Museum Studies at Tufts University

Exploring ideas and engaging in conversation

The Irish Atlantic at the Massachusetts Historical Society: Opportunity for Exploration, but a Famine of Function

 

This exhibition review comes from Max Metz, who is in his second year in the Masters of Museum Education program and is the Manager and Anne Larner Educator at the Durant-Kenrick House and Grounds of Historic Newton. To see more of Max’s contributions to the blog, click here.

The Irish Atlantic: A Story of Famine, Migration, and Opportunity is at the Massachusetts Historical Society (MHS) from March 10th, 2017 to September 22nd, 2017. (Photo of Entry) (Photo: Signature Object – Ship’s Wheel) The exhibition tells the story of the importance of the Irish in Boston and the reasons behind their tough journey across the Atlantic to the U.S. Focusing on the 18th and 19th centuries, The Irish Atlantic articulates the various phases of emigration to Boston, from Presbyterians fleeing the harsh economic realities of Ireland in the 18th century, to the hordes fleeing famine in their homeland caused by potato blight in the middle of the 19th century. Curators paid attention to the perception of Irish immigrants by Bostonians and revealed the harsh criticism and discrimination they faced as they began to assimilate into US culture. Centering around religious, familial, and political centers, The Irish Atlantic shows the strong identity that immigrants created by blending the old and new world views over successive generations.

The exhibit is organized around its subtitle: famine, migration, and opportunity. Although the interpretive trail is somewhat ambiguous through the exhibition, I believe if visitors interacted with at least two screens and read 50% of the label text, they would have left with this enduring idea. As a strength, the exhibition was able to tell this story with a unique pairing of three-dimensional artifacts and historic archival material. The space’s elegance lent itself well to the overall look and feel of the exhibition. (Photo: Exhibition Quote) Although I personally appreciated the regal ambiance of the space, it was difficult to associate the feel of the exhibition to the fatigue, famine, frustration felt by immigrants as they arrived to the city. Simple, muted Irish colors and intentional placement of Celtic symbols aided the visitor in connecting previous experiences or stories with the Irish to the exhibition.

In evaluating the exhibition, I prefer to use Beverly Serrell’s Framework: Assessing Excellence in Exhibitions from a Visitor-Centered Perspective, which analyzes comfort, engagement, reinforcement, and meaningfulness. I believe this model is strong due to is combination of both qualitative, feeling statements – the same statements that visitors will make in the museum – and a quasi-quantitative method of ranking and rating aspects to come up with a level of success for each of the four main criteria. The final rankings for the criteria range between Level 1 – Excellent and Level 6 – Counterproductive. Constructively presenting my critical assessment of the exhibition, I go through each criterion (comfort, engagement, reinforcement, and meaningfulness) and discuss the successes and opportunities for improvement in my view as a museum professional and as a visitor. (This evaluation is based on my visit to the exhibit on March 25th, 2017 – the exhibition may have changed since then.)

Comfort: Level 4 – Acceptable

This exhibition was successful in in that the main text panels and smaller object labels used large text size and simple font that was very easy to read, yet stylized. The lighting was very good and illuminated the visitors’ choices and options for learning and viewing diverse portions of the exhibit, making them feel in control of their own experiences. (Photo: Visitors’ Choices) Unfortunately, thinking constructively, there were no convenient places to rest in the entire exhibition. Additionally, it was difficult to hear with the loud HVAC system and the competing video panel soundtracks when used simultaneously in the space. Furthermore, when arriving to the exhibition there were no orientation signs telling visitors where to start and what galleries were part of the exhibition. This caused the visitor to enter and walk to the right, focusing on two signature artifacts (a harp and a ship’s wheel) and then entering a portrait gallery not part of the exhibition. Lastly, although I believe the content of the exhibition was most likely designed for the organization’s primary audience, I do not believe that its language welcomed people of different cultural backgrounds, economic classes, or educational levels – i.e. the average person off the street.

Engagement: Level 4 – Acceptable

The physical environment was designed successfully – interesting and inviting exploration – partly due to the good look and feel of the exhibit, great color choices, and interesting architectural features of the historic building. Exhibits caught my attention and enticed me to slow down, to look, interact, and spend time attending to many elements. The exhibition had a large variety of videos that could be played on their five different touchscreens, had graphic explanations of data, included artistic endeavors of immigrants, and focused on the religious experience of many immigrants. (Photo: Imagery) Although the videos were engaging, they were difficult to use, even as a digital native. During my time in the exhibition watching 10+ visitors use the space, not one visitor used the screens. (Photo: Touchscreens) I believe without the videos the visitor does not get the full story and connections between the somewhat disparate sections. The exhibition in general did not encourage social interaction. I did not hear a single visitor conversing about the exhibition topics or exhibition material, or talking at all for that matter.

Reinforcement: Level 5 – Misses Opportunities

I do believe that the information and ideas in different parts of the exhibition were complementary and successfully reinforced each other, albeit not necessarily well communicated with orientation signs. (Photos: Reinforcement) The exhibition was a bit overwhelming and daunting due to the amount of labels, archival text, and an unknown size of the exhibit in general. I often had to read labels in a series a few times before I was able to get the complex timeline of events to create the context in which to view the other artifacts. Although in retrospect I saw the organization of the exhibition as the subtitle (famine, migration, and opportunity), I did not note that logic in the moment. I think this could have been because of the lack of orientation at the beginning as well.

