Checking Our Pulse



of an Exhibit

by Sarra Scherb

Published on January 14, 2011 , Modified on February 22, 2011

  • Museum: Northwest African American Museum

  • Visit Date: January, 2011

  • Website(s):

  • Description:

    For an exhibit which takes up little more room than your first apartment, NAAM’s “Checking Our Pulse” manages to pack a hefty factual and emotional punch. Created as a collaboration between Seattle’s Swedish Hospital and the Northwest African American Museum, “Checking Our Pulse” conveys a tripartite message in a bold, colorful style which is forceful, but never preachy. Those three messages include a celebration of African Americans in Seattle’s health industries; a clear-eyed look at grim health statistics amongst the African American community; and a call to action for visitors to check their own pulse and change their thinking about the care of their bodies. It’s a lot to cram into a single low-ceilinged room which seems too small for those weighty ideas, but through clever design, strong messages and clear signage, “Checking Our Pulse” remains aloft.

    That clever design is evident from the moment the visitor enters the corridor-like space. In the vestibule, the visitor first sees a graphic projected onto the wall ahead which bisects the room into three distinct spaces; the vestibule and a wing on either side. The computer generated graphic looks exactly like a website’s splash page: a series of amorphous floating orbs spin and moving as a field of color undulates gently behind them. And indeed, it acts like one, too: as you watch, an unseen mouse seems to click one of the orbs, which pops up a brightly colored infographic about a health topic, along with a quote from a local black healthcare practitioner. (It suffers a bit from Web 1.0-itis, but is a pretty enough hook and not terribly distracting.)

    Alongside this graphic is a “menu”—to continue the website analogy— of health topics which the exhibit will address: cardiovascular, mother and infant, diabetes, HIV/AIDS and breast cancer. The five topics are color coded, and the visitor soon notices rounded vinyl squares on the floor in the same colors which point—with the universal “play button” sign—which way the visitor should walk to find discussions on the subject. Three categories are in one direction, two in another; the visitor is forced to make a choice. This is a conscious decision on the exhibit designer’s part, who knows that all visitors will have some connection to at least one of the health concerns. That choice coming at the beginning of the show should clue in the visitor that active thinking will be at play in this exhibit.

    Before they leave this entrance vestibule, however, the visitor also should notice the didactic text on the wall; a succinct, heartfelt introduction to the exhibit. It is notable mainly because it is the first and last time the museum speaks on its own behalf; the rest of the exhibit relies on the words of doctors, nurses and patients from the community. Rather than a paternalistic “god voice” which admonishes visitors, NAAM has the good sense to allow the voices of community members to surprise, shock, engage and enlighten audiences.

    The color coding continues into the body of the show, almost as if the visitor had selected a category from the website menu and been directed to its similarly-colored page. Each category contains didactic text in its signature bright color, as well as free-standing cases with objects—such as a nurse’s uniform from the early 20th century—and interactive materials ranging from a Wii Fit to a blood pressure cuff, a vinyl breast with lumps or a box of condoms. Large mats on the floor suggest activities visitors can do right there, right then to burn calories or assess their fitness. Supplementing the medical information at each station is a biography and quotations by a certain African American health practitioner, the verbiage of which successfully celebrates their achievements while conveying their desire to see the overall health of the black community improve.

    The result is a brightly—one might say loudly—colored exhibit with an arresting amount of text which is expertly balanced by just enough objects and activities to appeal to all comers. Activities or touchable objects are placed in the reach of many visitors, rather than one at a time, and the free-standing pedestals are low enough that smaller visitors should be able to see their content. The vitrines on those pedestals also bear text on many sides, so that a visitor can circle it while waiting for another side to clear of heads. On the design side, the bright colors enliven an unwelcoming low-ceilinged, concrete floored space. That color coding is also key to comprehensibility: the five topics must be presented cheek-by-jowl in the small room, and had the categories been signed less clearly, they would have blended into an indistinct ramble. The rounded corners on all of the signage and the rounded font style both lend a “friendly” feel to the often dismal statistics, and invite visitors who may view healthcare as foreboding or stressful to reconsider.

    Overall, NAAM worked with its limitations and constraints to mount an informative exhibit which simultaneously projects hope, celebration, caution and a galvanizing call for change. Relying on the strength of their information, the easily understandable message of their interactives and the clarity of their design, “Pulse” avoids the pitfalls which could have tripped it up. Not bad for some vinyl text and a room smaller than some suburban garages.

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