Lehi Sugar Factory, Wild West Room, Native American Room

Review

of an Exhibition

by Joanna Fisher

Published on June 23, 2010, Modified on June 25, 2010

  • Description:

    A group of Exhibit people from different museums within about an hour of Salt Lake City (Joanna Fisher, Mark Ellis, David Stroud, Sandy Inman, and Tammy Spicer) have decided to improve our professional practice by using the Judging Exhibitions Framework to review, rate and discuss exhibits. Our second exhibit was actually three of the rooms of the John Hutchings Museum of Natural History. This review is an attempt to document some of our experiences in the exhibition as well as lessons learned through the review.
    There is a lot to see at the Museum. John Hutchings was a skilled collector. His vast collections included rocks, minerals, fossils, shells, stuffed birds, eggs, Native American artifacts, pioneer items, Wild West memorabilia and more. I was impressed as I wandered the galleries – there wasn’t junk here. Items were well chosen from many very different disciplines and filled the many rooms arranged around the entrance hall. The entrance hall was dominated by a dinosaur skeleton above the information desk. That was a nice view.
    It was exciting to move through the intimate spaces and be greeted by surprises around every corner. There was an attic-like quality. It was intriguing to examine one artifact then move to the next case for something entirely different. This eclectic display was exhausting, there was no place to sit, and less room to recharge in preparation for the next objects, but for those of us who are naturally curious, this kept us moving in search of more. While the objects were held together by a general theme (such as “Wild West”), most stood alone and had very little interpretation or explanation.
    Each of the galleries had some cases that held related objects. These clusters were compelling because they included stories, about sugar factories, the Pony Express or the nearby army fort Camp Floyd. The curator had taken the time to interpret the objects for me, and place them in a context that helped me to understand and appreciate them. The artifacts were the real thing – a nice reminder of why museums are really great places. Even the jail in the Wild West Room was real and had been in use as recently as 1980 in its present location. Most of the text was friendly and easy to read, using less formal words like “skullduggery”. Sometimes there was interesting information about the collectors and how they obtained the artifact.
    There were a few activities in each space labeled “hand’s on experience”. These were well-selected opportunities to touch and play, with no or very little instruction needed. Many were very well developed, but a few, like the grain grinding stone, seemed to forget the intended audience. The stone was high enough that even with a stool it was difficult for children. It was in a corner where only one person could play at a time and no one else could see the action. While there were two stations for sending Morse Code messages, there was no place to receive them – the messages didn’t go anywhere. The invitation to try out the drum, touch the animal furs and use the magnifying glass to look closer at the objects was welcome, but it emphasized another point I could appreciate: the power of positive reinforcement. There were signs telling me what I could touch, yet only a few signs telling me not to touch, even though a significant amount of the artifacts are within reach. I really appreciated being treated as if I would respect the collection as much as the curators.
    Peppered through the galleries were simple low-tech ways that media had been introduced. These were powerful little ways that improved the overall experience – a push-button recording reading the newspaper story of a bank robbery, a video fly-over of the Pony express route, or the native flute music accompanying a video montage of rock art. These each introduced sound, movement and action that had a huge impact when mixed into the glass cases.
    In the end, our ratings averaged out to Comfortable- 4.2 (Acceptable), Engaging- 3 (Good), Reinforcing- 4.2 (Acceptable), Meaningful- 4 (Acceptable).

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