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.