Saturday, October 13, 2007
The Montgomery County Historical Society is located in Red Oak, Iowa at 2700 N. 4th Street . This is SW Iowa, and the largest road in the area is Hwy 34. It is about an hour and a half from Omaha and two and a half hours from Des Moines. It is not too far off of I 80, and relatively close to the Danish Heritage Museum in Elk Horn. If you're just leisurely enjoying a trip across Iowa, drop by! Hillary Clinton did - she had a political rally there a few months ago. In the red heart of Republican country, no less!
Well, the Montgomery County folks are very lucky. About 5 years ago they received a significant endowment, matched by donation money and grant funds, and they have built a beautiful new museum building. It has one large exhibit gallery, one smaller gallery, and a nice meeting room, museum store, and central atrium. Unfortunately their artifact and archival storage areas and curatorial work areas are still unfinished rooms - but they have room to grow and they know that they need to develop these areas soon.
They got advice from (and employed) an exhibit design firm from Omaha. Both of their exhibit galleries are painted flat black, and have track lighting. The flat black paint is nice from a visual point of view, but when they change exhibits they're going to have to be constantly covering up holes and re-painting. I would have recommended a textured wall surface like carpeting, which would have been much more expensive but which would have been much more practical in the long run.
To be honest, I have no memory in the world of what is in their small gallery, which is meant for changing exhibits.
In their large gallery they have several permanent exhibits. The visitor enters into an area devoted to the history of the county, with a focus on the various townships. This exhibit does suffer from the magazine syndrome - lots of 2D text, maps and photos and few artifacts. If one stops and reads the labels, though, the information is interesting. And there is one somewhat interactive area, where visitors can lift parts of the display wall to find out more information. I believe there was also ambient sound, although I have forgotten.
Another permanent installation is a history of a local business - a construction company (or was it a concrete company?) That company gave bucketloads of money to the museum. The display includes mostly 2D materials, but also artifacts such as forms (molds) for their products. There is also a small room with a flat screen TV which shows a video about the company. Oh, well, boring but a legitimate use of funds since the company was an important employer in the community for many years.
Another exhibit area focuses on the Thos. D. Murphy Company, said to be the first company in America which printed color advertising calendars. Artifacts in this area include a Gordon press, a proof press, and sets of antique file drawers with the variety of type used when advertising copy was set by hand. On exhibit also are original calendars including the work of Arthur Elsley, R.Atkinson Fox, James Dobson and others. That was really very nice.
Their permanent gallery concludes with a history of transportation in the area which was primarily an exhibit of historic automobiles and trucks. Good labelling, and a nice 3D display.
In addition to their new museum the society has some outbuildings on their property, including an historic barn. The barn was fun, although they are having moisture problems which are affecting the structure. There was a model of a cow, and a variety of equipment on display. They also have an historic schoolhouse and log cabin on the county fairgrounds. These are wonderful structures in dire need of cleaning and repair, but great because of their age and local importance. And if you like, as I do, interacting with volunteers and going through actual old stuff instead of sterile exhibits, this is absolutely the best part of the historical society's holdings.
You know, I think the situation in Montgomery County illustrates the problems with modern over-designed over-conceptualized exhibits. The best part of the visit were the actual buildings with actual stuff inside. The exhibits were kind of sterile, and not very memorable. I think that I will say again here that I would rather see a building full of STUFF that a visitor can get close to, wonder about, and be visually stimulated by (ok, my grammar just got a little weird there) rather than a series of exhibits which are ILLUSTRATED CONCEPTS. Yep, that's it in a nutshell.
Applying the criteria for criticism, though, the Montgomery County Historical Society looks pretty good. The exhibits surely seemed to be accurate. The artifacts were displayed properly behind plex or in cases (except for the automobiles), so nothing is being damaged by the display methodology. (They really are going to have to solve their humidity problem in the barn, though).
Do the exhibits cause the visitors to think? Ummmmmmmm. Well, not me. Although maybe I just wasn't all that excited about the concepts. Were the exhibits propagandistic? No, although I wonder about excessive focus on that contstruction/concrete co. Was it really that important in the whole scheme of life in the county for there to be a permanent exhibit on the subject? Temporary yes, permanent, no (in my opinion). Were the exhibits innovative? No - standard modern displays. Were the exhibits object focused? I'm going to repeat here that the exhibits were, as is the case for many of us doing exhibits today, illustrated concepts rather than exhibits which start with artifacts and work outward to a variety of stories. I'm left with the feeling that the wonderful local folks who so love their county and volunteer their time and talents have been led by the nose somewhat by the design firm in Omaha.
