Translating a painful history into a meaningful exhibition is no easy task. There are many things to take into consideration; the emotions of visitors being one of the main aspects. How does a museum effectively tell the story it wants to without being emotionally devastating? On top of that, how does a museum reach visitors in a way that goes beyond images and label texts? The Currier Museum of Art tells a story through the assistance of media in the special exhibition Visual Dispatches from the Vietnam War. The exhibition features iconic photographs of soldiers and civilians in the midst of a brutal war. Even for someone too young to have experienced the Vietnam War, the images were difficult to digest because they bring to light the harsh reality that is so often left out of history textbooks.
This exhibition contained two media components. The first is part of the Currier’s initiative to increase accessibility in which they recently released a mobile tour of the collection that can be accessed for free with museum admission. The mobile tour provides visitors with captions for audio and written descriptions of the collection. Visitors access the tour through the museum’s website and have the option of downloading it directly if they have an iPhone. The application itself can be a little difficult to find on the museum’s mobile site (it is listed under “Things To Do”). It is best to try and locate the mobile tour in the lobby so that you don’t have to play around on your phone in the gallery space.
Visual Dispatches is available right on the home screen of the application. Clicking on it brings you to another page with an image from the exhibition, a description, and four audio interviews to choose from. I chose the first audio interview, hoping to find a transcription below it since I did not bring any headphones with me. However, the transcription was nowhere to be found. I decided to listen to the audio interviews in the museum cafe once I had finished touring the gallery without the assistance of the application.
The second media component is three small screens placed in the gallery next to specific images. Each screen features an in-depth look of the photograph it is placed next to. One in particular tells the story of the monk who committed suicide as a means of protest. Though graphic, it helps convey the idea that war is a brutal and unnecessary act.
With the images of wounded soldiers and crying children still fresh in my mind, I listened to the four short interviews in the cafe. In one sense, I was glad that I was separated from the photographs when listening to audio. I was able to focus on the words and emotions that could be felt through a tiny set of speakers. Most of the audio was heartbreaking. Two soldiers told the story of when they returned home. There was no welcome for them; they felt shamed and isolated. The combination of hearing their voices crack while looking at the photograph of a shell-shocked soldier would have proved to be too much of an emotional experience for me. After listening to the audio, I went back through the gallery space in a different mindset. The words of photographer Larry Burrows—the first interview available for listening—echoed in my head:
“And so often I wonder whether it is my right to capitalize, as I feel so often, on the grief of others but then I justify my own particular thoughts by feeling that if I can contribute a little to the understanding of what others are going through then there is reason for doing it.”
The purpose of the audio was not to capitalize on the “iconic” aspect of the photographs or on the emotions of the visitors. In the big scheme of the exhibition, it did not matter that the audio could not be played without a set of headphones in the gallery space. Rather, the audio was there to supplement the understanding of a confusing and terrible war, to bring about compassion rather that ambivalence. Although there were a few issues with the in-gallery screens such as volume and size, they add to the experience by placing the photographs in the context of human emotions. Many still remember serving in Vietnam or had friends and family who served. For them, these images can be a raw reminder of a not-so-distant-past. For those of us who are too young to fathom living during that time period are able to sympathize and come to an understanding of what previous generations have gone through.