Spent a rainy four days in Chattanooga at the Southeastern Museums Conference annual meeting. All boring details aside, I attended a number of excellent sessions. And when I say excellent, I don’t always mean the quality of the presenters was high, just that the topics got me to thinking.
On the collecting plan front (two sessions), its nice to hear from institutions that have--or are attempting to develop--coherent plans integrated with strategic and interpretive plans.
And I saw two sessions on material culture. The first—a basic “this is material culture”—was presented by a group based around a certain state (not NC) Ph.D. program and its associated museum and I found it particularly unsatisfactory. They made a claim to material culture studies being a distinct discipline because it uses a variety—economic, psychological, archaeological,—of analytical styles. Their claim to distinction also depended on an unrealistically tight definition of “traditional” historical analysis. I think they call that a “straw man”. Anyhow, their presentations did nothing to convince me an analytical synergy had taken place and one of the presenters talked about using artifacts to “make the visitor… [do something]” at which point I mentally checked out.
Another presentation focused on this topic: sometimes visitors self-select objects in your museum for veneration—objects that are not what you think are curatorialy important. That is a right-on proposition and contains what the previous session grossly overlooked: that the meaning and value of artifacts to people are as important, if not more, as any theoretical premise.
And right into the middle of this, Elizabeth sent me this story of a repeat visitor to a museum. This writer grasped something that museum people frequently overlook—that visitors (stakeholders, really, in this case) arrive with their own sense of historical importance or relevance. I don’t think it’s as maddeningly diverse as the author thinks, but an extremely important reminder to people who create exhibits and take it a step further by caring how well it succeeds with the visitor.
That is, of course, my concern for the new Civil War exhibit at Historic Tredegar. Kevin Levin reviews it here and in the process, mentions the board of heavyweight advisors. Certainly a high-powered intellectual set that contains the best thinkers about the American experience of Civil War. It follows, naturally, that the big narrative is an academically sound, made-by-committee, satisfactory, snooze-fest. (Again, that’s the impression I get from Levin’s impression. I haven’t seen this yet.) The reviewer even stopped to consider how it will appeal to certain visitors; something that may not have occurred to the advisors.
Anyhow, I should shut my mouth on that one until I see it in person.