Meaningfulness: Level 2 – Very Good 

Ideas and objects in the exhibition were made relevant to and easily integrated into the visitor experience. The juxtaposition of paintings and artifacts encouraged the visitor to engage with the archival text materials and were supported by other archival images. (Photo: Supporting Artifacts) Furthermore, the exhibition made a case that its content had value. Especially in this time in the U.S., the material was timely, important, and resonated with the visitors’ values. As good exhibitions do, The Irish Atlantic touched on universal human concerns and didn’t shy away from deep or controversial issues. I do believe it could have gone farther and asked visitors to ponder questions of the time, however I think the content was relevant and universal in its themes. The exhibit experience promoted change in people’s thinking and feeling, even transcendence with regard to Irish immigrants and historically Irish-American communities. The exhibition gave visitors the means to make generalizations and change their beliefs and attitudes. However, constructively, there was not any way for visitors to take action after the exhibition, no way to take the information and make change in the community or voice their discoveries.

Overall, I think that this exhibit was what one might expect from a historical society with resources and connections like that of the Massachusetts Historical Society. (Photo: Resource Connections) I think their use of technology was very encouraging, however the use of the technology by visitors was less promising as a successful means to connect to their primary audience. It was an aesthetically pleasing exhibition rich with authentic artifacts and texts. Additionally, it provided an online companion website that increased engagement, accessibility, and understanding of the overall story. This included the timeline of events that I needed to develop context, all the video interviews that I couldn’t necessarily hear or was not able to initiate, additional information about MHS collections within the exhibition, and a general overview of the exhibition story. The MHS team also provided five specific programs, open to the public, over the course of the opening months to give further depth and specificity, and encourage increased visitation.

With three quick fixes, 1) increased orientation about direction and scope of the exhibition, 2) directions on how to effectively use the screens and the time commitment that will be needed to view each video, and 3) a few easily placed chairs to rest and enjoy the elegant building, the exhibit would move beyond the status quo of historical society exhibitions to something of a benchmark in the field. The exhibition is on show until September 22nd, 2017. More photos of the entire exhibition are available here.

Weekly Jobs Roundup!

Here’s our weekly roundup of new jobs. Happy hunting!

 

New England 

 

Mid-Atlantic

Midwest

 

South

West

AASLH Annual Meeting Scholarship Opportunities

AASLH Annual Meeting Scholarships Available:  

Apply for a scholarship to attend the 2017 AASLH Annual Meeting. Scholarships are available for diverse attendees, employees of small museums, and new professionals in four states.

  • AASLH Douglas Evelyn Scholarship for Diversity (2)
  • AASLH Small Museum Scholarship (2-5)
  • 2017 Austin Diversity Scholarships (10)
  • Robert W. Richmond Scholarship for New Professionals in MO, KS, NE, IA
See the full list of scholarships, details, and deadlines here: http://about.aaslh.org/annual-meeting-scholarships/

Explore Fulbright U.S. Scholar Opportunities in Museum Studies!

The 2018-19 Fulbright U.S. Scholar Program competition is now open and accepting applications for awards in Europe. Scholars may teach and/or conduct research, while collaborating with colleagues, mentoring students, and engaging with their local host communities.

The following awards might interest those interested in museum work:

France: Hauts-de-France Regional Award (Junior Research)museum conservation is among preferred fields

Ukraine: Cultural Resource Management

Jamaica: All Disciplinesmuseum management among preferred fields 

Mongolia: All Disciplinescultural preservation among preferred fields

For a full list of opportunities available, please visit the catalog of awards. You may also wish to register for one of our upcoming webinars and visit this website.

Applicants must be U.S. citizens, and the deadline for complete applications is August 1, 2017.

An Unanticipated Session at AAM 2017

The next few weeks we will be posting reflections from students who attended the American Alliance of Museums Annual Meeting and Conference, held in St. Louis, Missouri, May 6-10. This first post comes from Max Metz, a current M.A. candidate in the Museum Education program at Tufts. 

Just blocks away from the Old Saint Louis Courthouse in downtown Saint Louis Missouri, where in 1846 Dred and Harriet Scott filed for their freedom from slavery, the American Alliance of Museums held its 2017 Annual Meeting and Museum Expo. This year’s theme was “Gateways for Understanding: Diversity, Equity, Accessibility, and Inclusion in Museum,” a theme that showed its importance and pertinence within the conference itself at an unanticipated session.

On Sunday, the LF Creative Group, an art and fabrication studio, set up their sales display of two manikins with the intention of showing their best work, create an emotional response, and to sell their products to museums and cultural institutions alike. They were unaware that their choice of an enslaved black man, chained to a post, chest bare, alongside a white slave trader, would create the kind of reaction that eventually overtook aspects of the conference. Early Monday, Michael Furlund, employe of LF Creative Group, was coming in to ready his display when he happened upon a black female on the cleaning staff almost in tears after seeing the two figures in his booth – a sign of what was to come. The AAM community took to twitter where the #AAM2017SlaveAuction hashtag was born and within 24 hours AAM president Laura Lott had weighed into the discussion and eventual the enslaved man manikin was covered in a black cloth.

