincts of a survivor, and indeed all the qualifications of a hero, as heroism was understood by Americans of the dime-novel era. Like Buffalo Bill and Wild Bill Hickok, he filled the pages of blood-and-thunder pulps, but in fact his exploits were far greater than theirs, and his authenticity beyond compare.
That’s the kind of writing that brings the guy to life and makes us want to find out more. The book in question here, by the way, is Hampton Sides’s riveting Blood and Thunder, a 450-page retelling of the story of Carson and the Long Walk — the same story that the museum treats in a few text panels, images, and artifacts.
It may not be fair to compare an exhibit to a book, given their very different purposes, forms, traditions, and sometimes audiences. (In this case, I think a museum like NMHM and a book of popular history like Blood and Thunder share a common target audience of curious, culturally-literate laymen, age 12 or so on up.)
But the comparison raises a legitimate question: Why do exhibits try to tell such broad stories? It’s not just that poor Kit gets the blurb treatment here; it’s that the whole history does. The exhibit feels a mile wide and an inch deep: more like an outline for a story than a vivid, compellingly told, or suspenseful tale we can get lost in.
When’s the last time you felt real narrative pull in any exhibition — that mixture of wondering what happens next and not wanting anyone to spoil the ending?
What would it take for an exhibit to feel as narratively potent and vivid as Sides’s book? A shorter tale to tell, for one thing. And given how few words are available to museum curators and exhibit designers compared to book authors, probably not the whole Kit Carson story, but a chapter, an episode, a single spark in which the whole fire can be glimpsed.
What’s odd about these broad exhibits is that the generality of the story runs parallel to the specificity and concreteness of the objects on display. There’s a gap here between the abstraction of the narrative and the vividness of the artifacts that illustrate it: they’re at opposite ends of a spectrum. At one end of the spectrum the risk is reductive blandness, textbook-style history. At the other end the risk is the mute mystery of individual objects with their stories locked inside them.
Isn’t the challenge of museum work to bring story and artifacts together, to make sure they’re close enough to talk to each other — and to us? Tighter, less sweeping, and more human-scaled exhibit topics may make it easier to do that. That, and a little storytelling flair.
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