a It’s Saturday night, and most people are out having fun. Graduate students, like this one, didn’t always have that luxury. Many times they spent nights at home or the library alone, reading. Often, their lives were dominated by reading or discussing books.
Given my above attempt at label writing, it shouldn’t be too much of a surprise that the reading for this week was Exhibit Labels: An Interpretive Approach by Beverly Serrell. The work is a highly useful manual and how-to guide not only for writing the actual content of labels, but for a variety of topics in exhibit development and design ranging from creating a big idea to font choices to incorporating digital devices to evaluating exhibits through visitor feedback. Moreover, it is not made up only of Serrell’s ideas on all these things; rather, she incorporates the ideas of many others who have extensive experience (for example Judy Rand is mentioned repeatedly), and she includes many real-world examples as well as related studies. This makes it very valuable as a resource and guide for anyone working in or with museums.
One of the critical themes she discusses is the use of a ‘big idea’ to guide exhibits. This is handy tool in every stage of exhibit development. It is essentially a concise sentence with a subject, verb, and so what which is used to ensure everything in an exhibit is tied to one primary theme, giving it a unified message that is straightforward and relevant and enables a visitor to leave the exhibit with a clear idea of what it was about. It also encourages the visitor to engage with the exhibit in many more ways than if it was a jumbled mess of many unconnected ideas. Serrell decided the concept was important enough to start the book with, and refers back to it many times in the rest of the book, and I think she was right to. To me, the ‘big idea’ seems extremely helpful in designing and defending exhibit designs, so long as the exhibit team can agree on it and has the discipline to stick to it (not meaning it can’t change but that everything must tie back to it).
One of the other things I like about this book is its format. Throughout, there are concisely presented bullet lists which could be used like checklists for drafting and revising labels. In the text around these lists Serrell elaborates on them and provides the why (which is always important for me at least, not just for understanding but also for motivation). On top of that, she includes many examples of what right looks like from actual exhibits that were done well (and sometimes she shows them as they evolved or compares them to bad exhibits). All these things make it a great tool for label writers and exhibit designers to keep nearby and reference as they go about their work.
All this raises the question: if such a useful resource for label writing exists, backed up as it is by studies and other experts, why are there still so many poorly written labels around? I guess there’s no way to avoid it: simply, it’s really hard to write concise, easily-understood short stories that reference displayed objects, engage readers, while still discussing often complex ideas and interpretations tied to a larger theme. Even with Serrell to guide me, I had trouble only attempting half of that in the simple label I began this with, and it still could be improved.
Add to such a difficult task limited time, funds, and training, as well as the demands of boards of directors etc., and I begin to appreciate even the mediocre labels that are out there. I may have started with the plight of the grad student, but I will end with the plight of the label writer. At least (for the most part) they get paid.
The only reading for this week is The Great Influenza by journalist John Barry. He starts by describing the history of medicine up to the outbreak, especially focusing on the shift from the way medicine was practiced (if it should even be called that) in the early and mid 19th century to the scientific and professional practice of medicine which began (in America) towards the end of the 19th century. He discusses in depth the formation of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, the ways which it changed the field of medicine, and how it prepared American medical professionals for the upcoming epidemic. He credits most of this work and transformation to William Henry Welch,
He then goes on to explain the science behind the virus and the way it works. He argues the Spanish flu first appeared in Kansas, and was then spread to Europe by American soldiers. He next deals with that by discussing factors that enabled its rapid spread because of the American mobilization for World War I. He continues to document the flu's spread and mutation in Europe, and of course to the civilian population of America. He argues the epidemic could have been better dealt with by public officials, and their duties to the war inhibited their ability to fight the lethal virus in the social and political realms.
This book is problematic for several reasons. Based on discussions I've had I'm sure my classmates will elaborate on many of them vehemently and in depth. I will take a different tack. I'm not sure what the broader historical community (beyond my classmates) thinks of this book, but I noticed it is quite well reviewed by average people. This is a bit of a conundrum for public historians. We see and focus on the book's many problems, but it somehow has popular acclaim with the audience we want to reach. Why? Is it because the book is written by a journalist to be accessible to the general public and sold as history (despite not being as rigorous in its sourcing and citations as a history book should be)? At the same time, plenty of books written by historians are written primarily for other historians and are not very accessible to the general public. Is it possible to bridge this gap? I think it is. How do we do it? Maybe we can convince some of our academic historian brethren to write more often for a broader audience. Or, we can simply rely on our roles in museums, programs, etc. to reach our audience and augment books. And for the public who prefer to see and experience rather than read, we have to continue to implement other ways to bring history to them.
This brings up the topic of Spanish flu research we are doing as a class for our project. For this, I have been focusing on finding primary sources such as photographs and objects (I noticed my classmates already dug up plenty of newspaper articles and other print sources and decided to try to augment that with pictures and objects). Focusing on Philadelphia, the Mutter Museum was a natural first choice to look at. However, their collections are not accessible online, so communication with them will be necessary to determine if they have objects relating specifically to the Spanish flu.