Should you go see the Montgomery County Historical Society in Red Oak, IA? Absolutely! The museum building is lovely, and has huge potential. The outbuildings are great, and have wonderful potential, too. The volunteers are interesting and friendly. Montgomery County itself is truely picture postcard America - rolling fields of corn and soybeans, teeny little towns with beautiful small houses and decayed old buildings. Children playing in the streets and deer running down the byways. I was there during high school homecoming - what is more American than that? They get a grade of A-.
Sunday, September 16, 2007
It is located between Preston and Spring Valley Minnesota, about 30 miles south of Rochester in the middle of farming country. OK, in the middle of Hog Confinement (not pig farm) country. It really is a beautiful, bucolic part of the world, and not stinky in Forestville, anyway. I visited about a year and a half ago (OK, I interviewed for an interpreter position and didn't get it, which was just as well as I already had a job, but they should have WANTED to hire me anyway) and just fell in love - it seemed like Shangri-La to me. I visited again last week.
The site interprets a town created in the 1850s. MHS says "Forestville was once a rural trade center. Area farmers came to Forestville to trade their produce for goods and services. However, when the railroad by-passed the town in 1868, it struggled to survive. By 1890, Thomas Meighen, son of one of the town's founders, owned the entire village. The town's 50 residents made their living on his farm, working for housing and credit in the Meighen store. " The site does first person interpretation of the year 1899 in this unique community.
I drove into Forestville/Mystery Cave State Park. The signage is incredibly poor. You would have to know that you want to go to the state park or Forestville - I doubt people just travelling around would find this place. Had to stop at the park entrance building to pay a $5 parking fee. Not a bad deal! Forestville State Park is one of the few that allows horse camping and has lots of riding trails, and I did see several riders and lovely horses. That adds something wonderful to the experience!
Visitors to Historic Forestville proceed into the park, then park in a lot and walk over a bridge into the historic town. Even though I had been there before I was completely confused as to where to start - where to pay admission. I saw a boy and his father (visitors) playing checkers with an interpreter on the porch of the general store, then stopped and asked directions of two other costumed interpreters who were sitting on a bench, and they kindly directed me to follow a sign with an arrow up ahead. Still, signage was pretty sucky. I went on into what functions as the site store, offices and staff workspace to pay. A woman with a child was happily conversing with the constumed woman at the cash register, who was showing her a map of the community. Apparently there was some kind of scavenger hunt the mother and daughter were going to go on? After I paid (well, after flashing my MHS membership card) the woman at the cash register directed me to start my tour by going back to the benches where the interpreters had been sitting.
I should interject here that I, as a visitor, HATE tours, and would always rather wander around at will. I also am very wary of first person interpretation (it just embarasses me as a visitor), and I knew that was the primary method of interpretation here. But the first person interpetation at Forestville pleasantly surprised me. I'll explain as I go along.
I sat down on a wooden bench next to a woman costumed in a late 19th century green skirt and dark red blouse with apron. Looked period correct to me! Her fingernails bothered the heck out of me, though. Long and pointy, although no modern polish. I do know that women filed and buffed their nails at the time. Was long and pointy correct for 1899?
Unfortunately, a tour group showed up at this time. I was gracious (!) and said that I would not ask for a seperate tour but would go around with the group. But boy oh boy is this a good example of the reason for letting people tour at will rather than in groups. The site has interpreters stationed in each building - in fact several in one building. They should be able to handle random visitors!!!! (I should say that I've worked at both the Living History Farms in Iowa and Old World Wisconsin, both of which operate with at-will visitors. If you have enough interpreters, there's no security problem with that method).
Actually, though, the tour group was a nice friendly cheerful bunch of folks from the Mankato, MN area. There were enough people that the staff split the group into two groups of about 20, and started each group in different areas.
