Revolution! The Atlantic World Reborn
of an Exhibition
Published on April 03, 2012, Modified on April 20, 2012
Museum: New York Historical Society
Visit Date: March, 2012
What do you get when you combine 4 exhibition producers, 11 exhibition developers, 12 exhibition designers, 24 scholarly advisors, 10 exhibition fabricators, 33 media designers, 3 translators, 2 catalog editors, 96 support staff and a host of external firms? The list of credits for “Revolution! The Atlantic World Reborn”, a special exhibition at the New York Historical Society (NYHS). Like the credits list, the exhibition is long, inclusive and dense.
“Revolution!”, which will run through mid-April, was timed to coincide with the re-opening of NYHS in November 2011, after a three-year, $70m renovation. It traces the origins—geopolitical, intellectual and social—of the American, French and Haitian revolutions, and touches upon how these movements inspired similar revolts worldwide. The exhibition also reflects an institutional shift toward emphasizing the role of slavery in American history. (A bust of George Washington in the newly renovated lobby is now paired with slave shackles—see photo.)
“Revolution!” wends sequentially through:
• The end of the Seven-Year War and the impact on colonial powers
• A tavern in St. Domingue (Haiti) where political views are aired
• The American Revolution (including the original Stamp Act of 1765—never before seen outside of Britain!)
• The abolition movement in Britain
• The French Revolution
• The slave revolt in St. Domingue
• Toussaint L’Ouverture
• Aspects of Haitian culture (Vodou, Lakou, Krèyol), unifying former slaves from disparate African countries
• Haiti’s revolution and declaration of independence
• Global declarations of independence
• Universal Declaration of Human Rights
The content—long labels and placards, excerpts from books and laws—is so dense and covers such a vast swath of history, it seems impossible to absorb in one go. Why such a daunting volume of reading material? Perhaps it is because the themes are so ambitious and novel that they require extensive explanation. Perhaps it is the result of having nearly 200 contributors. Perhaps it is because the curator, historian Richard Rabinowitz, is also the exhibition’s writer. (There is something to be said for using a layperson to communicate with other laypeople.) Or perhaps it is the nature of a history exhibition to be wordy; so many of the “objects” are letters, newspapers, books, legal documents and so forth.
The exhibition developers and designers tried to enliven the reading process (if not lighten the reading load). Haiti’s seven-page declaration of independence is presented in a touch screen format, for example. You can listen to some of the material via audio-guide. The audio for seeing-impaired visitors, which describes several of the exhibition’s 300+ objects and their significance, provides a nice respite from reading. Another device is to have quotations and papers wafting across the ocean, a wall mural illustrating the cross-pollination of ideas between Europe and the Americas (see photo). This format is used at several transition points in the exhibition. But to make sense of it all, you really have to go beyond the drifting quotes and read the labels and source material, from Thomas Paine, Montesquieu and other prominent thinkers.
The Tavern exhibit (see photos) represents a particularly creative attempt to vary the delivery method of words. Here we learn how “ordinary” people in St. Domingue—including a slave, a freed person of color, a plantation owner, a mercenary and a captain of a slave ship—are reacting to the winds of change in America and Europe. We hear their views as disembodied voices emanating from above the tavern’s tables, and we can also read their politicized graffiti on the walls. Playing cards, tobacco pipes and coins add some color to the scene. But unfortunately, it is hard to make sense of the nuanced sentiments, especially at this early point in the exhibition. Worse, the voices resound throughout the rest of the hall, making it harder to concentrate on the heavy reading to come.
For many visitors, there is simply too much to absorb and too few aids. No Twitter-length synopses. No bold-subheads telling you the key take-away for each section of the exhibition. Could this complex history be boiled down to ten statements? That would have been helpful. If you skip a section—or attempt to skim lightly over it—you will find it difficult to pick up the storyline in the next section. Even if you do read diligently, you may lose the thread.
Given the text-heaviness of the show, visitors should be glad to arrive at a room toward the end where we see artifacts representing Haiti’s culture and learn about the origins of Creole from a native speaker in a video (see photo). But if you haven’t followed the plot—and it’s not an easy one to follow—the transition is actually quite jarring. From busts of kings and acts of parliament, we arrive at modern representations of voodoo. This may be where visitors realize just how little they have grasped. The only choice is to backtrack and try again, or speed through the last rooms and admit defeat. Leaving the exhibition, I heard one man ask his friend wryly, “And what did you retain?” The reply: “Nothing. That broke my head.”
If nothing else, visitors should come away with a renewed appreciation for the complexity of history, a giant collision of competing countries, competing individuals and competing ideals. Certainly, the exhibition offers much more than that. But you have to be willing to put in the time and effort.
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