Jared Leonard, Graduate Student, University of Maryland
Museums have long served as a home for anthropological research. They still serve as the public face of anthropology, reaching a much larger audience than academia does (Shackel 2005; Thomas 2000; Haas 2000, 1996). Here I would like to provide some insight into the process of exhibit design for would-be exhibitors who lack museology experience. I will address the topics of theme selection, assessment of resources, writing text, and layout design. Of these, the theme addressed in the exhibit is paramount. As anthropologists our goal should not be to display artifacts simply for their own sake, but to use exhibits to communicate archaeological ideas to the audience.
During the summer of 2005, I worked as a curatorial intern at Plimoth Plantation. This museum serves as a repository for artifacts from dozens of archaeological sites in southern New England. The development of exhibits for two sites served as my main project over the course of nine weeks. One, the exhibit at the Historic Winslow House in Marshfield, MA, serves as my example in discussing design concepts. The Winslow house was constructed between 1699 and 1724 by Isaac Winslow, whose prominent family counted governors, lawyers, judges, doctors, and military officers in its numbers. Since 1920 the building has been operated by the Historic Winslow House Association in order to commemorate the Winslows. During 2002, the area surrounding the house was excavated by the Center for Cultural and Environmental History at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. The assemblage collected was typical for the property’s period of occupation (Howlett- Hayes et al. 2004; Goldstein 2005, 1998).
The museum is altering several of its exhibit rooms in order to interpret the lives of the Winslows’ servants and slaves, the subject of my exhibit as well. The heterogenous group serving the Winslows included indentured Irish and British servants and African and Native American slaves. In 1760, General John Winslow’s manservant, Britton Hammon, became the first enslaved person to publish a book in America with his A Narrative of the Uncommon Sufferings, and Surprising Deliverance of Briton Hammon. A Negro Man, – Servant to General Winslow, of Marshfield, in New England, who Returned to Boston, After Having Been Absent Almost Thirteen Years. Today, many residents of the area are unaware of the existence of slavery in colonial Massachusetts (Piersen 1988). In discussing African-American history, archaeology has the ability to inform us where written history is inadequate, if not simply unavailable, by providing data from which to draw conclusions rather than conjecture (LaRoche 2005; Ferguson 1992).
Before an exhibit can proceed, exhibitors and their client must agree upon the message to be conveyed. This process may pose problems in the case of more controversial topics, although controversy is not necessarily something to avoid. The topics of race, class, and gender are all well suited to discussion through public displays of artifacts (Shackel 2005). Other factors to consider in selecting a theme include space, location, intended audience, and the collection in question. The topic must suit the location and the audience. Exhibits in a public area are suited to a broad topic, which will be more interesting and understandable to the general public. Within a museum, a more tailored subject may be appropriate. Choosing an appropriate theme will give an exhibit focus and thus sustain the interest of the audience (Clarke 1997). Lastly, the subject and the objects used to represent it must match. An assemblage of fine imported porcelains, for example, is of little use in discussing the lives of workingclass immigrants.
Artifacts and images must be assessed with an eye for exhibition. The presence of several hundred individual pieces of ceramic allows us to infer many things about the social and economic status of a site’s occupants, but it is the most visually engaging pieces that will draw an audience’s attention. Everyday items might not otherwise receive any public attention, and it is important to consider their inclusion in addition to more rare finds (Dahl and Stade 2000). Even the most eloquent and well-researched text may fail as an exhibit without the proper artifacts to illustrate concepts. Assessment of the archaeological collection available will be an exhibitor’s first task, either prior to or simultaneously with the selection of a theme. If the agency sets the exhibit’s theme, the designer may be faced with the complex task of adapting a collection which is not ideally suited.
The Winslow House presented the challenge of tying specific artifacts to members of two distinct social classes occupying a Volume 39: Number 2 E-DITION Summer 2006 Page 38 single space and time. A cowrie shell suggests an African presence in the house. A small gaming piece carved from a shard of creamware was likely used by someone who could not afford a manufactured one, which indicates use by a servant rather than one of the Winslows. For most artifacts, however, class connection was more tenuous. For instance, all members of the household used redware bowls in a variety of ways. Furthermore, the Winslows ate off of creamware, but servants prepared the food served on that creamware. Acknowledging this dual identity in the accompanying text was vital. Some archaeologists take the position that separating artifacts along racial and social lines in such contexts is a nearly impossible task (Beaudry 2005; Chan 2005; Goldstein 2005). Most of the artifacts in the Winslow collection were small and fragmented. The Winslow artifacts were collected from test pits in a field which were subject to freezes and thaws as well as other natural and human forces. In order to make up for some artifacts’ lack of visual impact, similar whole pieces from Plimoth Plantation’s study collection were used as examples.
Exhibit text should be concise. The attention of the viewer is transient. There is always a risk that dense or lengthy text will be ignored rather than read. Important points must be made quickly and clearly. Unimportant points should not be made at all. The key to preparing text is to start by overwriting, and then to edit with the crux of the matter in mind. Sentences should be simple and declarative. Reflexive clauses and interesting turns of phrase are unnecessary. In general, the text must be easy enough for a wide audience to understand, without being too simplistic (Fitzhugh 2004; Sorsby and Horne 1980). Jargon and complicated terms should be avoided (Walder 1996). When making labels, use a font without serifs. These small lines are added to characters in order to aid legibility in close-up reading, but tend to blur and to distract the eye when viewed from a distance (Velarde 1988:62). The proper font size will be determined by the space. In order to be read from a typical distance anything smaller than a 16-point font will likely be inadequate (Goldstein 2005). Making sketches of the proposed exhibit is a useful practice, and one that should begin at the earliest stage of the exhibit design process. Creating mock-ups of the exhibit using a similarly sized space is another useful technique. Artifacts linked thematically should be concentrated together, with an adequate division from other artifacts. If it is not clear which artifacts are related to which labels, they are of no use.
In the Winslow exhibit arrangement is used to underline social divisions within the household. Objects to the left of the case were probably used by the servants. Those on the right were likely used by the Winslows. Between the two, toward the front of the case, is the gaming piece, created from a dish used by the Winslows, but employed by the servants. Note the placement of the smaller pieces to the front of the case, aiding viewing. Larger objects were placed to the rear, where they would not block sight lines to other objects or to the texts.
Effective display of artifacts and associated text is key in maximizing the ability of the modern museum to speak for historical archaeology and anthropology in general. In order to achieve this goal, exhibit designers must keep in mind the strengths and weaknesses of this rarified medium. While the presentation of in-depth, technical information may not be appropriate, there is the potential for broad public appeal. The most important piece of advice I can give in creating an effective exhibit is to focus on the message conveyed. Be concise and explicit in relating this message, and be sure that you keep it in mind at all times.
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