Chronicling Americ……Exhibits

As public historians, one area of study we often look at is museum display and effect. As I begin to enter this world, one thing which I have noticed is that there is no central database which stores information about exhibits which have existed in the past. This has resulted in my tracking down various tidbits of exhibits which I knew existed, often leaving me with an incomplete picture of the exhibit as compared to if I had been able to visit the exhibit myself, or the exhibit was on view in more recent times.

While this information certainly does exist, it is usually kept by large institutions which have the means to keep extensive institutional history records, such as this collection from the Smithsonian. Larger, more famous exhibits such as King Tut or The Family of Man also have a fairly extensive footprint. Smaller, less well known exhibits, and exhibits put on my smaller institutions are at a disadvantage in that they don’t often keep extensive documentation of past exhibits, as they don’t have the resources and/or don’t think to do so.

I have run into this issue with my own research which deals with visual displays, and specifically museum exhibits about the Titanic over time. It’s been incredibly hard to track down exhibits that have existed, and when I have found advertisements in newspapers for said exhibits, there is little to no institutional record of them. And while I have put in a lot of time and effort contacting various museums for any information, much of my older evidence cannot be helped by anecdotal evidence from a curator as those curators who worked on the exhibit itself are no longer alive, or have since retired.

It has not been impossible to track down exhibit information about the Titanic. Chasing leads, talking to curators, and putting in extensive footwork is certainly part of the research process. But wouldn’t it be much more efficient if this information was compiled into a digital database which researchers could just search based on keywords, date, and location such as the Library of Congress’s Chronicling America?

Audience: The main audience of this exhibit would be other academics wishing to use exhibits as a primary source in their research. That being said, this database could also prove a useful tool in expanding museum’s reach to those who don’t have the means to attend exhibits themselves due to distance or financial circumstances. Therefore, the audience of this database could go far beyond academics. It could even be potentially used in classrooms to teach museum history and at lower levels, how our perception of the past has changed over time or as a view into culture from a certain period. In this way, the database would have the potential to reach many people (in theory, of course,  as I don’t have the skill or the resources to build it on such a large scale)

Existing Projects: Large institutions like the Smithsonian have institutional collections which catalog this type of information, including which pieces from the collection where used, photographs, and why the curators made the choices they did. Such as this online record. But again, most of these records aren’t digitized, which means you would likely have to go in person to view the materials, limiting their accessibility. Online exhibits exists, as we saw with Omeka, but this is a little different than what I am trying to do. Surely physical exhibits have been recreated on Omeka, but my concept is of one central database, which is easily searchable.

What I Plan to Create: As aforementioned, obviously I won’t be able to create such a database in full, as I have neither the skill nor the funding, and certainly not the time. Therefore, for this project I will take my grand idea and scale it down, using the information I have from my Titanic research and applying it to the conceptual framework I detailed above. I will use something like Omeka to recreate the various Titanic exhibits I have found overtime, spanning from 1912 to 2018.

Plan for Outreach and Publicity: I think that a project like this would be best created via some kind of crowdsourcing. While it would be possible to compile the various institutional records that exist in one place, as I mentioned before sometimes these records don’t exists. But what does exist is people’s photos from their trip to the exhibit, like this family blog I’m using in my own research, and newspaper articles about various exhibits. Therefore things like social media could be used to engage people with the database, spread awareness, and ultimately help build it.

Evaluation Plan: In order to evaluate the success of this project, I would need to test its usefulness to researchers, which would be the primary audience of the database. Theoretically, this could be done by monitoring how many people interact with the database, institutional subscriptions to it, and its being cited in academic work. Since I am not actually creating the database to this scale, perhaps a more reasonable evaluation plan would be if someone were to be able to grasp what the exhibit was and looked like based on the information I have provided, and perhaps even make an argument about it.   

One Reply to “Chronicling Americ……Exhibits”

  1. An online resource/database that allows people to see the history of exhibits that have happened on particular topics over time is a really great idea. I think your proof of concept in making a site that documents all of the various exhibits that have happened about the Titanic over time is a great way to explore this idea.

    I think it may make more sense to make this in WordPress than in Omeka. The great thing about Omeka is it’s Dublin core metadata for objects. My sense is that core functionality won’t be that helpful to you in building a site documenting museum exhibits over time. Making the site in WordPress will likely be a lot easier and a lot quicker.

    As another note on this, for each of your exhibits you document it would also be great to try and see if there are copies of the exhibits websites captured in the Internet Archive’s Wayback machine. Museum exhibit websites are notoriously ephemeral. That is, they often get taken down shortly after the sites go up. That said, they are often full of useful information that folks doing public history research would be interested in getting access to.

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