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.

 

A sociologist against the idea of closure

Via BigThink.com, I stumbled across a sociologist making an interesting argument: “closure” is a cultural construction. This sounds both controversial and fascinating as it draws attention to a topic that we don’t think much about: how to grieve and deal with loss as individuals and, perhaps more interesting for sociologists, as a culture.

Two quick thoughts:
1. I would guess Berns argues that closure is more of a cultural development than an actual experience a person has and is emblematic of a therapeutic American culture that emphasizes “moving on.” But I’ll have to read the book to find out. Developing personal or collective memories about traumatic events can be interesting topics to study, as the growing field of the sociology of disasters illustrates.

2. Looking at the blog that accompanies the book, I wonder how much demand Berns will be in with the upcoming September 11th memorials. On one hand, some could find her take on grief to be reassuring and needed. On the other hand, some might be angry. If she does become part of the media circus surrounding the commemorative, I hope she can push a sociological perspective on the proceedings.

Symbolic punishment? Fraudulent French trader ordered to pay $6.7 billion

The economic crisis has raised interesting questions about who is responsible. In the United States, much blame has been placed on the large financial institutions, investment firms and banks, who played a role (though others have also argued that the government and consumers share the blame).

But in the courts, blame could be assigned to any of these parties. In a recent decision in France, a trader who worked for France’s second largest bank was ordered to pay the bank $6.7 billion in damages for fradulent activity linked to the economic crisis. Here is a quick summary of the case’s outcome:

The court rejected defense arguments that the 33-year-old trader was a scapegoat for a financial system gone haywire with greed and the pursuit of profit at any cost — a decision sure to take some pressure off the beleaguered banking system overall.

By ordering a tough sentence for a lone trader, the ruling marked a startling departure from the general atmosphere of hostility and suspicion about big banks in an era of financial turmoil. It was a huge victory for Kerviel’s former employer Societe Generale SA, France’s second-biggest bank, which long had a reputation for cutting-edge financial engineering and has put in place tougher risk controls since the scandal broke in 2008.

Kerviel maintained that the bank and his bosses tolerated his massive risk-taking as long as it made money — a claim the bank strongly denied.

The story goes on to say that both sides, the trader and the bank, admitted to mistakes along the way. But the court ruling suggests that the trader was the culpable party.

The assignment of blame after large traumatic events is a fascinating phenomenon to observe. Who is eventually seen as the responsible party can depend on a number of factors including national culture, time in history, court cases, public opinion, and other particularities. Whoever becomes the scapegoat can often become the symbol of the traumatic incident, forever linking that person or party to phenomenon that are often quite complex.