A Song for the Horse Nation

Review

of an Exhibition

by Julie Boser

Published on March 20, 2012

  • Description:

    Attracted by the posters I have seen around DC featuring a brightly painted horse, I visited the National Museum of the American Indian’s exhibition, “A Song for the Horse Nation.” This exhibition explores the role and importance of horses in Native American cultures. My review will focus on the way that this exhibition used technology to enhance the visitor’s experience.

    Upon entering the exhibition, visitors are greeted by the sound of horses’ whinnying and beating hooves. The sound originates from a speaker mounted in the ceiling. There are two additional speakers scattered throughout the exhibition providing a constant soundtrack for the experience. While a speaker might seem low-tech to some, the sound had an immediate immersive impact and provided me with a sense of context for the exhibit.

    As I passed through the exhibition, I interacted with three touch screen kiosks. I first encountered a large timeline exhibit. The exhibit features a pair of touch screen monitor kiosks with built-in speakers below a large mounted flat screen monitor. During both of my visits to this exhibition, this kiosk drew a large crowd. I suspect that this is partly due to its prominent location in the exhibition and partly due to the attractive quality of a television screen. During my first visit, I waited patiently for my turn at the kiosk only to discover that it was not working that day. Although the timeline was back up and running the following week, I was still underwhelmed by the exhibit. The initial screen shows a timeline covering the years 1493-1877 beneath a map of North and South America. When a user selects a year, the timeline zooms into one area of the map while an animated horse prances by. The historical context is displayed as a block of text. There is no audio component and, other than the animated horses, very little interesting visual content. This kiosk has very limited interactivity; the user is only able to choose different years and there is no way to delve further into a topic if you wanted to learn more. Finally, the large flat screen monitor continuously runs an attract reel; it would be nice if the screen displayed the content from the touch screens in case you were visiting with a group or just waiting in line to use the kiosk.

    The second kiosk provides an in-depth overview of a Winter Count. As I learned, a Winter Count is basically an illustrated historical record. Storytellers drew symbolic pictures on hide or cloth to record important events. The kiosk is located directly next to a Lakota Winter Count cloth from 1902 that displays events spanning over a hundred years. The kiosk included a touch screen with a built-in speaker. Unlike the timeline exhibit, there was not a mounted flat screen. The kiosk highlights nine specific (and horse-related) images from the winter count. By selecting an image, the user is able to view the enhanced and magnified image, as well as the year it took place and an interpretation of the historical event. The kiosk really expanded my understanding of the Winter Count. An image that at first appeared to be a simple drawing of a horse, in context, became the symbol of 1801 and the image of the first horse owned by the Lakota people. What initially looked like a drawing of a man with a red chin was revealed to be the symbol of 1815, when a Lakota broke his jaw trying to raid horses from a Crow camp. The user is also able to play an audio clip for each event that recounts the story in the Lakota language. This is a very cool feature since the Lakota relied upon oral accounts to record their history. The kiosk also features a historical overview of the Lakota people in the “1810s-1830s,” the “1850s-60s,“ and from “1890-Wounded Knee.” This section is a great resource to place the events of the Winter Count in a greater historical context.

    A third touch screen kiosk focused on Native American ledger book art. Ledger book art emerged during the late 1800s as Native Americans used army issued ledger books to record stories and drawings. Like the Winter Count kiosk, this kiosk provides the visitor with an enhanced look at a displayed artifact. Located next to a ledger book created by Plains warriors that were incarcerated at Fort Marion in Saint Augustine, FL in 1875, the kiosk allows the user to digitally flip through the pages of the ledger book and also features notable artwork from other ledger books. The artwork is enhanced with interpretive notes.
    This kiosk also includes some pretty amazing audio content: an oral account by Dr. Joseph Medicine Crow of his exploits during World War II as he raided horses from Nazi camps. This was a great narrative, but I am not sure that it ties in very well with the ledger book art. Perhaps it could have found a better home in a separate kiosk, or it could have been used to add some much-needed excitement into the timeline exhibit.

    With the lone exception of the timeline, I felt that the touch screen kiosks really enhanced the content of the exhibition. Thanks to the digital images and the provided historical context, I was able to interact and engage with the exhibition content at a deeper level. I was left wishing there were more kiosks to accompany some of the other items and exhibits. However, while the kiosks did a great job at providing in-depth knowledge to an interested user, I am not sure that the kiosks would appeal equally to all audiences or age groups. The exhibition could improve from more appealing and age-appropriate technology for children. I also think that the Winter Counts and the ledger book art could be benefit from an even more interactive presentation; perhaps the kiosks could include a game or a quiz that asks the visitor to interpret the art. Finally, it seems as though this great kiosk content is housed in an Internet vacuum. Although there is an exhibition website, there was no mention of the website at the exhibition, and when I visited the website I noticed that only a tiny portion of the information about the Winter Counts and the ledger book art is available online. It would be great to make this information shareable via social media and the web to encourage past visitors to continue learning and to make this outstanding content available to a wider audience.

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