The woman doing the third person introduction passed my group along to a man portraying an employee of the Meighens, who showed us a small barn full of implements and a large barn. He talked us through each individual artifact in the barn, and I did get bored. In a small group (or by myself) I could have asked more questions, or moved along more quickly. His first person was very unobtrusive - just explaining what things were. He showed 3 kids in the group how to feed the chickens. It always seems a little forced when the poor kids are watched by about 15 strangers. Very well behaved, nice children, though! My evaluation of his interpretation - should have watched his visitor's body language and talked a little less - there wasn't time for any explanation of the big barn, and I wanted to ask alot of questions.
That interpreter passed us along to the General Store, where we were met by a cheerful older male interpreter. He did the traditional stale first person jokes about how we women were dressed in britches like men and not wearing hats, but this tour group found it funny. I really enjoyed the interior of the store - around the sides were original artifacts left behind in the store when it was abandoned, then closer in (and touchable by visitors) were repro artifacts. A nice way of handling things! This interpreter did a good job of asking questions of specific tour participants - lots of mouldy jokes about the behavior of wives (and husbands) - but this group took it well. Again, the first person wasn't too officious, but really limited the questions I would have liked to ask.
He passed us along to the family's house (part of the same structure) where we were met by an older female interpreter. She talked about being a spinster, and showed the two downstairs rooms. To tell you the truth I don't really have a clue what she said - at this point I was bored spitless because of being stuck in a group and not being able to move at my own speed. Again, the group I was with seemed to have a good time, although the mom with the kids took the youngest outside where he could roam.
This interpreter passed us along to another part of the house where a younger female interpreter played the role of a hired girl. At this point I just couldn't stand being stuck inside so I escaped outside where an older man, playing the part of a hired man, was interpreting the garden. The mom with the kid hung with him too. The group in the kitchen apparently got to eat some freshly baked bread, so that's always nice!
The man in the garden broke character without much issue and told me they got some of their garden seeds from Seedsavers in Decorah, IA and some from another place in Northern California. The group came out and he went back into first person and told the group about the plants, letting people pick tomatoes and taste some of the herbs. This was very, very nice! The mosquitos were awful, though. What a nice tour group - it started to rain a little and nobody whined or left.
After viewing a shed, end of tour. I tried to go back to the museum store buildlng, but it was closed. The other interpreters were already coming out, dressed in modern clothes!
One thing I didn't mention earlier: there were modern cars/trucks continually driving through the road that passes through the historic town. I asked the interpreters about this as they left - apparently it is an active county road, although dirt/gravel. Pretty funny in the first person context! Pretty distracting, too. Come on, Minnesota! Is it necessary to keep that road open? I'll bet the traffic drives the staff crazy, although they seemed to completely ignore it.
Accurate? Yes! All of the buildings except the admissions/store/office are period, the interpreter's clothing seemed fine (men's overalls of this period SO look like they're wearing diapers!), and many of the artifacts were original. Accurate as to period speech patterns and behavior? I don't know. This is one of the major problems I have with first person - do we know that the interpreters were behaving/speaking appropriately? Just by virtue of having to interact with 21st century people they are not behaving as people in 1899 would. Their story was accurate, but do the visitors get a true 1899 experience? Not with the cars going through. Hmmmmm.
Interpretive methodology causes no damage? I would say so, probably. I know that the staff justify the required tour visitation pattern because they think they can't control security of the original artifacts otherwise. I just doubt it. An interpreter with a group of 20 in the room can pay no more attention to each individual than can an interpreter who handles visitors coming and going. Just station the interpreter at a place with good visual access to the whole room when there are lots of people in a building. I know others would debate with me about this, but that's my opinion and I'm stickin' to it! If anyone actually reads this, you can argue.
Causes visitors to think but not propagandistic. Well, a little bit. But wouldn't they think a little more if the directed inquiry method was used (interpreter presents his/her information in the form of questions to the visitors)? I believe so. And that's another problem with first person - directed inquiry is much easier in 3rd person. And a visitor is much more free to ask any question under the sun if the interpreter is free to answer any question in any way. I genuinely believe a visitor can learn more interacting with 3rd person interpreters. But these visitors surely did have a good time. Several tried to interact with the interpreters as people in 1899 might have done.
Innovative. Well, not so much. But the interpreters didn't stick to script, which was excellent, and I think that with a smaller group there might have been more opportunity for visitor participation (playing checkers, scavenger hunt).
Object/landscape focused? Yep - although the modern traffic was distracting.
