Where History Begins: A Low Tech Document-based Interactive Exhibit

Topic: History Subtopic: General

Case Study

of an Exhibit

by Greg Olson

Published on January 20, 2008, Modified on February 14, 2008

  • Description and goals

    Challenge: One of the most stinging observations we have ever received about our exhibit program came from a grant reviewer who once responded to one of our proposals by stating flatly, “I refuse to believe that an exhibit of historical documents can be interesting.” Though the comment was harsh, it spoke to a challenge that those of us who develop exhibits for archival institutions and special libraries face. In this era of hand-held electronics, hands-on interactive elements, and hands-down blockbuster exhibits, how do you develop document-based exhibits that engage the public?

    Goal: Each of the more than 330 million documents and photographs in the Missouri State Archives’ collection tells a story. The goal of this small exhibit is to challenge visitors of all ages to connect the stories found in selected historical documents with three large paintings that hang just outside the Missouri State Archives’ main reference room. Each of these large canvases, painted by St. Louis artist, L. Edward Fisher, capture Jefferson City, Missouri at a specific moment in its history. The first painting shows the future sight of the capitol city on June 4, 1804, the day that famed explorers Lewis and Clark passed by on their journey to the Pacific Ocean. The second shows the young river town as it looked in 1904, while the third painting depicts the city as it appeared in 2004.

    Description: The exhibit consists of a four-sided kiosk that stands at the center of the lobby of the State Information Center. The kiosk offers a brief overview of the Missouri State Archives and of L. Edward Fisher’s three paintings, which hang nearby. A pocket on one side of the kiosk holds seven document reproductions, each printed on sheets of durable 1/8 inch plastic. Instructions printed on the kiosk challenge visitors to examine each document reproduction and to determine whether it best tells the story of Jefferson City as it was in 1804, 1904, or 2004. Documents include photos of the old state capitol and the current state capitol, maps of Jefferson City from 1919 and 2007, and copies of William Clark’s journal entry for June 4, 1804. After making their decision, visitors can test their answer by trying to hang the document on one of the label stands placed near each of the three paintings. Since each document only fits in one place, visitor can easily match the documents with the proper painting. These label stands also provide hints for visitors and offer more detailed information about the documents that go with them.

    Evaluation: I envisioned this as an experiment. I plan to take the lessons we learn from this display and apply them to our future exhibits. Because the exhibit has only been in place for a few weeks, it is too early to tell how well it achieves the goals we set for it. The real test will come in March and April 2008 when more than 4,000 school children will tour the archives as part of our Archives Alive! theater program series.

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