The Irish Atlantic: A Story of Famine, Migration, and Opportunity


of an Exhibition

by Max Metz

Published on May 05, 2017, Modified on May 05, 2017

  • Description:

    The Irish Atlantic at the Massachusetts Historical Society:
    Opportunity for Exploration, but a Famine of Function

    “The Irish Atlantic: A Story of Famine, Migration, and Opportunity” is at the Massachusetts Historical Society (MHS) from March 10th, 2017 to September 22nd, 2017. The exhibition takes place on the second floor of the historic 1157 Boylston Street building in Boston’s Fenway neighborhood. It comprises three room, the second-floor landing, circular Hamilton Room, and the Oliver Room. The exhibition consists of a total of roughly eight table and upright vitrines, a mix of three dimensional artifacts and archival documents, various framed paintings, five video screens with multiple video interviews on each, and a signature ship’s wheel from the Jamestown.

    The exhibition tells the story of the importance of the Irish in Boston and the reasons behind their tough journey across the Atlantic to the U.S. Focusing on the 18th and 19th centuries, The Irish Atlantic articulates the various phases of emigration to Boston, from Presbyterians fleeing the harsh economic realities of Ireland in the 18th century, to the hoards fleeing famine in their homeland caused by potato blight in the middle of the 19th century. Curators paid attention to the perception of Irish immigrants by Bostonians and revealed the harsh criticism and discrimination they faced as they began to assimilate into US culture. Centering around religious, familial, and political centers, “The Irish Atlantic” shows the strong identity that immigrants created by blending the old and new world views over successive generations. They story continues to today and illustrates how the descendants of 19th century immigrants became an important part of the fabric of Boston and shows how the geography of their settlement and the surge in their numbers helped create the Boston that we know and love today.

    The exhibit is organized around its subtitle: famine, migration, and opportunity. The Big Idea, per renown exhibition and evaluation consultant Beverly Serrell, in her book Exhibit Labels: An Interpretive Approach, is “… an unambiguous focus for the exhibit team throughout the exhibit development process by clearly stating in one noncompound sentence the scope and purpose of an exhibition.” In The Irish Atlantic, I believe the Big Idea is: “Fleeing famine and oppression, Irish immigrants fled to Boston during the 18th and 19th centuries seeking new opportunities and helping to create the unique identity the city embodies today.” Although the interpretive trail is somewhat ambiguous through the exhibition, I believe if visitors interacted with at least two screens and read 50% of the label text, they would have left with this enduring idea. As a strength, the exhibition was able to tell this story with a unique paring of three-dimensional artifacts and historic archival material. The space’s elegance lent itself well to the overall look and feel of the exhibition. Although I personally appreciated the regal ambiance of the space, it was difficult to associate the feel of the exhibition to the fatigue, famine, frustration felt by immigrants as they arrived to the city. Simple, muted Irish colors and intentional placement of Celtic symbols aided the visitor in connecting previous experiences or stories with the Irish to the exhibition.

    In evaluating the exhibition, I prefer to use Beverly Serrell’s Framework: Assessing Excellence in Exhibitions from a Visitor-Centered Perspective, which analyzes comfort, engagement, reinforcement, and meaningfulness. To briefly illuminate the process behind Serrell’s tool, the exhibition evaluator first reviews the criteria and general definitions of the four elements mentioned above. Then, with a notepad, walks through the exhibition noting “experiences in the form of sentences with feeling verbs – your thoughts, feelings, and responses as you experience the exhibition as a visitor,” says Serrell. These “Call-Outs” are then used as a reference when ranking and rating specific aspects that were present or not present as part of the exhibition. Finally, as a culminating step, the evaluator creates a rating for each of the four areas and provides rationale for each decision. If he or she is evaluating with a team, averages the ratings with others’. I believe this model is strong due to is combination of both qualitative, feeling statements – the same statements that visitors will make in the museum – and a quasi-quantitative method of ranking and rating aspects to come up with a level of success for each of the for main criteria. The final rankings for the criteria range between Level 1 – Excellent and Level 6 – Counterproductive. There are other methods and various tools to help evaluate exhibitions, so for those of you looking to try other tested methods, a few notable examples include:
    • Museum-Specific Evaluation Criteria by Gail Dexter Lord, based on 5 main questions on a 50-point scale;
    • Visitor’s Bill of Rights by Judy Rand, evaluates 11 important needs as seen by the visitor to create a positive visitor experience;
    • Standards for Museum Exhibitions and Indicators of Excellence by the American Alliance of Museums, consisting of 12 “characteristics of excellence” and 7 main standards that together create successful exhibitions when utilized within the exhibition development process.