All in all - I still love Historic Forestville. It is a tiny unexpected little gem. I love the horses, I love the happy interpreters, I love the buildings, and I love that it exists in the middle of cornfields. It could use much better signage, and MN should shut the county road down at the site. And I really wish they would try handling roving visitors and more 3rd person interpretation. I was a little bored because by chance I got stuck travelling through with a big tour group. But I'm giving the place an A- anyway. Go visit Historic Forestville!
Monday, August 6, 2007
Wednesday, August 1, 2007
Saturday, July 28, 2007
1. A good museum exhibit or site interpretation MUST be object focused.
This means that there absolutely must be actual or reproduction artifacts or specimens in good museum exhibits, and interpretation at historic sites must focus on a built or natural environment. Unfortunately, visitors more an more often these days visit museums and see what I call "Giant Magazine Articles". These are displays that only include text and images. These are NOT exhibits. That style is fine for brochures, magazines, or web exhibits - but they simply do not count as successful museum exhibits or interpretive programming. You might just as well give the visitors a handout or tell them to visit a website and turn them away at the door - what's the point of them being at the museum or site at all? Just because text and images are big and printed on the wall - or even are on raised panels - does NOT mean that a true exhibit has been created. The issue of labelling is a serious one - how much is too much? People want to know what they are viewing but too many labels can get in the way of the artifacts.
2. A good museum exhibit or site interpretation causes no damage to the artifacts and specimens displayed.
This is probably one of the biggest problems for small museums and sites. Good exhibit mounts and exhibit furniture and proper lighting can be very expensive, and too many small museums still use old store mannequins or wire hangers or just let dirt accumulate. Still, there are several opportunities for those who work at small museums and sites to learn about the proper care and special needs of artifacts, and those who work at small museums and sites can come up with wonderful solutions to this issue.
3. A good museum exhibit or site interpretation is accurate.
One would think that this would be obvious - but even the largest museums can and do err. I once worked for a federal site which had a permanent exhibit in which several artifacts were misdated. Artifacts are our "facts". We need to be careful about researching them properly when we create exhibits. Small museums and sites are often guilty of problems with inaccurate context (objects and specimens displayed together which would never have existed together in a particular period, or interpreters wandering all over the map in dress and behavior).
4. A good museum exhibit or site interpretation causes visitors to think but is not propagandistic.
Actually, I'm pretty open on the issue of the ways in which exhibits can make visitors think. At this point it is a giant DUH that visitors create their own meanings when they view and interact with exhibits, isn't it? Don't we all understand that now? For that reason, I have less of a problem with the pile-o-stuff exhibits than with exhibits which are so concept oriented and which force such specific behavior paths that the visitors don't have room to use their own contexts or imagination. That said, pile-o-stuff exhibits by themselves are not great exhibits - a focus does help visitors to make sense of what they see. This is probably the most subjective area in exhibit criticism, and we all can have our own points of view and argue them.
5. A good museum exhibit or site interpretation is innovative in design or concept.
Let's all push one another forward. I've seen some great exhibits in small museums. Unfortunately, I'm also beginning to see more and more exhibits that look exactly like one another. I think that this may be because more and more smaller museums and sites rely on hiring outside design firms, and these firms don't vary their techniques enough. Yes, there are very obvious styles that are typical in exhibits created during specific periods (we all can probably identify a 40's exhibit, a 70's exhibit and a 00's exhibit, can't we?) But even though this is 2007, let's all try not to make our exhibits all look like one another. I am really excited when I see something new.
Well, there you have it. From now on my posts (and eventually, I hope your posts) will focus on specific exhibits or interpetive programing at real small history museums or historic sites.
Friday, July 27, 2007
My hope is that I'll write about what I see and think, and that you'll respond and disagree or agree with me, and that you'll add your own criticism of exhibits and interpretive programming that you've seen. And that's my one major criteria for posts and comments on the blog:
** I - and you - have to have actually seen the exhibits or interpretative work criticized here**
I've been out of school for years, and can rarely afford to attend any major conferences. I'll just use my own ideas and language - and if it's been said before, forgive me and tell me about who and when and what. Let's all learn together.
Up next (when I can find my notes) - a discussion and criticizm of a session at the Spring 2007 Minnesota Museum Association conference and a related outdoor exhibit.