However, I have had success in finding photograph collections not local to Philadelphia. Since the military played such a large role in the Spanish flu, I decided to try my luck with the National Museum of Health and Medicine, which has a large collection of medical records, photographs and objects related to the US Army. There I found three collections of photographs and charts relating to the Spanish flu (the collections guide is accessible here). They also have an online exhibit on the 1995 reconstruction of the virus.
Unfortunately, so far I have had less success with photos of civilians, which is probably the direction we will head with our work. I found some in the Library of Congress, mostly taken in DC (including some demonstrations of using stretchers), among a few others here and there. There should be a google search for objects and photos—I can find plenty of digital pictures, but locating real hard copies is harder. Fortunately, we still have plenty of time to build our resources.
Readings for this week included Pennsylvania in Public Memory (Carolyn Kitch), The Presence of the Past (Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen), Historians in Public: The Practice of American History, 1890-1970 (Ian Tyrrell), and Museums, Monuments, and National Parks: Toward a New Genealogy of Public History (Denise Meringolo).
In The Presence of the Past, the authors conduct a survey of Americans to discover their attitudes towards the past, not big academic history per se, but rather the past in general. They find Americans to be quite interested in the past and quite active in activities relating to it. However, most were limited to their immediate, familial past instead of the broader past.
For historians who wish to engage the general public, this is helpful insight. People are curious about their immediate past; is there a way we can link that to the broader past to draw people in? Can we use that to help them relate to the past, engage with it, and learn from it? I think the answer to both is yes. Figuring out how to do those things is the real work.
Tyrrell in the first two chapters of Historians in Public mostly focuses on internal historical problems, such as the debates over specialization and the ways in which it changed in meaning and organization but always seemed to remain in one form or another.
Historians are people, and only have so much time. To fully study the history of the world and everything would take very many lifetimes. So unless all historians study it all at the very broadest level, specialization is inevitable. Tyrrell does not seem to think it is a problem, but many of the historians he chronicles did. Which leaves the questions: did they waste their time, worrying about the inevitable? And does all this debate, within the ivory tower, take away from our ability to reach the public?
In Museums, Monuments, and National Parks, Meringolo is primarily concerned with the history of public history as a profession. She contends public history has much older roots and longer lineage than the common view which associates it strongly with its rise in the 1970s. She mentions its roots with natural scientists and the museum of Charles Wilson Peale (although she leaves out P.T. Barnum and his museum, probably for good reason). She is largely focused on how public history grew with the federal government, and especially—as is only fair—the National Park Service.
My experience as an undergrad, in a way, both confirms and challenges the idea that public history’s genealogy needs updating. In my museum classes, we discussed Peale and the early museums, while in preservation we discussed the Park Service and the women’s groups who saved various sites. So in each specialty, the long history is not forgotten. However in intro to public history, we started at the 1970s. So in the broader sense, I can agree with a need to expand the definition.
I saved Pennsylvania in Public Memory for last because I connected with it the most. Here, Kitch discusses the issues of retaking abandoned industrial sites and repurposing them into historical sites. She also discusses the conflicts between history and heritage. Her visits to many of Pennsylvania’s former industrial sites informs her discussion.
One in particular is the remains of Bethlehem Steel. I am from Allentown, pretty close to this site. I have heard the same expressions of shock and sadness at the closing of the plant that she mentions, and have seen some of the local documentaries and events commemorating the plant. Clearly it had a big impact on the community—but unlike many of the other steelmaking places she mentions (Braddock PA), Bethlehem is still a very vibrant city, and the city itself, as I remember it, was never completely devastated even in the years immediately following the plant’s demise (in fact it has always seemed much better off than Allentown). Which could be the subject for another book—why did Bethlehem thrive when Braddock went down?
In any case, telling history at that site has always been a problem. She mentions the museum planned to be built there, but published before the director was hauled before a grand jury for gross incompetence in mishandling money. (Here is a pretty fun article about it from the local newspaper: http://articles.mcall.com/2014-03-01/news/mc-bethlehem-national-museum-industrial-history-ca-20140301_1_industrial-history-industrial-museum-larger-museum. Click read more below for great quotes.).
The public historian assisting with the project was very frustrated even before that, which points to another challenge for us: how do we handle people from outside the discipline who have executive power but refuse our advice?
Ponder that. Good luck!
Hello everyone! I'm Derek Engle, and you've found my class blog for Managing History. I'm primarily interested in colonial American history, the French and Indian War, star forts, and material culture, but you can read more about me at the 'about me' tab if you're so inclined. Anyway this blog will primarily be on readings from and subjects related to class, At the moment it's really all I have up but expect the site to grow in the future as I refine it and my ideas. So sit back, relax, and enjoy a refreshing coke or coffee or whatever and read to your heart's content!