Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Exhibit Review

First Person Museum, Vicki Solot, director; Temple University History Graduate Students, historians; The Painted Bride Art Center Philadelphia, exhibit space; 5 November -18 December 2010.

The First Person Museum is part of a larger concept called “First Person Arts” developed by Vicky Solot with the help of a small Pew Innovation Grant. The mission of First Person Arts is to transform  “the drama of real life into memoir and documentary art to foster appreciation for
our unique and shared experience.”[1] From this goal, Solot produced the idea for a museum. The museum highlights sixteen stories and objects, chosen from a larger group of sixty stories shared by community group members in Philadelphia within the First Person Arts mission. The exhibit is formulated around five goals, which desire the visitor to understand the value people place on objects, the cultural and societal context that influence their meaning of the objects and respond emotionally to them and their own objects.
            The objects belong to Philadelphians of all classes, races, genders and ages, and the audience is similarly diverse, from young children to senior citizens, coming the middle class neighborhood surrounding the museum as well as the rest of Philadelphia.  The exhibit has been well attended, demonstrated by the seventy visitors in one hour on a Friday evening. Each of the sixteen objects is displayed in a semi-domestic space—a ring on a table, a stuffed animal on a rocking chair. With the objects is a caption entitled “A Bit of History” which tells the history of the object or object category e.g., “About Stuffed Animals” for a Stuffed Tiger. For each object, the visitor can experience the story that goes with it. Some stories are told through text panels, others listened through headphones, and some seen through short films. Photographs of the owner surround the object, caption or story. Visitors can add their own story by filling out small cards and posting them on tack boards.  For the participants who shared their stories but whose objects were not showcased, one-sentence stories accompanied by a photograph are in a separate room.
            The exhibit successfully fulfills its goals—visitors engage the objects, enjoy the stories and can be heard discussing their own objects in relation to what they see in the exhibit. Part of the success is the variety available in the exhibit.  The captions are large and colorful; the photographs of the owners often express different emotions than found in the story. Instead of reading all the stories, one can hear the voice of the owner, or see how they interact with the object on film.  The furniture nods to the idea domestic space without creating an in-situ experience. Museums can often feel sterile, void of significant color and full of tiny text panels—the First Person Museum however creates an approachable and colorful environment where conversation is desired and not to be left outside. In some cases the space could be more fully used, incorporating the main objects all in one room rather than separated to ensure equal viewing and fill in dead space. If the museum were performed on a larger scale, issues would arise with the spoken stories (only one headset), however with the flow and numbers in this case, it did not appear to be a problem.
            This exhibit stresses that multiple approaches retain visitor attention. While the space is cohesive through its furniture and general set up, the exhibit maintains variety in order to veer away from a fully text display. Mixing text, audio, video and photos keeps the objects from becoming repetitive, and prevents reader fatigue. More importantly the mix of emotions found in this varied approach, whether in the stories, photographs or captions, similarly attracts the attention of the visitor and keeps them engaged.
            The presentation of the museum was in some ways experimental, and it was at first difficult to imagine how a museum about personal objects could be a history museum. However these very personal stories produce a discourse on issues of memory and value and a broader culture and society commentary. While the object stories discuss very personal matters, their histories explored broader themes and prompted discussion of current topics such as marriage, citizenship, deviance and immigration. These histories encourage visitors to think about seemingly over-politicized or dry topics through different avenues and introducing a more comfortable way through which to engage history, and the culture and society around them—their own stuff.  One of the objects, Amy’s Birth Certificate, a German birth certificate for an American citizen born abroad, tackles issues of citizenship—how one proves their citizenship, and how is citizenship defined. It also can lead to discussion of post-WWII race relations in the United States, since race is absent on this certificate but would have been present on an American certificate. Of course this presentation, with the story informing the history and vice versa, there is a danger that the visitor may leave with a particularly one-sided understanding of a topic.
            While not necessarily an in-depth discussion of any particular theme, period or topic, First Person Museum allows the visitor to engage many aspects of history without becoming overwhelmed by the topic. The exhibit largely avoids this problem. Since being overwhelmed by information is a common complaint from museum visitors, this exhibit piques interest in a variety of time periods and topics and attempts to tie them together through the shared space and experience of Philadelphia. In the end a visitor leaves the museum with a cursory understanding or potentially deeper interest in a variety of topics, as well as a more nuanced involvement with the city they live in or near. The sometime- shallow historical investigation prompted by this exhibit may concern some historians. It is a legitimate concern, however it appears that visitors exit this exhibit legitimately interested and involved with what they just viewed, rather than exhausted from text and overwhelmed by detail. Between this heightened level of interest and the approachability of the exhibit, the First Person Museum is an overall positive experience and effective exhibit that educates and engages the visitor.

[1] First Person Arts,

1 comment:

  1. The exhibit largely avoids this problem. Since being overwhelmed by information is a common complaint from museum visitors, this exhibit piques interest in a variety of time periods and topics and attempts to tie them together through the shared space and experience of Philadelphia