    Constructively presenting my critical assessment of the exhibition, I will go through each criterion (comfort, engagement, reinforcement, and meaningfulness) and discuss the successes (+) and opportunities for improvement (∆) in my view as a museum professional and as a visitor. (This evaluation is based on my visit to the exhibit on March 25th, 2017 – the exhibition may have changed since then.)

    Comfort: Level 4 – Acceptable
    + The exhibition itself was very clean, well-kept, and in very good working order due to it only being open 15 days when I visited and the attention by the staff.
    + Main text panels and smaller object labels used large text size and simple font that was very easy to read, yet stylized. The lighting was very good, almost too bright when considering the types of materials on view and their potential degradation due to light.
    + Visitors were given choices and options for learning and viewing diverse portions of the exhibit, making them feel in control of their own experiences.

    ∆ Unfortunately there were no convenient places to rest in the entire exhibition. I even noted a few visitors leaving the exhibition to go sit in other galleries not part of the exhibition.
    ∆ Although the lighting and temperature were perfect, the HVAC system was a bit noisy in the open, reverberating space and when the video panels were used, their sound distracted other visitors. Additionally, if more than one video panel, which were very effective in telling the story, were used at a time, the overlapping sound tracks in the echoey space made it impossible to understand either. I want to note that I was the one playing more than one video screen at a time as no screen was actually utilized by a visitor during my visit.
    ∆ When arriving to the exhibition up the main staircase, there were no orientation signs telling visitors where to start and what galleries were part of the exhibition. This caused the visitor to enter and walk to the right, focusing on two signature artifacts (a harp and a ship’s wheel) and then entering a portrait gallery. In watching other visitors’ reactions, they too were confused and had no common discernable path once they entered the exhibition.
    ∆ Although I believe the content of the exhibition was most likely designed for the organization’s primary audience, I do not believe that the way in which it was written and presented welcomed people of different cultural backgrounds, economic classes, or educational levels – i.e. the average person off the street.

    Engagement: Level 4 – Acceptable
    + The physical environment looked interesting and invited exploration. This was partly due to the good look and feel of the exhibit, great color choices, and interesting architectural features of the historic building.
    + Exhibits caught my attention and enticed me to slow down, to look, interact, and spend time attending to many elements. I believe this came from and a good choice of imagery, large photo screens and panels, good lighting, and interesting, unique three-dimensional artifacts alongside two-dimensional archival documents.
    + The exhibition had a large variety of videos that could be played on their five different touch screens, had graphic explanations of data, included artistic endeavors of immigrants, and focused on the religious experience of many immigrants. There were a variety of sensory modalities used to create an engaging space.

    ∆ The exhibition was intriguing intellectually, but I would not necessarily categorize it as fun, amusing, or physically stimulating.
    ∆ The video touch screens were a bit difficult to use, even as a digital native. Although the directions on the screens indicated a simple touch would initiate the video, it did not. A series of taps and double taps were needed to play the videos. Furthermore, during my hour-plus time in the exhibition watching 10+ visitors use the space, not one visitor used the screens. I believe without the videos the visitor does not get the full story and connections between the somewhat disparate sections. In asking a visitor about the screens, she stated that she just didn’t want to spend time with a screen when there were real artifacts.
    ∆ The exhibition in general did not encourage social interaction. I did not hear a single visitor conversing about the exhibition topics or exhibition material, or talking at all for that matter. I did not see signs of telltale pointing and show-and-telling commonly seen in very social exhibitions.
    ∆ As I mentioned before, I believe the text was written to a specific audience and thusly I am not sure if the exhibition would not have been interesting to the off-the-street visitor.

