Carefully designing museum exhibits of traumatic events

Museums help us know and interpret our past so what is the best way to design exhibits that tackle traumatic events?

Working to affect the museumgoer’s subconscious is how Layman talks about exhibition design. First, he strives to understand – reading, consulting with historians, trying to learn the material as well as the curators do in order to find what resonates, what surprises. When it comes to putting materials in galleries, yes, he wants to manipulate you, but for the purposes of telling the story.

“We do a technique called ‘swing focus’ as the visitors go through,” Layman said. “Their eye catches one thing after the next, and it works all the way through, and the story, then, it just unfolds almost intuitively. It comes off the walls, and the people get lost in this story, and it becomes a very moving experience.”

Earlier this winter, Layman was in the opening galleries at the Illinois Holocaust Museum, in Skokie, the ones that, in parallel, establish what Jewish life was like in Europe before World War II and how the Nazis rose to power in Germany.

The two hours Layman took to explain what his firm did in Skokie, a sort of ultimate guided tour, were absolutely fascinating. The museum deftly takes viewers into some of humanity’s least human moments and then escorts them back out. It works so well, in part, because every inch of the design is pored over. “We pay attention to excruciating detail on absolutely everything,” he said.

It sounds like the purpose is trying to tell an immersive narrative. This narrative is carefully crafted and meant to give the attendee a particular viewpoint on the world. Museums can reinforce existing cultural narratives, particularly in their ability to involve all the senses.

I like museums and what they can offer: original artifacts and powerful experiences. Yet, as someone who values education, museums seem like they can only go so far: they provide an introduction to most topics. If the museum is the only time a person encounters an important topics like the Holocaust, then that is not enough. I would encourage my students to find out for themselves, to find original texts and numerous interpretations to start developing what they think on their own. Museums can do some of this but there simply isn’t enough space (and this process requires a lot more text that the typical museumgoer would be willing to read) to tell the whole story.

A fascinating example of this is at The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza in Dallas, Texas. Before going, I wondered how they would handle conspiracy theories about JFK’s assassination. But, the museum had a whole section on the various theories at the end without making a strong statement against such theories. The better parts of the museum told the story of JFK’s rise, involving artifacts, texts, and videos. The ultimate part of the journey is looking at the reconstructed spot at the sixth floor window from which Lee Harvey Oswald fired at the president. I could see that taking this all in moved numerous visitors. All together, the museum is a well-done taste of JFK’s life, legacy, and the theories surrounding his death but an individual could spend years going through all that is out there and trying to make sense of it all. The museum isn’t the final word but rather an authoritative source.

 

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