My project will be to create an Omeka exhibit on 18th century firearms in America. Most museums that display firearms are either art or war museums, and they typically display only ornate, elite, or military firearms. However, my exhibit will primarily focus on civilian ownership and uses of firearms rather than military. It will also focus on commonplace, average firearms instead of those that are ornate and elite. My exhibit will cover diverse firearms including the fowlers and fusils, muskets, and rifles that everyday Americans would have used. It will provide interpretation for each of them, as well as emphasizing their civilian and everyday uses. My hope is that my exhibit will broaden its visitor’s understanding of just how common firearms were in early America, and show that they had many everyday uses beyond warfare. Hopefully this will also educate visitors to some differences between 18th century civilian and military weapons and provide useful historical context for current firearm-related issues such as gun control.
Digital tools such as Omeka are ideal to explore this subject for several reasons. First, Omeka is suited to this project because it is built for museums and centered around objects. Also, mounting an actual exhibit in a museum may be a better way to go about this project at least for visitors who could access the museum. However, mainline history museums are often reluctant to display firearms. Art museums that do display firearms are primarily concerned about displaying them as art, while history museums which display them are typically military or war museums who obviously display them in the context of war. It is much less risky to create an online exhibit with firearms than a physical one, and if such an exhibit was successful, it might prompt mainline history museums to consider a similar physical exhibit. Also, a digital exhibit can reach much bigger audiences since it is much more accessible.
The commonality and civilian uses of firearms in the 18th century is well established in traditional research. Detailed probate inventory analysis even suggests they were as commonly owned as books of any kind, and more commonly owned than chairs or Bibles. However, public audiences are likely not aware of this body of research, and this exhibit would be one way to make this research public.
My intended audience is adult Americans who have little previous exposure to 18th century firearms. This means I will have to keep my discussion of firearms in general terms instead of using the jargon that gun collectors and aficionados would use. My audience also includes those from both sides of the current gun debate. I will need to bear in mind that this is a very volatile issue so I avoid upsetting my audience and causing them to learn nothing from my exhibit.