    Reinforcement: Level 5 – Misses Opportunities
    + I do believe that the information and ideas in different parts of the exhibition were complementary and reinforced each other, albeit not necessarily well communicated with orientation signs as noted in “Comfort.”

    ∆ When noting “Call-Outs” during my visit, I noted that the exhibition was a bit overwhelming and daunting because of the amount of labels, archival text, and an unknown size of the exhibit in general. I never knew when the exhibit would end and was unsure if I could read all the text in a case or if I had 12 more cases just like this in the next room.
    ∆ At times the complex elements of chronological were not structured well enough so that visitors who tried to figure them out would likely to say, “I got it,” and feel confident and motivated to do more. I often had to read labels in a series a few times before I was able to get the complex timeline of events to create the context in which to view the other artifacts.
    ∆ Although in retrospect I saw the organization of the exhibition as the subtitle (famine, migration, and opportunity), I did not note that logic in the moment. So I believe that it was less easily followed and understood than I wish. I think this could have been because of the lack of orientation at the beginning as well.

    Meaningfulness: Level 2 – Very Good
    + Ideas and objects in the exhibition were made relevant to and easily integrated into the visitors’ experience. The juxtaposition of certain paintings and artifacts encouraged the visitor to engage with the archival text materials and were supported by other archival images.
    + The exhibition made a case that its content had value. Especially in this time in the U.S., the material was timely, important, and resonated with the visitors’ values. In speaking with a visitor about his experience, he remarked – without any explicit prompting from the exhibition itself – about the connections between other immigrant populations and less equitably treated ethnic groups and the experiences of the Irish upon their arrival to the U.S. The exhibition does not necessarily make the comparison or jump from the past to present day in regards to perception, however this visitor made it on his own. I too made those connections and enjoyed the thought process.
    + As good exhibitions do, The Irish Atlantic touched on universal human concerns and didn’t shy away from deep or controversial issues. I do believe it could have gone farther and actually asked visitors to ponder questions of the time, however I think the content was relevant and universal in its themes.
    + I also believe the exhibit experience promoted change in people’s thinking and feeling, even transcendence with regard to Irish immigrants and historically Irish-American communities. The exhibition gave visitors the means to make generalizations and change their beliefs and attitudes. However, there was not any way for visitors to take action after the exhibition, no way to take the information and make change in the community or voice their discoveries.

    Overall, I think that this exhibit was what one might expect from a historical society with resources and connections like that of the Massachusetts Historical Society. I think their use of technology was very encouraging, however the use of the technology by visitors was less promising as a successful means to connect to their primary audience. It was an aesthetically pleasing exhibition rich with authentic artifacts and texts. Additionally, it provided an online companion website that increased engagement, accessibility, and understanding of the overall story. This included the timeline of events that I needed to develop context, all the video interviews that I couldn’t necessarily hear or was not able to initiate, additional information about MHS collections within the exhibition, and a general overview of the exhibition story. MHS as a team also provided five specific programs, open to the public, over the course of the opening months to give further depth and specificity, and encourage increased visitation. With three quick fixes, 1) increased orientation about direction and scope of the exhibition, 2) directions on how to effectively use the screens and the time commitment that will be needed to view each video, and 3) a few easily placed chairs to rest and enjoy the elegant building, the exhibit would move beyond the status quo of historical society exhibitions to something of a benchmark in the field. The exhibition is on show until September 22nd, 2017. So, if you find yourself in Boston in the next few months, make sure to stop by and learn about The Irish Atlantic at the Massachusetts Historical Society.

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