Between late Tuesday and the close of the Annual Meeting and Museum Expo on Wednesday, conference goers and the CEO of LF Creative Group, Rodney Heiligmann, were able to address concerns and explain the company’s stance in front of a crowd of more than 100 conference-goers. This productive conversation did not happen naturally, but needed to be mediated and facilitated to keep it productive and civil. Participants on both sides were becoming too heated when Dina Bailey, CEO at Mountain Top Vision, stepped in to mediate the conversation. Under her calm and respectful guidance, the conversation was able to proceed and create a learning experience for all present.

 Looking at this controversial, impromptu conversation like a session, I had a few takeaways that were profound to me. Although I did have more than these four takeaways, I personally found these more accommodating – they created new areas of experience that I can weigh on in my future.

Social Media

The power of social media is both terrifying and liberating – awesome in the truest sense of the word. If I was not following the conference on Twitter and I did not try to engage in the digital space as well as the physical space of the conference, I would have missed this entire event. The terrifying power is that of the troll and the negativity that can erupt out of social media to create a volatile situation. The liberation comes from the ability to see diverse perspectives in an unregulated and open space that is accessible everywhere. While following #AAM2017SlaveAuction, one of the first hashtags I have ever followed (ever), I was amazed by the moderating behavior of some users and the incendiary behavior of others.  I do not think that users truly understand the power of their words, and the tone and emotion behind those words, when amplified by social media. If it was not for a few moderators that brought some calm to the hashtag, the conversation would have developed into a riotous, unproductive space. However, with their mediation online and their calm, information began to permeate, not just emotion.

Mediation

Just like the digital space, the physical space did not have a productive conversation immediately. One or two outspoken opponents of the company began to control the dialogue and amp up the emotions in the room. The productive conversation that eventually took place in the exhibition hall was almost missed had  a skilled museum educator not stepped up to the plate and offered to mediate the conversation. As Heiligmann began to speak, museum professionals heckled him, while he tried not to react negatively.  The situation was developing into an unruly mob. I was on the “side” of the museum professionals asking for more answers. However the way in which the conversation was proceeding was unproductive until deliberate steps were made to create a conversation instead of a one-sided protest. Together we stated the problems, gathered information on both sides, understood the problem from various perspectives, and created a set of recommendations for all of us to take away from this unfortunate situation.

Confrontation vs Dialogue

Much of the unrest came from the booth attendant, a fabricator and artist with the company, who was unprepared for the situation. I had the opportunity to overhear him interact with museum professionals at the booth before the larger session with the CEO, and it was clear that the stances that both sides had were too deeply seated to have productive dialogue, it was only resulting in heated confrontation and deeper heals in the sand. He was not around for the CEO’s session, however I happened to run into him on the other side of the exhibit hall, outside of the context of the intense situation. We chatted and I was really able to understand his point of view and I made sure he was able to understand mine, and the many others who were opposing his view. When we were outside of the intense context created by the manikins and I was not attacking him, he did not attack back and we communicated. When overhearing interactions at the booth, there was just noise being directed back and forth at each party – there was no listening taking place. I was happy to be able to listen to him, disagree with him, and walk away understanding him in the end. We must diffuse before we can communicate.

An Industry “About” Learning Not “Of” Learning

Much of the argument that the employee used to combat the criticism of much of the conference-goers had to do with the division between museum expo exhibitors and museum conference attendees. Although both audiences were under the same umbrella of inclusion, diversity, equity, and access, not all were present for the same reason. Exhibitors are there to sell products and grow business, while attendees are there to learn and grow perspectives – neither of these aims is wrong, but they are not productive in the same space. I do believe that there needs to be a larger emphasis in the industry, encompassing vendors and museum-based professionals, about education and the greater mission of our institutions. There needs to be a bigger push for exhibitors to attend sessions and interact with other attendees in a less transactional space. Furthermore, non-exhibitors should expose and educate themselves to the “other side” of the industry that makes exhibitions, publications, interactives, multimedia, etc. happen so that we can promote learning inside our four walls. A greater mixing of the two groups with the goal of education and understand could help prevent a situation like this from happening in the future.

Follow the links below below to view images of the the Old St. Louis Courthouse, the LF Creative Group booths, and the “Slave Auction”  Installment at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum respectively.

 
 
 

About the Author: Max Metz is a second year graduate student in the Museum Education program at Tufts University. He is the Manager and Anne Larner Educator at the Durant-Kenrick House and Grounds of Historic Newton. As a nontraditional educator, Max flows freely between various atypical teaching and learning environments from museums to parks, deep in the forest or deep in the neighborhoods, and contemporary art settings to historic houses. He consideres himself a facilitator of educational experiences who uses interpretation to reveal the personal context and connections behind the resources at hand.

 

« Older posts

Spam prevention powered by Akismet

Switch to our desktop site